Recent Publication: Third Coast

I happy to announce that I have a poem in the most recent issue of Third Coast, the literary magazine housed at Western Michigan University. It’s called “Retaliation,” and it’s a poem that I’ve been particularly excited about, because of how it channels a whole bunch of my personal obsessions into a single work. Perhaps you’ll indulge me if I elaborate for a little bit. (That, and since the poem is in print I feel bad about not having anything to link to.)

First, there’s the subject matter. “Retaliation” is addressed to Todd Bertuzzi, a former hockey player who was the assailant in one of the most brazen instances of in-game violence that I can remember. On March 8, 2004, in the third period of lopsided game between the Vancouver Canucks and the Colorado Avalanche, Bertuzzi grabbed Colorado center Steve Moore from behind, punched him in the back of the head, and drove him head-first onto the ice, breaking several of Moore’s neck vertebrae. Moore would never play hockey again, and Bertuzzi faced criminal charges for his actions.

The incident has stuck with ever since, largely because I saw a lot of replays of Bertuzzi’s sucker punch while watching SportsCenter; the footage became by version of the Zapruder film. But I was also haunted by the reactions of the broadcasters and the crowd. If you watch the footage of the incident, the moment that Bertuzzi punches Moore you’ll hear the play-by-play announcer’s voice perk up excitedly and the crowd begin to cheer. It takes good while for everyone involved to realize the extent of Moore’s injuries, and then the mood shifts drastically; the whole game, as it were, crashes into a wall.

That brings me to the thematic content of the poem, which revolves around the concept of the magic circle. “Magic circle” is a term appropriated from Johan Huizinga’s book Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture to describe the constructed world in which a game takes place, where the rules of the everyday world are set aside and in-game actions are, by and large, metaphorical. While this notion of the magic circle goes back to the work of game designers Eric Zimmerman, Frank Lantz, and Katie Salen, I first became aware of it from an episode of the YouTube series Errant Signal discussing a video game called, appropriately, The Magic Circle.

Now, everyone agrees that, if games exist within a magic circle, the boundary between the game world and the everyday world is very porous. But Bertuzzi’s actions did not merely represent a crossing of that boundary; it came close to erasing that boundary completely. All play came to a halt, spectators became eyewitnesses, and both men would enter a years-long legal process as a direct result. This was no longer a game; it was a current event and a moral crisis.

Lastly, we come to the form. I’d had this basic idea for a poem—tying the Bertuzzi incident to the magic circle concept—stuck in my head for a good while, but I could never get it down on paper in a way that remotely satisfied me. That is, until I decided to show my students “Lake Sonnet” by Anne Marie Rooney (which you can read here) as an example of how poets play with the sonnet form. In this poem, and several other by Rooney, she follows a Petrarchan rhyme scheme but only uses “identical rhymes” (i.e., rhyming words with themselves or with homophones). It works especially well in “Lake Sonnet,” as the repetition of end words highlights the speaker’s monotonous sexual encounters: “I,” “men,” “our,” “breaks”.

I had personally done imitation exercises based on Rooney’s poems in the past, but it was only after teaching it that I realized that this structure—an identically rhymed sonnet—might be a good fit for the poem I’d been trying to write. Hearing the same words over and over again could be used to trap the poem in a particular moment, and there’s something wonderfully “circular” about all this repetition. A few hours later I had a draft; a few months worth of tweaks later and I had the poem in its current shape.

At time of writing there is no link to purchase the latest issue of Third Coast, but hopefully that will change in the near future. In the meantime, you can purchase back issues of Third Coast via their website.

Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias”: An Analysis

Percy Bysshe ShelleyThis month’s poem analysis is a first for the blog: a reader suggestion! In the comments section for my post on Charlotte Smith’s “Written in the Church Yard at Middleton in Sussex” (which you can read here), Elizabeth of Serial Outlet recommended that I take a look at an English class staple: Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias.” About four months later, and here we are!

I’ve put off diving into this particular poem for two reasons. First, having just covered a sonnet by a Romantic-era poet when I got the suggestion, I didn’t want to pigeonhole myself right out of the gate as someone stuck in that style and time period. Second, and more importantly, I felt a bit overwhelmed by the task. Of all the poem’s I’ve given the close reading treatment, “Ozymandias” is by the far the most famous. People who haven’t read a poem in decades remember this one from high school. As such, while I let the poem stew in my mind, I felt some pressure to do the work justice, to contribute something of value to the conversation surrounding it.

Granted, the way this essay is headed, that pressure may have been misplaced. Let’s jump right in, shall we?


