Expansive Poetry & Music Online Review

David Novak

Non Fit Press (2000) US$16.95, CA$23.75
Chicago, Illinois
ISBN 0-9675429-4-4
140 pp

Lines quoted in this review are copywritten by David Novak
And may not be used without permission or attribution.

review by Arthur Mortensen

It is a particular pleasure to receive narrative or formal lyric poetry from a young writer.   And it's not so rare anymore.  The Expansive Movement, and its companion New Formalism, is clearly passing its torch to a new generation, and none too soon.  Its founders are approaching at least early retirement! The collection is engaging, lively, and is often quite well composed. It is a book that many will enjoy and should seek out, as EP&M Online will recommend further on. Keep that in mind as this review proceeds, not with quibbles, but with suggestions as much intended for Novak as for anyone else.

Sonnets by David Novak opens with five sonnets of unabashedly religious content or reference.   While this would distress most editors, some would not suffer.  Certainly, Richard Wilbur's doesn't, though Novak's lack the fine ironies of Wilbur's.  And one wouldn't describe the first five as pious, felt a fatal flaw by many. As to diction, I don't believe I've seen "ay" or "Thou" used in a poem after Edna St. Vincent Millay 's earliest collections in the late teens and early 20's.  Still, one doesn't usually call to one's Creator "hey, You!" so the usage of the more formal Thou is not so disturbing.

The meter (and Novak praises Claude McKay's as "Pentameter of pleasant modulation -- true enough) is steady but interesting.  For instance in number 1, the very steady line "Who came to teach rude mankind to forgive" is followed by "And also, by the bye, refuted death," with two caesuras, two lines later with "The Word made flesh, and flesh forever free" and a feminine ending with "From its constraint of petty profiteering."  Novak clearly has a grip on varying the iambic pentameter line while generally retaining its main feature of five iambic feet.  Occasionally, there seems a clunker, as "Thou Beatrice turned strumpet ere the day"  in number 3 which doesn't quite scan whether you pronounce Beatrice in the English or in the Italian manner.

Occasionally things seem to get out of hand, as in number 4, with "Love is time's hussy, ample and spread-eagle."  Metrically obtuse, the line is odd as well because it comes out of the more antique diction of its predecessors into a diction that seems merely dated.  I haven't heard the word "hussy" used except in broad irony since I heard my grandmother use it when I was a little boy.

In rhyming, a subject unavoidable in sonnets, Novak often works too hard to find perfect or near perfect rhymes.  Unless you have Tom Carper's or Dr. Salemi's ear, this is neither easy nor desirable.  The charm of English rhyme in the last century and a half has more often been found in assonance and consonance (see Dickinson especially, but you can look in a contemporary such as Suzanne Noguere as well).  The exact rhymes of English antiquity have largely disappeared since the "rationalization" of the language by dictionarists and educators of the 18th century onward, as well as in common usage.   There is no shame in acknowledging what a good ear will tell you.  Novak should spend some time with this as his rhyme patterns are often too easy and predictable.

For instance, the rhymes in number four hammer, each pair tending to be the same part of speech, as "unrequited/slighted; spread-eagle/regal; prey/clay."   Such rhymes strike my ear in a way that the deliberate skewing of scale, perspective and shape in Primitive art strikes my eye, as dangerously close to preciosity.  Look at "what/cut; place/disgrace; "Poet/know it" -- please!; "pale/fail" in number 5.  Or "Never-yielding/wielding; care/despair; souls/holes" in number 76.  In number 120, though, despite a similar pattern, the poem works far better because the rhyme words do different things, as "hell/quell; against/commenced; escape/nape," though it too fumbles in the last couplet, "past/repast," which in English is an identity, not a rhyme.  It also has the feel of a forced rhyme -- I have to end this now.  In using such simple rhymes,  one has to be awfully good to avoid preciosity.  I think Novak in these poems falls a little short, although those later in the book noticeably improve.

