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Kitty Carpenter’s "Farm Sonnet"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Kitty Carpenter

Kitty Carpenter

Introduction and Text of "Farm Sonnet"

In Kitty Carpenter’s "Farm Sonnet," the speaker moves from a sagging barn roof quickly to the onset of her mother’s dementia. The speed of this motion in the limited space of a sonnet leaves the feeling of deception the main take-away from having encountered it. The subject of the sonnet is not actually the farm but the speaker’s mother; the farm remains only the setting.

The sonnet surprisingly follows the form of an Elizabethan sonnet; it offers the three rimed quatrains and then the couplet. Even though it does feature the traditional rime scheme, ABABCECEEFEFGG, each quatrain and the couplet all sport a near rime: in the first quatrain back/sacks; in the second, axe/crack; in the third quatrain, slipped/dip, and then in the couplet, master/after.

Another interpretation of the rime scheme is possible, ABABACACDEDEFF. Relying on only sight rime, the traditional Elizabethan scheme still holds; however, "axe" in the first line of the second quatrain provides a perfect sound rime with "sacks" and then a near/slant rime with "crack."

Because of the profundity of the subject it is describing, the confusion of the rime scheme remains problematic, especially the jarring effect produced by the near/slant rime, "master" and "after" in the concluding lines.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Farm Sonnet

The barn roof sags like an ancient mare’s back.
The field, overgrown, parts of it a marsh
where the pond spills over. No hay or sacks
of grain are stacked for the cold. In the harsh
winters of my youth, Mama, with an axe,
trudged tirelessly each day through deep snow,
balanced on the steep bank, swung down to crack
the ice so horses could drink. With each blow
I feared she would fall, but she never slipped.
Now Mama’s bent and withered, vacant gray
eyes fixed on something I can’t see. I dip
my head when she calls me Mom. What’s to say?
The time we have’s still too short to master
love, and then, the hollow that comes after.

Commentary

Despite its sorrowful depiction of an aged woman’s descent into fragility and its several technical flaws, this sonnet remains a pleasant experience.

First Quatrain: Rustic Simplicity

The barn roof sags like an ancient mare’s back.
The field, overgrown, parts of it a marsh
where the pond spills over. No hay or sacks
of grain are stacked for the cold. In the harsh

The speaker promises with the title to address the subject of a farm in her sonnet, and her opening line does just that, giving us a sagging barn roof that looks like the sway-back of a mule. The use of the word "ancient" which simply means "old" in this context seem somewhat gratuitous. The speaker has promised a farm scene; thus the use of an extreme time element instead of a plain old "old" remains inappropriate.

The sagging roof has alerted us that this farm has been neglected, and the next image supports that notion with a field that has not been mowed and likely has lain fallow for quite some time. But then the speaker describes part of the field as swamp-like because the pond "spills over" onto it. Perhaps a working farm would constantly remedy that situation but upon first encountering that image, it seems that it departs from the description of a run-down farm; the marshland seems more like a natural occurrence.

However, the final image of "no hay or sacks / of grain" being stored for the winter again returns to the topic of run-down farm, which is not farmed any longer. The quatrain’s final phrase, "[i]n the harsh," has to wait for completion in the second quatrain.

The rime scheme could have been kept a perfect ABAB, if the speaker has simply opted to keep "sack" singular to rime perfectly with "back." Instead, 'sacks" actually causes a problem later on with interpreting the scheme in the second quatrain, which further changes the over-all rime scheme of the poem—even removing it from the Elizabethan traditional rime scheme.

Second Quatrain: Remembering Mother

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winters of my youth, Mama, with an axe,
trudged tirelessly each day through deep snow,
balanced on the steep bank, swung down to crack
the ice so horses could drink. With each blow

The speaker has now moved on to her mother by suggesting the mother’s stamina in trudging through snow down to the edge of the pond to break the ice to allow the horses the ability to drink. Her mother’s energy was boundless as she maneuvered through "deep snow," balanced herself competently on the bank of the pond, and then brought the axe down on the ice.

The problematic rime scheme again intrudes. The near/slant rime of "axe" and "crack" could have easily been perfected by pluralizing "crack" to "cracks"—with something like "balanced on the steep bank, breaking cracks / in the ice . . . ." Thus with "sacks" converted to "sack" and "crack" converted to "cracks" the rime scheme would have remained a perfectly traditional Elizabethan form.

Again, the quatrain finishes with a phrase, "[w]ith each blow," which has to wait for completion in the next quatrain.

Third Quatrain: A Dipping Head

I feared she would fall, but she never slipped.
Now Mama’s bent and withered, vacant gray
eyes fixed on something I can’t see. I dip
my head when she calls me Mom. What’s to say?

As the mother continues to bring the axe head down on the ice, breaking it up so the horses could drink, the speaker admits that she watched and remained fearful that her mother would slip and fall. But the strong, poised mother "never slipped."

Suddenly the speaker moves from that strong, balanced woman, cracking ice with an axe, to the elderly individual who is now stifled with age in a body that no long stands straight and tall but is "bent and withered." Worst of all is that her eyes are now vacant, and the speaker intuits that her mother’s eyes are drawn to some place or thing which remains invisible to the speaker. These lines suggest the onset of dementia, with the mother’s physical body showing its age, and the mind likely remaining somewhere other than in the room with the speaker.

But then the speaker offers the most solid proof of dementia as she reports that her mother now mistakes her daughter for her own mother. The word "dip," however, destroys the poignancy of that revelation. And her message becomes unintelligible as she claims to dip her head, after her mother call her "Mom." The italics on "Mom" remains puzzling, as a simple placement in quotation marks would have communicated more clearly.

The speaker then asks rhetorically what she (or anyone else) can say about this puzzling phenomenon that has resulted in her mother’s transformation from a vibrant, strong, farm woman to an aged individual who no longer cognizes the differences in the generations.

The Couplet: Philosophical Conundrum

The time we have’s still too short to master
love, and then, the hollow that comes after.

The couplet seems to make a philosophical statement about the brevity of time, the issue of mastering love, and the emptiness that comes after the death of a loved one. But the confusion offered by the notion of mastering love leaves the sonnet turned on its head. It seems that the speaker’s mere observation, celebration of the mother’s earlier strength, and crafting her musings into a sonnet would belie the claim of time being too brief to allow such love mastering.

And then with another questionable usage of a term—"hollow"—for the emptiness that death infuses into the life of bereaved loved ones, the poignancy of the sonnet loses it ability to attract, delight, and enlighten. Because a sonnet remains so limited, so brief, if two words strike the intelligence as unfit, then the sonnet suffers. Added to those two unfit usages, the malleable rime scheme, and the questionable philosophical summary in the couplet, and the sonnet fails its otherwise useful and pleasant task of celebrating its subject with dignity and grace.

Source

Kitty Carpenter’s "Farm Sonnet" was featured as Column 839 in American Life in Poetry, the project established in 2005 by Ted Kooser, with support from the Library of Con­gress and the Poet­ry Foun­da­tion, as he served as U.S. Poet Laureate from 2004 to 2006. Kooser retired in 2020, and the new curator of the project is Kwame Dawes, poet, essayist, and current editor of Prairie Schooner at the University of Nebraska.

© 2021 Linda Sue Grimes

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