Reviewed Book: The Gift of Life: An Epic in Verse by Amanda Hall, 2021.

by Margaret Coats

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
—Shakespeare, “Sonnet 18”

These words say as much about Shakespeare as about his loved one, Amanda Hall believes. The love that produced the poem, and the writing of it, give life to Shakespeare. Hall’s The Gift of Life: An Epic in Verse uses 600 Shakespearean sonnets to tell how love gives life to the fictional poet protagonist Anne Hart. The work also imagines what might happen if contemporary artists could re-focus on the power of love Shakespeare knew. To Hall, his sonnets are the ultimate writings about love. Her sonnet sequence, stretching to epic scope, fills in the gaps of sequences like Shakespeare’s (where sonnets can stand alone as independent poems), to provide a continuous narrative resembling a novel.

Hall was not familiar with early love sonnets other than Shakespeare’s. Still, her epic begins with a contemporary version of the storied Petrarchan love situation. The poet-lover sees the beloved, and life is forever changed. The beloved is beautiful and virtuous, but inaccessible. That’s the tension from which poetry springs.

Anne Hart gazes far across a city park to spot a man with a tortured look on his handsome face. She and he immediately fall in love. Sean Hughes is virtuous as well as beautiful. He’s a married man determined to raise his children as a good father, and thus he is inaccessible to the soul-mate he finds. For Anne, though, the way is clear to producing passionate sonnets that reverberate with true love. Love moves her to create art that gives her a life of her own.

Almost. Anne has a job that pays her bills and takes up most of her time. Hall wanted her story to be one that deals with the needs and difficulties of an artist’s life. The available income for artists either squanders their creative time, or demands that they conform to an art establishment with effective control over the art they produce. In fact, both evils may afflict the artist, leaving him with meager earnings, little time, and no freedom to pursue artistic goals. The Gift of Life has much to say about this perennial problem, magnified by the up-to-date disavowal of beauty in art. Art can and does deal with unbeautiful things. But by banishing or canceling ideals such as true love, the art establishment seems to promote—in all the arts—a kind of art that is not life-giving.

This problem gives Amanda Hall’s work its potential for epic transcendence. But readers will laugh at the proposed means of overcoming ugly art. Greeting card verse? Anne writes some true love sonnets, and gets an artist friend to make pictures for cards to be sold in local stores. They have modest success when ordinary customers, starved for beauty, become enthusiastic. The overwhelming success comes, however, when a sympathetic investor with entrepreneurial know-how transfers their work to e-cards.

The art establishment notices and (because money and prestige are at stake) an epic battle begins in the blogosphere. Anne and her art are malevolently attacked by the avant-garde art establishment, but she is capably defended by independent bloggers. This army, and a vast free market of individuals who buy and send cards because they want to hear and see and spread expressions of true love, emerge as a neglected world of normal humanity. They find power in love and art to sustain their lives. They each put a little money into art, because it enables them to extend love and beauty to others. They devote their talents to a necessary battle against hate, lies, and ugliness.

Now, the greeting card love sonnets don’t appear in the book. Readers can only imagine the individual Shakespeare-like poems the world eagerly clicks to buy and send. The Gift of Life offers the story of their creator and her beloved, and a few stories of persons whose lives are changed by love transmitted through the cards. This is a long haul, as are many sonnet sequences. The contemporary depiction of the Petrarchan innamoremento, or falling in love, is fascinating in similarities and differences with earlier sonnet sequences. The epic battle of the bloggers is perhaps the liveliest part of the book. The auxiliary love stories about Anne’s readers are fun and can be quite touching, especially that of a woman whose love for her dying mother is rekindled. The journey to the nursing home with time running out is one of those treasured tales about minor characters that epics have room for. It does take quite a number of sonnets, but these recall the journey groups in early love sequences, similar to archipelagos within seas of independent island poems.

Sometimes, though, Hall’s work attributes so much to love that it lacks verisimilitude. An infertile couple renews their love, sets aside anxiety over biology, and the woman conceives. That’s believable, even considering that the words inspiring restored passion were found on a greeting card. But it’s not credible that love carries the new mother through her entire pregnancy in utter bliss without the slightest discomfort. Pregnant women who do suffer anything are said to be “grouchy mothers.” Some blame, it is implied, attaches to insufficiently loving fathers. The pains of childbirth are passed over. The little girl born to the happy couple turns out to be a poet, whose first book is published when she is six years old. At this point, readers who have not recycled The Gift of Life may remember the infant Hercules, and attribute the apparent marvels to the mythic element of epic. This takes ample suspension of disbelief in a contemporary narrative.

Because of the emphasis on the power of love to transform lives, and because of statements that art can enter a “New Age” if artists will only affirm love and beauty, I asked Amanda Hall directly whether she espouses some New Age philosophy. I mentioned as an example the beliefs of 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Marianne Williamson, intent upon applying love to politics. Hall was not familiar with Williamson, and disclaimed any particular philosophy promoted by others. Her own views come from observing artists who focus exclusively on what is squalid or repulsive. Hall gives this as one reason why the general public is little interested in art. She feels that the artistic avant-garde demands ugliness and hatred (not wanting to allow other approaches). However, she also distances herself from puritanical attitudes that could limit artistic freedom.

Her epic of life-giving love may seem to downplay the evil and suffering that an epic often examines. Whether epic evil derives from the gods or fate or from human folly or sin or malice, it exists to be endured or assaulted, and it may involve extensive social and political devastation. The Gift of Life, with love as panacea for personal and social problems, is rather light on this front. To require that love be true, and to assume that persons once touched by true love will never revert to non-loving ways, is not a practical or effective way to confront war and oppression. The Gift of Life is prepared to combat hateful and destructive art, economics, and philosophy, but not by hating or destroying them. There is a philosophical section of the book in which unavoidable suffering is acknowledged, but as always, the method of approach is love.

Does The Gift of Life have an epic hero? The poet-lover in a sonnet sequence usually seems stranded in suffering love; his major challenge is finding varied poetic devices to express himself. An epic hero needs to act—but Anne’s fighting against the avant-garde is done for her by the army of bloggers she inspires. Her life’s major change of mode is to move from writing sonnets for cards to writing an epic in sonnets. It is meant to show her beloved Sean the life his love has given her, and the work takes years. Failure to meet any external challenge is Anne’s disqualification as epic hero, unless we give her credit for revitalizing poetry with poems that don’t appear in the book, and for changing the lives of many whom she motivates to put their faith in love.

