Sharon Olds’ Human Poem


Sharon Olds here shows an ability to transmute a plain style and direct speech into an experience pregnant with an almost metaphysical significance.

      The Space Heater

On the then-below-zero day, it was on,
near the patients' chair, the old heater
kept by the analyst's couch, at the end,
like the infant's headstone that was added near the foot
of my father's grave. And it was hot, with the almost
laughing satire of a fire's heat,
the little coils like hairs in Hell.
And it was making a group of sick noises-
I wanted the doctor to turn it off
but I couldn't seem to ask, so I just
stared, but it did not budge. The doctor
turned his heavy, soft palm
outward, toward me, inviting me to speak, I
said, "If you're cold-are you cold? But if it's on 
for me..." He held his palm out toward me,
I tried to ask, but I only muttered,
but he said, "Of course," as if I had asked,
and he stood up and approached the heater, and then
stood on one foot, and threw himself
toward the wall with one hand, and with the other hand
reached down, behind the couch, to pull
the plug out. I looked away,
I had not known he would have to bend
like that. And I was so moved, that he
would act undignified, to help me,
that I cried, not trying to stop, but as if
the moans made sentences which bore
some human message. If he would cast himself toward the
outlet for me, as if bending with me in my old
shame and horror, then I would rest
on his art-and the heater purred, like a creature
or the familiar of a creature, or the child of a familiar,
the father of a child, the spirit of a father,
the healing of a spirit, the vision of healing,
the heat of vision, the power of heat,
the pleasure of power.

Spenser’s Amoretti


Spenser invented a new form for the sonnet which has a sprightly and surprising rhythm, and also effectively adds two couplets in the interior, while keeping a third couplet as a closer. Like the terza rima it has interlocking rhymes, but holds more depth and comlexity in its pattern than the terza rima, though perhaps losing some of Dante’s clean simplicity.

The form is as follows,


There are three quatrains and a couplet. The second line rhyme of the first two quatrains becomes the first line rhyme of the following quatrain, which is what makes it interlock.

So the B rhyme and C rhyme each appear four times, which lays a new burden on the English sonneteer (and Spenser used full rhymes). The freshness of the 5th line and the 9th line is even followed with a different freshness in the 6th and 10th lines, which are words whose sound is totally new.

What is really interesting to me about this pattern is that the role of the end words is multiple in many lines. For instance the 4th line is the age-enduring typical quatrain rhyme. (Kind of a marching step.) But it also serves as the first rhyme in a couplet. It is part of a couplet, a quatrain, and has looser ties to the 8th line. It is connected to all four appearances on that rhyme. It is almost like complex jazz harmonics. In this way, there are shifts representing all kinds of rhyme, except near rhyme and interior rhyme, which Spenser largely avoided.

These three-sonnets-from-spensers-amoretti are some of his more triumphant efforts in my (novice) opinion. They appear in Amoretti and Epithalamion, a two-volume, or coupled book, published in 1595. The merit of this book has been much debated, (Faerie Queen is considered his masterpiece) but scholarship in the 20th century renewed a lot of interest here because of discoveries into some amazing patterns that Spenser worked into the book.

For instance, in Amoretti, a sequence of 89 courtship sonnets to a young woman written after his wife’s death, Spenser employs a lot of number patterning. The sonnets are almost daily devotionals; composed to follow the day’s liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer, the liturgical book of the Church of England. Scholars have argued that the first half of the volume (Amoretti) has a center (central group) between Ash Wednesday and Easter, 1594.

Alexander Dunlop, who wrote the introduction to this section of The Shorter Poems of Edmund Spenser, writes “the tone and imagery of [sonnets] XXII and LXVIII identify them as Ash Wednesday and Easter sonnets; the number of days between them equals the number of days between Ash Wednesday and Easter. This group is centered in Amoretti, with 21 sonnets preceding and following and a spring sonnet two before and two after the central group.” He writes that sonnet LXII, also works as an Easter sonnet indirectly dated to Easter, 1594. That poem’s reference to a new year, and new dawn, sprung is appropriate for a key turn in the religious calendar.

Dunlop also argues, “his use in Amoretti of a framework related to Ash Wednesday and Easter removes those events from the mere sequence of history and asserts this transcendence of the personal and particular events that seem to form the sequence of historical time.” In other words, Spenser seems to be grafting a cosmic meaning to the narrative of their courtship through reference to events in the (Christian) calender.

What does this really amount to? Notably, Spenser does not stop short of even deifying the young woman he pursues, so Spenser’s distraction from God (who is present but almost obscured by his romantic passion) is treated as a sub-plot of his absorption in the girl. He makes use of the religious means at his disposal to glorify, and essentially chronicle her worship.

Dunlop also points to a very interesting tension between the poet’s worship and elevation of the woman, and more subtle notes of a pursuit of his mastery of her. While Spenser keeps drumming on a theme of his weakness and inferiority to the young woman, he also introduces images of caging, binding, conquest, captivity, and imprisonment. In Epithalamion, which translates as “wedding song”, this undertone becomes more dominant, as the poet has secured his bride.

I haven’t read Epithalamion yet, because I’m really looking for sonnets, but I read that it also is intensively patterned after units of time. There are 24 stanzas, 365 long lines, and 68 short lines, (the sum of the weeks, months, and seasons).

While it fascinates me how Spenser built this structure, and wove so many quiet lines that doubled duty to his poem, I can’t see Amoretti as approaching the glorious Shakespeare’s Sonnets, or Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella. Amoretti is beautifully accomplished in syntax, almost effortless in rhyme, and has some really shining moments with metaphor and imagery. The primary downside for me was the degree of repetitiveness. Shakespeare has about 60 more sonnets in his sequence but never fails to turn things new and find original ways to display his love. And Sidney is just much more intense in feeling and sound and his narrative is more moving. If you read the three sonnets in the link, or have read Spenser before, feel free to tell me what you thought.

You can hear some of Spenser’s sonnets read at LibriVox .