The Birth of an Obsession


Prentice-Hall Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1972. A gray cubicle, with piles of gray manuscript boxes and reams of galley and page proofs of scientific college text books, a beige desk phone, a Selectric typewriter, and production editor me. With a graduate degree from Berkeley, I had almost flunked the spelling test for this poverty-level gig. I had to promise to keep a dictionary (American Heritage, 1st edition) open on my desk (still open on this desk 45 years and many desks later). It would never have occurred to me to appear there not dressed in a suit coat and tie. Both my wife and her mother worked there as well. We got to commute together.

My mother-in-law, Mae Santamaria (may her god bless her soul), had enrolled in night school at Fairleigh Dickinson University. I don’t know why. Her job at P-H was secure. Maybe because both of her kids had made it through college, she figured it must be easy. Mae had been born in a small town in Chieti Province, Italy. Her New Jersey high school diploma was decades behind her. She was enrolled in an English Literature class. She didn’t mind the readings, but the papers bugged her. English was still not her first language. She had to get A’s. Solution: son-in-law.

Mae would show up at my cubicle and wonder if I might find the time to “give her some ideas” on how to address her latest writing assignment. Oh, she had to hand the paper in at class tonight. They were just 400 to 500-word freshman comp efforts. I would put aside my drudgery job work and bang out winners for her. It does not hurt sharing a conspiracy with your mother-in-law from which she owes you favors.

Then one day she came to me with a larger but no less immediate request—a four-to-five-page discussion of any two of Shakespeare’s sonnets collected in her Norton anthology text book. I had three hours. I chose two sonnets. The easiest route was compare and contrast. I showed how and why one poem worked better than the other. I remember being pleased with the paper when I handed it over to Mae. It was the best thing I had done for her. She got a C-minus and a scolding from her teacher for thinking she was smarter than Shakespeare. She was not happy.

Neither was I. I got the marked-up paper back from Mae (she threw it at me) and went over it. So, okay, maybe I needed to know more about sonnets, which had never really interested me. For the next year or so, during which time Mae’s daughter declared our marriage a big mistake on her part, I studied sonnets. I read them and I read about them. I started writing them and became enamored of their discipline and concision, of their subtle rules and strict injunctions. I read and wrote a lot of lousy ones. The form and its possible mutations commandeered my verse. Everyone else was writing without borders. In an ancient form I had found a cohort.

Keeping fourteen lines, I pushed the end rhymes inward. Leaning always iambic, I let lines find their own choral lengths. Sometimes the concluding couplet might rhyme or half-rhyme; sometimes, for effect, it would not. The classic two-thirds to one-third of observation to comment, specific to general, story to analysis held. I became convinced that this was the ideal length of a poem, the optimum focal verse aperture. Because of my alteration of traditional prosodic components, I could not justify calling these products sonnets. I called them instead sprung sonnets.

Over the next several years, free of New Jersey and Prentice-Hall, I composed a hundred-poem series to that ex-wife and -life, all sprung sonnets, called passage. Now, going on fifty years later, I still have not escaped the shadow of that C-minus. Thank you, Mae.

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