by Andrew Benson Brown

Theresa Rodriguez, Sonnets. 2nd edition. Shanti Arts, 193 Hillside Road, Brunswick, ME, 04011, 2020. 75 pp. $12.95.

In his literary criticism, William Empson showed a subtle attention to what he called “the singing line.” In her new collection of poetry, Sonnets, Theresa Rodriguez raises this concern for the musicality of verse to a spiritual level. Take the first stanza of “The Sacred Harp”:

The music, oh the music starts, and we
Begin to sing in skillful harmony;
Begin to sing in sweet simplicity;
Begin to sing in deep complexity.

As both a poet and a trained classical singer, Rodriguez is more consciously aware of the musicality of poetry than most, and it is not surprising that other poems in this collection such as “The Piano,” and “Oh, When I Hear,” also take music as a subject. Most are of course not directly about music, per se, though all display the melodious qualities of regular meter and perfect rhyme. Those that do take music as their surface-level subject are really avenues of exploring larger themes: a panegyric to a Steinway as an expression of ideal beauty, suffering as a path to “where a truth, so sacred, may be found,” and, in “The Sacred Harp,” the worship of God’s mystery.

In just these three poems, Rodriguez’s work captures what poetry (and I would add, most great art in general) is meant to do: to capture truth, beauty, and goodness. Poetry’s relationship with beauty is the most obvious rationale among this trinity, and skeptics would argue that the other two qualities are secondary, or even irrelevant. But as Aristotle says, it is the poet’s business to relate “what might or could happen in accordance with probability or necessity,” and that for this reason poetry “is akin to philosophy,” as it deals with general truths about reality and the human condition, rather than with specific facts as the historian does.

So much for truth in poetry. But what of goodness? This term is arguably the most vague of the three, as it is employed in the greatest variety of senses (in the Historical Thesaurus to the OED, “goodness” is listed under eight non-overlapping categories). It is useful, then, to fall back on the old Aristotelian definition that something is good when it realizes its end, which it does by fulfilling its purpose or function. Aristotle considered human beings to be rational moral agents who seek the good, and (to follow the doctrine in his Categories) if one considers “poet” as a species of the genus “human,” then poets would also share this nature with other types of humans, with the differentia that poets seek the good through versifying.

To contextualize our trinity of terms within poetry itself as a category, then, one might say that a “good” sonnet is one where sound and sense correspond to produce a desired effect of pleasure and instruction. Pleasure and instruction convey, respectively, the feeling of what is beautiful and true; a poem that only instructs is boring, while one that only gives pleasure is vapid. A good poem must get both aspects across, and Rodriguez succeeds admirably in achieving this.

Such a classical definition of what constitutes a poem is at odds with many contemporary understandings of the form. Take postmodern critic Terry Eagleton’s definition in How to Read a Poem: a poem is “a fictional, verbally inventive moral statement in which it is the author, rather than the printer or word processor, who decides where the lines should end.” The phrase “moral statement” is preceded by the qualifier “fictional,” and the only characteristic which apparently separates poetry from prose is deciding where lines should end (Eagleton takes pains to blur this dichotomy). Taking this definition out of context, one may be slightly heartened by the detail that distinguishes the author from his technological tools, insofar as Eagleton does not here go so far as to put forward a variation on Roland Barthes’ theory of the “Death of the Author”; however in another of his books, Criticism and Ideology, he proposes the Marxist view that authors, along with the books they write, are merely cogs in the mode of literacy production. For Eagleton then, the author is another appendage in the structure of things: the visible hand manipulating his printer and word processor, manipulated in turn by materialist forces beyond his reckoning.

For an entire class of postmodern theorists, the poet’s standard figures of speech—tropes such metaphor, similes, metonymy, etc., which generate non-literal meanings—are acts of deconstructing the world to create alternative, more “open” significations. Metaphorical language, in essence, is a means of defeating oppression. The way that many poets of the establishment today understand their social role makes Shelley’s definition of the poet as the “unacknowledged legislator of the world” seem a humble position by comparison. Postmodern socialist poets, considering legislation too slow a vehicle for change, seek more violent means to legitimacy: they are the “self-acknowledged revolutionaries of the world.”

