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All poets are talking to all past, present, and future poets.

All poems are talking to all past, present, and future poems.

One could think of the entire enterprise of poetry over millenia as a giant conversation, not merely a dialogue but a "multilogue" of many layers: between poets and poets, between poets and readers, between poets and hearers, between hearers and hearers, between readers and readers, between poets and poems, and between poems and poems.

In other words, no poems are written in a vacuum. Not even the first poem, spoken by some ancient person next to a prehistoric campfire, written by someone on a cave wall, or impressed in mud next to the Euphrates river, or scraped with charcoal on a banana leaf. That poem is in conversation with all other poems which have followed. (Though I suppose this happens only in spirit since that ur-poem is now lost.)

The ur-poem we do have is Gilgamesh -- translated again within the last decade by John Gardner, so that we can see the conversation still echoing over several millennia.

To go on ... no poets write in a vacuum either. (I guess unless you have a spacesuit. Sorry.) Every poet is affected by other poets, and vice versa. Poets affect readers. Readers affect poets, and so on.

More particularly, certain forms have come to be associated with particular occasions and feelings. That's what we call tradition. (Though I must confess I sometimes think of Fiddler on the Roof when I hear this word!)

A good example of poetic tradition is the sonnet.

The sonnet was invented by the Italian poet Petrarch some 700 years ago. He created it as a "little song" (that's what "sonnet" meant in Old Provençal) to express his love for a woman named Laura. So one might say the sonnet originally started off as a seduction poem. But at the same time Petrarch highlighted how honorable his intentions were, how Platonic and elevated his love.

That's how the tradition of the sonnet as a love poem began. By the time we get to Shakespeare 300 years later, the tradition is very well established. Here's an example, "Sonnet 130" (my favorite of Shakespeare's):

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If  snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grown on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground.
    And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
    As any she belied with false compare.
Okay, so it's about love. There's a "mistress" here, right? But the poem is a backhanded way of saying I love you, don't you think?

The coolest thing for me here is seeing that Shakespeare is parodying the posture of other poets working within the sonnet tradition. That is, those who say stuff like "Your eyes are like stars" -- even in the 1600s, this was already clichéd.

If we look at a poem like Molly Peacock's 1984 poem "The Lull" we can get a glimpse of how the sonnet tradition has gone over the last 300 or 400 years:

The possum lay on the tracks fully dead.
I'm the kind of person who stops to look.
It was big and white with flies on its head,
a thick healthy hairless tail, and strong, hooked
nails on its raccoon-like feet. It was a full-
grown possum. It was sturdy and adult. 
Only its head was smashed. In the lull
that it took you to look, you took the time to insult
the corpse, the flies, the world, the fact that we were
traipsing in our dress shoes down the railroad tracks.
"That's disgusting." You said that. Dreams, brains, fur
and guts: what we are. That's my bargain, the Pax
Peacock, with the world. Look hard, life's soft. Life's cache
is flesh, flesh, and flesh.
Here there are still two people: an "I" and a "you." That they are in love is suggested by "traipsing in our dress shoes." Is it the morning after, maybe? Still "traipsing," anyway. But the speaker here rejects the lover because of a chance comment that sets off a red flag.

We can see this poem as at least nontraditional, maybe even anti-traditional. The speaker's stance is not only nonromantic, but anti-romantic. And the details of the poem -- the headless possum which the lover labeled "disgusting" -- are similarly nonromantic and perhaps even unexpected in a sonnet.

The point is that the tradition of the sonnet sets up expectations in the reader of what the content will be. Given tradition, form can imply content.

For you as a poet, tradition means that your choice of a form brings up baggage that you have to deal with. It's important to remember too, however, that one doesn't always have to follow tradition (as Hallmark cards almost always do). You can pull a Peacock and thumb your nose. It's all part of the conversation. It's the punk stance. Revolution.

There are all sorts of traditions. There's the tradition of the haiku, with its use of compression to talk about large issues via nature imagery.

When we think of quatrains, there are hymnal stanzas and ballad stanzas, both of whom are in common meter. One is for sacred purposes, the other for profane (as in worldly) ones -- rather like the contrast between gospel music and the blues. Consider what Dickinson did in innovating the hymnal stanza through slant rhyme; there's an interesting twist on tradition.

The tradition of the pantoum has a secret history that is hidden by colonialism: the pantoum is a Malayan form that was imported by the French colonizers, but in doing so, they eviscerated it of its true essence. The epigrammatic central aspect of the Malayan pantoum has been lost and replaced with the interlocked refrains which were done as well in the Malay form, but only in a small subset of what was possible within that tradition. All sorts of traditions.

Here's something else to remember. In this course, I tell you, "Go write a pantoum" or "Go write a sonnet." But it doesn't happen that way in the so-called "real world" most of the time.

When I was studying for my MFA in poetry-writing, the poet Richard Wilbur visited our workshop and said something that genuinely struck me: "I don't start off writing a sonnet; I write a poem and after a few lines I realize I'm writing a sonnet."

Okay. You start off with the vague intent of writing a love poem. Then that poem begins to shape itself into a sonnet. Once you come to that realization, you need to remember the sonnet tradition -- in other words, that readers will expect certain things from you and your poem once they realize they're reading a sonnet.

That's the conversation. And that's why we write poems, isn't it? That's why I do, anyway. To tell someone something. And tradition is a context that I and that someone share, and it can be used meaningfully in my telling.

-- Vince Gotera

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Last Updated 8/29/01