A Nightmare Preserved in Sestina Form
To understand how this poem came about, you need to go back to the setting. It was summer; I was living in a home-built A-frame house out at Smith Lake, a few miles from Cranbrook, my birthplace in British Columbia, Canada. It was the most beautiful, satisfying place I had ever lived. Sunset took forever, as the scarlet and magenta flames from the sun bounced from mountain peak to mountain peak, lighting the sky in a way that made the spirit soar. After sunset, there were no city lights to obscure the stars, or give a general blur of light in the darkness. If you went out walking, you literally could not see your hand in front of your face, once you'd passed the lights of the few houses near the lake, so a flashlight was a necessity, really, though sometimes I liked to simply listen to my feet on the gravel, and sense my way back. There was an intensity of sensation there that I have hoarded over the years. At night, the sound of the loon on the lake was so poignant it almost broke your heart. To this day, the most nostalgic sounds to me are the distant wail of a steam train, and the call of the loon.
It was lovely, but there was also isolation, loneliness, and tension. I was out of place. This wonderful, intense place was not mine, and I did not feel altogether welcome. I became somewhat overwrought in time, or "wired." In the middle of the night, I woke up in a cold sweat, after having a nightmare. In the dream, I was in pitch blackness. Everything was eerie by its mere presence. I was trying to protect a book from some unknown terror. The narrative of the poem explains it as well as I can. I still don't know what it was about, but I felt very threatened when I woke up, almost under siege. Still nervous, cold, and shaking, I suddenly thought, "Now this is a sestina!" and I felt somewhat better about it.
Which brings me to a short digression about very formal poems (following a strict form). I guess there are two things I think about -- makeup and passion. Makeup is intended not to be seen, but to enhance. If someone says, "I love your eyeshadow," your makeup has failed. They should say, "Doesn't she have gorgeous eyes?" In the same way, the form of a poem is intended to give power to the words. It should be invisible. The rhymes should occur naturally, and, ideally, go unnoticed. The rhythms should not intrude, but sway your body and mind to its beat. The echoes and repetitions should make themselves felt in your emotions, not noticed in the cool light of day.
This brings us to the passion part. Some makeup is so dramatic, only a dramatic, passionate woman can wear it and not be overwhelmed. A tamer soul would not wear the makeup, but it would wear her. So it is with poems. Or, to use another analogy, a very structured poem is like a load-bearing structure. It needs the weight to make it stable and hold together. It is the pressure of the ideas and images against the form of the poem that creates the tension that makes it work. It is that tension, that held-back energy, that gives the poetry power. I believe a very rigid structure needs an equally heavy theme to hold it in balance. Without this weight of meaning, very structured verse forms become trivialized. Many of the obsessive verse forms, particularly the French forms, have suffered this fate. The villanelle, for example, became in the 19th century the vessel for as much light verse as the ballade, triolet, rondeau, and rondel. By the 1950's the form had allowed for some ironic, despairing treatment, but after Dylan Thomas' "Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night," written to his father lying on his deathbed, who could ever look at the villanelle again without giving it more respect? In this case, it needed a strong passion to match the potential of the form. Obsessive forms without obsessive themes become mere hors d'oeuvres of verse.
What does The Room mean? What is it about? What did my dream mean? It's anyone's guess. I will say this about the poem, though. It falls into a small class of my poems I think of as my "ambiguous" poems, poems with no fixed meaning: The Shadow is another one of these. Most things I write do have a meaning, and even if I am not always in your face about it, it is there. An ambiguous poem is another thing. When I recognize I have one, in writing and revising it, I "clear pathways" for various meanings and interpretations. That is, if I run into something that would disallow a certain idea, I remove that obstacle. Strangely enough, it is the ambiguous poems that people seem so absolutely certain they understand! Of course, each one has his or her own understanding. Oddly enough, this also happens with certain poems that outwardly appear ambiguous but have a fixed meaning. One poem, written for a friend of mine, was so intense that two other people each insisted it had to be about them! It's an example of Marshall McLuhan's media cool. I don't do it as an affectation, but only when the poem requires it.
The Room has steadfastly refused all interpretations. I still don't know what it means. It means different things to me at different times. The fear in it is very real, though: the fear of losing something, something very precious, and the frighteningly numinous quality these threatening images have only in our dreams -- sometimes this fear crosses over into our waking lives. We recognize it, but it has different objects. Let it mean whatever works best for you.
Because it is a sestina, a very rigidly formal poem, the working method I used when writing it (I am tempted to say "constructing it," but the writing was foremost in my mind) was unlike anything I have ever done before or since. I wrote out the first stanza, roughly as I wanted it, and so fixed the order of the end words for the rest of the poem. I wrote the end words down the looseleaf sheet, and then wrote in lines to match up to each end word, making them follow the general narrative. I would work on making the lines what I wanted, and, from time to time, through the many versions over the years, I would periodically underline the "filler" lines and divide by 39 to get the percentage that was still incomplete.
I well remember when I reached the point where only 30% of the lines were in need of replacement. I felt it might indeed be possible that I would get a sestina out of this, after all. Note that the first sestina I wrote, being somewhat light, fairly tripped off the pen. Not so with something with more content. Satisfying myself was hard. I even made it somewhat harder, by trying to add the end words more times within the lines, at least in the earlier stanzas (like Thomas did with internal rhymes in his villanelle) because, in some way, making it harder for yourself makes it easier. I can't explain it, but it works. It works in art, too. If you can't draw something, make it harder, and you'll be able to. Something about the challenge makes something kick in and work. Finally, of course, the last line was in place. Six years after the nightmare that started it all, I had a sestina worthy of the name.For more information on sestinas, and the particular structure of this poem, look at the poetic form of The Room.
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