Wild Civility

February 18, 2013

Contributor’s Marginalia: Matthew Buckley Smith on “Campus and Dinkytown” by Maryann Corbett

Every time I read a poem, I read it with two minds. By this I don’t mean I’m undecided. Instead, the more I like a poem, the more distinct the minds with which I read it. I like Maryann Corbett’s “Campus and Dinkytown” quite a lot. It’s a smart sonnet about visiting one’s alma mater many years later. When I read it, my two minds clatter away like teenagers texting their boyfriends in study hall. The first one flinches with nostalgia, and the second envies the way Corbett’s verse, while purposeful, flirts with accident.

Most poets have a few rules of thumb they use when writing poems. Some are personal (an allergy to pet stories, say, or a fondness for falling meters). Some are shared (we’re all a bit tired of poems about the way light leaves a dying star, and we’d all like another good rhyme for ‘self’). Many poets I know or admire––sometimes both––seem to have a lot of guidelines in common. In “Campus and Dinkytown,” I recognize some of my own favorite sleights of hand.

These deal with the appearance of intention in the poem. Or more precisely the illusion of its absence. Yeats was paraphrasing every poet ever born when he wrote, “A line will take us hours maybe; / Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought, / Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.” It’s hard to say memorable things in rhyme and meter. It’s even harder to make it look easy. I’ve tried to frame as maxims some of the ways that Corbett’s poem gets all this done. Here goes, in no special order:

1. Rhyme words that have little else in common.

2. Use substitutions and caesurae to avoid boring the ear, but don’t use so many as to cripple the meter.

3. With enjambment, create a satisfying disparity between line and sentence (avoid the near-miss). Also, as in prose, vary sentence length.

4. When a sonic device (alliteration, assonance, internal rhyme) appears in any single line, two of a kind are snappy, three may be eerie, four are idiotic.

5. A syntactical device (anaphora, chiasmus, zeugma) starts losing power the moment it draws attention to itself, which is typically just before you tire of using it.

6. Don’t strive to align small grammatical units (word and sentence) with small metrical units (foot and line). Do strive to align large grammatical units (example and argument) with large metrical units (stanza and poem––obviously).

7. Perfect logic is just as dreary as perfect nonsense. Every poem needs a curve, but most poems need only a small one.

8. When a poem is shackled by images, loosen it with abstraction. When it drifts too far into the abstract, tie it down with imagery.

9. A little doubt saves a poem from stiffening into dogma, a little certainty saves it from lapsing into drivel.

10. If a poem doesn’t strike at the heart on the first reading, all the footnotes in the world won’t finish the job. It might take more than one reading to appreciate a poem fully, but it shouldn’t take more than one to appreciate it at all.

In the first draft of this essay, I composed a sort of key linking each rule to a line (or lines) in “Campus and Dinkytown,” but I think the poem will be better served if you scour it yourself. These guidelines, after all, are only napkin sketches of the poem’s virtues. As is true of all good poems, “Campus and Dinkytown” does not follow rules so much as suggest them.

Besides, this sonnet has other pleasures to offer both minds. One being the way it evokes an older form––the priamel (not this, nor this, instead this)––when it replaces the ninth line’s customary ‘But’ or ‘Yet’ with the gentler “Only.” By fulfilling the grammatical expectation without actually offering a volta, Corbett is able to keep us waiting for some solace until the last, aching sentence: “That truth remains.”

“Campus and Dinkytown” is a drab title that bathrobes a real eyeful. Go have a look.

Matthew Buckley Smith

Matthew Buckley Smith’s first book is Dirge for an Imaginary World. He lives in Baltimore with his wife, Joanna Pearson. His poems, plays, and reviews appear in public from time to time. His poem, “Voyeurs,” appears with Maryann Corbett’s “Campus and Dinkyton” in 32 Poems 10.2.

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