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The Poem's Voice

The poem takes its path; you have to follow. It knows its destination and persists. It forges patiently through mental mists Avoids each pitfall and deceptive hollow. The poem knows. If only you would follow! If you could loosen up your tight-clenched fist And curb your pen's strong leaning to resist - Your heart's proclivity to weep and wallow - You'd find the poem was right, and all along Had shown a greater wisdom than your own. The poem is long-suffering and strong But you must learn to listen for its tone To pick it out from all the worldly throng And pay attention to that voice alone. Doris Kerns Quinn


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THIS poem, like a good many others I have written, seemed to spring out of nothing. I am a list-maker, and some days I put ``write a poem'' on my list. Then I sit in my armchair next to the window and try to think of something. More correctly speaking, I listen.

Such was the case the day I wrote ``The Poem's Voice.'' I had not an idea in the world. My best poems often come this way - through deciding it's time I wrote a poem, but not having the remotest notion about what to write.

At such times writing in the sonnet form seems to help, so on this occasion I started thinking in iambic pentameters. After a time, the first line came. In spite of the feminine ending, which I try to avoid in sonnets, I liked it, so I pressed on. In an hour or so I had the poem, and after a few days - during which I made minor changes - it was ready to journey out into the world.

The sonnet form has intrigued me ever since I was 20 and discovered Shakespeare's sonnets in a Kansas City branch library. I sat there for hours thrilling to lines like ``Full many a glorious morning have I seen'' and ``Why didst thou promise such a beauteous day'' and ``Let me not to the marriage of true minds.''

And of course when I got to ``When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes'' I knew that I would be reading and writing sonnets the rest of my life! In his essay ``The Constant Symbol'' Robert Frost uses this famous sonnet to illustrate the difficulties of writing poetry. He points out that after three lines Shakespeare has committed himself to rhyme, and whereas up until then only the ``self-discipline whereof it is written in so great praise'' had been necessary, he now had to yield to the ``harsher discipline from without'': rhyme.

I agree with Frost that this ``harsher discipline from without'' can be beneficial. The poem begins to lead you, firmly and relentlessly, into paths you had not dreamed of, and if you truly listen to its voice you may be delighted by unexpected discoveries. Like Frost, I believe the necessity of rhyme and meter stimulates, bringing fresh ideas. Free verse has its charms, too - but there is something in those iambic pentameters that I find irresistible.

Though this is a Petrarchan sonnet, I am partial to the Shakespearean form, with its rhymed couplet at the end helping to give that sound of inevitability every poem should have.

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