Poetry Spotlight 3
Winner and judges' comments
Published: October 26, 2006
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By Anne Whitelaw
I sit and watch the shortened day expire
'til like the lengthening shadows on the grass
my heart, grown tired and void of all desire,
is long enough to hold the winter night.
The frost, like frozen tears on window glass,
steals from the sun's faint rays their last weak fire.
I try, as stars appear, then dim and pass,
to kindle ashen hopes to warmth and light.
The moon that draws my eyes to western hills
is but a miser, hoarding all that's bright;
its false reflection, imitating day,
gives back no warmth to ward off evening chills.
I know to have tomorrow's sun in sight
that I must turn and look another way.
Comments from Spotlight moderator Kay B. Day
This sonnet stood out for me in several ways. For one thing, there was attention to form, something I like to see whether I'm reading Lang-Po or free verse or formal. I also liked the representation of the solstice, a figure here for the longest night of the year and what seems to be a very long night for the speaker, as well. The line "My heart, grown tired and void of all desire" touches on the speaker's conflict and invites the reader to share whatever that conflict may be.
Therein lies the problem for me. I don't know what's causing the sadness of spirit. I don't think I need to be bombarded by details, but because there's a sense of loss, I'd like to have an idea what sort of loss. Knowing a little more about it might enable me to empathize more fully.
Abridging the word "until" actually made a contemporary word seem archaic. For example, in the South, the word "'til" acts as a stand-in colloquially. Maybe my reaction is because it's at the beginning of the second line, or maybe because it's a sonnet and I don't like to see the risk of pretense in a word, but I'd go with the full word there. I have a very flexible attitude toward form, as long as the form is handled skillfully, so even if using the full word added an extra stress, I'd still do it. There's a problem, to my ear, though, with the alliterative "l" in that line; it's hard to enunciate it without really slowing the pace. I think that's because you have to wrap your mouth around the "gth" in "lengthening."
On the other hand, the lines "The moon that draws my eyes to western hills/is but a miser..." come off as really lovely, sheer poetry. More of that type of skill would elevate the sonnet to top notch, in my opinion.
Nits like "frost" and "frozen" in the same line are bothersome, and I'd rethink each adjective in the poem, because that part of speech really stands out when you're aiming for the approximately 140 syllables a traditional sonnet usually contains.
But this poet has a nice grasp of sound and the sensibility of a sonnet, and I enjoyed reading the poem. It stood out for some of the fine language contained in 14 lines and for the figurative treatment of solstice mentioned above. Careful revision would make this poem a memorable one, in my opinion. The sonnet is a form I love to work in, so I appreciate the effort that goes into mastering this form.
Comments from Carl Horner, director of Creative Writing at Flagler College, St. Augustine, Fla.
Phrases including "watch the shortened day expire" and "moon that draws my eyes to western hills" evoke the metaphysical music of poetry, language enthralling to read and to hear, but I do not know what the writer of this poem wants me to feel.
Because I have not yet participated in the situation, if not the crisis, that precedes the setting of the poem, I picture only the physical "shadows on the grass," "frost," "stars" and "moon" of this winter evening and night. Sensory detail, yes, but in a poetic experience, I should not ask: Why a "heart ... void of all desire" and why "no warmth to ward off" emotional "chills"?
Marvin Bell nurtured a poet friend to lose all the abstractions. Create the emotion. I also advise writing neither the clichéd "sun's faint rays" nor the passive "is," but vision and verbs that throw a reader around the room.
Comments from Dana Wildsmith, Poetry Fellow at the South Carolina Academy of Authors
We'll all been there: Friday night, a hard seat at our child's high school football stadium, a local soprano comes out mid-field to tackle the national anthem. She hits all the notes in that impossibly demanding song, but she hits them right on the bottom edge of each tone. There's no brightness to her tonality; the anthem never rises to its own possibility.
We listeners find ourselves thinking about tomorrow's Saturday chore list. We're not distressed by her singing, but neither are we engaged. Such was the case when I read "Solstice."
The sonnet form happens to be one of my personal favorites, and I delight in a sonnet cleanly written, particularly one in which the writer surprises me with a timely adaptation of tone or language. I am disappointed when the writer allows himself the safety net of expected (read: old-fashioned or archaic) language and theme. I felt a twinge of disappointment as early as the second line. There are so many other ways the writer could have handled that line's opening unstressed syllable. Even the overused "when" would have been preferable to the Victorian-sounding "'til." The use of "kindle" in line 8 is another example of the writer not giving enough energy to finding a word more appropriate to contemporary readers. After all, how often do you use "kindle" in your everyday speech?
My second disappointment was due to the imagery employed. "The frost, like frozen tears ..." again feels dated to me and bordering on Victorian maudlin tonality. I wasn't convinced the mention of "western" hills was there for any reason other than to fill out the line. The poet and novelist Robert Morgan says each line in a poem must pay the rent. By this he means every line needs to resonate with its own visible reason for being in the poem. Empty filler words or phrases can't be hidden by the rest of the poem.
I would not want the author of this sonnet to go away comfortless. This writer has solid grasp of the sonnet form. The pulse of a sonnet's heart beats strongly through all 14 lines. All that's needed here is to pay a little more attention to the message of the poem. Like the singer of the National Anthem, if the sonnet's author lets each thought in the poem's development rise to its cleanest intent--through vivid, personal word choices and imagery--the audience will leave the chore list until tomorrow, sit up and pay attention.
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