Sunday, January 30, 2011

Dede Wilson’s Terrific Little Poetry Handbook

NOTE: since this blog is about both food and literature, it is important to be clear which Dede Wilson is being discussed here: the author of the little book featured in this post is a North Carolina poet, and NOT the Dede Wilson from Amherst, Massachusetts, who is – among many other things – Contributing Editor to Bon Appetit magazine and the author of the food blog, For the Love of Food .

I discovered Dede Wilson's poetry collection, One Nightstand (published in 2001 and available from the publisher, Main Street Rag) at one of the North Carolina Writer's Network (NCWN) conferences several years ago.  This delightful little book consists of 36 poems followed by a 17 page poetry class, all wrapped up into an incredibly succinct poetry handbook. In fact, this is one of those “desert island books,” the kind you would take along if you could only take one suitcase full of books: there would be others in the bag as well, of course, but it would be a foolish act bordering on the criminal not to take this one.

I have always liked Lewis Turco’s handbook, The New Book of Forms (see the Poetry and Prose section of Favorite Goodies from the Noodle Doodler at the end of this post), which lists a lot more forms than One Nightstand does, and it discusses some of them in much greater detail. For example, Wilson’s description of the sestina is two paragraphs occupying less than half a page, while Turco’s description is just over four pages and includes diagrams to help illustrate how this complicated poetic form is constructed. On the other hand, the great thing about Dede Wilson’s collection is that she illustrates each of the forms she discusses with one or more of her own poems.  She gives a brief but surprisingly detailed discussion of the form chosen for each of her poems in the section at the back of the book, with a workable definition of the form, typically some comments on its history, and definitions (or pointers to definitions, included nearby) of important related terms. For example, to understand blank verse – most commonly consisting of lines of unrhymed iambic pentameter – it is important to understand what iambic pentameter is. Wilson gives a one page summary of blank verse, distinguishing it from free verse, while on the facing page, she defines both iambs and pentameter. To complete the picture, she also gives – in three pages – a historical overview of free verse covering everything from contemporary poets espousing or rejecting it to some degree or other, to Walt Whitman’s publication of Leaves of Grass in 1885 and back again.  (According to the Benet Reader's Encyclopedia entry on Whitman, after Leaves of Grass became popular, Whitman was dismissed from his government position for having written an immoral book.) While most of Wilson’s poems are done in specific forms, she does include three free verse examples of her own (perhaps “two and a half” would be a better description: her poem “Undressing Billy Collins” is described as “free verse ending in a couplet”).

The forms that Wilson’s book covers range from extremely well known ones like the sonnet, the haiku, and even the limerick, to somewhat less well known examples like the triolet and the ghazal.  She even includes two forms that you won't find in Turco's compendium: the minute and the quatern. The minute is a 60 syllable form invented by the American poet Verna Lee Linxwiler Hinegardner, who was poet laureate of the state of Arkansas until she was de-throned in 2003 (apparently, prior to Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee’s appointing Hinegardner’s successor, it had been traditional for the state’s poet laureate position to be a lifetime appointment. For a more complete discussion, see the website HinegardnerLink). This interesting poetic form consists of three stanzas, each four lines long with syllable counts 8, 4, 4, and 4, and a fixed rhyme scheme (aabb ccdd eeff). Wilson credits Cathy Smith Bowers – who has just been named poet laureate of North Carolina – with bringing “this virtually unknown form into focus” with the publication of her collection, The Book of Minutes consisting entirely of poems in this form (it is available from Amazon: see the Poetry and Poetics section of Favorite Goodies from the Noodle Doodler at the bottom of this page).

The quatern is another interesting poetic form, and Wilson’s book was my introduction to it, an introduction that was extremely beneficial, as I will explain presently. Like the much better known villanelle and pantoum forms – both defined and illustrated in Wilson’s book – the quatern is based on repeated lines and a fixed rhyme scheme. Specifically, the quatern consists of four, four-line stanzas where the first line of the first stanza becomes the second line of the second stanza, the third of the third, and finally concludes the poem as the last line of the last stanza. The rhyme scheme for the first and third stanzas is abab, while that for the second and fourth stanzas is baba. The form was invented by Vivian Yeiser Laramore, the poet laureate of Florida from 1931 to 1975.  My own particular fondness for the quatern form stems from the fact that it resulted in one of the few poems I have so far managed to get published. This one appeared in the 2009 issue of Alehouse Press:

Rhapsody in People

Purple people-eaters eating

people with purple potatoes

at the annual business meeting.

First course: elbows and tomatoes,

followed next by toes alfredo.

Purple people-eaters eating

are fussy creatures, dontchankow?

Special main course of the evening:

a secret people seasoning

on cattlemen from Loredo,

purple people-eaters eating

popular cowboy tornedos,

served in little Winnebegos

made for convenient re-heating

later in the busy week ahead, those

purple people-eaters eating.

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