[The words of this sonnet are printed below.]
How I Lost an Argument and Won This Sonnet (and a few others)
Writing and the spiritual life both were important parts of my childhood, and when I awoke to adolescent consciousness I found them at the core of my being, where they have remained.
I emerged as a fledgling poet and spiritual and social activist on October 15th, 1969, at age 14. It was War Moratorium Day and I was visiting my brother, George, who lived on the edge of the Harvard campus. The night before he had introduced me to the poetry of William Carlos Williams and the Imagists. That day we watched the coverage on the news of our generation rising up with the power of a mass movement. That evening I wrote my first free verse poem, an imagistic social and spiritual manifesto. I was swept up and rode that wave a long time. I still am riding it, although in different forms.
We were strident those days, and part of my stridency was a harsh judgment of formal poetry. I was a free verse fundamentalist as a Creative Writing Program major at Princeton, arguing with my thesis adviser, Carlos Baker, in a precept, insisting that the Imagists were far superior to Emily Dickinson.
I argued even more vehemently with my mother, who was my first literary and spiritual teacher. She would throw Frost at me: “Writing free verse is like playing tennis without a net.” She told me more than once that if I wanted to become a good poet I should write five thousand sonnets.
I would scoff and throw up my hands and walk out of the room—that beautiful room that she created by finding second hand furniture and fixing it up and filling the surfaces with vases of flowers cut from her yard. How I would love to be able to walk back into that room today, how I long for that beautiful, ordered calm, that cool serenity now with our world falling apart.
How I would love to report to her that she won the argument, and I have indeed written my five thousand sonnets, but she died before I had written my first. I did confess to her once that my free verse poems sometimes had a surprise rhymed ending, and she knew I shared her love of Gerard Manley Hopkins, but it was twelve years after she died, in 2000, that a friend sent me a sonnet and I decided on a whim to write one back.
I had a car accident that year that changed my life. It wasn’t injury or intimations of mortality, it was watching my dream of retiring being totaled and towed away. I realized I would be an old, old man before I could afford to take time off to write, if ever.
I had just learned about William Stafford’s practice of writing a poem a day. Someone asked him, what do you do when you are uninspired? He said cheerfully, “I just lower my standards!” I took a vow after the accident that I would write a poem a day.
The problem was lowering my standards far enough to accept the uninspired free verse deadline drivel that I would write at 11:59 PM some days.
Writing that first sonnet was the turning point. It was so satisfying to solve the challenges of the form that even though it might be drivel, it felt like a major accomplishment. I was exercising my heart, mind and soul and all my skill with words, so each sonnet was a workout. My mother was right. I was learning.
It was the perfect path for a poet who was also a pastor, husband and father, who always had more to do than time to do it. I have been on it for twenty years now, I’ve written over seven thousand poems some of which were hymns, some haiku, some free verse, but well over five thousand were sonnets. I haven’t had time to edit and prepare for publication, and I still don’t really, but I’m old enough and the world is in trouble enough that I am forcing myself to take the time.
This poem is one I wrote several years ago, one of many in homage to my mother. Lilacs are blooming now in Vermont as the world falls apart and I try to find a way to make a difference in it. I hear my mother’s wisdom echoing through this sonnet.
Each spring I bring in buckets full of blooms,
pale purple lilac, pink-white appletree,
and every year I find myself in rooms
filled with my mother’s cool serenity,
her still-life order, tables holding vases
full of fresh blossoms, her surrounded by
that shaded, sweet oasis it amazes
me she created with her untrained eye.
She had four boys she let feel free and wild,
throwing their baseballs through the window time
and time again, their chaos reconciled
through patient suffering to her sublime
dream of a world whose waywardness is bent
toward ordered calm by love and lilac scent.
copyright 2020 Thomas Cary Kinder