Amanda Hall’s epic also lacks the elevated style suited to the genre. It is written in the so-called “middle style” appropriate to love sonnets and sequences. However, one feature of it is so perfect as to be awkward. A significant passage glorifies iambic pentameter, saying that it reads, da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM. But the perfection Hall achieves is not the arrangement of English in this accentual pattern, but the perfection of ten syllables per line—every line, throughout the book.

The insistence on ten syllables per line, without variation, leads to unnatural English and tedious rhythm. As a choral singer, I have performed thousands of pieces of music, and I cannot recall a single one of unvarying regular meter. The music would be dull. To see what happens to language, take a look at the selection of five sonnets published here on February 8. “The” is omitted ten times where it would naturally be spoken, and “their” twice. The perfect syllable count is achieved by leaving out small words that are important only because they naturally belong in English sentence structure. We also see a “did” added unskillfully to change the tense of a rhyming verb. Much more often elsewhere, “do” and “did” are added with no function other than to fill out a line that didn’t quite reach ten syllables. Because English word and phrase accent cannot always fall on every other syllable, especially when rhyme is involved, there are some gauche grammatical groups that nevertheless maintain perfect syllable count (check out line 12 of the second sonnet in the February 8 selection). In any poem of accentual meter, unimportant words sometimes stand in an accented spot—but this happens much more frequently when word artistry within the line is limited, because the poet will not alter the number of syllables. And sometimes English simply has no more than four accented syllables in a group of ten. Therefore, Hall’s invariable ten-syllable lines occasionally read as clumsy tetrameter. All this through 600 sonnets makes for an uneasy reading experience.

Below is what the author has to say in response to the above criticism.

AMANDA HALL: For myself, I consider a break in iambic pentameter to be a flaw. I have given poetry readings of portions of The Gift of Life, considering myself a bard of music above all, and sing in accordance with the iambic pentameter. Anything that “sang” like prose did not sound right to my ear. There is thus an archaic feel to some passages, especially with the “did.” I am hoping to carry on the tradition of oral recitation, rather than silent reading of epics, and I composed in accordance with accents and feet as song. I wonder if those readings would have appealed to your ear, aurally. There is a whole life for poetry and an audience, and I think the trend of silent appreciation is less appealing to the human desire for music. Perhaps when I have an opportunity with technology I can post a little aural video. I am perhaps most like Keats, in regard to the strict meter. He often just cut words in half, to fit his metrics. As did Burns. Ultimately, it was my desire to read a poetic score in full musicality, rather than a modern use of English, that influenced my strict meter. I have a hard time understanding how perfection in meter is a fault.

MARGARET COATS: In recitation, you would have more resources, such as pitch and loudness or softness, to bring some pleasing variation to the text. In regard to metrical variation, I’ll stick with Shakespeare. One can easily find eleven-syllable and twelve-syllable lines in his iambic pentameter, keeping five stresses while permitting more unstressed syllables, and thus allowing his verse to follow patterns of natural English speech.

I am very happy to have read The Gift of Life, and I recommend it to anyone especially interested in epic. It was of great interest to me as a unique sonnet sequence with a full narrative. Amanda shows phenomenal skill with the plot; there is surprise after intriguing surprise near the end of the book. Although I’ve said the work seems not entirely epic in some ways, certain epic features prove quite appealing. For example, one doesn’t expect epic machinery (the gods and their trappings) in a contemporary story. But when messages or packages have to be delivered, there are clever ways of relying on both Hermes and the mailman. The reader remains unsure what happened. Something was sent and received, in a discreet, practical, yet supernatural manner. That was epic amusement. And Amanda hasn’t played all her greeting cards yet; I look forward to the singing ones when they are ready.

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Margaret Coats lives in California.  She holds a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and Language from Harvard University.  She has retired from a career of teaching literature, languages, and writing that included considerable work in homeschooling for her own family and others.  


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31 Responses

  1. BRIAN YAPKO

    Margaret, thank you for this detailed review. I’m definitely interested in seeing how far the sonnet form can be stretched. I’m also interested in the two perspectives on meter which found you and Ms. Hall in opposing camps. I appreciate her perspective on a rigorous adherence to counting syllables. However — as a general principle of poetry composition — I strongly agree with your perspective — that some variation is necessary to allow the poem to breathe. I, too, have issues with eliminating words whose absence is unquestionably missed. It can feel forced rather than organic. I think I would enjoy reading more of Ms. Hall’s poems other than just the five that were published here in February. A book like this bodes well for the future of classical poetry.

    Reply
  2. Julian D. Woodruff

    Thanks for such an informed and enlightening review, Margaret. You make the sequence sound like a very promising read, but also put me and a lot others, I suspect, on guard against questionable poetic practices. Your reference to choral music, especially of the Renaissance, is very apt.

    Reply
  3. Margaret Coats

    This comment addresses Sally, Brian, and Julian, who have been kind enough to post replies above. As all of you say, the themes of Amanda Hall’s book and her extended treatment of them, are quite worthy of reading. Her combination of the genres of epic and sonnet sequence was a gamble worth taking, as the combined work makes up for deficiencies in some of the features that might be expected in either genre.

    But as Julian says, the question of whether to read really boils down to whether the reader can tolerate the unvarying syllable count, in order to hear an important discourse about art. Perhaps I can help further by giving just three examples of what you may encounter. I will be quoting by page number, as the sonnets are not numbered.

    Here is the final couplet of a sonnet from page 84:

    A love was born which spread to world through wings;
    The internet is place where true love sings.

    This is good iambic pentameter, but to maintain a strict ten-syllable count, the author cannot say “the world” in the first line or “the place” in the second. Both lines would then have 11 syllables, and one iamb in each line would become an anapest. However, I cannot emphasize strongly enough that IF THESE ANAPESTIC SUBSTITUTIONS WERE MADE, THE LINES WOULD STILL BE GOOD IAMBIC PENTAMETER. English poetic practice of many centuries allows substitutions, and I consider it most unfortunate that Amanda Hall sacrifices good English usage requiring “the,” merely to achieve a count of ten syllables per line. And nothing more is achieved. It is false to suppose that good meter requires the abandonment of good usage. Meter in the lines and in the poem remains predominantly iambic, and because each line has five feet, it is iambic pentameter.

