by James Sale

Sonnets, 2nd edition. Shanti Arts, 2020
Jesus and Eros, Bardsinger Books, 2014

Theresa Rodriguez is a relatively new and exciting poet on the pages of The Society of Classical Poets. As a classically trained singer and teacher, she has a particularly fine voice and a tremendous presence and passion in reading her work. It is well worth attending, therefore, any live reading of her work, and I was privileged to hear her perform at Bryant Park in New York earlier this year.

These two collections comprise a total of 79 poems (if we include the songs too), although there is some overlap of sonnets, some of which appear in both collections. Three themes stand out: one, a spiritual longing for union with God which is underpinned by her sense of her own unworthiness and sin; two, a deep but very measured eroticism (no filth in other words) which explores failed relationships and the fantasies of the longing mind; and third, the act of writing itself as a purgative or panacea for the afflictions life has vented on her. This last point is important too, since it is why she has developed a fascination with forms and structures as she seeks to communicate, understand and order her experiences. I would observe—I think justly—that by far and away her best poetry are those poems (of which there are many) in which she uses form, rhyme and meter, and where the verse is free, I find the poems far less effective.

The strength of Rodriguez as a poet is in her ability to access and confront her emotional states directly. She does occasionally comment on wanting to come up with original ideas, but this is a mistake: she is not a poet made to impress us with new ideas hatched in the mind; she is a poet who speaks from the heart. We see this in contrasting a poem that appeared on the pages of The Society of Classical Poets, “Writer’s Block,” and its concluding lines:

oh, would that something fresh would come to me
Not what amounts to sheer banality!

This is fun but no more than that. Contrast that with this first line from “Finale”:

The rigor mortis of my love for you has not set in.

Phew! That is pretty startling on a number of levels. Or take her poem, “Sweet Bird,” where I would ask is this really about a bird as we are “awaiting your long descent”? There is a plangent eroticism in all this suggestive of a lover to be; the bird is always “he.”

And again, the concluding stanza of “Shaman of the Waves” also captures something of her intense yet understated erotic power:

And so we are of polar force
that meets in synergy;
you are the shaman of the waves;
I am the sea.

But having said earlier that there are three main themes, they of course blend in all sorts of ways. Indeed, the title of her first collection, Jesus and Eros, might appear to be such a blend as well as being oxymoronic in its mixing of the sacred and the sensual. Here, however, I am reminded of two lines from a C.H. Sisson’s poem, “A Letter to John Donne”:

That the vain, the ambitious and the highly sexed
Are the natural prey of the incarnate Christ.

That is beautifully put; he was of course referring to John Donne in terms of the three attributes, but certainly the “highly sexed” applies to Rodriguez’ writing. And since she writes frequently in sonnet form it is worth contrasting her efforts with another favourite sonneteer who writes occasionally on these pages, Joseph Charles Mackenzie. Whereas Mackenzie’s sonnets are usually theological, public and “objective,” Rodriguez’ are confessional, intimate and “subjective.” Both, of course, have their own strengths, but how different they can be!

In Rodriguez we have the sense of a soul longing for order, for discipline, for that unreserved giving for the great cause of either passion or love. One suspects that in another life Rodriguez would have made a formidable nun or saint of an order. Take her “Platonic Sonnet”:

I hope that by a deprivation all
Might turn into a longing at your core.

Or, from “You’ve Made It Clear”:

For though I’ve longed for you in every way,
I also love enough to stay away.

Or, from “Simple Little Things”:

Do you have any sense of what can be
Within a body touched by loneliness?

The poems, then, at their best can be touching, affecting and profoundly felt experiences, and I think represent real poetry from a real soul whom the Muse has visited. Perhaps one final great example, where Rodriguez brings it all together in the concluding couplet of a sonnet is “Grey Sonnet” (yes, she uses the English spelling!):

For grey to dwell alone is grey indeed
When colors yearn to contrast, blend and bleed.

