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David W. Parsley

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David W. Parsley




"Notes from the Common Era" is an unusual work. As of this writing, it is still in the process of composition. The completed piece will represent not so much a culmination, as a stopping place on one person's journey through the literary, intellectual, artistic, historical, and spiritual landscapes that have helped to frame an individual development - that of the current realization of my own self in the context of both a common cultural heritage and a particular alienation that is the signature of individuality. But I believe it can also facilitate a kind of way station for other seekers and self journalists as well.

In chronicling this experience as distinct, apparently unconnected episodes, it is inevitable that choice must occasionally intrude, but I have attempted to minimize anything that feels like judgment. For it is the experience in itself that I wish to share in the hope of achieving the sense of common consciousness, even revelation, that is the aim of all Art. My hopes in this regard are very broad. To speak plainly, if you are reading this then you are my intended audience. Most of the narrative and dramatic development in what follows should be understandable to any attentive reader without expending great effort. It can be read as a collection of stand-alone verse stories and dramatic scenes.

To address an audience so broad necessitates a level of accessibility in the writing that is sometimes frowned upon in certain aesthetic circles especially as relates to poetry written since around 1920 CE. While I often find such poetry personally gratifying, I sometimes regret the loss of readership that the standard occasions. On the other hand, if you are the kind of reader who enjoys a high level of plot complexity, meticulous development of symbol and metaphor threaded through multiple individual settings, subtly manipulated ambiguity coupled with simultaneous expression of multiple levels of meaning and action, perhaps even the intricacies of discovering the advent of an evolved style of prosody in the context of a new poetic form, then allow me to suggest that you also may find the work not totally lacking in rewards. In fact, you represent the bulls eye of my audience target.

For it is a new poetic form and manner that is attempted here. Prosodic notebook; symphonic poem; notebook in sonata form; episodic poema; book length poem written in commemorative forms: these and others are titles I have considered giving the new form. Maybe we should put the question to open forum and see what other suggestions might come forward. The strictures adopted for this composition may prove non-universal for others who might want to give it a try, so it may be a little early to settle the question.


My own initial effort was interrupted one afternoon by the belated realization that the form really is new, and I was proceeding without a precedent to guide me. Not wishing to unnecessarily fail in what I consider a very worthwhile attempt, I put the 'Notes' aside and used a general set of guidelines to practice within the less serious genre of parody. The result was a much shorter and less formal work, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at 50+ Years of Poetry." (Some may find it useful to re-examine the interactive discourse surrounding the initial posting of canto III for that piece on Poetry Magnum Opus.) This proved a highly useful exercise that helped me to mature and solidify the objectives of the present poem and its form. It had the incidental and delightful consequence of affording fresh insights into the Wallace Stevens original which formed its unwitting model.


A salient feature of the new form is deliberate imitation of stanza and diction from works the piece seeks to celebrate. In the ‘Notes’, to be sure there are entire cantos written in my “own voice” using either traditional stanza patterns or free verse. But there also occur adaptations of Chaucer-like rhyming couplets, terza rima in the style of Dante, Elizabethan blank verse, narrative stanzas modeled after some of the earliest epic poems of our age, Song of Roland and Beowulf, etc. Clearly a principal hazard of the form is the inadvertent display of parody, rather than commemoration.


But the form goes beyond mere echo. I also choose for this piece to integrate historical events into scenes that evoke memorable sequences from Dickens, Milton, Shakespeare, Dante, and the New Testament, among others. I freely acknowledge that this could be interpreted as any of a number of heresies, including parody or satire, lack of originality, insult, even outright plagiarism. That is not the intention at all. Celebration, rejuvenation, rediscovery, affirmation, fusion: these are the goals. The method also provides a way to expand the meaning and context of the condensed poem by incorporating these classic treasures attended by their broader canvasses, a device taking the next step beyond “mere” allusion. Of all the aspects of the new form, this is the one that most sobers me with the prospect of failure. But I think it is worth daring, for the potential rewards that await success.


So what else? Isn’t that enough? Well, no. In order to contain the size and concentrate the emotive power of the piece, it seemed convenient to illustrate the material through a series of vignettes. These individual pieces should stand alone as individual narratives, along with a few purely lyrical pieces. But the larger themes and even something that could be called a storyline must thread through them. But how to sustain such coherence in a fractionated narrative that doesn’t even follow a single time sequence or set of characters (did I happen to mention that)? What the reader will find is a recurrence of themes and motifs. It would be ungenerous to spoil the fun by explicating them here, but the penetrating reader should have little trouble recognizing and perhaps compiling a short list of such devices. These are what I call the inner voices of the piece.


With use of the term, inner voices, I introduce the final aspect of the general form which I should mention here: explicit incorporation of concepts from the theory of music. I confess inspiration from, and some indebtedness to, T.S. Eliot and his work with The Four Quartets. In many ways, my ambitions are much less, yet still present a potential difficulty if not explained. The development of both the major theme and the accompanying inner voices of the piece will follow what is known as the sonata form in music: exposition of the theme, development, and recapitulation, followed by a brief coda. Much of the poem’s aesthetic merit will depend upon how successfully I manage this compositional method.


That just about completes the technical discussion of the more general aspects of the poem’s form. The reader will be forgiven if he or she found it better to skip the preceding four paragraphs, at least at first reading. What is paramount is the experience itself, unabashed celebration of literary heritage, enjoyment of each of the sections (or, cantos composed as individual poems) and the way they are arranged. Organization of the poem’s books and cantos derives from patterns used in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Dante’s Divine Comedy. The poem is divided into four books. The first is Cornerstones, which serves to introduce principal themes, forms, and sources of the ‘Notes’. It approximates the function of “The Prologue” from Chaucer and even starts with a canto titled, “Canterbury,” the most personal of all the individual cantos here. There are twenty-nine cantos spread across the four books, equaling the number of pilgrims featured in Canterbury Tales. A canto may be a narrative, lyric, or even a drama, but in any case recognizable as a stand-alone poem composed in a unified style.


The remaining three books roughly follow the framework adopted by Dante. The title of the first is House of the Dead, which corresponds to The Inferno, first book of the Divine Comedy. My original intention was to follow a downward spiral to increasingly desolate views of my subject, in strict observance of Dante’s mode of progression. I am already finding that it may be necessary to modulate that outline to honor the more imperative development of theme and motif. The jury is still out. Similarly The Trials commemorates The Purgatorio; The Spheres, The Paradiso. Whereas Dante personally explores aspects of divinity and humanity through the variously dark and luminous halls of the afterlife, Notes from the Common Era chronicles a similar investigation within the walls of our own history since the birth of Christ. Whereas Dante finds personal renewal and salvation, the journey here achieves a more earthly state which the reader is invited to evaluate in relation to that transfiguration and ultimately the realization of oneself.


David W. Parsley

May 30, 2013

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