    I notice that you, Sally, Brian, and Julian, have read and commented on Joseph Salemi’s essay posted immediately after this review. Dr. Salemi makes it clear that iambic pentameter is iambic pentameter even with substitutions.

    A second problem comes about in this final line of a sonnet on page 25:

    Love as verse and love as sketch would soon blend.

    This is an example of what I call forced iambic pentameter. To make these ten syllables iambic, one must read:

    Love AS verse AND love AS sketch WOULD soon BLEND.

    Of the five important words in the line, only the final one is stressed! The other stresses occur on unimportant words. But there is an easy fix here: eliminate the unneeded “soon,” which is only there for the ten-syllable count. Then we read,
    LOVE as VERSE and LOVE as SKETCH would BLEND.
    This is a lovely iambic pentameter line with nine syllables. The first of the five feet in the line is a one-syllable “headless” iamb, lacking any unstressed syllable to begin it. This too is a well-known poetic practice, and the line remains iambic.

    My last example, of what I call “clumsy tetrameter,” comes from page 213:

    On a MAN who was FAMED for SELLing POTS.

    The line, read in accord with its natural meaning, begins with two anapests and ends with two iambs. That makes four feet, and therefore this line is neither iambic nor pentameter. It is mixed-meter tetrameter. The only fix for this is to insist that the important word “man” cannot be stressed because it is in the wrong position, and to stress the unimportant words A and WHO instead.

    I am glad to say that Amanda Hall’s work does NOT include a great many such ten-syllable lines that fail entirely in the supposed purpose of insuring regular meter. I include this one, merely to demonstrate the fallacy of counting syllables, rather than giving attention to the stresses and stress patterns that constitute regular meter. When these patterns conflict with what the poet wishes to say, a substitution is possible, and no one should fear that he is violating his poem’s predominant meter by introducing a limited number of substitutions. There can, of course, be too many substitutions if the poet’s chosen meter becomes obscured by them.

    Reply
  4. Amanda Hall

    Hello, friends. I wish to publicly thank Ms. Coats for taking the time to read and review The Gift of Life: An Epic in Verse. I also wish to thank Sally, Brian and Julian for taking the time to comment on the posting.

    I would not have mentioned Dr. Salemi’s essay, in this context, but as Margaret brought it up, I will: said essay was condemnatory, haughty, and cold, as is the other Salemi essay material I have read. I can’t imagine such a perspective as his of his latest essay having a mass following on a site devoted to formal poetry, but there it is, and my reply must be as one already defending against doggerel, sugar-sweet, sophomoric poetry.

    Poetry is far older than English verse, and the choice of what to do with rough spots is a matter of style. Keep ten syllables, in iambic pentameter, or use extra-metrical or under-metrical syllables to keep a semblance of beat, when the ideal does not come. As the count of ten is most critical to all that humans do, in mathematics and other wise, I chose to keep ten syllables, rather than add or cut syllables to affect the beat, which, if done, must interrupt the flow in the former or latter line. There is a problem in language with a stretch of many articles, or multi-syllablic words with both a major and minor accent, such as the word happiness. Is it proper to end there, with a minor accent on the tenth syllable? I have always composed as it is, though someone may take issue with it.

    Poetry by definition is repetitious and regular, as well as rhythmic and stressed, or accented. To criticize exact meter is to encourage a ridiculous hodgepodge. If variations in meter and rhyme are desirable, when to know how much, and where? Too many, and it becomes free verse. From the usual published material on SCP homepage, I suspect that the fashionable amount of carefully placed trochees and dactyls are added into poetry that could otherwise scan flawlessly in IP, are added to appease the eyes and ears of Salemi, who seems to be, from what I have been told, the one to obey, as is evidenced by the sycophantic remarks on his postings. I was told by a person who will go unnamed, that he couldn’t review my book because Salemi and Sale wouldn’t approve of juvenile attempts at poetry, such as The Gift of Life.

    For myself, I am well read (known of Petrarch, though no expert, as I told Margaret in an interview). The best poems in history are all regular. Is Robert Frost doggerel? Is Longfellow sophomoric? We are talking about striving for an ideal, in meter and form. Some people approximate perfect verse better than others. I sense, and will take the risk here, that competition is rife here, as always, and many poets feel bile rising up, at the exacting skill of another poet, not indoctrinated into the Salemi-is-God undercurrent. Why would anyone encourage a hodgepodge of ‘variants’ when it interrupts expectations and limits the poem’s life as song? Would you tell a classical musician to interrupt the timing that is specified? Only if it is changed at the next staff. To be fair, Margaret’s tone was professional and I value her input, though I disagree. I suspect that for others, too scared of Salemi and pissing their pants about incurring his wrath, to carry on in exact meter and time, they will have similar comments about my book, and simply won’t have anything to do with it. A shame, as one of my magnum opus’s (I have four) is 600 sonnets long, and a great contribution to letters. I am thinking of ten syllables and hypnosis, scanning on bones, and humming with the digeridoo, taking poetry all the way back to caves, and then forward into new epics for a hurting age. I have a copy to send to Dr. Salemi, if he asks for it, but I suspect that after my post, I’ll barely be worthy of acceptance at SCP. (Evan, for the record, has been professional and polite.) For those interested in my work, my website on Amazon is http://www.amazon.com/author/amandahall

    Striving after perfect form,
    Amanda

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      At SCP Dr. Salemi is a member like you and me, whose contributions are submitted as ours are. In his most recent essay, it is his perspective gained by close reading that I recommend. We can do what he did on our own, with the works of any poet. Take the most familiar sonnet of John Keats, “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer.” It is iambic pentameter, with trochaic beginnings to lines 1, 5, 10, and 14, and there are 11 syllables in line 12, indicating an internal substitution. This is mainstream English poetic practice.

