Stars Through the Clouds
Reviewed by Jen Pearson
[This review originally appeared in Mythprint 48:10 (#351) in October 2011.]
Stars Through the Clouds by Donald T. Williams contains well over 300 pages of poetry divided into five sections. The first section celebrates the Southern Appalachians, the second consists of religious poetry, the third takes us to the realm of King Arthur, the fourth is dedicated to light verse, and the last is a collection of poems in response to contemporary life.
About halfway through this book, it struck me that I was reading fan poetry. I’d heard of fan fiction before but never fan poetry. Yet here I was in the midst of it. Williams’s fandom encompasses several passions: poetic forms, especially the sonnet and the villanelle (and the limerick and the clerihew in light verse); the natural world; God, Christ and Bible stories; the Arthurian legend; and the works of Tolkien and Lewis. His most natural mode seems to be one of tribute (sometimes taking the form of a lament).
The combination of a love of formal verse and a desire to revisit and celebrate things of the past results in a book that lacks originality but still has charm. I particularly enjoyed the section of light verse which often targets academics and academia, an arena sorely in need of leavening. In the first section that focuses on nature poetry, there’s a long poem called “Toccoa Falls: An Ode,” which is a wonderful tracing of the history of that location, currently the home of a small college. Toccoa is lucky to have Williams serving as their bard. I think it’s a shame more poets don’t take up the work of creating a poetic record of a place to which they are attached. A fear of being provincial or producing poetry that is less than stellar often keeps poets from using poetry to engage with their communities, which in the end is only a loss to poetry overall since it becomes viewed as too rarified for everyday life.
As mentioned above, Williams is a fan of strict rhyme and meter. He bemoans the lack of formal poetry in the contemporary poetry scene, apparently having missed the New Formalism movement that began in the late 1980s, gaining a following through the efforts of Dana Gioia, Annie Finch, Marilyn Hacker, John Hollander, and Mark Jarman. And of course, Richard Wilbur just continued to work in form with great success regardless of movements. However, admittedly, few poets now write solely in established forms, and terza rima, Spenserian stanzas, and Anglo-Saxon verse, all of which Williams dabbles in, remain rare choices for most poets. While villanelles have remained popular throughout the years, a reader is not likely to see as many in one place (outside of a book dedicated to them) as can be found in Stars Through the Clouds. My favorite is “Prescription for a Broken Relationship.” The last seven lines bring it all together neatly:
When we have fallen, shattered bones may grow
Back crooked; they cannot be left that way.
We have to break them then to make them whole.
The sad condition of the human soul
Needs nothing less its conflicts to allay.
The Heart has reasons Reason doesn’t know,
And only what is broken can be whole.
What most interested me about Williams’s poetry wasn’t his use of form but rather his bringing forward out of the past poems that remark on the viewing of something man-made. Two of this sort from the past that immediately come to mind are “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” and “On Seeing the Elgin Marbles,” both by John Keats. An example of a Williams poem title along the same lines is “The Tempest: The New American Shakespeare Tavern, Atlanta, Georgia, 5/24/09.” He also has poems in response to seeing a historically important door, to seeing a movie, and to visiting a shrine, among others. I’ve always been perplexed why we don’t see more of these sorts of poems in current poetry, especially considering how much of what we now see is man-made.
My favorite poem in this book is a Petrarchan sonnet in response to seeing Van Gogh’s painting “Starry Night” at the High Museum in Atlanta. The sestet:
So still the starlight pierces as it swirls
Above the silent hills and sleeping town
Behind the cypress writhing in the wind.
Again the heart its fierce defiance hurls,
In swaths of yellow, blue, and green and brown
Carves out one hour of peace before the end.
At the beginning of Stars Through the Clouds, Williams refers to this book as his “life work.” It’s clear that he has set himself some huge poetic challenges over the years and has created a substantial body of work. But he’s not dead yet. And hopefully he’s still got a few good years left in him. I have little doubt he’ll continue to hurl his juicy limericks and clerihews to the enjoyment of all. However, I would especially like to see him try an original story, perhaps something mythic that draws on his obviously extensive knowledge yet transmuting it into something new, or perhaps taking something from our own time or a nearer time and casting it in a traditional form that helps lend the sense of the mythic to it.
Williams has been disturbed by disregard for traditional form in contemporary poetry. But I think what prevents the creation of mythic poetry in our time is the even more pervasive emphasis on the lyric rather than the narrative mode. Despite a revival of poetic form, few people now write stories as poetry. The narrative tradition, usually embodied in longer poems that aren’t convenient to anthologize in historical reviews of literature, has largely been lost (with the exception of those of ancient times with the nearest being the full length volumes of Spenser and Milton.)
Thus the Mythopoeic Society doesn’t need to consider offering a poetry prize. There’s no pool from which to choose. It’s a void waiting to be filled.