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has had poetry most recently appeared in Prairie Schooner, The Connecticut Review, The Apalachee Review, and Puerto del Sol.   His most recent collection is Plowing To The End of the Road (Finishing Line Press, and nominated for the Pushcart Prize).






            Over the past ten years my name has become associated with the free-verse sonnet and the particular style that I give to that form.  I do not claim to be an authority on the contemporary sonnet but I have had a great deal of success with it and intend to use this essay to point out how this form actually broadens my approach to contemporary poetry rather than restrict it.


            My own background is primarily in the field of philosophy, with a minor in English.  And this is what initially attracted me to the sonnet form.  The sonnet is fundamentally a philosophical form with an intentional "if/then" break consisting of the octave and the sestet.  The author sets forth the conditions in the octave and then draws them to a conclusion in the sestet. 


            Because of this, I think the form forces the writer to take the poem somewhere, to answer for what he or she has put forth in the initial portion of the poem.  And of course, the "if/then" break does not necessarily have to occur between the division of the formal parts.  One example of this approach is in one of my earlier poems:





If an eclipse is nothing but the moon

catching the shadowed beginning of its

bare “self”, then what is it that dies in the soft

light of a fading star that speaks from before

we were born, with its light-years waiting to bloom

in our outstretched open hands?  How does it fit

into our own fragile concept of “loss”

and the measure of forgiveness that we ask for?


We stumble like children on its steep stair

of light that is so hard to grasp, resolve,

and integrate.  And how we are humbled

to know this good thing before its collapse, the rare

beauty of its final soliloquy, absolved

               of guilt, seeking our compassion at its deathbed.



            Even though I don't always "formally" take this approach to the sonnet, I do keep in the background the idea that the sestet (give or take a few lines) must answer for the conditions set forth in the octave.  The poem must go full circle and answer for where it has drawn the reader.  And of course, there are exceptions to this condition.  Sonnets can simply be "language" poems that set forth the rhythm of the poem as central. 


            In addition to this focus, I also engage in a “dialectic” when writing the poem.  All writers do this (consciously or unconsciously).  This is what we hear when a writer says that “the poem wrote itself”.  The idea is to feed that process, to give yourself “triggers” that promote the process of the poem writing itself, the process of transcendence entering the writing process. 


            If you look at some of my examples you will note that they “read” like free-verse, but that they have an appearance of a formal sonnet.  Not just in the separation of the octave and the sestet, but also in the line endings where there will appear rhyming words (that don’t rhyme because the lines wrap) or near-rhyming words. 


            Rather than seeing this as a limitation, I see it as an opportunity to trigger the imagination.  You carry the initial “Idea” of the poem, along with the particular concrete capsules of thought which you intend to integrate into the poem.  However, during the writing process you can force yourself to integrate a “word-trigger” by looking for terms that meet the look of the traditional sonnet line endings.  When searching for these words, you must find the right mix that integrates the new term with the intention of your original idea.  What happens is that the idea becomes expanded and sometimes is given new direction.  It starts writing itself. 


            It is more work, but nothing comes easy.  And in some cases, the effort is rewarded with an awareness that true transcendence was at work.  An example follows:





Two people may be talking to each other . . . and inside each of the two there runs a kind of dark river . . .

                                    - A. S. Byatt



The earth might disguise itself as a lost

woman, aged, homeless, reaching from the meadows

of street corners toward the traffic-light-stars

blinking.  And she might speak out of thick salt air

from her cracked lips, or struggle with words and cough

from the poisoned water-tables, or the back-flow

of sediment.  Even the cysts on her arms

compete with the gift of roses, and tear


our armor apart, forcing us to see ourselves

the way we are.  A thousand rivers lined

in her hands, as we touch her universe

of power, as a parking meter swells

to the last hour and counts down the waterfall of time

         spilling from her eyes, and the truth we can't reverse.



            In the line endings you can find the appearance of rhyme or near-rhyme in "lost, cough", "meadows, back-flow", "stars, arms", "air, tear", etc.  When reading the poem, however, there is no rhyme.  The poem reads as free-verse.  Forcing yourself to insert these words or terms gives the writer a chance to re-think the direction of the poem.  It's like participating in a writing exercise during the entire process.


            Form also influences content.  Because my approach is philosophical, I think I'm always asking the question, "How do we know ourselves?" .  Regardless of the specific content, this underlying question always influences the end result.  We are always involved in an epistemological interpretation of reality, what editors and publishers ask for when they state, "Show me the unusual in the usual", interpret the mundane in an extra-ordinary way that reveals something about who we are.


