Long before it was fashionable I was a devotee of recycling material, in particular writing I had done earlier and that I felt could be updated and improved — well, maybe improved. For instance, the earliest creative material I ever published in a professional journal was “My Father and I,” a short story that I entered in a contest for high school students sponsored by a local newspaper — I don’t recall whether it was the Morning Record or the evening Journal — in Meriden, Connecticut, during the summer of 1949 when I was fifteen years old and about to enter Meriden High School. It was a very corny piece of work, of course, about a fishing trip that a boy (not me) took with his father (not mine: he was a preacher and didn’t fish except for souls), but it won third prize. Many years later I rewrote it and used it as a portion of “The Gunner’s Story” which was part of a fictive trilogy titled “Shipmates,” published in the Spring 1978 issue of The Colorado-North Review where it was transformed from a hunk of sentimental goop into a horrendous death scene. The story was included in my book titled The Museum of Ordinary People in 2008.
Of the three poems titled “Venal Songs,” below, the first one, “Selene,” was originally written while I was serving after high school as an enlisted man in the U. S. Navy during the early 1950s. Titled “Endymion” at first, it was composed as a triversen, a form invented and often used by William Carlos Williams that calls for variable accentual prosody and no rhymes at all. It was first published in The American Scholar in 1962.
The second poem, “Leola,” was written at about the same time and in the same form. It appeared in The Midwest Quarterly in 1960.
“Venus,” the third poem, was written as a “free verse” prose poem at about the same time, but it didn’t appear in a journal until 1966 when it was used by American Weave, a Cleveland publication. All these poems appeared in their original forms in a hectographed typescript titled Day After History that I had bound in Washington, D. C., where I was stationed at the Bureau of Naval Personnel, and gave to a dozen friends when I was discharged in 1956.
All three poems were rewritten as sonnets much later — I don’t remember exactly when. They appeared in their current form in Maine Taproot: An Anthology of Verse Edited by Margaret Rockwell Finch and others, published by the Maine Poets Society in 2010; “Venus” also appeared as “Venal Song,” in Hot Sonnets edited by Moira Egan and Clarinda Harriss, from Entasis Press in 2011:
A Choker of Sonnets
You've lost at this game of love, Endymion,
And so have I. The forfeiture is steep
For those who would contend. Selene has won.
One seldom wins at last, for it is sleep
That triumphs after all. There is your vale,
Endymion: you slumber while the hounds
Hunt their quarry. Your mistress will prevail
At masques and balls. She makes her evening rounds
While you pursue your dreams. She knows that sport
Is in the sap and blood of spring, not shadow.
Selene will choose the quick for her consort,
The play of moonlight in a summer meadow.
Will you dream on, Endymion, to rue
The pulsing game your mistress offers you?
It goes away, Leola, as the rabble
Hooves have gone. The prairies linger. None,
No, none may know the stallion with his sable
Mane for long, nor his desire. Gone
Are the souls of brontosaurs; they’ve run
Their feather courses long ago, Leola.
This is true, though: oceans dwell as one
Among the continents. Look through a hollow
Rush, Leola: sight is vaguely dry
And limited, although the hint of light
Arrows down the reed to meet the eye
And pierce the iris in its yoke of white.
Put down the hollow reed now. Let it be.
Peer through your flesh or mine. What do you see?
Hour on hour I've wandered Venus' arbor
Looking for the sun. All I encounter
Is dappled leaves and lichen. In her bower
She stands disarmed. Each time I try to mount her
I fall unmembered to the harlot moss,
The victim of her concrete passion, dazzled
And confused. I try to fit my loss
Into her cross words, but my mind is puzzled —
Incomplete and wretched intellect
Is hardly help at all. Before the tomb
Of love I stand and pray to be elect,
To be at one with her in her blue womb,
For there at least and last I could not fault her,
And I'd have no more reason to assault her.
Alas! and alack thereof, I am constrained to say that the only one of these three sonnets that is an improvement over its original is the third one.
The editors of, and some of the contributors to Hot Sonnets will read poems from the anthology at the Exploring Form and Narrative Poetry Conference of the West Chester University in Pennsylvania on Wednesday, June 8th, 2013, from 10:00 to 11:30 a.m.