That I Might Learn to Love

a villanelle

That I might learn to love I sorely prayed
with hopes that God might teach me by romance
as yearning I the empty sky surveyed.

Yet lovers marched in cumbersome parade
so out of step and void of real advance
that I might learn to love I sorely prayed.

And then the tender love of friends I weighed
with all the joy of family circumstance
as yearning I the empty sky surveyed.

But sweet as that love is it’s always made
me shirk so over all its musts and can’ts
that I might learn to love I sorely prayed.

And finally I felt I was afraid
of love itself and its determined glance
as yearning I the empty sky surveyed—

A glance that saw the emptiness that played
in me and drove my soul to risk the chance
that I might learn of love to sorely pray
as yearning I the empty sky surveyed.

 

Winter Garden

A February Sunday and I walked
along a garden path through winter-torn
and blighted patches, stunted heath and stalks
now sere with dreams of summer long outworn;
when came to mind my father, namely how,
the frost foregone and summer on the brow,
I’d help him with the zinnias and tomato vines
along the fence; and then to me as mine
alone he’d give a rugged patch of dirt
beside the house and pack of seeds that I
might have my bit of earth to beautify.
In later years I thought too often of the hurt
we sadly one another sometimes dealt,
but on that wintered path I watched it melt.

 

Jeffrey Essmann’s prose work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and numerous magazines and literary journals, his poetry in America Magazine and Dappled Things. He lives in New York City.


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18 Responses

  1. Alexander Ream

    humble thanks for the villanelle – maybe i might also learn – to write?

    in any case, honestly inspiring – really don’t know what to say.

    Reply
  2. Joseph Charles McKenzie

    I personally feel that these verses fall horribly short of the mark for quite a number of reasons, including the six-line prose sentence spilling out from the octave of the sonnet into the sestet.

    Reply
    • C.B. Anderson

      I applaud your restraint, Joseph, in your criticism of these (so-called) poems.

      Reply
      • Gregory Spicer

        I admire his restraint as well, such as it is, and wonder now why anyone would have a problem with restraint. It seems like some of the criticism at SCP by a small cadre of poetic veterans is more interested in patting each other on the back, Hollywood award show style, than in propagating the beneficial aspects of classical poetry to enthusiastic newcomers. Seems like bullying to me. At least put a velvet glove over the steel fist…for the love of Christ.

      • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

        And yet, gentlemen, there are people in this world, in China, Russia, and even now in Europe, who would give anything to enjoy the freedom of speech we take for granted in our country.

        The Brexit freedom-fighter in London, the Chinese dissident, the ostracised American conservative in academia, THESE are the truly restrained…

        …as WE call for what? Restraint… The same thing every repressive government on earth invokes whenever a courageous soul stands up and boldly speaks truth.

        I will not join the brown-shirted, jack-booted chorus of Restrainers. I will not throw in my lot with the Restrainers.

        Who among us is going to call for free and vibrant intellectual discourse whatever its tone, whatever the passion, whatever the thought that guides it as long as its expression is unencumbered by personal insult?

        Will it be the self-censoring darlings of the failed NY Times and Washington Post, or myriad liberal poetry journals for whom mediocrity is the norm? No Sirs, these will always take the side of the Restrainers and form their minions in the habit of restraining others.

        Take your restraint. I choose freedom, the very condition of all my art.

  3. Gregory Spicer

    Thank you, Mr. Mackenzie, for addressing us as gentlemen. All true Americans value freedom, but what of amelioration, is it not the cornerstone of civilization? Without it would we not still be morbid hyenas?

    Reply
    • C.B. Anderson

      We were never hyenas! We descended from a race of apes, remember? Enough of politesse: serve no master but the truth, and let the chips fall where they may. And, Mr. Spicer, there is no cartel here, just a bunch of previously unconnected persons who have seen the elephant and have reached similar conclusions because these conclusions are self-evident to anyone capable of cogent thought. None of my esteemed colleagues has ever patted me on the back unless I deserved it, and in the alternate case I would have cringed from their touch. Silly as it might seem to you, there are codes of truth and honor that transcend faux ideals such as amelioration. The word itself smacks of “mealy-mouth.” So there.

      Reply
  4. Wilbur Dee Case

    1. The villanelle “That I Might Learn to Love” is metric’lly fine and correct in construction, if not convincing for Messrs. MacKenzie and Anderson. I suspect some @ SCP would not appreciate those villanelles of Postmodernists Bishop and Plath, which like D. Thomas’ strike a deeper chord for me.

    2. I did appreciate Mr. MacKenzie’s point about the octave/sestet transition; but gen’rally I prefer dispassionate observation, seemingly a fading art. Here one could have wished for any analysis from Mr. Anderson, whom I would have thought appreciated the world of “zinnias and tomato vines”.