      Reply
    • The Society

      Dear Amanda,

      We are all on the same side here at the SCP, which is the side of traditional poetry. We are learning and growing alongside real people. People have a variety of opinions within that, but ultimately none of that matters. I am the editor and choose what is published, not Dr. Salemi. Dr. Salemi has a vast amount of experience, far more than myself and he has done a great deal to contribute to the SCP. He deserves our thanks. In fact, when I first started the Society in 2012, I was writing in syllabic verse. I was generally repulsed by the mainstream poetry world and so my knowledge was incomplete. I was counting ten syllables per line and that’s it. That, however, is an immature understanding of traditional (or classical or formal) poetry. Actually, counting syllables is a good introductory step for students just starting to write traditional poetry, but it is introductory, purely. Shakespeare, Milton, Longfellow, Frost… that is the vein that SCP follows and all of them are not writing in ten syllable lines or counting syllables; they’re writing iambic pentameter (or some other meter), which means the lines frequently have 11 or 12 syllables, or more, even nine sometimes, but with five hard stresses (or beats) and the general pattern of the iamb throughout. If a poem works out with perfect meter, it is fine, but forcing it too much will often lead to other problems in the expression of the poem. Maybe for people recovering from a world of free verse, perfect meter can serve some cleansing function at first, which is fine, but ultimately that is not how classical poetry is done.

      Regards,
      Evan Mantyk

      Reply
    • BDW

      First off, not everyone @ SCP is a follower of Mr. Salemi’s. I definitely am not! He once insisted that his “A Gallery of Ethopaths” was an epic; I called it a mock-heroic poem; for an epic, in my mind, is filled with heroes and heroic action (which is what I am trying, even if unsuccessfully, to write about).

      Joseph Salemi
      by Wilbur Dee Case

      One can respect Salemi’s focus on ethópathy,
      a plague that rages round the World and hits both you and me.
      He’s marshaled many terse examples in polemic verse,
      alerting us to this abuse and its pandemic curse.
      He’s like a swirling cyclone when he offers his advice,
      a mild-mannered man he’s not, nor would one say he’s nice.
      Like Oscar Wilde with vituperation cranked up high,
      expostulating to the crowds found floating in the sky.
      He shouts aloud to bring them down to Earth, to make them see
      the error of their airy ways and full-blown lunacy.
      An Agamemnon in his hard-won literary realms,
      he spews and slews his snarky views in hopes he overwhelms;
      and yet one finds, upon occasion, rarely, to be sure,
      a rarefied opinion wrest-l-ing with the absur-d.
      And though it isn’t very often he is not uncouth,
      irradic’lly, sporadic’lly, he blunders into truth.

      And I am definitely not a fan of Mr. Sale’s; he once said he would not review my poetry, because it wasn’t in the form of a published book. (On the other hand, what would he want with hundreds of thousands of words, cf. Ms. Cook?)

      Still, like Mr. Salemi, Mr. Sale is an intrepid literary critic. He analytically goes to places most would fear to tread. He has reviewed Frederick Turner’s “Apocalypse” and Frederick Glaysher’s “The Parliament of Poets”, as well as “Sonnets for Christ the King” by Joseph MacKenzie. Nevertheless, I find his attempt at a “Dantesque epic” ill-founded; and so unlike Dante. But both Mr. Salemi and Mr. Sale have written interesting, if not breathtaking, poems.

      But it is my sincere belief that the epic is untenable in the New Millennium. In some ways, Whitman, Pound and Williams may have come closer than Michael Lind in “The Alamo” or Esther Cameron in “The Consciousness of Earth” in blank verse. But I think it’s because we don’t have a natural line, like the “dactylic hexameter”, or anyone who can embrace Milton completely, and move beyond him, and that is keeping this era from a master epic. It requires too much for a poet to sustain—at least as far as I have seen.

      As for an epic of sonnets, like that of Mr. Whidden, or Ms. Hall, I personally am just not interested in the sonnet, as a vehicle for an epic—maybe a Pushkinesque “novel in verse”; but an epic? I once thought in my youth that the sonnet or ottava rima (in the manner of Byron’s “Don Juan”) were possibilities; but I gave that up as wrong-headed. Of Shakespeare’s magnificent oeuvre, his sonnets are really near the bottom of the extraordinary power found in his poetic dramas. Which reminds me of something T. S. Eliot, once wrote, that I can only very badly paraphrase—‘No one can write dramas as well as Shakespeare until the language has reached a new articulation point beyond that expressed that must be expressed.’ That single thought of Eliot’s was enough for me to drop my incomplete poetic drama “Nelson”, which was becoming so unwieldy in the writing and research of it. I had no Plutarch. And no writer I am aware of, in English, has mastered Shakespeare’s incredibly fluid power and density. Milton came no where near.

      But when I think of an epic, I am not thinking of ten syllables, hypnosis, scanning on bones, and humming with the digeridoo, I think of the Universe, and those great individuals who have contributed to our grand, modern vision of the Universe. Here I am closer to Turner; but without his “fictionalizing” propensities. Here I am more in tune with the PostModernists, like Hersey and others, in their move to nonfiction; hence my obsession with docupoetry (which, along with other things, makes me about the most unpopular writer @ SCP). So what. Popularity doesn’t mean a damn thing (as we have seen so vividly in the New Millennium). And at least I haven’t been banned, exiled…or sent to a goolag…yet.

      Reply
      • Andrew Benson Brown

        Mr. Wise,

        Umm not sure where to start here.

        Big of you to acknowledge the critical powers of Sale and Salemi, even though you aren’t crazy about their poetry—your opinion is of course ultimately your prerogative. I also was under the impression that ‘A Gallery of Ethopaths’ was a mock-epic or epic satire, though I’ve only read a handful of the chapters and not the whole thing, so I could be mistaken. I’ve never spoken to Salemi privately beyond exchanging comments in threads, so I’m not aware of his view on the matter, or, generally speaking, any number of other subjects he might or might not sanction.

        The definition of a book review is that it is a book. At least half of a book review’s purpose is to serve as a marketing tool, and if there is no book, and thus nothing to market, then there is little point in writing a review. If you want a review to be written of your work, it only takes a short time these days to throw something up on Amazon.

