Monday, August 31, 2009

A. E. Stallings on "Another Bedtime Story"

People sometimes ask me what I am reading, and I suppose as a writer and poet I should have something sufficiently obscure and intellectually challenging for an answer. But the truth is, as the mother of a just-turned-five year old, a lot of my reading is picture books. Even so, part of my brain can’t help analyzing them as I go—I’m sure I could write a paper on The Cat in the Hat. One of the things that started to amuse me was the number of children’s books that are themselves about going to bed, and about children’s resistance to it: The Sleep Book, Just Go to Bed, Froggy Goes to Bed, Bedtime for Frances, etc. But then it occurred to me this was part of a larger pattern and purpose of stories: the Iliad ends in a funeral; the destination of the Odyssey is a return to the marriage bed; these are the two narratives on which Western literature pivots. And it seems to me that the resistance children have to going to sleep is a natural and logical fear of missing out on something, and thus of unconsciousness itself: it is a metaphysical fear essential to our humanity. I do not think any of the other animals dread going to sleep.

I guess the poem itself says all that (or I hope it does!). As for its composition, this started with the refrain popping into my head (“All, all of the stories are about going to bed”). Indeed, it felt like a refrain, so a repetitive form such as the villanelle suggested itself. To be honest, a lot of villanelles bore me and I do try to resist them as a default form—they can be a little too facile, just a spinning of wheels.(Sometimes just seeing that distinctive 19-line pattern on the page makes me mentally skim to the obvious couplet at the end.) What kept me and the poem alert in this instance, I think, was partly the longer line (not a tidy iambic pentameter), and maybe the interplay of enveloping perfect masculine rhymes with their thudding, stopped-shut sounds, and the slightly off-kilter sandwiched feminine rhymes (even going so far as to rhyme “cover” and “cover”—a big no-no!) Which isn’t to say this was conscious or deliberate, but something I did start to realize was part of the pattern of the poem as I was revising it. The real work of the villanelle—the way it goes forward despite going in circles—tends to get done in those middle lines. And I think (or hope) the repetitiveness also works because the poem is itself about formulaic narrative. But, again, this is the sort of cerebral thing one thinks about after the poem is done. While it is happening, you just hope it can carry itself on its own music, that it will surprise you, if not in where it is going, in how it gets there.


  1. There are readers who don't care for "canon poems," or who think there are too many of them, whether they treat the fairy tale corpus or the classical myths. I rarely feel that way, and certainly not when the poems really pull off the feat of showing something true about the old stories and not seen before, or not so clearly. Alicia gives her own view, above, of the way the going-to-bed theme revealed itself. It seems to me that the mothering experience shows to good effect in "The Prince of Crete" also--for example, in that detail about laughter and milk up the nose. Telling the story of the Minotaur through the his own eyes made me conscious that I'd never before thought of him as verbal, and as capable of having interpersonal relationships. To be made to realize, gradually, that he must be talking with the man who is going to kill him--that's the sort of nifty revelation that keeps calling us to poetry.

    Of course I hope I'm reading that correctly; I also look forward to hearing whether there's another way to read.

  2. Maryann, I think the "canon poem" is like certain forms. You see a lot of villanelles that read like exercises, like the poet felt obligated to make a quota of N poems per month and used the villanelle form as a kind of substitute for, like, having a good idea. We should know better than to send those out, and editors should know better than to accept them. I'd post some links as examples but that would be mean. :)

    It goes without saying that Alicia writes the good kind.

  3. Maybe I should have written about "Prince of Crete"! I'm not entirely sure I understand what a "canon" poem means--a persona poem, a poem in conversation with the canon? I don't think you can worry too much about what you are or aren't supposed to write--no more sonnets/villanelles/persona poems/poems that rhyme/poems in the first person/poems in the second person, etc. Write what you want to write. But obviously you need to get past just doing some sort of wooden exercise. You have to connect personally somehow with a myth or character you are writing about, the language has to come alive with possibilities for you.