In opposition to this view I will champion a thinker with a very different understanding of metaphor as a mechanism for understanding the world, and use this as a way of grounding the poet’s true purpose within it. In the Summa Theologiae, Thomas Aquinas undertakes an extensive discussion of metaphor (as Aristotle understood it) to explain how people use language to refer to God. After developing his argument at length in Question 13 of the Summa Theologiae, “How to Talk about God,” we come to the statements in Article 5 that, “we cannot speak of God at all except in the language we use of creatures,” and “Whatever we say of both God and creatures we say in virtue of the order that creatures have to God as their source and cause, in which all the perfections of things pre-exist most excellently.” But while being related to God is a reality in creatures, applying the same word to both creatures and to God would not carry exactly the same sense in each case, nor would it carry totally different senses—to get technical, we use the same words of God and creatures in neither a “univocal” nor an “equivocal” way, but in an analogical one. In layman’s terms, the road to understanding God is paved through metaphor and simile, as these figures of speech are the primary ways in which comparisons are made, and analogies created. Within this framework, even non-metaphorical words like “good” or “just” have a metaphorical aspect to them, as while they describe essential features of God we must first apply them to things we know directly, and from there draw an imperfect likeness to the divine; metaphorical words, too, have a certain literal aspect to them, since they describe a real relation between creatures and God—though speaking of God as a “lion” refers first to the creature being used as a figure of speech, and only secondarily to mean that God is mighty in His deeds.

Earlier in the same Summa (Question 1, Argument 9), Aquinas raises the issue of whether Holy Scripture should even use metaphors at all. He replies to objections against this question by referring to poetry as a “sacred science,” and outlining a number of arguments in its favor. Among these are that, “it is natural to man to attain to intellectual truth through sensible objects, because all our knowledge originates from sense,” and that it is both “necessary and useful” that sacred doctrine employs metaphors, as this is “more befitting the knowledge of God we have in this life.”

All this is to say that poets, those writers who carefully order their words to make of it a musical language and to use metaphors liberally, are those beings most suited to drawing comparisons in the order of creation. Though it is unlikely Rodriguez had Aquinas in mind in the years she spent writing her sonnets, she seems to implicitly understand this idea that poetry is, perhaps after pure music, the straightest vehicle to God. “Sonnet for the Sonnet-Maker,” is addressed to God Himself, and draws our attention to how the elegance of iambic pentameter dominates so much of the King James Bible:

You know the beats and rhythms, the iamb
Which pulses like a crippled-legged walk;
You, with the force of one who said, “I am
That I am,” in iambs you will talk
Of truth and beauty, pain and sorrow, all
And nothing, touching both Heaven and Hell
In what you speak and say…

“Cripple-legged walk” is a brilliant detail: a phrase that at once mimetically describes the iambic line, and with it our relationship to God. It finely illustrates Aquinas’s concept of analogical predication, and how words may be understood two different ways as they apply to two different levels of being. God, “I am that I am,” knows the “beats and rhythms” of the iamb, and communicates to us in His “cripple-legged walk” because we, as bipedaled, fallen creatures, must use words to hobble towards He who soars. In “Sonnet Sonnet” Rodriguez repeats this imagery with variation to refer to the three poets with sonnet forms named after them. Being mere mortals (though ones who approach the divine closer than others), the “cripple-rhythmed beauty” of Petrarch, Shakespeare, and Spenser is emphasized for their more delimited abilities to exercise “Condensed and distilled thought,” rather than to touch Heaven and Hell or to recall the void.

The relationship between poetry and the divine has long been recognized since the earliest days of literate civilization: while the Persian poet Ferdowsi does not claim to be possessed by a muse like Homer, he does appeal to the name of God in the opening of his great epic the Shahnameh (“Book of Kings”); the Mahabharata has its benedictory verses saluting various gods; or consider the Tao Te Ching’s opening line: “The Way that can be spoken of is not the Eternal Way,” which captures the essence of the work’s principal concept by negating it after invoking it. Every culture has its own reference point for divine inspiration. Even Baudelaire, inverting this tradition in The Flowers of Evil, has his verses about “the sick muse,” and “the venal muse.” In the American proletarian poetry movement of the 1920s and 30s, though, this voice of inspiration was replaced with “class consciousness.”