        Saying not to write an epic after the style of Dante is like attacking JC MacKenzie for writing a book of sonnets when Shakespeare already tackled that form—since no one is better than Shakespeare or Dante, it would seem, we should all just give up now. And if one does take inspiration from an old master, the finished product obviously isn’t going to be the same thing—there are 700 years separating Dante and Sale.

        As far as epic being untenable today, one could extend that argument and say the same thing about poetry in general, being that this is a prosaic age in which few people care about verse. And yet here we are, and epics are being written, a few of which like Sale’s, Salemi’s, and Glaysher’s are of very high quality (at least from what I have read so far), regardless of this genre’s lack of acceptance among the binge-watching masses who spend nearly all of their free time staring blankly at a screen.

      • Joseph S. Salemi

        BDW can nip at my heels all he likes; it’s of no concern to me. But when he speaks slightingly of the kindly and inoffensive Sally Cook, that’s another matter. Sally has more poetic talent in her little finger than BDW has shown in decades of endless, witless charichording.

      • BDW

        Mr. Salemi has misread me…again. I have no idea what he is so upset about.

        Ms. Cook said: “I believe before you write one more of your 600 sonnets you should stop!…I mean this in a helpful way.”

        Note from moderator: Ms. Cook’s comment was taken out of context. Here is the entire comment:
        Dear Amanda —
        When you say “this post” do you mean my post or yours?
        I am very serious when I say — I believe before you write one more of your 600 sonnets you should stop! You have immersed yourself in a plethora of feelings you don’t understand.
        Stop and THINK !! Your scattered feelings are good but clouded. Consider it an experiment. I know your sonnets will be better for it. I mean this in a helpful way.

        That was my reference point.

        I believe before Mr. Salemi writes one more sentence of his mindless chatter, he should stop!…I mean this in a helpful way.

      • Joseph S. Salemi

        Bruce, if your prose were clearer, you would not be misunderstood.

      • BDW

        Mr. Brown’s arguments are more serious here than that of Mr. Salemi, and I should like to attend to them now.

        In this respect, I agree with Mr. Brown that Mr. Salemi’s “A Gallery of Ethopaths” is a satire; in fact, I would call it a verse satire. It is actually a striking work of our era; and outdoes H. L. Mencken for me—if not for Mr. Salemi. But I do think it less balanced than Dryden, less polished than Pope, less linguistically rich than Johnson, and less fun than Byron. Still, what else are we accomplishing in the New Millennium?

        As for Mr. Brown’s thoughts on a book of poetry—Amazon? Part of the G-Mafiat destroying this nation? I think not. One is not compelled to sell one’s books, or to sell them through corrupt tech corporations (cf. History).

        I must admit I am not as great a fan of Shakespeare’s sonnets as I am of his poetic dramas. In fact, I find occasional sonnets of Mr. MacKenzie of far more interest than many of those of Shakespeare. But here is the quote I should have supplied:

        From T. S. Eliot’s “What is a Classic?”:

        “That every great work of poetry tends to make impossible the production of equally great works of the same kind is indisputable. The reason may be stated partly in terms of conscious purpose: no first-rate poet would attempt to do again, what has already been done as well as it can be done in his language. It is only after the language—its cadence, still more than vocabulary and syntax—has, with time and social change, sufficiently altered, that another dramatic poet as great as Shakespeare, or another epic poet, as great as Milton, can become possible. Not only every great poet, but every genuine, though lesser poet, fulfils once for all some possibility of the language, and so leaves one possibility less for his successors. The vein that he has exhausted may be a very small one; or may represent some major form of poetry, the epic or the dramatic. But what the great poet has exhausted is merely one form, and not the whole language.”

        This is partly why I am creating new poetic structures, like the bilding, which was inspired partly by Dante, targeting new topics English poetry has not yet developed (the list is enormous here), etc.

        Mr. Brown and I can agree to disagree about our visions of the modern epic. All I can do is repeat what I have already mentioned, and that is this: Whitman, Pound and Williams offer for me a more inspiring attempt, in their failed epics, than those of our generation, like Lind and Turner. In short, their failures seem better than our successes; and this is partly (but very importantly) why I said the epic is untenable in the New Millennium—at least until a new line is developed.

        But enough. And although neither this site, nor this generation is all that committed to literary criticism, I hope Ms. Hall can find individuals on this site (and elsewhere) that can be inspiring at times, like Ms. Coats or Mr. MacKenzie, Ms. Foreman or Mr. Sedia, Mr. Gosselin or Mr. Harris, Mr. Tweedie or Mr. Anderson, Mr. Juster or Mr. Yankevich, Mr. Whidden or Ms. Bryant, etc. Mr. Mantyk continues to do an excellent job in bringing diverse voices to SCP. One need not be much appreciated, yet this is an excellent site for poetry that strives to be classical, and a place where one can discuss one’s artistic aims. And I am thankful for it.

  5. Amanda Hall

    A perfect book about what is and isn’t poetry: Poetry Handbook, A Dictionary of Terms, Babette Deutsch. My go-to reference for all questions concerning ballads to haiku.

    Reply
    • BDW

      It is a book I remember from my youth that once upon a time served me well, as well.

      Reply
      • Sally Cook

        To Mr. BDW –

        .Very .clever of you to use some of my words to attack Dr. Salemi. Thank you too for reminding me that Cook rhymes with book.
        One small criticism — I think you do protest too much.

  6. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Margaret, thank you for your insightful and honest review. Your views on iambic pentameter are invaluable. With much gratitude.

    Reply
  7. Sally Cook

    DEar Margaret —
    I enjoyed your careful review of Amanda Hall’s book very much. Amanda believes in love, as, at heart I think we all do at SCP.. But sometimes we need to reexamine our terms. I fear there is a touch of the Victorian about Amanda’s premise which gives it an unrealistic approach.
    By this I mean:
    No one and nothing can ever be perfect, even Iambic
    Pentamater! Rhyme, meter and form exist as tools. But what of concept, style, subject and intent?
    I have been told often by those with self-applied blinders, that my work is too “cynical.” To that I reply:
    Life is not all gin and roses, sunsets and self-praise.
    Does this mean I have no momentary sentiments, no deep feelings? Hardly. I prefer to think that I can see all of life, and choose to comment on any aspect of it.