I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

At first glance, this looks like a straightforward account of hubris. The statue of Ozymandias (i.e., Ramesses II of ancient Egypt) boasts of the pharaoh’s grand works, all of which now lie in ruin. Even the highest among us are not immune to the ravages of time; we all are bound to erode into “lone and level sands” (line 14). A simple message, albeit very grandly stated. But I think the poem has more on its mind than that, and it might help to start with how the poem’s account is presented.

Let’s begin by taking the text of the poem as a self-contained unit, like we’ve found it on an ancient sheet of papyrus with no context to guide us. The first word of the poem, “I,” presents us with the voice of some unknown first-person speaker, suggesting that what follows is some personal testament. Having implicitly introduced themselves, the speaker then begins narrating their experience, of how they “met a traveler from an antique land” (line 1). This sounds like the set-up for a story, but this already is the end of the story-present narrative.

In the second line, the poem then shifts into the voice of the traveler, as the first-person speaker relates their description of the sculpture—a description which comprises the remainder of the poem. There is some ambiguity as to whether the description is a direct quotation or a paraphrase, as it lacks the quotation marks which will later bound the inscription, but even in the latter case the speaker’s own voice would be sublimated to the traveler’s original account.

This account then continues uninterrupted up through line 9, at which point the traveler inserts a signal phrase, drawing attention to the coming second shift in perspective: “And on the pedestal these words appear”. It is here that the ruins speak, issuing their challenge to all who behold them. Once the inscription is recited, the poem shifts back into the voice of the traveler, who carries the poem to its conclusion.

But arguably, we are not done breaking down the rhetorical nesting here. On a meta level, we know that the poem is work of one particular author, Shelley, who per traditional analysis of poetry is a separate entity from the first-person speaker. On a diegetic level, we know that the statue of Ozymandias has an artist, who gave the the statue its inscription. And on a speculative level, Ozymandias is unlikely to have made the statue himself; he may have commissioned it, or the artist may adopted the pharaoh’s persona for the inscription.

So to summarize, here’s how deeply this 14-line poem embeds its story:

  1. It is the work of Percy Bysshe Shelley, who in writing it…
  2. …adopts the voice of a lyrical, first-person speaker, who then…
  3. …tells the audience an account he that heard from the traveler, who in turn…
  4. …quotes a statue’s inscription, which…
  5. …was the product of an unknown artist, who finally…
  6. …adopts or quotes the voice of Ozymandias.

That’s six levels of abstraction that Shelley’s poem presents the reader with. I don’t know about you, but that seems like a long way to go just point out the hubris of world leaders. So why bother with all that embedding?

You’ll notice that two of the voices involved in the poem are those of artists: Shelley (the flesh-and-blood person) and whoever sculpted the statue of the Ozymandias. If there’s one group of people that spend more time thinking about their legacies than do pharaohs, then it’s artists. A common sentiment that one finds in poetry about art is the notion that art grants one a kind of immortality. Even after one dies, the thinking goes, their works will outlast them and carry their spirit through the ages.

As “Ozymandias” reminds us, however, this notion borders on wishful thinking. We don’t know the artist behind the sculpture here, and we had to engage in some diegetic speculation to realize that such a person even existed. And their work’s existence is just as tenuous. Now reduced to “vast and trunkless legs of stone” (line 2), “a shattered visage” (line 4), and a pedestal, the statue is only a few steps removed from complete destruction. This is hardly a unique phenomenon: Paintings are lost and damaged, cathedrals crumble from neglect, and sculptures of kings wither in the elements.

One might think that poetry, which is not so tied to the fragile physical world, would be better suited for immortality than the plastic arts. We cannot commit a sculpture to memory, but we can do so with a poem. And this possibility is where I find “Ozymandias” most intriguing.

As mentioned in my throat-clearing introduction above, “Ozymandias” is a sonnet, albeit one with an unconventional rhyme scheme (ababacdcedefef). More so than any other form of poetry, sonnets often concern themselves with the possibility of immortality through art. This is especially true when it comes to romantic love, as the speaker will often promise the object of their affections, whose beauty will naturally fade with time, the chance to live forever in their poetry. A good example, which I will quote in full because of some similarities with “Ozymandias” in terms of imagery, is Edmund Spenser’s Amoretti LXXV (archaic spellings preserved):

Amoretti LXXV

One day I wrote her name upon the strand,
But came the waves and washèd it away:
Agayne I wrote it with a second hand,
But came the tyde, and made my paynes his pray.
Vayne man, sayd she, that doest in vaine assay,
A mortall thing so to immortalize,
For I my selve shall lyke to this decay,
And eek my name bee wypèd out lykewize.”
Not so, (quod I) let baser things devize
To dy in dust, but you shall live by fame:
My verse your vertues rare shall eternize,
And in the hevens wryte your glorious name:
Where whenas death shall all the world subdew,
Our love shall live, and later life renew.”

