Craft Talk: Catherine Staples

SCHOOLING FIGURES

Poet Catherine Staples

Catherine Staples

It’s a very good thing to have poems you admire rattling round in your head. They are schooling figures for the mind and good company, sometimes providing inspiration and, other times, solace. With the mention of just two words, “slumber” and “diurnal,” most poets will recall Wordsworth’s “Lucy poems”–if not the entire string of five mysterious poems written for a child who died young, then at least “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal.” Language alone is a reason to memorize poems, to master the complex knot of emotion and thought bound up in words and sound. Memorized poems can remind us of the power of a single word. Take the archaic “slumber,” here it conjures the profound sleep of a fairy tale:

A slumber did my spirit seal;

I had no human fears:

She seemed a thing that could not feel

The touch of earthly years.

“Seal” gives us a sense of the speaker’s isolation and pure containment. In such a state it seems to him that “she,” Lucy, is out of reach from passing time and mortality. The combination of end rhymes with the alliterative weaves of s’s and the more glancing partial rhymes (seemed/feels, no/not) is lulling; sound contributes to the speaker’s metaphorical slumber. We take in all of these subtle complexities in a moment when a poem resides in our head; it’s there when we need it. We can return at will to hear its music, to account for its sudden shifts. Recalling this particular poem can remind us, too, of the extraordinary power of a stanza break, the distance that might be travelled from one stanza to the next.

If we think about the etymology of stanza–from the Portuguese estancia, “meaning dwelling or room” according to the OED–the next stanza makes us feel as if we, along with the speaker, have stepped out from solid ground into insubstantial air: “No motion has she now, no force; / She neither hears nor sees”; with this stark pronouncement, we’re in the realm of a terrible awakening. We are a far cry from the naïve belief of the young girl untouched by earthly years. The word “diurnal,” defined by the OED as ”daily; chiefly of the motion of the heavenly bodies” helps to carry the ineluctable motion and cosmic scope of the poem’s last lines:

Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course

With rocks and stones and trees.

There is an extraordinary music to these lines; the inexorable tug of iambs ends with simple and elemental quiet. The purest music meets the silence of grief.

Eight lines, two stanzas: let Wordsworth’s lyric be the first of the next sheaf of poems you’ll carry in your head. Winter is an especially good time for memorizing. Try it while you are riding the stationary bike or walking over frozen ground. Other poems which quite naturally function in distinct parts are sonnets. It’s instructive to see where the turn or “volta” comes about and the ways in which the form can be played with. Right now, because I am working on an elegaic sonnet sequence, the poem I am carrying about is Heaney’s two-part “Mossbawn.” I have begun with the second element, “The Seed Cutters.” It’s a great sonnet to recite aloud for the interlacing of sound and use of repetition is something I can hear more skillfully than see. Getting a line wrong and then making it right is the beauty of this exercise. For with a mistake–for instance a word that’s close but not quite right–it’s like a tap on the shoulder from the great poet himself. You note the difference one word or rhythm makes and you carry it with you; it’s there when you need it.

Catherine Staples’ new collection, The Rattling Window, winner of the Robert McGovern Prize, came out from Ashland Poetry Press in April 2013. Poems from the book are featured at The Common. More poems, readings, and field notes can be found at: catherinestaples.com.