    A good poem is a work of art, not an exercise in technique. When the man I worked for suddenly died and came back to speak with, of all people, his first wife’s boyfriend, he had
    little to say except practical advice to the living. One
    sentence, however, pervaded his memorial service, and I have never forgotten it. He said “love is the most important thing.” He was a gentle man in a dull job; I think people here would have liked him.
    Those few words had an exceptional effect on all those who had known him. Everyone had a different slant on it; I took it to mean I should put more love into my visual art and my poetry.
    Tough love for poetry? Well, why not? What kind of love? Well, perhaps the kind of clear-eyed love that Dr. Salemi offers. He seems to say we might all be better off to take a clear-eyed look at why we create and what we are willing to put into our creations. He has been my friend and mentor for some years now, and he never steers me wrong. If I don’t agree I feel free to tell him, and if he ever thought for a minute I was playing the sycophant, he would probably let loose with a few choice words and throw me over the side – in a metaphorical manner, of course.
    No point in getting irritated with someone who knows more than you do. I say let’s stop wasting our time getting ticked off at excellence, and re-examine what we ourselves are doing. Self-indulgence will never make a creative artifact. As has been said, life is hard, life is earnest, and every poet who has developed their own style has been willing to work hard, honestly view the results and try again until it’s right.

    Reply
  8. Amanda Hall

    Dear Sally, I appreciate your words to Margaret, who was kind enough to give her time and attention to my book. Here is a little excerpt, as I believe what is missing from this post is the passion and emotion epic poetry offers. I wrote the book with my hand on my heart, making beats become iambic feet, and I’d like for my offering to the world of letters to be enjoyed. Thank you.

    “You are too good to this old broken man,”
    The lonely vendor said to the young child.
    “But I’m afraid there’s nothing that I can
    Do to make up for an act that was wild.
    My carelessness has caused a little boy
    To suffer by my hand and then to die;
    I don’t deserve to feel a sense of joy,
    But must with all the time that’s left me, cry.
    A pipe dream it was, to claim I’d do Good—
    A strong man might turn sorrow to good ends—
    And though I claimed to be that man, I should
    Just do away with life that life offends.
    A sense of justice goads me to commit
    A crime against a man on whom all spit.”

    The young boy pointed to the leaf in hand.
    “I don’t spit on you; neither does our God.
    I may be small, but I will by you stand
    When Law administers its awful rod.
    Whatever is in store for you, please hold
    This leaf within the center of your palm;
    It will give confidence and make you bold—
    It’s like a kind of singing, ringing psalm.
    The people who don’t understand your grief
    Will see expression on your face, the calm
    That passed to you from out the little leaf
    With juices that became a sacred balm.
    And once the world sees that you have been healed,
    They, too, will know that God has been revealed.”

    The man did not pull back, did not object
    When the boy kneeled beside him, kissed his cheek;
    Tears met with lips not able to reject
    A man who thought his pain made him a freak.
    Not meek or timid with affection shown,
    Not caring whether other souls approved,
    The boy passed love he felt man should have known,
    As he had by the man’s grief been so moved.
    And wrapping his small set of arms around
    The man whom all but one had written off,
    The boy became aware of a new sound—
    At sob of gratitude he could not scoff.
    Deprived of human warmth for but one soul,
    The man felt the young boy had made him whole.

    There are some moments in a life that do
    Define the course for the rest of one’s days;
    Connection with a man’s grief, felt all through,
    Was such for the boy schooled in other ways.
    It did occur to him as he sat in
    The dirt, long after man had wandered off,
    That all the special magic did begin
    With words of one who did not dare to scoff.
    The words of love had been the very thing
    That stilled the seething passions of the crowd;
    The words of love became an angel’s wing
    That razed the hatred, with love echoed loud.
    The cure, in fact solution, to the hate,
    Came from a poet hatred did abate.

    Reply
    • Sally Cook

      Dear Amanda —
      When you say “this post” do you mean my post or yours?
      I am very serious when I say — I believe before you write one more of your 600 sonnets you should stop! You have immersed yourself in a plethora of feelings you don’t understand.
      Stop and THINK !! Your scattered feelings are good but clouded. Consider it an experiment. I know your sonnets will be better for it. I mean this in a helpful way.

      Reply
  9. Joseph S. Salemi

    I see no reason to engage in a long argument with Amanda Hall over aesthetics and metrics, since our views are obviously irreconcilable. But I do wish to assert that I hold no special position of authority here at the SCP, nor do I dictate what anyone must think or say. As Margaret Coats rightly points out, I’m just a contributor like everyone else.

    When a posted poem is not to my taste, or if I think it done in a style that I dislike, my general practice is to say nothing at all about it.

    As a good indication of the level of my participation here, I invite Ms. Hall to consider this: from June 5 to June 18 there have been twenty-one separate postings here at the SCP. In all that time, apart from the discussion thread at my June 12 essay, I have posted ONLY THREE BRIEF COMMENTS.

    Is that the voice of a dictator to be obeyed, scaring everybody? Moreover, I have NEVER tried to tell Mr. Mantyk what he can or cannot publish here, nor would I ever do so. Those choices are completely his own.

    Reply
  10. James Sale

    It’s great to be mentioned in the same breath as the great Dr Salemi, even if by an anonymous source. But three things: first, Dr Salemi and I are not in cahoots and never have been; we occasionally disagree, but more often than not, I think he has great, if severe, judgement; certainly, like Dr Salemi, I am not some dictator of taste or fashion on this site – one has a view and one expresses it as cogently as possible. Second, this is a great review by Margaret Coats, which as an experienced reviewer myself, clearly bends over backwards to give Amanda Hall’s collection the benefit of the doubt whilst simultaneously preserving her own intellectual integrity. This approach has led to a flowering of critical comment that is extremely useful to anyone interested in the art of poetry. Thirdly, it is quite clear that Amanda Hall is impervious to anything apart from the sycophancy she decries in others. The reality of this poetry isn’t really about meter: from the extracts above – and the idea that there are 600 of these things – it is quite clear that the poetry is trite. Sadly. Amanda Hall’s pleading for her own integrity and ability reminds me of nothing so much as someone arguing that Francis Bacon wrote the plays of Shakespeare: it’s strained to infinity. So where a person cannot be helped, I think it best to quit the field.