    For me, the Minotaur has always been a compelling and sympathetic monster--ultimately a misshapen, unwanted, outcast child alone in the dark--whereas Theseus, say, seems cold and calculating. The Minotaur has appeared in at least one other poem of mine ("Tour of the Labyrinth"). Do you all know the fabulous Minotaur prose poem by Zbigniew Herbert, "History of the Minotaur"? There was a fascinating exhibit some years ago--here I think?, but maybe it was a travelling exhibit?--of Minotaur images through the ages and it struck one how often the Minotaur was strangely handsome and appealing with his human torso and great, bovine eyes.

    Thanks for dropping by with these interesting comments and thoughts!


  4. The refrain of "All, all of the stories are about going to bed" stirs in me many of the issues Alicia raises about the destination of all narratives, in a sense that there is a heavily engrained dependency in our culture for concrete resolution to the "story". It's a very obvious notion, but the psychology in the "why?" of it is interesting to muse on. Do we need the story to "go to bed", so that we, too, as readers, may rest well? The imagination applied to an open ended conclusion and any other abrupt plot disruptions offer massive amounts of intrigue and a forum for personal involvement, but also supply a great deal of existential anxiety on the sub-level. This, one could say, is an example of the "missing out on something" a child may feel as they sleep. It's an unexpected and mysterious responsibility. Tucking the characters in ourselves can be very frustrating for some, whether the unease is conscious or not.

  5. Nate,

    Thanks for these thought-provoking comments. I'm not sure I can add much to them! It is interesting to me that children want not just to hear stories, but often to hear the same ones over and over--as if to be reassured that the same ending will keep coming round again. This seems to be particularly important with darker stories (and I do think it a shame we have de-fanged and denatured so many stories--kids know frightening things happen in the real world.) Thanks again.

  6. Given that I'm one of the canon poem-haters (I feel the red rage descend when I come across a title like "Galatea to Pygmalion"), I should perhaps explain the contrary point of view. It isn't so much the use of characters--real or imagined from elsewhere. Poetry would be much poorer without the allusion, the dramatic monologue, and so on. Rather, it has to do with this particular historical moment, and the way these things usually get deployed.

    In the metrical poetry that gets published (and I've BEEN published a fair bit, so this isn't sour grapes on my part), there is a surfeit of decorousness, of a certain distance from the often fraught, messy business of life as lived by actual human beings, and the "canon poem," more often than not, plays into that. The myths/legends/whatever become an inert reassertion/regurgitation of tradition, another way of being conservative. Which is not to say that it CAN'T be done well, but really, most of them are just dreadful, and there are way too many of them.

    Quincy R. Lehr

  7. Thanks Quincy for coming by and elaborating. I completely agree that decorousness and regurgitation are going to end up being dull and are to be avoided. The question I sometimes would ask people of a myth poem is "why?"--what insight or element of interest are you adding to this? Mere retelling is insufficient, I think. On the other hand, I myself sometimes cringe at myth poems that are simply retellings jazzed up on the diction level, glibly/facetiously modernized. But, you know, when they work, it can be fun... As you say, there can be too many of them if they don't. It's a quite ancient genre, really: Ovid's Heroides, for example, or Theocritus' wonderfully sympathetic and rehabilitated Polyphemus the Cyclops. The ancients felt they had permission to play fast and loose with the myths--I don't see why we wouldn't give ourselves the same liberties.

  8. alicia,
    i found both your poems wonderful and moving. in 'another bedtime story', you surprise us by 'bending' the villanelle form (a little) in the 4th stanza. the subject changes slightly, and you have a question there.
    and it's a good one.
    so, how can children possibly save each other, when even a parent can't (and suddenly realizes this)? (but may be they can.)
    children, as adults, will be alone, and at night, unshielded, they have to face an other scene (which we, as parents try to mediate so lovingly). your light 'canon' form is the perfect vehicle for your continuous balancing of light and loving rêverie and tale, and hard and dreaded reality, almost entering, as you ponder this delicate 'everyday' bedtime moment.
    the repetition in the villanelle reflects the repetition in the stories, and the days.
    i agree with you that form doesn't matter so much. the music is what matters; if possible, you can (or have to!) go your own way.
    for me, the challenge is mainly to couple change in content and change in tempo. the 'old' forms are interesting, though. but to force a poem into a 'canon' mold is terrible. yeats was a master in handling the classic forms (and myths) in a new way (in 'leda and the swan' f.e., a sonnet). one hardly notices the form.
    your 'the prince of crete', i find, has it all, simple and complex, tragic, full of new thinking and imagery (the labyrinth built around the stranded helpless minotaur who undergoes it all). the all too human loneliness. one can just see it happen. i liked it very much.

