Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Jennifer Atkinson: The Genesis of the Canticles

I wrote my first canticle in Assisi, where Saints Francis, Clare, and Giotto preside everywhere—in the Cathedral and churches, the pizza joint on the corner where school kids line up after class-trip tours, the pastry shops selling Francis cakes and almond-cherry cookies called Chiaras, the five million souvenir shops, each one chock-full of crosses, wind-up toys, Assisi t-shirts and baseball caps, faux rustic planks decoupaged with Francis’s all-too-famous poem: “Canticle of Brother Sun. . . .”

It was late February, raw, and mostly rainy. I was staying at the Convent of the Suore di Brigida. No religious goal in mind, I just wanted an inexpensive, quiet place to stay near Giotto’s frescos. My bags were lost somewhere between D.C. and Rome and even once they were found, the airline refused for 4 days to deliver them. So in the hours not devoted to self-pity and waiting for my underwear to dry, I wandered around the village and olive groves or stood in the Cathedral under the frescos.

The cathedral is on two main levels—the ground floor with crypt below, and the large, open, high-windowed gallery upstairs. For two days I hardly even went upstairs. I spent my time on the ground floor of the cathedral feeding euros into the coin-operated lights that illuminate Giotto’s Mary Magdalene cycle. I love—and who doesn’t?—Giotto’s narrative panels, the mixture of realism and symbol, the sureness of line, and the straight-forward acknowledgement of the body in the spirit and the spirit in the body, but I also found myself enthralled by the story he was telling of Magdalene’s life after Easter. I didn’t know the Magdalene legends at all then and so I was reading them in his language of images. I thought about Giotto and his apprentices grinding the pigments, preparing the wall, and working quickly in the dim room. I thought about a narrative told in a series of separate panels, set side by side and end to end, each sealed off from the next and yet linked formally, compositionally.

The first canticle I didn’t call a canticle until later. “Assisi Rain,” now “Canticle of Assisi Rain,” was a ghazalish poem from the start, a moody five-couplet piece that owed its allegiance as much to music as to the Assisi saints or the desk in the convent where I wrote it. By May of that year I was back home in Virginia teaching summer school but with several more 5-line or 5-couplet poems written. Canticle, little song, now seemed an appropriate name for the form. It would be disingenuous to say nothing of St. John of the Cross’s (dark night of the soul) “Canticle” or “The Canticle of Canticles” (aka Song of Songs), both of which inform my canticles’ mixture of spiritual journey and sensuous earthly pleasure, but Giotto’s method was as influential as either. As was the winding-ever-upward architecture of the Umbrian hill town.

This past summer, a year or so after returning from Assisi, I was lucky enough this past summer to spend a month in a Provencal “perched village.” I wrote a little song every day while I was there, in the region where in legend and fresco Magdalene is said to have ended her days. The form opened a bit wider to accommodate more prose and more Magdalene, but 5 has remained the magic number even as the sequence grew to 60-some canticles, a book manuscript (I hope) with “Canticle of Assisi Rain” in second place, right after “Canticle of A.”

Many thanks to Beloit Poetry Journal for publishing this group of the Canticles!


  1. I love this post! It's always interesting for me to read about how poems get started, and it was great to read about Assisi.

  2. I love the poems. Are they part of a new book? When might it be available?

  3. Jennifer atkinsonApril 3, 2010 at 11:35 AM

    Thanks, Emily. I highly recommend Assisi, especially in Spring. Check out the Sisters of St. Brigida Convent. Jennifer

  4. jennifer atkinsonApril 3, 2010 at 11:38 AM

    What a welcome question, Anonymous! So far they are part of a manuscript. I certainly hope the group will be a book soon... Other Canticles are forthcoming or in recent issues of Field, New American Writing, Cincinnati Review, and Image.

  5. Are all the poems ghazal-like?

  6. Dear Anonymous, Not all are THIS ghazal-like. As the Canticles evolved they varied in form, but all have 5 lines, 5 sentences, or 5 couplets--5 being the minimum number of couplets in a ghazal. And, as in a ghazal, there are gaps--synapses-- between each of the 5. Only a few repeat or rhyme the end words of the couplets, though.
    The traditional subject matter of the ghazal--that mixture of eros and longing for the spiritual--infuses a good many of my Canticles, but several are homages to poets--Montale, Hopkins, Ponge, Follain . . .

  7. I came to your reading in Denver and was glad to hear some more "canticles." Would like to have heard more of them!--Molly

  8. Do you find that people tend to be dismissive of "ghazals" that do not follow all the rules of the form? People seem to call anything with fourteen lines a sonnet but the manipulations of this particular "form" seems to get a lot of criticism.

  9. Richard,

    I am acutely aware of exactly what you mean. Yes. Sonnets, a form which itself evolved across languages and cultures, seem to be available to any sort of innovation, while ghazals are or have been held accountable to certain rules. I think it's because of a feeling that the form as it was and is practiced in Iran, India, and elsewhere might be "colonized" by American innovation. I am sympathetic to the concern, certainly, but am nonetheless convinced that the ghazal is a living form. Everything alive evolves.

    Federico Garcia Lorca's innovations on the ghazal, his Gacelas, were my introduction to the ghazal. Maybe it would be fairer to call my "ghazals" gacelas?

  10. Hi Molly,

    Thank you! There was only a very little time,unfortunately.

  11. Hi Molly,

    Thank you! I had only a few minutes and needed also to read from the recent book.

  12. Excellent poems. Your work has changed from book to book quite a lot. These canticles seem closest to the "drowned city" poems in their method, but that is the closest connection I can see to your earlier work. Is there a plan for after the "canticles" or do you see short lyrics as the path ahead?

  13. jennifer atkinsonApril 19, 2010 at 1:28 PM

    Hi Robert,

    It's always good to hear that someone has read the poems from previous books. Thanks!

    I agree that these are most like the drowned city sequence in their ghazal-like couplets and in the elaborateness of their surfaces. My hope in some of the Canticles, though not so much in the ones printed in BPJ, is to create as refracted a language surface as I can without losing entirely the thread of the sentence. So I think those poems, at least, go further than the Drowned City ones did.

    I'm working on another manuscript, but more slowly, which I think will be composed of longer meditative poems. The ones I've written so far confront ecological questions and griefs, that strange sense of loss before it's lost feeling that marks the contemporary pastoral. But I the love short lyric and won't ever be able to keep myself from that intensity.

    Thanks so much for your comment!