In “CCP and Falun Gong Sonnet,” Rodriguez carries this unintentional parody further as the first-person narrator awakens on an operating table with one or two less internal organs: “Go, invoke / your party loyalty as I am cut / And mutilated.” From communing with the deities in golden ages of yore, we have degenerated to living in a Kafkaesque world where the muse is an anonymous bureaucrat singing of zoning laws. Somewhere in the background one can almost hear Rod Serling’s voice accompanying that familiar, dissonant four-note motif for electric guitar.

In the West where the situation is not yet totalitarian, a storyteller’s most promising mainstream source of inspiration is curiously uninspiring. This is well illustrated in the opening of Frederick Turner’s contemporary “epic” poem Genesis, which explicitly invokes the absence of the divine (I quote the first seventeen lines so as to get the full sense of this effect):

Listen! I must tell of the beginnings,
Of corpses buried in the walls of worlds,
Of how those men and women worth a story
Burn and consume the powers they’re kindled by;
And how their acts, mortal and cast away,
Are crystalled in the melt of history,
But their live selves are lost and gone forever
To leave a safer and a duller age;
Of how only the silence of the holy
Can still the creaking agony of time;
How holiness is broken every spring
Bursting in laughter to the throat of years.
But. But it is so hard to do again
What at the first was playtime for the gods,
Nymph borne by goatfoot over a green stream;
It is a deposition now as heavy as
The unhelpful body of one loved and dead.

In Turner’s epics—he has written three—the Muse gets replaced with NASA (they added Genesis to their recommended reading list for a while, until science caught up with science fiction). The classic heroes, too, have been promoted: no longer bound to the task of seeking glory in an honor culture, they now hold jobs as engineering gurus, wielding their specialized techno-babble to colonize the galaxy and stave off an ecological apocalypse. These qualify as epics from the technical perspective of style and form, though in content and characterization one senses the bathetic quality of mock-epic.

To those hungry for fifteen seconds of fame, these are your options for calling upon a visionary source of encouragement the public can get behind (flashing billboards): Science or The State. If you are a super-visionary you might manage to combine both idols and win the coveted golden calf from your local government official. In such cases, Aquinas’s concept of analogical predication is most useful when employing a committee-room vocabulary: words like “memo,” “tenure,” and “liquidate” can ground a lyricism well suited to the burgeoning poet of the lumpenbourgeoisie, and will liken your creatureliness to the beings inhabiting the ranks of Party and Faculty. Though your descriptions will only inadequately approximate their omniscient officialdom, your direct diction will at least capture something of their essence by avoiding imaginative metaphors.

The hubris of scientism: a worldview that claims to be discovering “truth,” but cannot even come to a definitive conclusion as to whether eggs are good for you or not. Facts are updated endlessly, paradigms superseded every fifty years. Kuhn accurately describes the psychology behind this process in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: “Examining the record of past research from the vantage of contemporary historiography, the historian of science may be tempted to exclaim that when paradigms change, the world itself changes with them.” It is the height of Nerdism to claim that the ephemeral Weltanschauung of a laboratory research assistant is equivalent to Kant’s Ding an sich. But though this view has been much criticized, it is in practice the outlook of many intellectuals today who snub their noses at the backwardness of nearly all the people born before them—and it is, implicitly at least, the outlook that a poet like Frederick Turner champions.

In place of Leonidas, Charles Martel, or (to take a different sort of heroic spirit) Julian of Norwich, Turner would have us lionize a Google-gaggle of bespectacled runts huddled in cubicles, passing their lives staring at lines of code; in place of Michelangelo’s David, we would erect scrawny, 3D-printed statues that break under the weight of their own fragile contours. The experience of reading Turner’s epic is like kneeling in prayer, then looking up to see the clouds part for a moment as a light shines on Silicon Valley. If one is looking for Truth in the stable and unchanging sense of that word, one will certainly not find it among tech geeks.

