Tuesday, July 14, 2009

77 Love Sonnets by Garrison Keillor

If you've seen A Prairie Home Companion on PBS, or the movie of the same name starring Meryl Streep, or if you listen to National Public Radio (NPR) either voluntarily or because your folks have it on in the car, you might have some idea who Garrison Keillor is. If you're a writer or a fan of reading, you might be interested in his daily broadcast/online column The Writer's Almanac, in which Keillor shares a poem a day (pretty much always by someone else), and information on writers or poets who were born, died, or otherwise did something of particular note on this particular day in history. He's also compiled a couple of poetry anthologies, (i.e., Good Poems and Good Poems for Hard Times), containing the work of a lot of poets, living and dead. But I digress.

Today's post, you see, is about a small pink book of poems entitled 77 Love Sonnets, now available in local bookstores (and online) pretty much everywhere. And these poems - all of them sonnets of one kind or another - are actually written by Keillor. I think that Keillor's note, found on the back of the slim volume, explains the contents well, and succinctly:

When I was 16, Helen Fleischman assigned me to memorize Shakespeare's Sonnet No. 29, 'When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes, I all alone beweep my outcast state' for English class, and fifty years later, that poem is still in my head. Algebra got washed away, and geometry and most of biology, but those lines about the redemptive power of love in the face of shame are still here behind my eyeballs, more permanent than my own teeth. The sonnet is a durable good. These 77 of mine include sonnets of praise, some erotic, some lamentations, some street sonnets and a 12-sonnet cycle of months. If anything here offends, I beg your pardon. I come in peace, I depart in gratitude.

A sonnet is a particular form of poem. It consists of 14 lines. There are two exceedingly traditional forms - the Shakespearean sonnet and the Italianate or Petrarchan sonnet (which allows a bit more latitude in rhyme scheme). Both of those forms traditionally use something called iambic pentameter (ten syllables per line, organized into 5 iambic "feet" - taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM). Over time, however, increasing flexibility in rhyme schemes and meters crept in. That said, most sonnets continue to consist of 14 lines, some sort of rhyme scheme (even if slant rhyme or near rhyme is used), and the presence of something called a volta or "turn", usually found somewhere around the ninth line of a sonnet, but sometimes not appearing until the final two lines.

Here is an example of one of Keillor's less erotic poems about a couple in love:

A Couple on the Street
by Garrison Keillor

Apparently they are a scandalous pair,
Strolling the main drag, not quite hand in hand,
The tall young woman and the dazed old man.
And old ladies turn like wounded birds and stare
And shake their great red wattles and curse
And young women smirk at this ludicrous romance--
But see how tenderly his eyes seek hers
And their elbows brush-- and, defiant, they hold hands
And dare to gaze at each other. She is avid
To be loved and love leaps up from them
As music sprang from Mozart, and they can have it
All, Don Giovanni and the Requiem.
  "Fools!" the ladies cry. "It should not and cannot be!"
   And they are right. But O the sweetness and the courtesy.

This particular poem uses slant rhyme, and follows this rhyme scheme: ABBACDCDEFEFGG.

Here, from page 65 of the volume, is a Shakespearean sonnet (ABABCDCDEFEFGG)entitled "The Anger of Women":

The anger of women pervades the rooms
Like a cold snap, and you wait for the thaw
To open the window and air out the anger fumes,
And then a right hook KA-POW to the jaw!
And she says three jagged things about you
And then it's over. She bursts into tears,
The storm spent, the sky turns sky-blue.
But a man's heart can hurt for many years.
I have found the anger of women unbearable.
And when my goddesses have cursed the day
They met me and said those terrible
Things, I folded my tent and stole away.
   I yielded to their righteous dominion
   And went off in search of another opinion.

There are sonnets that are sexy and sonnets that are funny; sonnets that are a bit dour and some that are divine. The book is, above all, proof of the flexibility and continued vitality of the sonnet. And even though it's pink, and even though it's by some guy who your parents or grandparents like from the land of Public Broadcasting, this is one book that's worth a look. Take a look at the poem entitled "Obama", perhaps. Or at the series of twelve poems, each named after a different month of the year. Or, well, look at "Room 704" if you don't believe me:

The tennis players volley on the bright green court.
Slipping and sliding to and fro while up above
Them, spread naked on a bed in room 704,
A young woman sings the aria of burning love--
Her lover's head between her legs, her feet on his back,
And she is singing for pleasure, while outside
The streets are cleaned, construction is on track,
The buses come on time and people board and ride
And she lies, eyes closed, hands holding his, and moans
As he addresses her with all deliberate passion.
And the clerks sort the mail into the correct zones
And all the ATM machines have sufficient cash in.
   Good sir, don't stop. We each must do our duty.
   Some drive the bus and others drive the beauty.

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