    Reply
  11. Andrew Benson Brown

    I myself did appreciate the high-minded subject and theme in Hall’s work, as well as the love story, though I also found that the Margaret’s criticisms were apt.

    Unlike the CCP, the authority of those at the SCP are deferred to because they have spent years building a reputation as poetry critics, the basis of which is ultimately good judgment. When so many people are saying the same thing independently of one another, that is an important indication as to the reality of the thing.

    I used to be a syllable counter—and not too long ago! Then Salemi gave me a piece of advice: “don’t be a syllable counter.” I listened. Acknowledging that others are right when they are right does not automatically make one a sycophant.

    Nobody starts off a master at any endeavor. But getting better is all about accepting advice and revising.

    Reply
  12. BDW

    I learned a hell of a lot more from Keats than any NewMillennial poet @ SCP; yet there is much about the poetry of Keats that does not appeal to me; but as this is a strand on sonnets, I thought I would include one of his: “On the Sonnet”:

    If by dull rhymes our English must be chain’d,
    And, like Andromeda, the Sonnet sweet
    Fetter’d, in spite of pained loveliness;
    Let us find out, if we must be constrain’d,
    Sandals more interwoven and complete
    To fit the naked foot of poesy;
    Let us inspect the lyre, and weigh the stress
    Of every chord, and see what may be gain’d
    By ear industrious, and attention meet:
    Misers of sound and syllable, no less
    Than Midas of his coinage, let us be
    Jealous of dead leaves in the bay wreath crown;
    So, if we may not let the Muse be free,
    She will be bound with garlands of her own.

    Reply
  13. Will Dunn

    Ms. Hall —

    Well said I find the eloquent defense
    of meter as the stuff of common sense…
    …as form indeed by which a poem’s known
    enabling the intent one should intone…

    …and, if iambic, as the pulse of heart
    that says “This is my life and is my art,
    becoming stately voice of long resolve
    entrusted I reissue to evolve.

    This is the very essence of my soul
    and is the presence humbly I control
    of echoes that descend on heaven’s wing
    as anthems I have heard and learned to sing.

    These are the words I choose to so perfect
    as symphony renewed I resurrect.”

    I am not a proponent of every element of your “style”, but the argument (that meter should indeed be meter) from which you and Daniel Kemper@SCP proceed is profound.

    But that means, in the case of IP, that each line has five successive iambs. Any other ten syllable arrangement is not IP though it might well satisfy five stress accentual rhythm in which magnificent formal poetry can also be done.

    I believe you are saying each line must be five successive iambs, and I sense such construction often, but not consistently, in your sampled work.

    That speaks to the heavy burden we have to cue a myriad of unique beholders well enough that their aural renderings are reasonably consistent with our oral intent. That in part, as you rightly suggest, is the function of the meter implied by the sonnet form.

    As you have noted, for example, the bias for accentual rhythm (as opposed to meter) can affect how your work is heard and recited. It does not account for my reaction, but I think it influences many commenters at this site. There is nothing inherently evil about their preference, but it differs decidedly from yours and mine. And its effect on their reading and their observations is transparent.

    In fact, the position many of them hold would normally benefit you here had you not claimed that you create only flawless meter.

    Your ten syllable consistency requires complaint either about its impact on your style or about its failure to achieve five stresses. Substitution is inarguable, by their own stipulation, if five stressed syllables are present.

    For my part, although I find some some strong iambic phrasing in your sampled work, I also sense variation and phrasing unduly awkward.

    Still, I applaud your passion for meter (“flawless” is superfluous).

    I also, however, do not find the sonnet viable for segmenting epic narrative, whether romantic or not. Becoming a vessel for linear narrative tends to negate the function of its configuration. But I am expressing only a very personal opinion that you clearly do not share.

    600 iterations, moreover, on which continuity depends, tend to make the sonnet form wearisome regardless of relative quality. And that number makes disagreeable seeming style far more grating than it might otherwise be.

    But with all that said, despite all the commentary you are getting here, including mine, the audience for your work will find it if it remains extant and accessible.

    The degree to which that audience builds will be the only useful way you have to guage the validity of the predominantly negative reaction you are getting here.

    And sadly, but understandably, selling art tends to shorten its reach.

    Reply
    • Amanda Hall

      Thank you for your remarks, Mr. Dunn. If you are interested, I can send a hard copy volume of my epic to you. I am wondering whether you would appreciate the chain of sonnets, upon reading more. Your comments about meter are most welcome, in any event.
      Amanda

      Reply
  14. C.B. Anderson

    Yes. When no one knows what anybody else is talking about, it’s time to quit the field and go to greener pastures. Never before have I read such a panoply of vacuous statements.

    Reply
  15. Daniel Kemper

    First things first: I’m always musing about how poetry can be extended to book length in a single theme. I’m really interested in what you’ve done to honor yet extend tradition.

    There is a difference between badly written perfect meter and well-written perfect meter. Many notes on bad writing were mentioned; however, although it has been demonstrated elsewhere that perfect meter (redundant expression) need not be unnatural, perfect meter still suffers a kind of displaced aggression that would be rightly targeted at bad writing techniques sometimes used fulfill meter. I am in no way saying your writing is bad — I haven’t experienced it. I am only chiming in on your side regarding perfect meter. ​When the logic of arguments is lost, often what remains is appeal to authority and/or ad hominems, which I hope you have not had to endure.

    I appreciate Will’s mention of me a great deal. (Thank you, Will!)

    I’m late to your book for a variety of reasons.

    More is coming from me; I just have far too many balls in the air and struggle with essay format too much to be timely. Let me say this about someone’s mention of authority at SCP (not authority as command, but authority as expertise) and about numerous voices saying the same thing. How do we say that truth is determined by the number of people saying a thing rather than by logic in full view of how many press outlet say the same untrue things? And do we not see growth and evolution as a result of developing beyond what everyone is saying? Truth is simply not determined by popular vote. So many things used to be “thought by everybody” that were not right, or needed extension.

    I agree with Dr. Salemi in a way — one should not be a “syllable counter.” We part company though on what it means to be a syllable counter. One shouldn’t sacrifice content for meter; nor should one sacrifice meter for content.