A common complication with Elizabethan sonnets (abab cdcd efef gg) is that even in the hands of Shakespeare they can tumble over the last couplet unprepared for such a quick ending.  Novak evidences his awareness of this by skillfully avoiding the trap in many of the sonnets.  In 66 for instance, he uses the tactic most commonly employed by Shakespeare, of building toward the concluding couplet as if it were the third pair of lines in a sestet, so that "in detail then you get to know how far//The Law permits, before you catch some trouble,//Or if the Church has classed you with the rabble," ending on a consonant double rhyme.  In 67, he structures the piece and dares the trap of the hard stop of the last couplet. He succeeds because the last two lines are where the argument of the poem leads.  "I beg of Thy support, the danger near//The fitful terror of the gaping threat.//Because I am a coward, and a man,//Strengthen me Lord, to help fulfill Thy plan."  To this critic's mind, that's the only way to get that last couplet to work on its own.  Otherwise, including it as part of a sestet is about all that you can get away with.  (If you find the content irritating, well, too bad; some people write about their first lay and some people write about their relationship with God.  Neither is less valid.)

The options that Novak misses in sticking to one sonnet form, however, are manifold.  The Petrarchan's relatively open sestet following its very tight octave (usually but not always in two quatrains of brace rhyme, abba abba)  is a powerful structural aid in building the poem as octave/sestet.  Poets for generations have fiddled with the cde cde sestet rhyme scheme, some with cc dd ee, others with cd cd ee, others with cde dee, and so on.  But they've retained the separate sections of the poem (which you can do in an Elizabethan sonnet, but only with considerably more difficulty). That design almost directs the writer into creating a question, a situation, or a mood in the octave, then contrasting that or answering it in the sestet.  It has the order of a complex thought, whereas the Elizabethan mode requires the writer to housetrain it a bit to work well.   Where some have trouble with the Petrarchan is in the octave's brace rhyme, which has three couplets in its center abbaabba, which isn't so easy to manage in English without sounding forced. One way to avoid that is to alter the scheme to abbcabbc, a very common octave in Italian poetry,  then def def or variations thereon.

This is not to say that Novak doesn't indeed housetrain the Elizabethan form he uses by breaking it into octave/sestet, ababcdcd efefgg, which he does in virtually every poem.   The aforementioned 66 is a good example.  The octave begins "O ho! the Catholic Church put out a book//revising who and who can go to heaven."  The rest of the octave is about that and the narrator's thanks for the change, which gives him a hope for an unspecified reprieve.  It becomes clear in the sestet, however, just why.  The narrator is awaiting execution and wants to know if he has a shot at heaven regardless.    Another is 99.  The octave opens with thoughts on a specific love: "Tonight is calm; and while I think on thee," concluding with "Love's mutual contemplation to requite."  The sestet, though takes issue with the very words describing love and its satisfactions, and finally, its loss.   (I have problems with the antique diction here, however.  It's charming to hear a lover addressed as "thee" in an early Millay poem; it is far less so eighty years later.  But it's a quibble of greater moment to those more concerned with being with it than of being poets; and so, after arguing with this poet, as an editor I most likely would have printed the poem for its other virtues.)

I wouldn't aim at such things if Novak didn't demand it by giving us 140 Elizabethan sonnets.  I'd probably chat about content and diction interminably, trying to avoid discussion of craft.  But Novak won't permit that.  For one, he doesn't falsify the work by declaring fourteen lines of unrhymed verse a "sonnet," which it most certainly is not, Robert Lowell to the contrary, or fourteen lines of loosely rhymed free verse as one, which is more open to argument (depending upon the practitioner).  He gives us a large collection of metrical, Elizabethan sonnets.  My chief complaints are that the often easy rhymes sometimes trivialize the poems, and sometimes seem forced, as if making the rhyme were more important than sense. It also deserves a longer review, but EP&M Online wanted to give attention to this new book. We may come back to it.

But for the rest, these are real sonnets, albeit in only one mode.  They are occasionally amusing, periodically ironic, often serious, and frequently pleasing to read.   David Novack, by his photograph (not a very reliable proof to be sure), is quite young.  And these are young sonnets, with the growing pains and the lyric leaps that only happen in such work.  Make an effort to find this book.  Pleasantly designed, and well bound for a paperback, it is highly recommended.

                   Arthur Mortensen