Driving and Listening, Concerning “Midlife Christmas”

Of all the kinds of poems that I write, this is my favorite kind. “Midlife Christmas” is a straight ahead traditional poem.  Not quite in the Housman and Heine tradition, but maybe in the Thomas Hardy or Robert Frost tradition.  Rhyme, tetrameter, quatrains.  Nothing more traditional.  It grew out of a very specific moment driving home from my wife’s family’s house a few days after Christmas. It is dark and I was driving on country roads. I try to do that as much as possible and avoid the interstate highways. Basically, everything in the poem is true. It a sense it is a poem about dropping out of conventional American society. I was sick to death of the Republicans attacking Clinton—the insincere inquisition. I am sick of commerce and minivans and midlife crises sports cars (or young sex fueled sports cars). The only things that really matter to me are my children, my wife, honesty and fair treatment and forgiveness of fellow human beings, beauty and art, and teaching.

This is a poem about healing from a divorce and finding happiness afterwards. It is a poem about second chances and a poem about grace.

Structurally, the poem is about as traditional as they can come. I actually rhyme in the poem. The rhyme is obvious in the last stanza, and I have tried to get rid of that but I haven’t been able to. But the rhyming works more subtly. Obvious rhyme –the June/moon variety, is very much out of date. Rhyming is very hard to do and to be original at the same time. I try to bring back some of the skill and craft of writing poetry—the craft that rhyming requires—rhyming only vowels or only consonants.

A true rhyme is one that repeats the vowel sound and the consonant sound: skin/sin. In rhyming only consonants, you can rhyme “skin” and “stone,” the n-sound being repeated. In rhyming only vowels, you can rhyme “skin” and “tip,” the short-i-sound being repeated. This technique adds a kind of music to the poetry without it becoming sing-songy or like a Hallmark card .

In a later lecture, I mention how “Awaiting Word” is an oral poem. “Midlife Christmas” is more of a printed/visual poem because the sound patterns can be seen upon repeated readings.

Another thing to notice, is how the poem varies end-stopping and enjambment. The poem begins with lines ending at grammatical breaks. The second stanza begins with an enjambment, to keep the line moving longer. Stanza three begins with a full end-stop, but then moves into enjambment. Stanza three even ends with an enjambment, so that the words flow from one stanza to the next. (This would never happen in lyric poetry that was to be sung.) Stanza four has a lot of enjambment. Then stanza five returns to end-stops and phrasal endings.

Compare the “flow” of “Awaiting Word” to that of “Midlife Christmas.” Maybe I am wrong but it seems to me that “Awaiting Word” has a flow based on repeated rhythms, repeated sentence structures. But the sentences don’t flow from one to the other. It is a rhythmical beat, but not a melody line. On the other hand, “Midlife Christmas” flows along, but still keeps getting interrupted and varied. Look at how the sentence lengths work:

Sentence one=6 lines

Sentence two=2 lines

Sentence three=1 line

Sentence four= almost 3 lines

Sentence five=1 line (and one word)

Sentence six=1 and a half lines

Sentence seven=2 and a half lines

Sentence eight=2 lines

Sentence nine=1 line

There seems to me to be a melody line and perhaps a development of that melody. But I can’t quite put my finger on it.

Poetry Lecture Assignment: Write your own Christmas poem. Or any other holiday. Halloween. Thanksgiving. Easter. Fourth of July. Labor Day. For a number of years I wrote poems for Christmas and then made my own holiday cards and sent them to family and friends.

Poetry Lecture Assignment: Write a poem on any subject but varying your sentence lengths so that some are end-stopped lines and some are enjambed for several lines.

Poetry Lecture Assignment: What is a political event that upset you? What is your personal life and how do you deal with the goings on in Iraq? You can write a patriotic poem in praise of soldiers. You can write a poem about watching a war on television. You can write a poem about the idea of weapons of mass destruction.



This entry was posted in ENGL 2307 Poetry and tagged , , , on by .

About lymangrant

Lyman Grant is a professor of creative writing and humanities at Austin Community College. He has work at ACC since 1978. He is the author or editor of two textbooks, two books relating to Texas literature, three volumes and a chapbook of poetry. Recently he traveled the United States for a year in a 34-foot RV 5th wheel trailer with his wife and two younger sons.