Poetic transformation

June 2nd, 2008

I wrote this poem about a year ago, in the Poetry Thursday days (I was writing on a different blog then) and have been trying to turn it into a villanelle (there’s a good discussion of  the form here). I almost always write in free verse; when I write to a form it seems to me that it’s pretty obvious that I’m not comfortable with the structure. My sonnets feel like diddys, my villanelles come out sing-songy. It takes a truly light hand to use forms to enhance the content rather than allow the content become slave to the form. I don’t think I have that touch.

With that in mind, this weeks’ ReadWritePoem prompt – to rewrite a formal poem in another form – was a perfect time to return to work on my villanelle; I’d set it aside a long time ago. Technically, I’m not quite responding to the prompt; we’re supposed to take a formal poem and transform it to another form and I’m taking free verse (but with a structure) and turning it into a formal poem. Still, it does demonstrate how changing the form transforms the poem.

Here’s the orignal free verse poem:

Fresh water fugue

My father was a fisherman.
The rivers he fished echo through the summers of my childhood like a fugue.
Their names are smooth and round in my mouth
like the river rocks I rolled in my hands as a child:
the Yellowstone and the Firehole,
the Snake and the Missouri,
the Big Lost and the Big Wood.
The Madison.

My father was a fisherman.
I grew up bathed in the light of his long love affair
with the waters of the American west.
Trained by an angling eye, I learned to worship
the Yellowstone and the Firehole,
the Snake and the Missouri,
the Big Lost and the Big Wood.
The Madison.

My father was a fisherman.
He lived many miles from the headwaters of his heart
but summer after summer he fished those rivers
and summer after summer those rivers restored him:
the Yellowstone and the Firehole,
the Snake and the Missouri,
the Big Lost and the Big Wood.
The Madison.

My father was a fisherman.
From him I learned the rhythms of happiness,
rhythms of happiness that flow at the pace of trout streams.
Like a cygnet I imprinted on the river valleys of
the Yellowstone and the Firehole,
the Snake and the Missouri,
the Big Lost and the Big Wood.
The Madison.

My father was a fisherman.
He gave me gifts that glistened like the scales of a brook trout,
gifts I used hard and fierce without thought to value
the way children use gifts, their measure taken only years later:
the Yellowstone and the Firehole,
the Snake and the Missouri,
the Big Lost and the Big Wood.
The Madison.

My father was a fisherman.
Though I have watched the sun rise over the Grand Canyon
and seen it set on the Swiss Alps
at night when I dream my heart dreams of
the Yellowstone and the Firehole,
the Snake and the Missouri,
the Big Lost and the Big Wood.
The Madison.

For my father was fisherman.
And perhaps there is river water in my blood
or some gene my father handed down.
Or perhaps it is simply that we love best those things that we loved first:
the Yellowstone and the Firehole,
the Snake and the Missouri,
the Big Lost and the Big Wood.
The Madison.

#

Now here’s the villanelle:

Fresh water fugue

My father was a fisherman.
His heart began to beat
in autumn when the brook trout ran

churning river rocks and sand.
At the headwaters of his heart
my father was a fisherman.

His river home, the Madison
and river water in his blood
in autumn when the brook trout ran

pulled my father off the land.
At the headwaters of his heart
my father was a fisherman

all the years I knew the man.
He hatched his most honest self
in autumn when the brook trout ran.

It’s the single truth I know.
If but one memory holds:
my father was a fisherman
in autumn when the brook trout ran.

#

The orignal free verse poem is actually a cannibalized essay. I like that I’ve gone from 3000 words to 56 lines to 19 lines. I think by the time I get it right, by the time I say the one true thing about my father I’ve been trying to say since he died almost 20 years ago, it will be a haiku. It would satisfy the fly-fisherman in him for me to tell the greatest truth with the fewest words. He knew the pleasures of landing a big trout with a light touch. 

You can read more transformations here.

 


4 Responses to “Poetic transformation”

  1. christine on June 2, 2008 11:55 pm

    I really like both poems. It seems natural that you would choose the former to put into a vilanelle, considering the refrains. The free verse poem reminds me of a river, with the refrains acting like bends.

    The villanelle is more like a song, and in that way you capture the original essence of the form, and not sing-songey at all. Nice work! do you think you’ll try this kind of revision process again?

  2. Crafty Green Poet on June 3, 2008 9:05 am

    I like both poems and the choice of villanelle for the rewrite was perfect, as Christine points out too

  3. durable pigments on June 4, 2008 11:37 am

    Wow, Jennifer… I love these transformations! Both poems are lovely, and as christine said above, this does seem like a natural transformation for this poem. I agree that the villanelle is not at all sing-songy. It has a very pleasant, gentle rocking rhythm to it and a lot of quiet power. Very nice!

  4. sister AE on June 17, 2008 6:34 am

    I like both the free verse and the villanelle, but I must say that I miss the names of the other rivers in the villanelle. I guess that’s a reason to keep the free verse version around as well!

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