Robert Frank, Santa Fe, New Mexico, from The Americans
Welcome to Plume Issue # 99 —
November, and as we prepare for our 100th issue (!), and having recently in this space thanked our staff, and plan to do the same regarding our contributors next issue, I think it’s time we acknowledged you – our readers. How kind you have been, how supportive of our efforts! At first – as that initial issue popped up online – I confess I had no high hopes that we’d find an audience at all; my thought was, Put together one issue, the best I could fashion, declare victory, and slink away into my accustomed obscurity once again. Such was not to be exactly the case, however. And that is due not only to our stellar staff and the poets and essayists and reviewers, but to you, who somehow found Plume among the just-exploding welter of online literary journals. Found and – can I say, liked what you found, and returned again, month after month, year after year? I cannot tell you, good readers, how much this has pleased, and astonished me. And humbled me. Aside from my marriage (and here I should extend my gratitude formally to my greatest fan and loving partner –she did layout for years — my wife, Donna) editing Plume has been the joy of my life. I only wish I had begun this earlier. In any event, though: much, much gratitude to each and every one of you, from occasional passersby to stalwart patrons. I hope to earn the goodwill you have extended me – to the magazine – each issue, and as far into the future as I am allowed.
But, though I could go on and on, enough.
So, let’s turn now to this month’s “secret poem,” oh-so-ably introduced by our new staff member, Joseph Campana – who, judging by the volume of glowing emails I receive, already has become a crowd favorite. It’s Amoretti LXXV: One Day I Wrote her Name from Edmund Spenser:
One day I wrote her name upon the strand,
But came the waves and washed it away:
Again I wrote it with a second hand,
But came the tide, and made my pains his prey.
“Vain man,” said she, “that dost in vain assay,
A mortal thing so to immortalize;
For I myself shall like to this decay,
And eke my name be wiped out likewise.”
“Not so,” (quod I) “let baser things devise
To die in dust, but you shall live by fame:
My verse your vertues rare shall eternize,
And in the heavens write your glorious name:
Where whenas death shall all the world subdue,
Our love shall live, and later life renew.”
Edmund Spenser, Amoretti 75
Poems promise life. Should we believe them? If we’ve learned anything from centuries of love sonnets, the answer should be “no.” But some poems begin in such an unassuming manner we fall into easy credulity. Someone writes a name in sand. There it is: the poem has begun. What harm is there in that? A little sand, a little water, and suddenly some writing. In fact, in the seventy-fifth of Edmund Spenser’s 1595 sonnet sequence Amoretti, harm is everywhere. It’s a condition of mortality, and there is nothing the sonnets of the era of Spenser and Sidney and Shakespeare loved to rail against more than the great tyrant time. Unassuming would not describe the poem’s end. Death may reign over the earth but the lovers live on. A convenient ending if you’re in love or if you believe your poems strong enough to beat back death.
A weighty promise has been made. How can the poem deliver? It can’t but maybe that’s not really the point. Still, it’s easy to fall into the habit of belief that poems do not merely mean or be but, instead, they do things. Blessings bring bounty, charms protect, curses blight. What do sonnets do? Of late, they do almost anything, as hundreds of years have of sonnets have proven. Back when Spenser was writing this poem, they made promises to eternity. Or, better yet, promises of eternity. Love me and you will live always. An awfully daring claim—a pretentious one at that if merely a gambit.
I’ve always loved this poem—I’m not the only one. It must be Spenser’s most cited sonnet. And I’ve spent many years teaching this alongside the other sonnets of the era, those devilish engines of song so compact you might think, at first, they’re harmless. “Toy” was one of many ways brief poems were described then. A defensive gesture, to be sure. No harm here: just a toy or a bauble. Nothing epic, nothing historic, nothing political. But poets of the era had read Horace, who inspired a loftier promise. Death shall not take me, not entirely, Horace insisted. His poems would be monuments, more lasting than bronze, more lasting than pyramids, resistant to wind, rain, and time. So much for toys. Shakespeare added other substances—marble and brass, for instance. What substances would you add now? My poem will outlast Titanium? Tyvek? The ubiquitous and time-resistant plastics ever more pervasive in their reach? These are no idle questions. Now we must think differently about what promises we make to, or about, the future.
So too might the unassuming opening of this poem sound a little different some four hundred years after it was published. The simplicity of the gesture is awfully winning. A lover writes his beloved’s name on the shore. Sand is neither marble nor brass nor titanium nor even plastic so he must write it again. He wants everyone to know his love. Then something spectacular happens in the sonnet: an argument between lovers. The first quatrain sets up the lover’s war against the ocean. In the second quatrain, the beloved schools her lover. How rare it is that the beloved ever gets to speak. How foolish to write a name in sand, she says. She even calls him vain because he is both self-regarding (vain) and self-defeating (in vain). It makes no sense “a mortal thing so to immortalize.” The beloved here is comfortable with her mortality. She does not rail against it. She will pass as will her name: it is the way of all things. We decay. Centuries of sonnets have failed the test of living up to a graceful acquiescence to time.