  9. Thanks, Johan, for these generous and thoughtful comments. I do sometimes get asked about when one should strictly adhere to or "bend" (as you nicely put it) a form. You have to go with what makes a stronger poem, of course, rather than a stronger villanelle or what have you. In this case, one of the repeated lines seemed to admit of variation, whereas the other would have been weakened by it--I liked the chiming refrain. The truth is, every poem, even every "formal" poem, has its own economy. Thanks again for your comments.

  10. Hello All,

    The opening of the refrain, "all, all," strikes pretty deep into an epic tone. "Out, Out --" by Frost comes to mind, complete with the allusion to Macbeth. That comma, too, sure has an elevation to it -- a gesture that speaks, to me, of "did you get it -- All!" but perhaps without being that explanation point I've zealously included.

    I was wondering if you (Alicia) had considered the value of repeating "all" as the head of the refrain as you were composing the poem, or if you ever considered that it might carry too much epic weight. I'm not advocating for a change -- please don't take it that way. I'm just curious about the process in your crafting.

    Thanks in advance.

  11. Hi Paul,

    Thanks for these comments. It was the refrain that came to me first, complete with the anaphora on "All," and that set up, I think, the rhythm of the rest of the poem. I did weigh it, though, at the end. As you suggest, it is more Poetic with a capital P than just a straight: "All of the stories are about going to bed." But I like its deliberateness and emphasis, maybe the slow realization of it, each time it comes round. And it's sort of stuck in my head that way, like a tune. But perhaps because of its slight tonal elevation, if you will, the rest of the poem seemed to need to stay pretty close to the ground. I'm afraid that's a vague and unsatisfactory answer to a very astute question...

  12. Hi,
    I'd like to elaborate some more on Maryann's first comment. Knowing about the myth in detail is crucial to get to the questions 'the Prince of Crete' may raise; not only about the naive Minotaur- the monster who turns out to be a human being, once a child, but especially about Ariadne's role. What I believed to be but a blind act of 'love' (for Theseus) gets a whole new perspective. Rather than a betrayal, it becomes a witty and loving act of mercy or compassion - to save the Minotaur and Athens' youngsters from their sad predicament and fate - and of governing in stead of the absent parents (cruel Minos, abject Pasiphaë, who seems to have vanished in the story, and even from our dictionaries).
    Children saving each other...
    Ariadne's string that will serve Theseus to get out is subtly mentioned by the way, which has an uncanny effect on the reader (at least this one), who himself is being left 'amazed' at the end of the poem (I really liked the choice of this word, it fits right in; a-maze-d). It's such a rich story, and the poem like reanimates it for us (it for instance tells us about the delicate and possibly dangerous role of science, making things possible, and the part of the scientist-engineer who is being used, bears guilt, then tries to repair, will be punished later on...).
    Also: the light tone of the poem evokes the Crete, the Greek seas.
    Alicia, do you know the wonderful 19th century painting of the Minotaur by G.F. Watts? Anyway, your enthusiasm got me going, and even got me discovering the poetry of Zbigniew Herbert too. Thanks.

  13. Let’s not forget that poetry of stories for children “about going to bed” may never get any better than Anne Sexton’s brilliant collection, Transformations, published a long generation ago (1971) with drawings by Barbara Swan and preface by Kurt Vonnegut. “Red Riding Hood,” “The Frog Prince,” “Cinderella,” “Hansel and Gretel,” and more than a dozen other poems taken in the genre are there with the opening lines of her “Rumpelstiltskin” saying it all: “Inside many of us / is a small old man / who wants to get out.”

  14. Thanks for these further comments... which I will get back to ASAP. Our baby daughter was born just under a week ago and we have been in a bit of a whirl. She wasn't due for another month, so stole the march on us. I'll be back to this as soon as I can! Thanks.