Rodriguez expresses her own sense of belief in opposition to pernicious modern tendencies in the sonnet, “In This Post-Christian Era,” as well as in a number of other poems in the collection that explore her faith. These tend to come in the latter half of the book; they are preceded by reflections on the art of sonnet-writing and relationships, and precede in turn final poems on the decay of time. One might roughly divide the collection into four sections dominated by these themes (though there are also a few on political and historical subjects interspersed throughout). The move from writing, to love, to God, to the passing of things would seem to be no accident, and this framework offers further proof that Theresa Rodriguez is an artist who speaks to the soul.

The straightforwardness of many titles (“Spenserian Sonnet,” “Petrarchan Sonnet,” etc.) are mirrored in the candor of Rodriguez’s personal, often self-conscious, reflections on all of the topics mentioned; and the variety of sonnet-styles she mixes (sometimes within a single poem) echo the variety of topics. The pathos of certain poems is balanced by a mimetic wit in others. In “Enjambment sonnet,” the lines begin in terse sentences that give way to longer ones that flow over, preventing isolation between lines. The weight of the line is shifted to the beginning and middle rather than the end, as the addressee is enjoined to

Dissent! The point
Is to surprise. Surprise! Then negate
All smoothed-out evenness.

The carefully chosen end word “point” gives a sense of periodization before rushing us along to the next line, as the author “negates” the usual expectations of the poetic line. The brief imperative, “Think!” is sandwiched at the midpoint of the line before the final couplet. “And then think more,” we are told. Theresa here shows us that the art of poetry, while inventive, is more than mere spontaneity. In the equally clever “Five Minute Sonnet,” the narrator opens the first stanza relating doubts as to whether such a thing can be done, increases in confidence during the second stanza, and describes the flow of how, “The lines just come so quickly to my mind,” in the third, until hitting writer’s block in the final couplet. Artlessness in art is not really a thing, aside from occasional brief spurts as the one that resulted in Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” following waking from an opium dream. Lacking drugs for stimulation, most examples of effortlessness are only apparent—the Muse only descends upon one after long reflection. Examples of pure spontaneity that contemporary free-verse poets often brag about are simply the results of museless minds.

In poems like “Annelid Sonnet,” “Cut Sonnet,” and “Homeless Sonnet,” each titular analogy is at once partly autobiographical, a description of her subject matter on love or pain, and a metaphor for the artistic process. In “Sonnet of the Hardened Heart,” she employs crustaceous imagery to create an analogy with the relation between flesh and spirit:

Care less, I warn myself; bother no more
With inner crevices: prying the shell
Like scabs (rough, oozing, sore), which crust, but tell
Of tumults against the psychic seabed floor;
It is in vain.

She goes on to pile images on top of one another to convey a sense of being “entombed” within her existence: “the meat” is like “newborn skin” and “the vaginal flower.” The effect on display here is an example of William Empson’s second of the seven types of ambiguity he describes in his book of that name: when two or more meanings are resolved into one for purposes of building psychological complexity.

Rodriguez often undertakes to explore her conceptual themes through a repetition of abstract words. Most of these occur in poems about the self-reflexivity of writing, and occasionally in poems about capturing the divine. In “Earl of Oxford’s Sonnet” she defines a term with itself (“For truth is truth, and you do shake a spear…”) to justify the narrator’s euphoria in discovering the Oxfordian theory of Shakespeare authorship. In “Form Sonnet” there is the nested identification-turned-negation of

….the freedom that free form can miss.

For freedom in most freedom is remiss
In finding beauty in this poetry.

Rodriguez here highlights the contradictory nature of free verse: that through its own lack of discipline it loses the quality it seeks to define itself through. Referring then to her own penchant for poetic structure she writes, “In building such some scoffers might dismiss: / But such is perfect perfection to me.” Here the placement of “perfection” upsets the hitherto perfect meter of the stanza, creating an ironic effect.

This placing of the same abstract term adjacently to itself as a different part of speech occurs in several other poems in the collection. In “The Simple, Stalwart Faith,” she asks, “Where is the light / that lit this darkened darkness?” She could have used “deepened,” to modify “darkness” or some other synonym of “intensified” to make her point, yet she chose to use the same word to emphasize the depth and doubling of a metaphysical condition once was “lit” by “light.” In the next line, “Now I strive to say regurgitated prayers,” she further emphasizes the sense of monotony to the rituals that underlie her doubts. Some might see the use of abstractions in this way as a weakness that undermines the purpose of poetry, whose strength lies in the use of sensual imagery; Rodriguez, though, seems to use them to careful effect in most places in a way that reflects her themes.