            For this reason, my Nature poems are never Nature poems in the strict sense.  I always integrate the human condition within the context of the natural, there is always a dialogue which takes place with the various specific images feeding the individual’s idea of himself or herself.  My poem Blue Heron illustrates this point:



            BLUE HERON


Before the heron ever winked through the last

shimmering fragments of afternoon light,

before he flinched, lifted and tucked his right

leg (as a warning of the thunder he half-

concealed under his garment of feathers),

I already knew you had preceded

me and left footprints where the water had fled

the sand, careful to leave the sacred undisturbed.


And I knew father why this final sliver

of light should cut through the husk of sorrow,

why the deep tide-like rush of the heron’s

wings should stir no more from silence than our

countless journeys over the same reeds.  Our words,

                like oars, piercing the sky’s highlights and shadows



           At this point it might be important to digress slightly and elaborate on my philosophical perspective.  I am a Neo-Hegelian, which means that I take the Hegelian approach to interpreting reality and make it as concrete as possible by rooting it deeply in history.  An extreme oversimplification of the approach can be illustrated by a Triad.  The Absolute or The Idea or God exists in itself, reflecting only on itself.  This is the initial phase.  The Idea goes outside of itself in what is called the “Antithesis” to create.  This would be our universe devoid of the Idea.  The Idea then returns to itself by working through the Antithesis and persuading it toward perfection.  This is called the “Synthesis”.  I interpret everything within this basic philosophy, including the writing process.  I’ve even written poems directly addressing this approach.



            HEGEL’S “IDEA”




While you were out from us, in and of your

own reflective self, you were the essence

of Truth and Beauty, the absolute core

of Truth before the Idea could descend

into its own impregnations.  The Good,

without hands, clung to the barb of nothing

and circled in your mind like the misunderstood

concept without body, without being.


And then you entered us and fenced yourself

behind the barricades and barb wire,

where your Beauty endured its sunken face,

where Truth shattered as the gas pellets fell.

You slept with us as the conscience “disturbed,”

                the mangled Idea in its common grave.



            For my poetry, it is important to visually interpret those instances where transcendence is mangled in reality, and where we sometimes see that reality lifted beyond the norm, becoming something more than what is commonly visualized.  This is the purpose or function of my poetry.



            In addition to my formal studies, I would also have to say that my own historical background has significantly influenced my writing.  These influences include a tour of duty in Vietnam, and three years of work at the Ingham County Shelter Home in Lansing, Michigan for neglected and abused children.  I actually read Jurgen Moltmann's book, "The Crucified God" within the context of working at the shelter home.  I don't think I could have fully understood the concept of a God who is for the neglected without my experiences of dealing with these children on a day to day basis.  I think growing up in rural Michigan I found myself "sheltered" from some of the tougher issues facing people across the globe, or people dealing with inter-city life.  Believe me, reading some of those files brought me closer to who I should be more so than anything else. 


            Because of this background, I frequently take up the position of writing "for" those who cannot represent themselves.  I take up the place of the oppressed and the dismissed and put it in the shape of poetry.  An recent example follows, but this type of poem has been at the forefront from the very beginning.



             GOD AT  I-20


God was wearing a pair of faded

blue jeans and a soiled tee-shirt, screaming

at the blackbirds and smoke exhaust in the dead

language of some unknown tongue.  And the steaming

rage of the place was running down his brow

and into his eyes as if the world

had wrung itself through his body, the ground

that he stood on, and his battered self-will.


And in one of those rare moments when First Cause

or The Infinite accidentally connects

(when a stop light brings you face to face), you’d

swear that this could be your own father

and that for one instance (while you both share

            the same sky), you could be his only son.



            My approach to the sonnet could be summarized as follows:


                        a.  The sonnet is a philosophical form with a specific direction, drawing the reader into a specific conclusion and wrapping back toward the beginning of the poem.


                        b.  The sonnet is a dialectical form that can trigger the imagination with the introduction of rhyme or near-rhyme words at line endings.


                        c.  The sonnet is an epistemological form telling us "How we know ourselves".  This always involves the individual in dialogue with Nature, the Self, History, or others within History.


                        d.  The sonnet is a literary microcosm reflecting the ontological structure of life itself.  It shows the Idea in its many concretions working through the mundane and the ordinary.

                        e.  The sonnet is a representative form that takes up the place and the voice of "others" who do not have the power to speak for themselves.  It takes on the oppressed.


                        f.  And finally, the sonnet is "A little sound" (This is the literal translation of "Sonnet" from the Italian).  I like the idea of packing a profound sense of meaning in the brief span of fourteen lines.  These little sounds can miraculously astound us, if we let them.