The man, of course, has the last word, and the word is eternity or, in Spenser’s unique brand of English, “eternize.” His poems will make her live forever. Only base things die. The beautiful, which is to say the beloved, “live by fame.” The marvel of the poem is not the extravagance of the promise, which was by 1595 awfully conventional. In an era not just of sonnets but of sonnets sequences, conventions had to be reinvented page by page. The marvel, then, is a little glimpse at something that perhaps neither Spenser nor Horace were prepared to admit. Poets wouldn’t try to promise eternity were they not painfully aware of mortality. It’s not that the poet here denies death. It’s just that he thinks he can craft a loophole in time: vain man, indeed.
I admire the fastidious work of the poet trying to tunnel his way through the sands of time and into eternity. And because I feel the deep appeal of that impossible proposition, I find myself trying to listen to more closely to the voice in the second quatrain, speaking a truth no one really wants to hear. Everything will decay. All names will be lost. And now the seas rise higher and higher. More and more will be wiped out. Every day another calculation indicates what will be lost ten, twenty, even thirty years from now: cities, islands, shores. The very strand on which Spenser wanted to blazon his love will be gone. Think it’s hard to make a name in sand last? Try writing on the sea, which explains why, long before Keats’ epitaph, Shakespeare codified an adage when he wrote, “Men’s evil manners live in brass; their virtues we write in water.”
Promises can suffer under the weight of their aspirations, as can poems. Eternity is a lot to ask. Besides, a longing for more time and more earth than is a fair share explains a lot about the rising seas. Tonight, the waters are far from my house. My beloved sleeps upstairs. I’d promise him anything. I’d write an infinite sequence of sonnets to keep him forever. Because I am a fortunate in love, I know he’d be the one to say, to me, “Vain man.”
In the unlikely circumstance that you need a biographical note for Edmund Spenser, or merely want a brush up, here’s one from the Poetry Foundation.
Joseph Campana is a poet, arts critic, and scholar of Renaissance literature. He is the author of three collections of poetry, The Book of Faces (Graywolf, 2005), Natural Selections (Iowa, 2012), which received the Iowa Poetry Prize, and most recently the The Book of Life (Tupelo, 2019). His poetry appears in Slate, Kenyon Review, Poetry, Conjunctions, Guernica, Michigan Quarterly Review, and Colorado Review, while individual poems have won prizes from Prairie Schooner and the Southwest Review. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Houston Arts Alliance, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. He has reviewed the arts, books, media and culture widely and is the author of dozens of scholarly essays on Renaissance literature and culture as well as a study of poetics The Pain of Reformation: Spenser, Vulnerability, and the Ethics of Masculinity (Fordham, 2012). He teaches at Rice University where he is Alan Dugald McKillop Professor of English.
Once more: If you enjoyed Joseph Campana’s piece in this newsletter, and last month’s — and how could you not? — all of the Plume newsletters are now archived under, well, Archives, on our homepage.
Ah! I am proud, and a little shocked, honestly, to announce two new additions to our staff: the esteemed poets Chelsea and Mark Wagenaar will become our Book Reviews editors beginning with the January issue. And the equally accomplished Mihaela Moscaliuc will take of the position of Translations Editor. Plume will be much the better for their presence, I am sure. Staff bio notes, photographs, and more on this as that month approaches.
Plume Poetry 8 continues to progress quite nicely – in fact, nearly ready to go to lay out. We have an exciting roster of the finest poets — well-known and emerging, diverse in all respects — I could round up, contributing some of, I think, their finest poems.
And now, another plea: In the past, we have debuted the anthologies at AWP with a blow-out reading. Unfortunately, I have yet to be able to secure an off-site venue (bookstore, library, restaurant/bar, church, community center – we’ve used them all) in that city, which to my regret I have never visited. If you know of such, or know of a friend of a friend who has contacts in San Antonio, please, write me – plumepoetry@gmail,com I understand we are some months away from the conference, but these sites are snapped up quickly.
(Almost) penultimately, again a request. As you will note, I try to highlight recent of soon to be published books by Plume contributors at the conclusion of this newsletter. My method for gathering these materials is haphazard, to say the least. Now, I want to rectify that to whatever degree that is possible. So – if you have a new book — or have won some award or grant or other, perhaps send me a quick email – I want to highlight your many wonderful achievements here. And a little PR never hurts, right?
Our cover art this month comes from Robert Frank – who needs no introduction or bio note, of course. Still, here is one of the latter, from the National Gallery of Art, and a fine piece from the New Yorker.
And finally, per usual, a few new/new-ish releases from Plume contributors: