Living · Writing

Wordtales 2020.1

This is written in periwinkle ink, which derives from Latin per + vincere ‘to bind thoroughly’. The color term derives from the flower. It also means a small, edible mollusk, which derives from Middle English pine-winkle by association, because periwinkle sounds way cooler.

It’s time for some more wordtales.

(Since I moved to WordPress, I haven’t figured out how to post a little, intermittently updating inset blurb, so I’ve stored some up.)

“Edulcorate” means ‘to sugarcoat.’ If you parse it, it literally means to draw the sweetness out of something (Latin ex- ‘out of’ + dulcor ‘sweetness’), presumably surfacing the object’s innate, inner sweetness, which is not the same as how it’s most often used, as to slap sugar on something from the outside brusquely and crudely, like with a palette knife, not even a detail brush.

“Virago” is a term for a loud, bossy woman. That’s great, because it literally means ‘to act like a man.’ Latin vir-  means ‘man’ and gives us virile, virtue, and other lovely words. It’s Germanic cognate, wer, survives in werewolf and all the manifold multiform critters like werebear and wererat of the D & D universe. Add Latin ago/agere = to act, and the word “virago” means ‘manlike.’ We don’t hold a very high bar for men, apparently. Of course this term derives from a time when men were in control of politics and power, and for a woman to reach in to that realm was unfeminine to the point of condemnation. No comment.

Finally, in Italian, people make meatballs of others instead of mincemeat, cover their eyes with ham instead of burying their heads in the sand, choose a fish instead of picking a direction, and wish each other dreams of gold. Not sweet dreams. Golden, gilded, glimmering dreams.

Words are awesome. Sogni d’oro, y’all.

Living · Reading · Writing

The Wedding Vow is a Performative Speech Act

In the category of Wonderful Things I Never Thought I’d Do, I officiated at a wedding.

It was on Halloween, or Samhain, or Dia de Los Muertos, or Midterms, depending on your denomination. And it was an utter delight. This is good news, as it was quite stressful for me in the months working up to it. Contrary to popular belief, the ability to stand before a room full of undergrads and talk about how we read myths judiciously is not the same as the ability to enunciate clearly the knitting together of two souls before the people who care about them most in the world.

But I did it. And I am grateful for the honor. And I had such a lovely, lovely time, that of course, I have to write about it.

I was terribly, terribly nervous.

I was enchanted by the ritual of the thing. This couple—former English majors and alumni from my school—wanted some literary reading, a Welsh handfasting, and “whatever medieval badassery” I could come up with.  Hours of careful internet and bookish research convinced me that the formula was easy, but it was all about the details. Such is life.

You need a greeting and a general spiel about marriage and/or love. I got to say my version of “Dearly beloved” and mention that this couple met in a literature class, and that went some way to explaining why I was there, and why I was deploying William Butler Yeats instead of Ecclesiastes.

You need a reading—from a spiritual text typically, but in this case, I read Yeats’s “The White Birds,” and the bride’s uncle read the description of love from Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. (I hadn’t read that before, and holy wow, is it beautiful.)

You need some rings, and some vows to accompany the exchange. (I may have made a cheap Lord of the Rings joke. I hope no one filmed. It was shameless.) And you need some promises you know you can keep. In this iteration, the vows were punctuated by the mothers of the couple binding their hands with  a sash, and when they had spoken their vows, they could literally tie the knot. That was very satisfying.

And then they smooched. That’s important too. It’s all important.

The vows are important; the words are important. The wedding vow is one of very few “performative speech acts” left to us in a literate society. As Westley notes in The Princess Bride, “If you didn’t say it, you didn’t do it.” But the march is also important. The recession of the wedding party, followed by the crowd. The first dance. The toasts. The cake. These are all formalities, all weighty, and all observed with remarkable consistency even at a wedding as funky and cool as a masquerade on Halloween.

Human life is formulaic. Our rituals are too. If we’re honest, our arts are too—music, literature, even visual arts. We bear according to pattern in so many things, from the genes we pass on to our children to our “regular” dishes at our favorite restaurants.

And that’s just fine. Because we find ways to make each step our own, while sharing enough structure to create bonds with others. Now this couple has their wedding story to share. It is uniquely their own, with all the goofy, delightful specifics and also its shared participation in a tradition. And in that lovely way that events turn in to stories, and stories belong to all who live and tell them, I now have a new story too.  

Reading · Teaching · Writing

Fables are Real: Thoughts on Marcovaldo

I’m teaching Italo Calvino’s Marcovaldo this week, and the older I get, the more I get out of it. I’m so full of things to say, I have to sort through them or risk imploding.

Marcovaldo is the protagonist in a short novel that doesn’t feel like a novel. It feels like a cartoon series to me more than anything—short vignettes with a guy who is sort of a caricature, but also one I can identify with sometimes and pity other times. The book’s subtitle is “Seasons in the City” and begins to explain why some classify it as a mid-20th century “nouveau roman,” or New Novel in the French tradtion. It’s a series of vignettes organized by seasons, not by events in an ongoing plotline.

The seasons pass in the city, but they pass more subtly than in the provinces. And poor Marcovaldo–whose history readers piece together from details dropped occasionally, but even more from his attitudes toward the world–must have been raised in the country, been drafted in to service during World War II, and later moved to the city where all the jobs were to raise his family.

All the jobs, but none of the humanity. All the jobs, but very little from the natural world.

He finds himself trapped in a demeaning job, resentful of the family he struggles to support; the story reads like a list of repeated attempts to escape.

This sweet image is from an Italian version aimed at young readers. This book can be read “simply.” But seriously, the more I read it, the deeper it gets. (Also, there is no point in the book where Marcovaldo stares at a ladybug, on his hand but it is very much the kind of thing he would do–perhaps not this sadly.)

So he’s an idealist in the sense that he thinks he can stumble in to a scheme that will rescue him from this. In the first chapter he finds mushrooms growing wild in the dirt near a tram stop, and he immediately plans a huge feast for his family—watching the mushrooms grow and bringing his kids to help gather them by the hundreds.

In another chapter, he reads in an old newspaper that bee venom has been used to treat rheumatism, and he turns his one-room basement apartment into a clinic, applying angry wasps to people’s skin under a paper cup. He’s receptive to the natural world and its opportunities.

But this is the city. The only mushrooms that grow there are poisonous. The wasp clinic (obviously) goes south and lands him in the hospital. He doesn’t give up, but readers can get tired for him, as he tries one way after another to get something for nothing.

Students sometimes get hung up on this aspect of him and label him as greedy. So this time I’m going in ready to redirect that line of thought. It’s not wrong; it’s just superficial.

First, Marcovaldo is poor. He’s not so much greedy as he is desirous of pretty reasonable things—enough space to house his family comfortably, enough food for them all to eat, enough time to enjoy the world around them. He’s an unskilled laborer with a wife and six kids. His wife has to be home to raise the kids, so it’s all on him to provide for eight people. That he continues to do that seems admirable to me. That he also looks for moments of delight and opportunities out seems healthy.

That is where I’ll start this time. He’s not greedy; he’s burned out.

He’s also lots of other things. He’s an early environmentalist; he notices and cultivates the natural world; in fact, he yearns for it. He’s a class warrior, showcasing the inequities in post-war Italy. He’s full of childlike wonder, always looking for butterflies and stopping to watch birds fly. He’s also kind of a caricature of Calvino—an introverted, disillusioned, middle-aged dreamer. He’s not yet Mr. Palomar, but he’s moving in that direction.