  15. Congratulations!

    Paul Connolly

  16. Hi D.E. Steward,

    Thanks very much for bringing up Anne Sexton and her radical reimaginings. I'm sure they are an influence, however obliquely so. There's also a terrific anthology, The Poets' Grimm: 20th Century Poems from Grimm Fairy Tales edited by Jeanne Marie Beaumont & Claudia Carlson. It contains one of my favorite fairy tale poems, Louise Gluck's "Gretel in Darkness." Fairy tales were very important to us growing up--about the only "children's" books in my grandparents house were complete collections of Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm. In some ways, an interest in mythology branched rather naturally from this. These were dark, dangerous sometimes tragic stories with a lot of mystery and violence. But in a way, I think that was more cathartically reassuring than stories with false resolutions.

  17. Dear Johan,

    Thanks for these further comments--I'm fascinated at the rather differing interpretations of the poem and what is going on--I think both are valid. Certainly I have in mind, as picked up by both you and Maryann, that the reader, the listener, is in the position (predicament?) of Theseus. But I like leaving what happens next rather open-ended. Thanks so much for mentioning the Watts painting, which I have seen but had forgotten about somehow:

    The Tate site says that:

    "The painting was inspired by a lurid exposure of the traffic in child prostitution by a journalist named WT Stead. The article, called ‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’ and published in the Pall Mall Gazette in July 1885, was intended as an indictment of male lust."

    And yet, there is something rather sweet and forlorn about the minotaur looking out to sea, for all the artist's political intentions. Why, I wonder?

    For those interested in the minotaur myth, there is also the splendid Mary Renault novel, The King Must Die.

    Thanks again!

  18. I am curious to know whether this particular poetic form (villanelle) felt natural to the piece as you wrote it, or whether you strategically chose to take the poem in this direction at a later point in the composition process. Structurally, did you consider any other approaches? I ask because when I read this poem I am so impressed by how natural this form feels for the poem; it plays off the subject matter very effectively and gives the poem this haunting but moralistic, epic nurseryrhyme vibe. In what ways do you feel the villanelle form worked for this particular poem? Or in other words, how did it lend to the overall goal of the poem?

    Thank you for taking the time to talk with interested and inspired readers and writers about your work. This has been a wonderful opporuntiy. I truly enjoyed reading your work and wish you the best of luck with your poetry and with the newest addition to your family!

    Beth Mathieu

  19. The same here, Alicia.
    Thank you for your time and your tactful and thorough answers and comment, and for sharing the intimacy of your art and thoughts with us.
    I've enjoyed our correspondence a lot, as well as your poetry, and I wish you and your family (congratulations!)the very best.
    Kind regards, Johan

  20. September is over, and we have a new poem to discuss (see D.E. Steward's "Augustos"), but BPJ editors kindly opened this back up so I could answer Beth's last message and sign off. I tried to address the choice of form a little in the intro essay, but perhaps not satisfactorily. The refrain came before the poem, but the poem probably would not have been written without the engine of the villanelle, which suggested a sort of spiraling catalogue (lists and catalogues fit in very well with villanelles, as of course with “One Art” and other famous examples). As I said earlier, I am a little suspicious of the form—it is easy to write a facile/bad one, and to try to get away with it based on a couple of sonorous repeating lines. But the other (non-repeating) lines have to do the real work, so that when those lines do repeat they come back each time with greater force or with a more focused or perhaps even altered meaning. Or that is the goal anyway.

    Many thanks to everybody—it was a pleasure to talk about the poems, and to “meet” some other poets from BPJ’s pages.

    On a last note, I just wanted some words of gratitude about Marion K. Stocking. She was the first editor to publish me as an adult--1994 I think? (I had published some juvenilia in highschool in Seventeen), and the poem she selected out of the batch was by far the most formal of those efforts. It rhymed! In those days, I tried to sneak in formal poems into much more free-versey submissions, since I thought that was what one had to write to publish. She invariably chose the most “me” of my submissions (rather than anything trendy or fashionable), and in that way encouraged and emboldened me to be more myself as a poet. One would never have guessed those would have been her selections, given the overwhelming majority of free verse in the journal (not to mention the edgy and experimental). It was a huge encouragement to me, and perhaps one of the reasons I began taking those formal efforts much more seriously, and against a backdrop not only of “formal” poetry but of contemporary poetry generally. I am forever grateful to her astute choices and candid comments. She will be missed.