    3. Mr. Essmann’s Russian sonnet, which follows, 1st quatrain, alternating rhymes, 2nd quatrain, consecutive couplets, 3rd quatrain, an envelop, with concluding couplet, begins abruptly with the distant-viewing phrase, not grammatically secure, but interesting to me, “A February Sunday”. I should like to use that technique in a future docupoem.

    4. With thousands upon thousands of sonnets having been written in the last millennium, for me the value of the sonnet is how it reveals its author’s style—really little more. Of course, it is also revealing, those writers, like Pope, Johnson, Eliot or Wilbur, who did not write sonnets. Mr. Essmann is willing to forego the quatrain rhyming structure of his poem, as he naturally divides, into two tercets, the sestet. The phrasing is nice (“summer on the brow”) and clear (“he’d give a rugged patch of dirt/ beside the house and pack of seeds”).

    5. Mr. Spicer’s comment about “a small cadre of poetic veterans…interested in patting each other on the back”, not entirely incorrect, would be better served along with poetic and critical observations on Mr. Essmann’s poems. That said, there is a strong validity to Mr. MacKenzie’s point too about restraint. Noting that Mr. Essmann has written for both WaPo and the NY Times brings to my mind the following poem written this week.

    On Winning Pulitzers
    by Caud Sewer Bile

    Each won a Pulitzer, the WaPo and the New York Times,
    for top reporting on collusion in these troubled climes;
    they focused on the special counsel’s sifting of the facts,
    and demonstrated standards in their journalistic acts.
    The WaPo and the New York Times showed how great writers write,
    and they received their just awards, reporting truth with bite;
    by covering collusion Trump had with the Russian mob,
    they proved that they had done their duty, they had done their jobs.
    The WaPo and the New York Times, each won a Pulitzer,
    in 2018, armed with propaganda howlitzers.

    Caud Sewer Bile is a poet of the DC Swamp.

    Reply
    • C.B. Anderson

      Well, Wilbur, my original comments have been expunged from the record because the author, apparently, was mortified by them. I understand, to the nth degree the the world of “zinnias and tomato vines,” but this doesn’t mean I submit to any incondite structure making use of that particular juxtaposition of botanic elements. Indeed, sonnets are produced ad nauseum in the current state of contemporary poetry. Some are very good, some are very bad, and others are just better than the ordinary lot. Let us hope that there is justice more permanent and more authentic than poetic justice.

      Reply
  5. Wilbur Dee Case

    That’s too bad Mr. Anderson’s comments were removed. I would think it would give Mr. Essmann a chance to argue against them. Anyway I know how frequently my works have been attacked by Mr. Anderson and his “esteemed” colleagues; but that gives me a chance to argue against even their absolutely untrue points. It is good to have a thick skin in poetry, as in philosophy, mathematics, and other fields; because the competition globally is so intense and competitive, not only in this New Millennium, but for all time; and those of us true classicists should be well aware of that.

    Reply
    • C.B. Anderson

      Wilbur, when did I or any of my colleagues attack you? If there is an example of this, then please supply a link, and let us then continue this conversation. Until then those of you “true classicists” shall remain “classificationists.” but lacking any of the virtues attributable to Linnaeus. Criticism & buffoonery, you see, each have their own inevitable taxonomy.

      Reply
  6. James Sale

    CB Anderson speaks true when he says that there is no conspiracy here; none of us knew each other before meeting on these pages, and furthermore we often seem to disagree about this or that. But there is a deep respect, and a common goal in advancing ‘classical/formal’ poetry, which we all love. In reading these poems I do not myself look first and foremost at the technique, but actually how I am feeling as I read it, and actually I like both poems. And one reason I like them is because of something I have noticed before in Jeffrey Essman’s work – and it is that sensitivity to emotion and emotional shifts, which I think define him as a real poet. I mentioned in a post somewhere else that the topic of the poem often differentiated the post-modern from the classic poet. We have it here: the relationship with his father, those dreadful regrets that perhaps we have all experienced, and those wonderful final three lines:
    In later years I thought too often of the hurt
    we sadly one another sometimes dealt,
    but on that wintered path I watched it melt.

    Pure iambic here, but more importantly – the image of the snow melting and the watcher who sees the analogy with his hurt melting away as, we imagine, the sun begins to shine. I think this is very beautiful and would want to focus on it rather than on more technical issues.

    Reply
  7. Wilbur Dee Case

    To be exact, I said, “My works [not me] have been attacked by Mr. Anderson and his ‘esteemed’ colleagues…” (which, by the way is fine); but if Mr. Anderson is really interested, which I doubt, with even just a modicum of research, he could find examples in the archives.