And now I’m thinking I need to write a paper about Marcovaldo. Maybe that would help get him out of my head, like listening to the whole song does, when I have a line repeating in my mind. I need to do something to stop channeling him. Because I can’t stop looking for butterflies and noticing the sunlight hitting pine boughs and freezing when I hear birdsong to see if I can find the bird. I just live in an area with too many birds for that kind of behavior to be practical. 😀

Reading · Teaching · Writing

On Light and Lightness

Apollo is the god of light in the sense that he inspires all things we associated with enlightenment: culture, arts (especially music and poetry), civilization, reason, medicine, and prophecy. As the sun, he IS light. So everything he touches is illuminated or illuminating.  Latin lux/lucere à English light. (Never trust a vowel.)

But when Italo Calvino writes his essay on “Lightness” in Six Memos for the Next Millenium, he’s not talking about brightness or illumination; he values weightlessness in the fabric and content of literature. This comes from Gothic leihts, and Latin went the leviarius/(“leviosa”)/levity route.

When I teach this essay, someone always asks if he means lightness like the quality of being bright or lightweight. If we were reading the original, the question would not come up; it’s entitled “La Legerezza,” of which we only have a relic in “legerdemain”—sleight of (or lightness of) hand. In Italian  the word for bright light is la luce.

Also if you read very far in to the essay, Calvino makes this distinction abundantly clear, but if you are an English reader who imagined brightness first, it can be hard to let go of. After all, we want our literature to be illuminating, don’t we? To light fires in our minds and to shine light on problems and people and practices. Good books do that.

That’s not what Calvino meant. He wouldn’t be so moralizing, to begin with. But he was aestheticizing. (I know that’s not a word in the sense of prescribing literary values, but I want it to be.) He was interested in defining ideals of literature, not humanity.

He strove to remove weight from his works, sometimes in terms of content (like making a suit of armor trot around empty, without the weight of a body inside[The Nonexistent Knight] or like reducing gravity’s pull so that people could float up to the moon [“The Distance to the Moon” in Cosmicomics, which is the basis for the Pixar short “La Luna”].

He also tried to remove weight from his prose, so that it seemed somewhat diaphanous. He quotes Emily Dickinson as an example:

A sepal, petal, and a thorn
Upon a common summer’s morn—
A flask of Dew—A Bee or two—
A Breeze—a caper in the trees—
And I’m a Rose!

Occasionally one of my students will dig in, claiming that it is a higher good to strive to be illuminating than weightless, to which I can only respond that he’s talking about style, and that doesn’t have a moral obligation. Calvino means literature should tread lightly; it should lighten our load by lifting us above the weight of the world and in to the flight of the clouds and imagination. It should inspire contemplation, which is completely abstract and therefore weightless, and it should do so by means that feel light: literature’s form (lightened prose) should follow its function—lightening our spirits.

What began as an etymological exercise has turned in to an analysis of Calvino’s essay, which I didn’t plan on. But I have read and taught and thought about that essay so many times, it is hard for me to think of lightness in any form without also thinking of Calvino’s words. At the risk of sounding repetitive, it’s all connected.

Have a good weekend, y’all. Enjoy the light of the Harvest Moon.

Oak leaves in the sunlight on Mt Palomar
Living · Writing

Candles and Flames

This is the summer of non-blogs. And I’m a day late again.

I thought of not posting at all again, but that seemed a cop-out.

I’m not posting readily this summer because while my summer has had bright spots I would normally post about (a card-making crop, some great books, and some other wonderful moments), this summer has also been plagued with ICE raids and mass shootings, and it seems flippant to say it’s a lovely summer when it’s not.

I am torn. I am doing what I can to help, but it doesn’t seem like enough. I am trying to keep myself strong so I can lift up others, and I am sending more cards to people just to cheer them up than ever before, but I’m not blogging consistently. The kinds of blogs I tend to write threaten this summer to make me sound like a tone-deaf happy-ass. I am a happy-ass. I hope I’m not tone-deaf.  

I don’t know what to offer here this week, but I will say I squarely still believe in humanity and in the power of little things to overwhelm the world with goodness. I also hope we can get some big things straight in terms of more humane policy in the near future, so there’s not quite so much pressure on the little things to make us happy.

