Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Seeking Sestina Skills (continued)

In Seeking Sestina Skills, Poetry Editor Kaye Linden posted a sestina she'd written called "Naropa's Riddles." Earlier, Kaye interviewed Carolyne Wright about the sestina form. Here we have (in italics) Carolyne's critique of Kaye's original version of "Naropa's Riddles."

Naropa's Riddles

I wonder about the name "Naropa"--it is so deeply associated in my mind with the center located in Boulder, CO, started by those wild and crazy guys and gals, the Dharma Bums, Allen Ginsberg, Anne Waldman, Ram Dass, et al. In other words, with a free-wheeling, decadent, fun and hash-hazed but not very focused attitude of "Let's play at Tibetan Buddhism--so groovy!" I don't think you intended that range of associations! Maybe another Tibetan name for the wise teacher in this poem? By the way, the shortened religious name of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama is Tenzin Gyatso--his civilian family name was Lhamo Thondup. His story is fascinating. So, some typical Tibetan name, associated with a more serious practice and without the wild and crazy associations, would be better for this poem, I think!

Naropa yokes his yak in silence.       A                                            
I study the fine pink fingers of a Tibetan dawn, nature's    B (conventional phrase)                 
magic. Wispy white clouds highlight my mourning (no motive for mourning given yet)               
my dreaded ride back  D  (I would *show, not tell* here)                                                               
from this mountain heightE                                                          
I turn to Naropa: "This cave is home."  F                                           

Naropa feigns surprise. "Home? Home?"                                     
Where on this earth is home? He laughs, but falls into deep silence,   (cut)  
into contemplation. He raises his immense monk's height   (telling, not showing here)                    
onto the yak: "Such a gentle nature                                               
she has [,]" the master says as he strokes her back(add comma)             
"Learn from her." He rides down the mountain, into the clear light of morning   (*cliché*) 
and along a stony trail. I follow. "Listen," he says. "No mourning   
for this mountain cave that you call home                                       
because you must go back                                                             
to within your true Self, into inner silence  (I'd cut this--redundant)                              
to find your true nature.                                                                  
Believe me, truth is not upon this mountain height   (cut--not needed)                  

nor is your home upon any other height                                        
nor in any valley. Still this restless mourning                                 
and find your essential nature                                                       
your ancient face, your original home                                            
within the depths of complete silence                                             
Listen, listen, and never look back.                                                

I am censured by the Master. It is not my place to talk back  (You *show* this in the previous stanza, so no need to *tell* it here, especially using the passive voice)      
to the teacher. Dwarfed by his lofty height                                    
I am chided into silence,                                                               
into a meditation of sorts, a mourning                                          
for the mountain cave, a longing for home,                                   
for his teachings, for this sanctuary in nature.                              

The Master speaks thus: "About your essential nature: (I'd cut)                 
sit still with a straight back.                                                           
Find the veiled but simple way home                                            
by coming down from this physical height(I'd cut--let *height* have more meanings)                       Because you try to finger the nameless you mourn                     
the loss of it. Now, no more questions. Meditate in silence.         

I ride down the spiraling trail in the peace of nature from this mountain height   B   E
back to the physical monastery with the hope of a new morning    D   C                    
inside my inner home. For now, I lament my mountain cave in silence  F   A
(Editor's Note: The last tercet is called an envoi, consisting of three lines that include all six of the line-ending words of the preceding stanzas. According to Wikipedia, the end words traditionally took the pattern of B-E, D-C, F-A; the first end word of each pair occurring anywhere in the line, the second ending the line. However, the end-word order of the envoi is no longer strictly enforced. As you can see, the envoi end words in the above "Naropa's Riddles" take the traditional pattern of  E -  C - A. However, the envoi end words in Carolyne Wright's "Sestina: Into Shadow" are D - E - F; and in "Sestina: That mouth..." the envoi end words are C - E - B.)
More notes from Carolyne--

I would consider trying to reduce the didacticism of this poem, and introduce more imagery. Let the imagery do the work of conveying meaning, and let all the *teaching moments* be in the dialogue quoted from the wise teacher. Otherwise, the poem is too dry--too "teachy preachy" as I often say.

In terms of concrete imagery, I would not mind seeing more of the yak! -- and maybe other creatures who form part of the surrounding life up on that mountain. What wisdom do they impart (as in fables that feature animals and usually have a didactic purpose conveyed in imagery and with animal characters)

A sestina that is set in a landscape not unlike that of yours, and that has thematic resonances as well, is the Donald Justice poem, "Here in Katmandu." It is an "incomplete sestina"--a sestina without the final envoi. You might want to read it to get a sense of how Justice handles a similar terrain and thematic concerns with the contrast of mountain and valley, dizzying barren heights and crowded lower-level human habitations... and all the metaphorical implications thereof.

Curtis Faville has some insights into this poem that I shared in one of the last Craft of Poetry courses taught for the late, great Whidbey MFA Program. Here is one excerpt from Faville--
Justice was not the outdoors-y type, scurrying around the world looking for adventure. He was a quiet man, who lived modestly, and privately. "Here in Katmandu"--though it is ostensibly about the vicissitudes of toil and adventure--is therefore not a celebration of the physical exhilaration of climbing, or the bracing impressions of altitude and the immediacy of strange landscape(s). It is, instead, a poem about desire and unresolved contradiction.
And more of what I said in that online course posting--
Interesting that Justice didn't seem to want to "crowd" his sestina with an envoi and those two end words per line--as Faville phrases it: this sestina "employs the classical 'retrogradatio cruciata' but lacks the ultimate tercet [what our other writers call the envoi]. Repeating all six words in the concluding tercet would almost certainly ruin the poem by drawing undue attention to the formal crowdedness of the structure." 
Or maybe Justice simply had said all he had to say by the conclusion of the sixth sestet--as Faville implies when he writes, "At poem's end, there's nothing left unsaid, or unattended, nothing wasted. Each kind of anxiety--whether for the heights or for static resolution--is perfectly weighted against its opposite... At the highest plane of awareness, snow and flowers, the heights and the depths, are but the flimsy simulacrums of a deeper reality, of which this mortal world is composed."
 So this sestina, "imcomplete" though it is, may give you some ideas! Hope all these comments help!

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