Stumbling Upon Syllabic Verse
A Review of A. E. Stallings “Olives”
I enjoy it when I stumble upon syllabic verse in unexpected places. In particular, when I am reading a poet who is not known for taking a syllabic approach, and then I find some syllabic verse, usually tucked away in the middle of a volume, it gives me a sense of satisfaction. Because I am interested in English language syllabic verse, and because a syllabic approach to English language poetry is still marginal, having such verse appear in unexpected places resembles for me a prospector finding a few choice nuggets. It also signals to me that syllabic verse is becoming more of an acceptable option in English language poetry circles.
These encounters are of two types. The first type is when a free verse poet decides to write some syllabic verse. The second type is when a metrical poet decides to engage with some specific syllabic form. (Because syllabic verse is still a fringe approach for English language poetry it is extremely rare to find a poet who does not have a non-syllabic background; the only exception I know of is Elizabeth Daryush.)
I always learn something from these encounters because the poets bring to the task of writing syllabically their own background, talents, and tendencies, based on their standard approach to poetry. For example, Hayden Carruth’s Haiku have the jagged syntax typical of his free verse. I learned from Carruth’s Haiku how it is possible to have a very dense phrase structure; it surprised me how Carruth was able to do this and gave me an opening to a new way of looking at a Haiku line. Another example is Mary Jo Salter’s Haiku, which have a lyrical quality to them and a sparkling sense of image and metaphor. Richard Wilbur’s Haiku Stanzas use rhyme so skillfully, and in a way I haven’t been used to, that they also teach another way to organize Haiku lineation. Salter and Wilbur are metrical poets and bring a strong sense of rhythm to their syllabic poems based on that affiliation.
A recent example of this kind of encounter is A. E. Stallings’ newest book, “Olives”, published in 2012. I have read Stallings earlier book, “Hapax”; which I believe is her second collection. I haven’t read her first collection.
Stallings already has garnered many awards and honors. She is a metrical poet of great skill; she reminds me of Richard Wilbur, but more sardonic (see, for example her poem in “Olives” titled “The Mother’s Loathing of Balloons”). I particularly enjoy her sonnets where her constructions are deft and enticing. Stallings also is a master rhymester, often surprising us with the breadth of the field of rhyme she draws from.
Because of Stallings focus on the traditional metrical approach to poetry, it came as a pleasant surprise to find in “Olives” four Fibonacci poems. She refers to them collectively as “Four Fibs”, capitalizing on the affectionate nickname for Fibonacci.
As in previous encounters of this type, Stallings brings with her to a syllabic form the distinctive qualities of her primary focus; that is to say I can recognize the metrical background in her Fibonacci. She also incorporates a lot of rhyme into her Fibonacci which, again, is brought over from her great skill in rhyming metrical verse.
Here is the first Fibonacci from ‘Four Fibs’:
over the apple?
Eavesdropping Adam heard her say
to the snake-oil salesman she was not born yesterday.
This is a great example of a Fibonacci. The lineation is clear, mostly due to the skillful use of rhyme. The rhyme scheme is A-B-B-C-C-D-D. After the initial Line 1, we have a series of rhymed couplets and even though the lines are of irregular length, it holds together because the rhyme signals to the reader where the line breaks fall. Also worth noting is the repetition of rhyme for the initial syllable in lines 2, 3, and 6.
It’s worth noting that two of the other Fibs have rhyme schemes that are even tighter than this one, using only three rhymes. The last Fib uses five.
Also included in “Olives” are a set of Haiku Stanzas titled, ‘Blackbird Etude’. Like Richard Wilbur, Stallings incorporates the rhyme scheme such that the first and third lines of each stanza end-rhyme. And like Wilbur’s stanzas there is that pleasing balance of rhyme-defined run-on lines combined with lines where the rhyme and grammatical structure coincide. ‘Blackbird Etude’ is a nature poem; imbibing the nature centered esthetic of traditional Haiku, focusing in particular on the territorial call of blackbirds. Here are the concluding verses:
It sounds like ardor,
it sounds like joy. We are glad
here at the border
where he signs the air
with his invisible staves,
TRESSPASSERS BEWARE –
song as survival –
a kind of pure music which
we cannot rival.
It has been my observation that most poets who come to syllabic verse do so from free verse; that was my own route. Because free verse has a strong tendency to avoid rhyme poets who come to syllabic verse from free verse have a tendency to mimic that avoidance of rhyme when they grapple with a syllabic form. Again, that was my personal tendency for a number of years. The breakthrough for me was discovering Emily Dickinson; she showed me how effective rhyme can be in short form verse and really opened me up to rhyme in a syllabic context even though Dickinson herself is a metrical poet.
Metrical poets who decide to compose in a syllabic form tend to be more open to the usage of rhyme in a syllabic context. This is because defining lines through rhyme is standard in metrical verse; so it is, I suspect, almost instinctive for a metrical poet to bring their well-honed skill in rhyming to a syllabic context. Both Richard Wilbur and, now, A. E. Stallings are examples of this.
The Stallings Fibonacci are all seven lines long, which is one line longer than most Fibonacci I have seen. The syllable count for a seven line Fibonacci is: 1-1-2-3-5-8-13. Stallings’ works contain examples of short lined and long lined poems; so I can see how she would enjoy going for the slightly longer count.
“Olives” also contains sonnets in various, and sometimes startling, configurations; my favorite is ‘Fairy-Tale Logic’. And there is a compelling Villanelle, ‘Burned’. And, of course, there are other poems that are well honed metrical lyrics. All the poems are carefully crafted through the skillful metrical approach that is central to her work. The whole volume is a treat. Get a copy; I think you will enjoy it.
(Olives, A. E. Stallings, Triquarterly Books, Northwestern University Press, ISBN: 9780810152267, $16.95, Published 2012)