Meanwhile, I wish you all strength and hope and light above all. Shine on, you beautiful people.

This is one of the ways I imagine hope.

And before I leave, here is a poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti entitled “Poetry as Insurgent Art.” Enjoy.

“I am signaling you through the flames.

The North Pole is not where it used to be.

Manifest Destiny is no longer manifest.

Civilization self-destructs.

Nemesis is knocking at the door.

What are poets for, in such an age?
What is the use of poetry?

The state of the world calls out for poetry to save it.

If you would be a poet, create works capable of answering the challenge of apocalyptic times, even if this meaning sounds apocalyptic.

You are Whitman, you are Poe, you are Mark Twain, you are Emily Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay, you are Neruda and Mayakovsky and Pasolini, you are an American or a non-American, you can conquer the conquerors with words….”

Living · Reading · Writing

The Anti-Blog

I don’t really have anything to say today. I didn’t last week either, so I skipped a week, and I almost never skip weeks, so… you know… I’m here tonight. But I still don’t have anything, really.

What do I have?

I have some free time, having completed the draft of a paper whose deadline I just barely busted. Tuesday night is still “early in the week,” right?

I have some complicated feelings about Independence Day, since I’m grateful to live in a country that allows me to say how disappointed I am in us right now.

Grandma Isla loved dogwood and delicate things.

I have my grandma’s tea cups and her love of quiet, civilized time.

I have a really splendid family, who chose to celebrate our freedom by grilling hotdogs and playing a new board game. My partner got to use his firepit, and the girly made a monster fruit salad.

I have arthritis in my feet. Who knew? So I have some new foods in my diet and am cutting down on others, to do what I can to slow its advance.

I have some fear, but mostly hope for our future as a country and as a planet. I have a well-developed sense of wonder at the beauty of the world and the ingenuity of people who screw it up, but also rally to fix it.  

I have enough stamps that I can pick and choose from a variety of sets and materials and get more use out of them than they’re marketed for. And I have a partner who likes to see me happy, so encourages my hobby rather than complaining that it’s too expensive.

I have “Dirty Little Secret” stuck in my head. It’s my daughter’s fault. It’s on her playlist.

 I have a daughter who plays music while she tidies the kitchen.

I have lots of memories of fireworks and parks and watermelon and parades and my parents from my happy childhood. I have some holes in my heart where people like my parents have taken little bits of me in to the beyond.

I have a stack of academic books to be returned to various libraries, some classes to plan, a letter of recommendation to write, some portfolios to assess, and a fall schedule to tidy up… next week.

And I have a cat walking across my desk, telling me to wrap this up and pet her already.

If you’re still reading, I wish you a wonderful evening, a heart full of hope, and enough of whatever makes you happy.

Lucie is over my non-blog.
Living · Teaching · Writing

The List of Lists

Summer for a teacher is a weird thing.

My Writing Journal, Italian Journal, Creative Journal, Bullet Journal, and Bird-Watching Journal. Or, Summer on a Shelf.

On the one hand, we need to rest; teaching is exhausting both intellectually and emotionally (in addition to physically). On the other hand, as a group, we’re not particularly good at it.

There are conferences to attend, research to pursue, classes to update, texts to consider, lessons to plan, and administrative work that does not end when the students go home.

See? I have already started. Summer, for me, is about lists.

I have begun. I have made the List of Lists for this summer. It is inclusive, if not exhaustive, of all the things I want to do in the next two months.

For work, I will write an article, choose and prepare lessons for a new book, meet with Teaching Assistants to orient them for their first semester, and prep a class I haven’t taught in a while. This class needs to be updated for semesters, which includes finding a couple of additional books and planning lessons for them and shifting the entire syllabus, since my school’s switching from a Quarter system to a Semester system changes… everything. And then there’s the more intangible “work” I don’t get paid for, which include writing this blog and pursuing that dream of being a novelist–by finding an agent for the first book and getting past chapter three on the next one.

