My First Sonnet

I must have been eight or ten when my mother’s friend Sally died, and Sally must have been in her thirties or at most early forties. After Sally died, my mother cut a poem out of “The Ladies’ Home Journal” and tacked it to the cabinet over our kitchen sink where she could see it when she was washing dishes.

I remember the beginning of the poem. It was called “Godspeed,” a word I didn’t understand, and began, “Wherever you have gone, we wish you well./Only our loss can give us cause for weeping./If death is but a rest and a last sleeping,/There is no blade of grass that cannot tell/The quiet you deserve.”

The poem was a revelation to me. I’d read poems, and my mother had read poems to me. I may even have written poems. But I expected poems to rhyme at the ends of sentences, and I expected the rhymes to come neatly in pairs, the lines closing firmly: like taking a step out and bringing the back foot up, then standing still a moment before stepping out again—in other words, in couplets, AABBCC. In “Godspeed” the second line had a little rocking motion (the two-syllable rhyme) and the next line had too, closing the rhyme—and then the poem unexpectedly (to me) rhymed with that first line and swept right on around a curve before the sentence finished in midline.

I don’t remember the rest of the poem. It was, I’m pretty sure, a Petrarchan sonnet. I read in the New York Times, December 25, 2005, that Elizabeth McFarland became the poetry editor of “The Ladies’ Home Journal” in 1948, that she published “some 900” poems, and that the magazine stopped publishing poetry in 1962. She was a poet herself; after she died, Daniel Hoffman, her widower, published a book of her own poetry, “Over the Summer Water.”

I learned something from that poem. Not only about enjambment, or ABBA rhyme, or Petrarchan sonnets. I learned something about my mother’s soul. And I learned that in a time of grief poetry can console.

Filed under: Arlene Weiner, Book Review, Prose