Spenser’s sonnet is a compelling digression here, because while the poet’s optimism gets the last word, the brief glimpse of the physical world that we’re presented with seems to support the beloved’s skeptical position. If we see how the ocean keeps wrecking the poet’s inscription on the sand, who is to say that a fire or a bookworm might not do the same to an inscription in parchment?

I get the sense that Shelley’s poem would side with Spenser’s beloved on the matter, as it too presents us with a world too fragile for much to persevere. One might suggest that the oral tradition will protect the work from decay. After all, the statue in some sense has survived the six levels of abstraction outlined above. But what, exactly, has survived that process? Certainly not the empire-building magnificence the statue was meant to project. And if Shelley were to recite this poem to us in conversation, which part would we ultimately take away and tell to others: the whole text, the traveler’s account, or the inscription? Even that which survives is prone to mutation through repeated tellings.

“Ozymandias” is not the only sonnet uncertain about the form’s traditional stance on immortality through art—Shakespeare’s Sonnet LXV (“[Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea]”) is also uneasy on the matter—but I can’t think of many others which make such a depressing case with such verve.

And we must conclude with the unavoidable irony: this poem, which is about what doesn’t survive through the centuries, has in fact survived for two centuries. So far. Knock on wood.

There’s my take. But what are all your thoughts on the poem? If, like Elizabeth, you have a suggestion for a future deep dive, then let me know in the comments!

If you enjoyed this close reading of a poem, perhaps you would also like to read my thoughts on prose. I recently looked at the use of dark humor in George Orwell’s memoir Homage to Catalonia, which you can read here.

Charlotte Smith’s “Written in the Church Yard at Middleton in Sussex”: An Analysis

Charlotte SmithLet’s take a deep dive into a poem, shall we?

I first became aware of Charlotte Smith’s poetry during the first semester of my MFA, when, for reasons I won’t bore you with, I had to recite her “Ode to Death” for workshop. I distinctly remember its accepting attitude towards its subject—not quite Dickinson’s friendly relationship with it in “[Because I could not stop for death],” but still cordial, curious even.

Recently I decided to look through more of her work, and lo and behold, the first of her poems in The Norton Anthology of Poetry deals with a similar theme:

“Written in the Church Yard at Middleton in Sussex”

Pressed by the moon, mute arbitress of tides,
While the long equinox its power combines,
The sea no more its swelling surge confines,
But o’er the shrinking land sublimely rides.
The wild blast, rising from the western cave,
Drives the huge billows from their heaving bed,
Tears from their grassy tombs the village dead,
And breaks the silent sabbath of the grave.
With shells and seaweed mingled, on the shore
Lo! their bones whiten in the frequent wave;
But vain to them the winds and waters rave;
They hear the warring elements no more:
While I am doomed, by life’s long storm oppressed,
To gaze with envy on their gloomy rest.

There’s a lot we can, and will, talk about here, but this being a sonnet, why don’t we start with the turn in the final couplet?

The ending of this poem is somewhat odd, even unsettling. After three quatrains of detached observations of a coastal graveyard, the speaker turns to her own, morbid concerns: she is “doomed” to “envy…their gloomy rest.” Not only is this turn emotionally dispiriting, but it also seems to rest on a false premise: what “gloomy rest” is there in this graveyard?

In “The Sonnets of Charlotte Smith” (published in Critical Survey 4.1, pp. 9-21, 1992), Stella Brooks focuses on the poem’s diction to get to the heart of the apparent contradiction. Although the speaker

longs for their oblivion for herself…the preceding violation of the “silent sabbath” of the graves, the shock of the “village dead” being “torn” from their tombs by the “huge billows,” the “raving” of the “winds and waters” have suggested anything but the claimed oblivion; the graves have been disturbed, there is no “gloomy rest” for their inmates. (p. 14)

Of course, Brooks does not see this discrepancy between the speaker’s description of the graveyard and her interpretation of it as a flaw in the poem. Rather, that discrepancy is emblematic of a “turbulent Romantic fantasy” (p. 14). The speaker has a need to express her heightened emotions, in spite of the constraints placed upon her.

I’d like to push Brooks’ reading a bit further, for the poem strains against more than just the facts of the case. The formal elements of a poem, after all, are another kind of constraint. In case of this sonnet, elements that would ordinarily suggest calm and composure in fact hold back an uncontrolled force of emotion.

