Mistress of sonnet


Edna St Vincent Millay in Magnolia: Arnold Genthe

Happy Birthday Edna St. Vincent Millay.  A prolific writer, third woman to win the Pulitzer for poetry, sixth person and second woman to win the Robert Frost medal.  Quite possibly the finest sonnet writer of all time, a dangerous thing to claim against the likes of Shakespeare and Petrarch.

The penniless, pretty, red-headed Vassar graduate came to prominence in 1912 when her poem “Renascence” was placed 4th in a poetry contest in The Lyric Year, and the higher placed winners admitted that it was the better poem.  The 2nd prize winner even offered his winnings to Millay.

So many are her sonnets that many are named simply by their first line.  So this one is called “Here is a wound that never will heal, I know”.

Sonnet ; by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Here is a wound that never will heal, I know,
being wrought not of a dearness and a death,
but of a love turned ashes and the breath
gone out of beauty; never again will grow
the grass on that scarred acre, though I sow
young seed there yearly and the sky bequeath
its friendly weathers down, far Underneath
shall be such bitterness of an old woe.
That April should be shattered by a gust,
that August should be levelled by a rain,
I can endure, and that the lifted dust
of man should settle to the earth again;
but that a dream can die, will be a thrust
between my ribs forever of hot pain.


Happy Birthday Petrarch


Eugene Delacroix : Christ on the sea of Galilee

Born on this day in 1304 Petrarch is called by some the father of the Renaissance, by others the father of Humanism and by still others as the father of the Sonnet.  It takes a great man indeed to father so many illustrious children.  Mountaineers consider him the first Alpinist as he is the first person recorded to ascend a mountain (Mont Ventoux) for recreation alone.

A latin scholar he encouraged other scholars to scour the libraries of the world for the writings of ancient Greece and Rome.  He acquired a copy of Homer’s Odyssey but lamented his lack of Greek saying that “Homer was dumb to me and I was deaf to Homer”.  He had more success with his discovery of a cache of the letters of Cicero, who is our key primary source for the political and judicial goings on in the late Roman Republic when Cicero wrote of the day to day doings of Julius Caesar, Pompeii, Brutus, Cassius, Cato, Marc Anthony et al.

As a writer he was a contemporary and a correspondent of Boccaccio.  His writings had a major impact on the evolution of the modern Italian language.  His use of the poetic form of the Sonnet had an enormous impact on the world of poetry and especially on the works of Shakespeare.  Sonnets are somewhat easier to rhyme in Italian than they are in English, but here is a translation of one of his poems.  It sits nicely in this blog site as it is a classic “Mind Ship” as he uses the metaphor of a storm battered ship to personify the ravages of age.

La vita fugge, et non s’arresta una hora; by Francesco Petrarch (Trans A.S. Kline)

Life flies, and never stays an hour,
and death comes on behind with its dark day,
and present things and past things
embattle me, and future things as well:
and remembrance and expectation grip my heart,
now on this side, now on that, so that in truth,
if I did not take pity on myself,
I would have freed myself already from all thought.
A sweetness that the sad heart knew
returns to me: yet from another quarter
I see the storm-winds rattling my sails:
I see no chance of harbour, and my helmsman
is weary now, and my masts and ropes are broken,
and the beautiful stars, I used to gaze on, quenched.

Top of the World


On Dec 23rd 1970 the North Tower of the World Trade Center (No.1 WTC) topped out at the height that made it the tallest building in the world.  The record stood only until 1973 when it was surpassed by the Sears Tower in Chicago  As we know now the building itself was fated to fall in 2001.

Entropy is inevitable.  What we build will fall.  Should this deter us from building?

Man has built something stronger than steel, more durable than concrete and more revealing than glass.  The sum of our knowledge is man’s great tower.  We have the ability to encode knowledge, store it in a retrievable format, access it when we need it and communicate it to those who can use it.  This is what sets man apart from animals.  This is why modern man replaced Neanderthals.

We often represent the concept of “education” with a candle, a light, a beacon shining in the darkness of ignorance.  The candle, guttering in every gust of wind, fragile, easily lost, something to be nurtured and protected.

Yes, we should build.  Yes, the buildings will fall.  We must ensure that the knowledge endures.

Sonnet LXIV; by William Shakespeare

When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defaced
The rich proud cost of outworn buried age;
When sometime lofty towers I see down-razed,
And brass eternal slave to mortal rage;
When I have seen the hungry ocean gain
Advantage on the kingdom of the shore,
And the firm soil win of the watery main,
Increasing store with loss, and loss with store;
When I have seen such interchange of state,
Or state itself confounded to decay;
Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate
That Time will come and take my love away.
This thought is as a death which cannot choose
But weep to have that which it fears to lose.

Conform to rebel

It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child. Pablo Picasso

It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.
Pablo Picasso

In any endeavour you must learn the rules before you can break them.  You cannot be taken seriously as an abstract artist if you cannot demonstrate an ability to paint figuratively.  The painting above, the Boy with a Pipe, is ostensibly the point at which Picasso surpassed the rules and began to create.  But first you must learn the rules.

The same is true in the workplace, on the battlefield, in society, everywhere.  You learn how the business works before you design a new way of running a business.  Brilliance is only possible because it stands above established convention.  We learn our craft, perfect it and only then can we become creative and break all the rules we have learned.  You cannot break a rule if you don’t know it exists.

A musician must know what a chord is to create discord, must master tempo to break the beat and must be able to harmonise before he can clash with conformity.

Poetry is a great example.  The world is overflowing with the formless and impassioned musings of millions of would-be poets.  So few of them ever recognised beyond their own bedroom.  But then, how many of them have taken their first creative outpouring of inspiration and forged it into a form?  How many of them have hammered it into a haiku, shaped it into a sonnet, riveted it into a rondeau or beaten it into a bergerette?  They hold up their part smelted pig and expect us to see tempered steel.

To be great you must create, and you must conform.  Then you can to expand your creativity so that it strains the limits of conformity and reshapes the very rules that have given it structure and meaning.  Great change comes from first understanding the rules, and then mastering the rules and finally breaking down the rules.

This is why political revolution comes from hard-line extremists and not from moderates.  F.W. de Klerk needed to master Apartheid rule before he could break it.  David Trimble had to master Unionist rule before he could  be seen speaking with the IRA.  Gerry Adams had to refuse to negotiate with Britain before he could begin a conversation with the British Government.

Here is a little known Medieval French poetic form rendered by an Algerian Pied-Noir.

Triolet With A Line; by Jean Sénac

Come walk with me under the low-slung stars
until the birds are buried again inside our blood,
sewn in with fishing line, leaving a jagged scar.
Come walk with me under the low-slung stars
while our love smolders like a thick cigar.
Our time swells and ends, fast as a flash flood.
Come hold me under the low-slung stars
until the birds are buried again inside our blood.