    Mr. Anderson is correct about placing true classicists in quotation marks, as I think I recall him saying he was not a classicist. Even Mr. Sale feels the need to slash “classical/formal” poetry. If I remember correctly, Mr. Anderson really does not discuss Vergil’s work at all; but as T. S. Eliot once wrote, which I agree with, “whatever the definition [of classicist] we arrive at, it cannot be one which excludes Virgil”.

    I do agree with Mr. Sale about the niceness of Mr. Essmann’s last three lines, despite the inversion, particularly the last word “melt”; however, I do disagree with Mr. Sale in basing literary criticism first on feeling. Granted, we all have all kinds of feelings; as for example, the feeling of disgust in reading Juvenal and Juvenal wannabes. But though one can imagine a mathematician or a philosopher, a physicist or a literary critic, an economist or a chemist, basing his or her work on feeling first, there must be more than only feeling.

    Yet, I am reminded by Modernist E. E. Cummings.

    since feeling is first
    who pays any attention
    to the syntax of things
    will never wholly kiss you;

    wholly to be a fool
    while Spring is in the world

    my blood approves,
    and kisses are a better fate
    than wisdom
    lady I swear by all flowers. Don’t cry
    —the best gesture of my brain is less than
    your eyelids’ flutter which says

    we are for each other:then
    laugh,leaning back in my arms
    for life’s not a paragraph

    and death i think is no parenthesis

    Reply
  8. James Sale

    I do like BDW’s contributions, but I don’t want to be misrepresented here: I would not place ‘feeling’ as the pre-eminent virtue or quality of poetry in all places, at all times. Partly because, as Bruce realises, it is far too subjective. But it is one of a number of aspects which can be important, especially when we consider that real poetry always does involve some kind of ‘feeling’, or emotion, or that state of being ‘moved’ by the Muse. Purely cerebral poetry is invariably cold and dead. So detecting that ‘feeling’ – which is always about something – can be important. I sense it in the work of Essman, and because it is there, along with a lot of technical stuff as well (hence my pointing out the strict iambics of those last three lines), I confirm I like these poems. But like Bruce I am not going to base my whole literary theory on it. Heck, how could I? I am surprised that Bruce has not pointed out that I have several times declared my admiration for Dr Johnson (as he for TS Eliot) – and Johnson would certainly want to have words with me about this idea!

    Reply
  9. Mark Stone

    Jeffrey,

    Hello! I enjoyed “Winter Garden.” I particularly like “might have my bit of earth to beautify,” with its strong alliteration and assonance. I think the rhyme of “winter-torn” and “long outworn” works. If you wanted to have a closer rhyme, you could have the Sunday walk take place on a “winter morn.” Finally, you could have a perfect rhyme for “mine” if you change the previous line to read something like: “I’d help him with tomatoes on the vine”

    I also like the other poem. However, its title suggests that it should be in the present tense, rather than the past tense. I have revised it to put it in the present tense, and made a few changes related to rhyme and clarity. I do like the “then the tender” internal rhyme. Here is the revision, for your consideration:

    That I Might Learn to Love

    That I might learn to love, I sorely pray,
    with hopes that God might teach me of romance,
    as, yearning, I the empty sky survey.

    Some lovers march and openly display
    they’re out of step and so I think, perchance,
    I too might learn to love. I sorely pray.

    And then the tender love of friends I weigh,
    with all the joy of family circumstance,
    as, yearning, I the empty sky survey.

    But sweet as that love is, it always may
    cause me to choke upon its musts and can’ts.
    That I might learn to love, I sorely pray.

    And finally I feel I am afraid
    of love itself and its determined glance
    as, yearning, I the empty sky survey—

    a glance that sees the emptiness in play
    in me and drives my soul to risk the chance
    that I might learn of love, I sorely pray,
    as, yearning, I the empty sky survey.

    P.S. My thanks to my family for typing support on these comments.

    Reply
  10. Jeffrey Essmann

    Thanks so much, Mark, for your kind and considered response. I very much like the present-tense suggestion. Thanks again.

    Reply
  11. Alexander Ream

    amelioration is no more faux than what comes back to me when I forsake amelioration. It’s true and real, and it can be relied upon.

    Reply
  12. Monty

    I feel the 2nd piece to be a decent effort, Jeff. Although not perfectly executed, it’s a beautiful idea for a poem: with an affecting conclusion. The grammar’s adequate; the diction’s clear enough . . what’s not to like?

    Regarding your attempt at a Villanelle . . . don’t try to run before you can walk!

    Reply

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