To start, let’s continue talking about endings: line-endings. A quick glance reveals that of the sonnet’s 14 lines, 13 of them end with some form of punctuation, from the brief pause of a comma to the heavy stop of a period. End-paused lines are famous for slowing the pace at which one reads a poem, as they represent both the end of a unit of syntax (a phrase or a clause) and a unit of verse (a line). Further, when end-paused lines occur with such regularity, they give the poem another measured music in addition to the meter (more on which later).

There’s only one line in Smith’s sonnet, line 9, which lacks end-pausing punctuation, and naturally this moment represents a turning point in the poem: “on the shore / Lo! their bones whiten”. It’s an awkward line-ending, as the next line all but starts with terminal punctuation, with that exclamation point coming just one syllable in. The poem’s rhythm staggers right as the speaker confronts the full extent of the graveyard’s damage. The speaker has mentioned how the sea has degraded the graveyard prior to this, but those descriptions tend towards abstraction: “village dead,” “the silent sabbath of the grave.” Here, though, death is rendered concrete: whitened bones “with shells and seaweed mingled.”

Now, line 9 may be the point where the poem’s composure completely dissolves, but Smith has been building up to this moment throughout the first two quatrains.  The apparent calm in the lead-up is illusory. For one thing, the sound-play in the first eight lines is incredibly emphatic. The first two rhymes are on the similar-sounding [aɪdz] (“tides”/”rides”) and [aɪnz] (“combines”/”confines”), with either sound amplifying the other. Internally, the lines are super-charged with repeated sounds: “Pressed”/”arbitress” and “moon”/”mute” in line 1, the double alliteration of “huge billows” and “heaving bed” in line 5, the sibilance of “breaks the silent sabbath” in line 8, and so forth.

It’s difficult to read this poem aloud without feeling a bit pompous, the sound-play is so heavy and the lines so measured. One imagines Smith declaiming this piece to the decay before her, arms raised to the heavens like a capital-R Romantic heroine, trying to convey her emotions to the spirits. But behind all that power, there’s also strain, and that strain comes through in the poem’s meter.

The first quatrain scans pretty regularly for a sonnet, with no line straying too far from iambic pentameter. Line 1 has an authoritative initial trochee (“Pressed by | the moon…”) and line 2 starts with a double iamb (“While the | loud e | quinox…”), but beyond those two substitutions, it’s four lines of forceful iambs. (Even if we give “power” its modern two-syllable scansion, the stresses stay on the same syllables in the line; the anapest changes very little.) What’s more, the stresses keeps accentuating words relating to strength: “pressed,” “loud,” “power” “swelling surge.”  If not for the rhyme, I could almost see King Lear reciting these lines on the stormy heath.

But the second quatrain does not scan so easily. Consider lines 5 and 6:

The wild blast, rising from the western cave,
Drives the huge billows from their heaving bed

Forcing these lines to fit the mold of iambic pentameter is a challenge. The mid-line comma and the possibility of pronouncing “wild” as two syllables suggest we scan the first three words as two iambs (“The wi | ld blast“). The rest of line 5, meanwhile, has a fairly intuitive cadence: “ris | ing from | the wes | tern cave.” Putting both parts together, though, we end up with six stresses instead of five. We can either demote “from” to an unstressed syllable, which maintains the semantic emphases but producing an ungainly scansion (“The wi | ld blastrising | from the wes|tern cave“), or we can elide “wild” into one syllable and demote either it or “blast,” which makes for a better-scanning line but is unsatisfying semantically. Who says “wild” or “blast” weakly?

Line 6 presents a similar problem, with a natural reading producing a six-stress line. Demoting “from,” as it did before, makes for an even worse scansion than before: “Drives the | huge bil | lows from | their hea | ving bed.” The other option, demoting “drives” or “huge,” as it did before, forces us to de-emphasize a strength-related word, exactly what the poem encouraged us to do in the first quatrain. Gone are the forceful declamations; uncertainty now reigns. The poem may get back on song in the next two lines, with just the initial trochee in line 7, but it does so just in time for the bodies to start surfacing.

All of the above may be interesting, but how does it factor in to the poem’s conclusion? Well, it justifies how the speaker could possibly see “gloomy rest” in this scene. The disturbed dead are numb to the chaos around them, unable “to hear the warring elements.” But more than that, the dead cannot think or feel, whereas the speaker is compelled to contemplate their fate, with all that loud language and emotion discussed above bouncing about in her head. The one thing someone in such a position could envy is quiet. But in the Romantic world of Smith’s poetry, that is impossible. The speaker can only “gaze with envy” at the possibility.

To end on a (slightly) cheerier note: Lit Brick has an amusing summation of the poem in webcomic form, so enjoy that!

What do you think of Smith’s sonnet? Have any suggestions for more classic poems to dissect? Feel free to share in the comments.