So much for the myth that teachers have summers off.

All those items are handily subdivided in my bullet journal in tangible, “actionable,” bite-size pieces.

After work, of course, there will be other lists. I’m still working on learning Italian, but my conversation partner is in Russia for the summer, so there are lists of movies to watch, verbs to study, books to read with a dictionary close to hand, and levels of language apps to power through.

What is that? Is that work? It will help me teach Dante. Is it Self-Care? I’m staving off dementia, you know. Is it relaxing time? Sure. But also no. Whatever. There’s a list for it.

Summer is also time for home. We have some Home Improvement-type projects going, including fixing the infamous Bee Pillar for real. It is functional (read: it keeps bees out) at present, but it is not pretty. So the first item on the list is Prettifying the Bee Pillar. In fact, if we kept the list just to Finishing Projects We Started Ill-Advisedly Before Summer And Had to Abort, we would fill our summer. But we’re optimists, and we have an idle-ish pair of teens, so we’re overstuffing that list as well.

I also do a Summer Purge, where I go through a room at a time and find stuff to donate and “share” with friends and fellow teachers (mostly books for understocked classrooms). There are lists for that, and officially, the whole purge is just one item on the Master List.

And we really should do some of that stuff they call Self-Care. In fact, it probably should be first. Things that refuel me at the end of the year include sleeping well past 6 am, staring numbly at the wall—preferably while holding a cat, reading pulp fiction and Other Books I Never Intend to Teach, and doing Crafty Sorts of Things.

I should also have a list for Health. So I do. I have every good intention of improving my diet (that’s worth a whole page in my bullet journal), maintaining my water intake when there’s no built-in measure of “a bottle per class,” upping my normal routine of dog-walkies to include elliptical training, and stretching my stupid Achilles tendon ten bloody times a day to combat my tendonitis. Yes, some of my lists are written for me.

It’s ok, though. Every time I generate a list, I relieve a little anxiety. Right now, with my summer neatly organized in a series of headers with cascading columns of items to check off, I am cool as a cucumber.

Bring on the heat, So-Cal. I’m ready.

Teaching · Writing

Crystals and Flames: The teaching edition

Italo Calvino’s essay on “Exactitude” exhorts tight, vivid writing and the continual quest for the mot juste. In each of his Six Memos for the Next Millenium, he presents a pair of contrasting qualities literature can have, and then he comes down on one side as being closer to his own practice and of most use to readers in the 21st century. So in the essay on Lightness, he also considers weight or gravitas, and says he simply “has more to say about lightness”(Six Memos 3).

This pattern holds for the remaining four essays—Quickness, not lingering; Exactitude, not vagueness; Visibility, not abstraction; Multiplicity, not singularity. He died before writing the sixth: Consistency.

Today a student expressed frustration with his even-handedness. If he’s going to argue for one side being better, why not stick to that? The short answer is because it’s complicated (as everything important is). The longer answer is because he sees the value of both traits in different contexts and in the interest of living a rich reading life. The deeper answer, I think in retrospect, is that while he chooses the side he most naturally leans toward, he admires and even envies those who occupy the other side. Today it came up in terms of teaching styles and professors.

The crystal: “the self-organizing system” (71)

When Calvino argues for the Party of the Crystal and the Party of the Flame, he conceives of placing authors in camps who favor structure over stream of consciousness—intrinsic order over associative, digressive, descriptive texts.

As I was explaining this dichotomy, I put it in terms of pedagogy. When I was in college, I had two professors who taught entirely differently. One came in every day and put a list of topics on the board, and no matter how esoteric the subject (I took themed courses entitled “Philosophy of Love” and “Philosophy of War” from her), we marched through those topics, in order and in detail. When I left, I knew what I had learned. I felt like there was significant content added to my brain every day.