That is wonderful writing, and a quite brilliant sonnet that I invite everyone to read and find its joys for themselves. And as a footnote, “bleed” is a favourite word of Rodriguez.

Regular readers of the pages of The Society of Classical Poets will also be heartened to know that Rodriguez’ strong religious beliefs lead her to reject much of the feminist and other contemporary claptrap that passes for thought. Her poem, “Goodbye, Sweet Fetal Child,” is a searing indictment of “hedonistic choice” abortion. There is, then, so much to recommend in her poetry. But where, perhaps, may there be improvements?

I think the major fault in these collections is in the editing. First, the collections could be tighter – some poems do not justify their place in the collections, and if we take Sonnets, then 37 is not a number I recognise! Shakespeare had 154 (11 x 14, the number of lines in a sonnet) and Mackenzie has 77 (half 154). 33 is good (Dante liked the number) and 36 is also good (4 x 9 or 3 x 12): one poem that should be omitted is “The Earl of Oxford’s Sonnet” which seeks to assert that Shakespeare did not write his plays. Quite apart from the fact that he did, as I have explained on the pages of The Society of Classical Poets, it should be obvious from all I have said about Rodriguez’ poetry that this is not a suitable theme for her: it is academic, dry-as-dust, and not from the heart. Why bother? It’s a weak poem anyway.

Second, on the editing front, the proofing needs improving, and most particularly in the area of punctuation. Punctuation is intermittent in places; if Rodriguez were E.E. Cummings, then that might be justified, but in writing traditional sonnets I think punctuation is not a burden but a major semantic benefit. Her sonnet, “I Cannot Write,” is I think impaired by its lack of punctuation. So I would ask her to rethink her punctuation policy for future poems.

But my criticisms must be considered inconsequential compared with the praise I wish to lavish on her collections: they are a real achievement. The poetry contains some dazzling truths as she unashamedly faces the demons of herself, her life and her imaginings. Let me leave you with her couplet from “I Wake My Eyes”:

For everything is better when from cares
We turn our full attention to our prayers

Simple, direct, child-like, but massively affecting with all the potency of truth. Read Theresa Rodriguez.

 

 


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7 Responses

  1. Theresa Rodriguez

    Thank you James, for writing this beautiful review and to Evan for posting it. I am deeply humbled and gratified.

    Reply
    • James Sale

      Hi Theresa, It was a great pleasure to read your lovely poetry and I hope this review helps bring it to a wider audience. Naturally, feel free to take any lines or quotations from it to use in your wider marketing of your work! Keep in touch with the Muse!!

      Reply
  2. Sally Cook

    Congratulations ! ! I will continue to follow your work, and wish all the best for your continued progress.

    Reply
  3. Joseph S. Salemi

    James, this is a perceptive review of an excellent book. Since you have invited further comments on it in a recent thread, let me make some now.

    I’m glad you brought up the ending of Rodriguez’s poem “Shaman of the Waves,” which has just been posted here at the SCP, and has given rise to much discussion.

    The ending uses the words “synergy” and “shaman,” and it was suggested by one person that such words mean the poem cannot be considered “classical.” The assumption seems to be that if a word wasn’t in the vocabulary of long-dead poets, its presence in a modern poem prevents that poem from being in the formalist tradition, and therefore the poem is free to go wherever it pleases in vocabulary choice.

    There are a lot of bad ideas floating around about what constitutes “classical” poetry, and this has to be one of the strangest. In fact, this notion is parallel to the weird Renaissance obsession with Ciceronian diction and style — an obsession that led some writers of Latin to refuse to use a particular word if the word had not appeared in the texts of Cicero. Some extremists even refused to use a Latin word in a particular inflection (say dative singular or ablative plural) if it had not been so used by Cicero. Excellent Latinists like Erasmus and Thomas More rightly ridiculed this absurdity.