    On a personal note, I dislike the beatification of Shakespeare. It strikes my ears as if someone said, “If the geocentric universe was good enough for Ptolemy and Aristotle, then it’s good enough for me too.” Shakespeare is awesome; don’t get me wrong, but it shouldn’t be sacrilege to think we can keep getting better.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Nice try, DK, but no cigar.

      Practice and taste in the field of aesthetics are not determined by ‘logic.” Platonic idealism and definitionism do not hold sway in areas that are determined by historical tradition, national custom, and the example of past masters.

      It was a skillful propaganda move to say “Truth is simply not determined by popular vote.” You know that the audience here is largely hard-right and conservative, so you come up with a standard conservative talking-point. But the big mistake was to let your slip show by alluding to “Truth” — a philosophical issue that is not connected with the arts, except tangentially. A poet may express truth when he writes, or be personally devoted to the pursuit of truth, but how he puts together a verse is not an epistemological matter, or subject to abstract definitionist mandates. He writes in accord with the tradition that he chooses to follow. Your view that “he shouldn’t be doing that, because it’s not governed by a logical algorithm” tells us more about you than about aesthetics.

      Your attitude is that traditional metric verse, as it was practiced for centuries and is still practiced today by many persons, is not in accord with “The Truth.” It has to change. It has to develop. And you are here on a mission to bring those changes about. Besides being an arrogant attitude, it is what you have called a “category mistake.” The traditions of metrical verse in English have grown up organically and historically, NOT logically. Trying to debate them logically is like trying to debate the course of a river, or a person’s eye color.

      But let’s simplify the issue. You say “One shouldn’t sacrifice content for meter; nor should one sacrifice meter for content.” That is spectacularly wrong, and is the source of all your misunderstanding.

      In a poem, which is a fictive artifact based on mimesis, ANYTHING AT ALL can be sacrificed if the poet needs to do it. He can do whatever the hell he likes if it suits his aesthetic purposes. If he needs a rhyme, he will search for it until he gets it, even if it means changing some detail in his narrative. If he need a certain foot, he’ll revise his poem to get it. THE ONLY THING THAT MATTERS IN COMPOSING POETRY IS THE POEM THAT ENDS UP ON THE PAGE. Nothing else. Nothing at all.

      Now if you have some grandiose plan for changing formal poetry to suit your agenda, fine. Go ahead. But why insist on dragooning everybody else into supporting it? You go your way, and we’ll go ours. Nobody here is required to change “what is not right,” or what “needs extension,” or to help the world to “keep getting better.”

      I said in my third paragraph that your slip was showing. But with the above language, you show a profoundly revolutionary temperament which I strongly suspect is not limited to poetry.

      Reply
  16. Margaret Coats

    “Badly written perfect meter”? Really, Daniel, this is illogical. As is your absurd statement that “perfect meter” is redundant. I am sorry to see that you are abandoning your own previous ideas on variation, problematic as they were, to take up Will Dunn’s position that there is no meter at all in English poetry as it stands. If you keep this up, I predict it will kill your efforts at both essay writing and verse writing. I would be very sorry to see that happen. You, unlike Dunn, have posted good poems.

    Reply
  17. Daniel Kemper

    Hi Margaret,

    The conversation gets passionate and ranges widely, so it’s easy to lose earlier threads. In earlier threads the point that there are many facets to a poem which make it good or bad has been made. A cliche subject, unoriginal diction, a shallow treatment of thoughts lying behind the subject and so on are the sort of thing that I have in mind there. That is the broadest sense in which a poem can be badly written, but still be in perfect meter. There is a second sense, too. If a poet uses a preponderance of monosyllables, and/or sentences that end as the line ends, and/or short sentences, then the meter can be perfect, but typically such a poem would still be badly written, likely even robotic.

    To your second point, there’s kind of a classification problem which is compounded by how charged the subject can be, right? A car with a missing fender we continue to refer to as a car. A sonnet with a metrical foot missing in the seventh line (e.g.), we still call a sonnet and we still call its meter IP, although hyper-technically neither “IP” nor “sonnet” is correct if you want to go all the way. Is that technicality useful? Generally, no, or only potentially in very specific contexts. Is it potentially very charged to appear to say that for even the slightest divot a poem is more or less not a poem? Yes.

    But look, here’s a problem that I noticed with my own analogy. Or at least a limit that I think is useful to consider. A car was still constructed AS A CAR. Saying it’s technically incorrect to refer to a car with a flaw as a car can’t be sustained. It doesn’t lose it’s category because of damage. For example, if I consider the difference between a combat vet who has lost two percent of his body from amputation, he’s still a person because s/he was constructed as a person. But if I consider a bonobo/chimpanzee whose genetic construction is said to be a 98% match with a human’s, that does not mean we are discussing an amputated/flawed human. That limits my analogy — it doesn’t apply to classifying the meter of poems as directly as it might seem.

    Let me try out an outline in front of you and see what you think.

    1. It IS NOT technically correct to say a damaged car is no longer a car.
    2. It does sometimes seem so to me and it is easy to slip there. It seems all about a shift in the sense of the words.
    a. It’s still true that a poem said to be in IP that has non iambs, missing feet (etc) is not in perfect meter. It would be technically correct to say very little poetry is in perfect meter.
    b. It would not be correct to say there is NO meter in English poetry as it stands.
    3. The expression “Not in IP” is destructively ambiguous. I’ve used it plenty and will try to stop.
    a. It could mean “is written in a different meter”
    b. It could mean “is written in no meter at all”
    c. It could mean “is written with other than 100% iambs, five to a line”
    d. Conflating any of those unmentioned senses is bad.
    1.) It can be really offensive to hear “b.” (with all the connotations that seems to bring as well) when c. is intended.
    2.) It can be really offensive to hear “c.”, which appears to run afoul of the most basic logic, e.g. 3=5 etc., when something other than that is intended.
    4. In order to reign in these destructive ambiguities, the term “perfect IP,” which is only redundant when considering one of the senses outlined above (3c.), is a good and useful term and I’ll drop my snarky rejection of it.

    Please don’t let me forget, in the midst of the passion of debate, to thank you for your compliment on my poetry.

    Reply

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