The flame: “order out of noise” (71)

Another professor in the same department delivered content completely differently. I thought of him as a juggler of ideas. He came in and brought up one subject, which led to a discussion of a related subject, which led to another, like a juggler adding balls without your noticing. All those balls seemed to float in the air above us, one idea connecting to another, with students questioning and adding and variously contributing to the aerial show until it was time to wrap up. And when he did wrap up, all those topics seemed to fold back in on each other like Chinese puzzle boxes, and I sat in awe of how many disparate subjects and ideas seemed seamlessly connected in his lectures.

The juggler was a flame. The list-maker was a crystal.

When I realized that, I recognized the pull in Calvino’s essays toward the opposite side of each binary. He is a crystal, but he admires those who embody the flame in part because he could never pull it off. Every impulse he has directs him toward structure that builds meaning and reveals order. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t marvel at the apparent magic and mystery of the flame and those who embody it.

I know because as I was talking about my professors, I found myself envious of the list-maker. I can start with a list, but when I’m done, if we’ve hit 40% of those items in a class, I’m doing pretty well. I more often follow the interests and experiences of my students, so every class goes where they are more than where I guide. I would never compare my classes to the virtuosity of my idea-juggling magician, but I’m no crystal when it comes to teaching, and I stand in awe of those who are. Students respond well when they can leave with that feeling of having completed a list of tasks and mastered a body of knowledge, and I wish sometimes that I could give that to them. I can’t. I do something else which I think also has value, but I totally get where Calvino feels compelled to do justice to both sides, even though he favors one himself.

If I’m honest, it’s probably why I love him. I am a happy flame, but I remain fascinated by the crystal and its particular beauty.

Reading · Writing

In Praise of Prose

If I am a lover of form in verse, I am no less enamored of poetic prose. I don’t know why more people don’t write prose poems. Some poems, in fact, I think would lose none of their charm if we just let them be prose instead of forcing line breaks that can seem arbitrary.

So tonight, on what social media has just informed me is World Book Day, I offer some baby books for the harried, along with a brief introduction.

Prose poems are compact, usually a paragraph to a page or two. Shorter than most fiction, they tend not so much to tell a story as to convey an evocative image. The density of their language and their use of figurative language often used in poetry make them seem like a verbal inoculation against sloppy writing—they remind us that language can be precise and powerful without meter or rhyme, and they leave us with an image or idea that we can carry in to the world.

They are perfect for evenings when you just have a little time and want to indulge in something like candy for your brain. My choices tonight hearken back to where I first encountered the prose poem—a French literature class in college—so one is from the 19th century Baudelaire (who is often compared to Edgar Allan Poe, even by himself) and the 20th century Francis Ponge, who became something of an icon in prose poetry, known for minute description and crystalline imagery.

Enjoy.

“Be Drunken” by Charles Baudelaire

BE DRUNKEN, ALWAYS. That is the point. Nothing else matters. If you would not feel the horrible burden of Time weigh you down and crush you to the earth, be drunken continually.

Drunken with what? With wine, with poetry, or with virtue, as you please. But be drunken.

And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace, or on the green grass in a ditch, or in the dreary solitude of your own room, you should awaken and find the drunkenness half or entirely gone, ask of the wind, of the wave, of the star, of the bird, of the clock, of all that flies, of all that sighs, of all that moves, of all that sings, of all that speaks, ask what hour it is; and wind, wave, star, bird, or clock will answer you: “It is the hour to be drunken! Be drunken, if you would not be the martyred slaves of Time; be drunken continually! With wine, with poetry, or with virtue, as you please.”

“Rain” by Francis Ponge

The rain, in the backyard where I watch it fall, comes down at different 
rates. In the center a fine discontinuous curtain — or network — falls implacably and yet gently in drops that are probably quite light; a strengthless sempiternal precipitation, an intense fraction of the atmosphere at its purest. A little distance from the walls to the right and left plunk heavier drops, one by one. Here they seem about the size of grains of wheat, the size of a pea, while elsewhere they are big as marbles. Along gutters and window frames the rain runs horizontally, while depending from the same obstacles it hangs like individually wrapped candies. Along the entire surface of a little zinc roof under my eyes it trickles in a very thin sheet, a moiré pattern formed by the varying currents created by the imperceptible bumps and undulations of the surface. From the gutter it flows with the restraint of a shallow creek until it tumbles out into a perfectly vertical net, rather imperfectly braided, all the way to the ground where it breaks and sparkles into brilliant needles.

