I gave a poetry reading last night at the bookstore where I work. I don’t give poetry readings very often; maybe once or twice a year.
This reading was called ‘Sebastopol Sonnets’. It consisted primarily of sonnets composed by poets who live in my hometown of Sebastopol. I had become aware that some local poets were composing sonnets and I found some of them to be remarkably well done. So I got the idea of putting them together and making an evening of it.
I first got the idea of reading other poets' poems from Dana Gioia. As I remember, he made this suggestion in his essay ‘Can Poetry Matter’. He suggested that when poets give a reading that they include poems from other authors as well as their own work. This struck me as a great suggestion and I have followed up on it ever since. In fact, the majority of the poems I read will be by other authors. One advantage of this is that it allows me to carefully select from my own work poems that I think are really good. And it also allows me to include poems by authors I like and have proven influential in my own development. I like that sense of transparency; it allows the audience to see where some of my approaches have come from.
But last night was a celebration of the sonnet as it has manifested in the small town of Sebastopol. I started out with one Sonnet by Wyatt and one by Michael Drayton; just to set the historical context. Then I leaped forward in time to contemporary Sebastopol. I read from seven Sebastopol poets, including myself. It was fascinating to see how each poet shaped the form by their own interests and personalities. Some of the poets are well known, such as Dana Gioia; I read a sonnet from his latest collection Pity the Beautiful; but most us are known only locally.
I also included some sonnets by Lee Slonimsky. I read one sonnet each from Logician of the Wind and Pythagoras in Love. Slonimsky is a New York poet, but he has had a surprisingly strong presence here in Sebastopol because Slonimisky leads workshops in the area, regularly gives readings, and he has developed an almost mentor-like relationship to some of the local sonneteers. It therefore felt appropriate, comfortable, to include Slonimsky in the mix.
The highlight of the evening for me consisted of local poet Sandy Eastoak’s four collections of sonnets. Each of the four collections is a Crown of Sonnets. A ‘Crown of Sonnets’ consists of fifteen sonnets that are woven structurally together. The last line of the first sonnet becomes the first line of the second; then the last line of the second becomes the first line of the third, etc. In addition, the last sonnet, the fifteenth, consists of the first lines of all the previous fourteen sonnets in order. That is to say, the first line of the first sonnet is the first line of the last sonnet; and the first line of the second sonnet is the second line of the last sonnet, etc.
What is remarkable is how smoothly Eastoak accomplishes this, and how the sonnets build to the final sonnet in the Crown. Eastoak has four Crowns: Corona Flora, Corona Fauna, Corona Gaia, Corona Rhea. All four Crowns are nature centered and deeply embedded in the locale around Sebastopol. They are deeply rooted in place.
Here is one from Corona Flora
within the drifting clouds her high leaves doze,
await the yellow catalyst of sun.
in fragrant dirt, among the pebbles, run
the eager roots. each tip explores & grows
through stones, around the pipes & under brick.
from fingered net of nourishment the trunk
arises dark & silent as a monk.
its meditation flows through branches thick
& gnarled. the younger limbs twist round the air
& lift the glossy green & pointed lobes.
below, a woman steps into the shade
against the bark she leans her cheek & hair.
the oak along her flow lines gently probes,
then balance is restored through soft cascade.
The rhyme scheme is a-b-b-a/c-d-d-c/e-f-g-e-f-g; which Eastoak uses consistently in the Crowns. In 'oak' the rhyme scheme feels tighter because the vowel sound of the pairs sun/run and trunk/monk are strongly linked.
At first this rhyme scheme sounds Petrarchan, but a traditional Petrarchan Sonnet has only five rhymes. Eastoak’s modification has the same number of rhymes as a Shakespearean sonnet; seven. This makes it somewhat easier for the English language. Clearly Eastoak is at home with this rhyme scheme. Perhaps we can call it the Eastoakian rhyme scheme? Just kidding: still the regular use of this rhyme scheme as one reads through the Crown is a profoundly unifying element and helps hold all the sonnets together. Since the last line of Sonnet X becomes the first line of Sonnet X + 1, that also means that the concluding rhyme of Sonnet X becomes the opening rhyme of Sonnet X + 1, which makes for a sonically smooth flow as one moves forward through the Crown series.
One of the things I find attractive about Eastoak is that she is equally at home in both free and formal verse. That is also true of Slonimsky, who has been a significant presence for Eastoak. I closed the evening with the sonnet Mystery from Slonimisky’s ‘Pythagoras in Love’. It feels appropriate to conclude this post with that same sonnet:
These shadows spell a word, while roses dance
around late sunlight’s edges in the merge
of day and dusk, before the night’s black surge
brings on moon’s scimitar, starlight’s white trance.
He wonders if the word’s been spelled by chance,
if roses’ revelry emerges from
the chaos of a void, if death’s black fruit
is all that will reward his long pursuit
of sensate harmony, math-ordered form,
if nothingness now looms, the last theorem.
“Aglow” is softly blurred by slow twilight,
as chilly breezes hint eternity;
but roses still excite and soothe his sight,
as evening conjures scarlet mysteries.
Pythagoras in Love
You can contact Sandy Eastoak at: email@example.com