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.