Each of its forms has its particular allure and corresponds to a particular patter. Together they share the intensity of a complex mechanism 
as precise as it is dangerous, like a steam-powered clock whose spring is wound by the force of the precipitation.

The ringing on the ground of the vertical trickles, the glug-glug of the gutters, the miniscule strikes of the gong multiply and resonate all at once in a concert without monotony, and not without a certain delicacy.

Once the spring unwinds itself certain wheels go on turning for a while, more and more slowly, until the whole mechanism comes to a stop. It all vanishes with the sun: when it finally reappears, the brilliant apparatus evaporates. It has rained.
 

*The Baudelaire poem was printed in Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine: Selected Verse and Prose Poems and translated by Joseph M. Bernstein. Citadel Press 1990.

*The Ponge piece was translated by Joshua Corey and Jean-Luc Garneau and is available on The Poetry Foundation website at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/francis-ponge.

Reading · Teaching · Writing

In Defense of Form in Poetry

Confession: I love sonnets. I love villanelles. I love heroic couplets.

I love words that have been wrought, not just lined up. I love rhyme, alliteration, and meter. Especially meter. That’s where the music lives.

Not that I don’t love free verse. I do. Not that I don’t love prose fiction. Of course I do. But I adore the extra intensity delivered by metrical verse, and I relish the extra engagement it takes both to read it and to write it.

Today I’m thinking about sonnets. Generally speaking, a sonnet is fourteen lines of iambic pentameter. Iambic pentameter, the marching, grave meter of ten syllables in an alternating pattern of weak/strong, weak/strong, weak/strong (five times, so pentameter) is the favored form for serious verse in English since the time of Chaucer. As an “iamb” is two syllables, a weak one followed by a stressed one, like ‘about’ or ‘before’ or ‘Denise,’ a line of iambic pentameter can feel as regular as a drumbeat: “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.”

Sonnets come in two varieties: the English or Shakespearean and the Italian or Petrarchan. Shakespearean sonnets, made famous by his prodigious ability and volume, divide the fourteen lines in to three quatrains and a couplet. These stanzas are often bound by rhyme, and the couplet at the end feels like a punchline or a conclusion the poem has been building up to with each stanza adding a different facet. It’s the “five paragraph essay” of the poetry world, and the thesis is the couplet at the end.

Italian sonnets work differently. Divided in to two stanzas of eight and six lines (an octet and a sestet), they lend themselves to different content. The first, longer stanza often sets a scene or makes a statement, and then the second, shorter one responds in some way—sometimes showing the flaw in the first image, or its faulty reasoning, or maybe just digging deeper in to it—questioning, exploring, or reflecting. This type of sonnet feels more like a debate than an essay, with the first position of the octet countered in the sestet.

So it’s a little form. You can read them quickly or linger over their construction. But they pack a big punch. They have to. They don’t have the space of a novel or even a ballad—just fourteen lines in which to make you sigh or wonder or weep.

Here’s one for the road. Christina Rossetti’s vision of an artist’s model. Enjoy.

“In an Artist’s Studio”

One face looks out from all his canvases,
One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans:
We found her hidden just behind those screens,
That mirror gave back all her loveliness.
A queen in opal or in ruby dress,
A nameless girl in freshest summer-greens,
A saint, an angel–every canvas means
The same one meaning, neither more or less.
He feeds upon her face by day and night,
And she with true kind eyes looks back on him,
Fair as the moon and joyful as the light:
Not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim;
Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;
Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.

Color palette with brushes in studio from iStock