Tuesday, October 25, 2011

A Failed Sonnet

I have probably mentioned that before dedicating most of my "free" time to writing about education (which I thought would be more practical and sane--HA!), I was doing a lot of creative writing, especially poetry and short fiction. During the primaries and elections of 2008, while in a poetry workshop, I wrote a sonnet about the state of our nation and what we needed to turn it around.

My idea was to write a modern version of the masterpiece, The New Colussus written in 1883 by Emma Lazarusthe poem that is engraved on a plaque in the Statue of Liberty. I see this poem as the promise of America, or at least what was once the promise of America. The New Colussus is an Italian (Petrarchan) sonnet. Sonnets come in many forms, but they all have fourteen lines and somewhere in them, towards the end, there's a turn. The rules of the Petrarchan sonnet are fairly strict (for more details, see here) in terms of rhythm and rhyme scheme, but the basic structure is as follows: the octave (the first 8 lines) typically introduces the theme or problem using a rhyme scheme of abba abba. The sestet (the last 6 lines) provides resolution for the poem and rhymes variously, but usually follows the schemes of cdecde or cdccdc.

Here is the original poem by Lazarus:

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles.  From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command 
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame,
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips.  "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
Following the parameters of the Italian sonnet and trying to mirror the original as faithfully as possible, including employing only ten syllables per line, I highlighted what I thought were the flaws of modern America, and then I culled my resolution from speeches, ideas, and promises of Barack Obama.

Ultimately, my sonnet failed. For one, the turn happened too late--I waited until the last two lines to offer my resolution. The sonnet also lacks cohesion, if not narratively, then in cohesion and flow of sounds and rhythm. Also, the end rhymes are far from pure. I knew all of this at the time and can see it all the more glaringly now, but I simply haven't been able to re-write it. It's a knot, albeit a deliberate and well-wrought one, that I can't untie. Needless to say, I never got it published. 

While I would still consider it a failed sonnet in form, with another presidential election year soon to be upon us, I have started to see the poem as perhaps symbolic of Obama's presidency. Is he turning too late? Has he waited too long to offer his policy solutions and ideas? Are some of then destined to be failures (which is what I would argue about his ed policies)? Also, what has changed since I wrote this? "Dearth of protests"? I wouldn't agree with that now.

Here is my version:
The Mutated Colossus
Not like democracy of our fancies 
With wrapping arms, casts off destitution; 
Here worship youth, our elders shit upon.
Cower inside gated communities,
Living through the screen, lap up tragedies,
Disgrace our poor, make desert into lawn,
Codify Moses’ ten, rule by gun
Perma-happy grin, plastic surgeries.
Keep your processed meat, products armed with scents,
With brand name reverence, dearth of protests,
Fast food schools, deifying ignorance,
Porno-violence, but fear of nude breasts.
Expel greed, grudge, gloom; in our existence
Athena, Asclepius, Justice vest.

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