    The use of the word “classical” in connection with the poetry that we favor here is unfortunate. Strictly speaking, the only “classical poetry” in European civilization is the poetry of the ancient Greeks and Romans. What we are promoting and defending is traditional formalist, metrical poetry in English that makes use of certain rhythms, styles, genres, and practices that (at least until the twentieth century) were the common patrimony of all English-speaking poets.

    As to diction, formal poetry of this type usually fell into certain categories (high style, middle style, and low style) that required a certain kind of word choice. But within those categories, there was no stricture against using a modern word just because it was modern. Diction depended on decorum, which means “appropriate style and tone” for the genre being used. Epic poetry demands a different diction than pastoral poetry, or satire. Lyric poetry cannot use certain words which detract from its lyric aims.

    Rodriguez’s poem is fully in the tradition of intense lyrical poetry. Apart from the word “lifeboat,” which I have criticized in the other discussion thread, it is a fine example of what formal metrical poetry in the English-speaking tradition can do.

    But when someone tries to say that the poem is not “classical” because it uses modern terms like “synergy” and “shaman,” as a way to argue that the poem is free from having to deal with questions of proper diction, I have to protest. Certain prosaic and dull words (like “lifeboat” or “bathtub” or “typewriter” or “golf club”) don’t belong in an intensely lyrical poem. They can be fine in formalist poetry that is comic or satiric or simply narrative. And you can’t defend their use in a lyric poem by saying that the poem in question is about “raw emotion.” There is no raw emotion in ANY good poem! Everything in a good poem is carefully filtered and polished.

    The real source of the problem is that some commenters here at the SCP are still infected with silly Romantic ideas about “freedom” and “liberty” and “openness” and “raw emotion,” and they chafe against anyone daring to tell them what the modernist T.S. Eliot said concerning free verse: “No verse is free for the poet who wants to write well.”

    We are going to have to drop all the rhetoric about how poems have to be “edifying” or “uplifting” or “moral” or “emotionally energizing” or “hopeful” or “encouraging.” Of course there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with those things, but THEY ARE NOT THE PRIMARY PURPOSE OF POETRY. Poetry’s primary purpose is to linguistically and stylistically good. Mere enthusiasm doesn’t make up for lack of technique and training.

    Theresa’s poetry is top-notch.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Sorry — the word “be” was inadvertently omitted in the sentence “Poetry’s primary purpose is to be linguistically and stylistically good.”

      It bears repeating.

      Reply
    • James Sale

      Hi Joe, thanks for taking the time to write this, much appreciated; and also, you are so right about many aspects of poetry. As you cannot but be aware of, I am constantly up against what might be termed purists who seem to think ‘classical’ can only be ti-tum-ti-tum and perfect rhyming. Actually, this would produce poetry of a most stupendously boring nature; one thing you can say about ‘classic poetry’ is that it is not boring – Homer grips you with the intensity of his writing, and Dante makes the hairs go up at the back of your neck. But you here are raising an equally important point that is not generally understood by some attempting to be classical poets: namely, the question of diction. This is so critical – the choice of words relevant to the various categories you mention. Indeed, at points there is an overlap here; for take, for example, the overuse of feminine rhymes in epic style would be disastrous no matter how good the words were in themselves. Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott brilliantly uses feminine rhymes to massive effect, but he takes it to the limit and the poem could not be longer than it is without serious detriment. And further, you are right with the Eliot – no verse is free – and in a good poem everything is filtered and polished; though I am sure you would agree with me here too that – as with Mozart who seemed to be able to compose extemporary, and Shakespeare too ‘without a blot’ – it is possible that all the filtering and polishing is done before the words form on the paper. What I like to call the Muse, though I personally polish and filter as much as anyone else! The SCP probably needs some articles on diction in poetry as it is probably less understood than either meter or rhyme, although these are tricky enough. I am glad you find Theresa’s poetry top-notch – I have a strong feeling that she is going to write even better things in the months and years ahead, as she seems to be on both an emotional and learning trajectory, which is good.

      Reply

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