The William Empson quote about “the singing line” cited at the beginning of this essay is better applied to Rodriguez than even Empson himself—a modernist poet whose verse reflects his admiration for scientism by employing objective diction, and as such can sometimes falls rather flat. Most of the seven types of ambiguity he expounds on are well suited to analyzing obscure poets like T.S. Eliot, or to the baroque Elizabethans, but less useful when it comes to considering the type of verse that many contributors to the Society of Classical Poets write. Rodriguez writes in a straightforward and clear style, and while her poems operate on different levels, there is little that’s overtly contradictory in a head-scratching way. With a few possible exceptions, the reader seldom stops to invent interpretations or tease apart multiple meanings that must be held in the mind at once. These are poems that can be appreciated by the average literate person, as well as the more sophisticated enthusiast.

The current division in poetry between classical and free verse tends to fall neatly along political lines, echoing the larger polarization in our culture between the forces of materialism and spirituality. Theresa Rodriguez is a poet of the latter camp. She represents the ideal type of a role poets once played in most cultures around the world, and with any luck may again capture someday in the popular imagination.

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Andrew Benson Brown was a graduate student at George Mason University before taking too many classes outside his discipline coincided with the reality of Debt. He now works as a children’s caseworker in rural Missouri. In his spare time he reads obscure classics, writes things of little market value, and exercises far more than is befitting for a modern intellectual.


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13 Responses

  1. Theresa Rodriguez

    Many, many thanks to Andrew Benson Brown for this marvelous review, and equal thanks to Evan Mantyk for publishing it!

    Reply
    • Andrew Benson Brown

      It was well worth the time studying your work in depth, Theresa. Opportunities like this allow me to reflect on my own craft and help to make me a better poet.

      Reply
  2. Joe

    As always, an incredible thorough and thought-provoking review from Mr Benson Brown! I really love Theresa’s poetry and must get this collection!

    Reply
    • Andrew Benson Brown

      Thanks for the appreciation, Joe! Theresa can always use another book sale. All that we ask, really, is that you purchase one copy for yourself, another for your wife, a third for your dog, and several hundred more boxes to dump over a city from a plane.

      Reply
  3. C.B. Anderson

    Good work, Andrew, making much of a poet who deserves every bit of it. You know it, I know it, and now everybody knows it. Theresa is a National Treasure.

    Reply
  4. Andrew Benson Brown

    She certainly is, C.B. When producers make the next installment in that film series starring Nicholas Cage, they would be wise to feature her work.

    Reply
    • A.B. Brown

      Since you set a precedent, James, all I could do in succeeding you was to simply write more words. Where one might not outdo, one may overwhelm.

      On a side note, I just noticed that the photo included of Theresa contains an unintentional snub to the literary lifestyle, in the form of Fluorescent Boy photobombing the classical backdrop with his electronics addiction.

      Reply
  5. James Sale

    Thanks Andrew, very generous of you. That phrase ‘not outdo…may overwhelm’ is worthy of any phrase book, but you will have to remind me of its source; if it’s yours, quite brilliant. Yes, photobombing, but Dante still in the foreground! And to return to where it all began: Theresa’s poetry, and that photo beside your own, taken in Bryant Park in 2019 and I was there listening to her impassioned readings. What a day! I am looking forward to my return to NY.

    Reply
    • A.B. Brown

      Wasn’t quoting anybody with the ‘outdo…overwhelm,’ though somebody probably said it before.
      Am hoping that the next symposium will be in person, though so far 2021’s not a year for great hope.

      Reply
      • James Sale

        Yes, there is no substitute for ‘being there’ as I discovered myself when I appeared! Let’s hope 2021 gets better, though like you I am not optimistic. I was planning a management book fest in London with some colleagues for early July, but they now think we won’t get the UK back to normal till at least September, so probably best not to put that deposit down.

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