Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Ted Morrissey’s “Shroud” is #198 in the never-ending series called BACKSTORY OF THE POEM

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***Ted Morrissey’s “Shroud” is #198 in the never-ending series called BACKSTORY OF THE POEM where the Chris Rice Cooper Blog (CRC) focuses on one specific poem and how the poet wrote that specific poem.  All BACKSTORY OF THE POEM links are at the end of this piece. 
Can you go through the step-by-step process of writing this poem from the moment the idea was first conceived in your brain until final form? I’ll talk about the poem “Shroud,” the first poem I wrote in what I think of as my Laertes Sonnet Sequence, which I began in 2016 and have added poems to in dribs and drabs. 

          To date, May 2020, I have ten sonnets in the sequence. The sonnets are written in apostrophe to my father, Vince, who passed away suddenly in 2012. 
         I was divorced less than a year before, after twenty-six years of marriage, and I was still adjusting to this second act of my life when he became ill and was gone five days later (cancer of the everywhere). I was worried about my mom (they’d been together, as in practically every day) for sixty years. 
          Plus this happened in early September, just as the school year was getting underway (I’m a teacher). So with all that I really didn’t take time to process what his death meant to me. He and I were very close. Every Sunday morning we would talk on the phone for an hour or two. For months after he was gone I would look at my phone at about that time on a Sunday morning and wonder why he hadn’t called yet—then remember, again.

Time went on; this second act of my life proceeded. I dated for a couple of years before meeting the love of my life, Melissa, whom I married in 2014. One or another of my three sons would move home for a while and then leave as they finished college or set off somewhere when they found a job, and so on. Through all that, I really hadn’t fully processed what had happened with my father and his sudden passing.
I’ve always been a writer, though mainly a fiction writer, especially a novelist—but I’d been interested in poetry and had taught poetry, including at the college level. In retrospect, I wanted to write poetry but was hesitant to put it out in the world under my own name, so consequently, characters in my novels were oftentimes poets, and I would write poems via their personas.
          I’d been teaching the Romantic poets—Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, and so on—for a number of years, but in 2015 I became especially interested in their works, particularly their sonnets. 
Over winter break I recall thinking something like, “I still need to try to wrap my head around my dad’s death, and I’d like to try my hand at writing some sonnets in my own name.” So I began.

One of the books I love is Homer’s Odyssey, and I’d always thought of my father as a Laertes figure (wise, hard-working, dependable, kind), so I started thinking about a sonnet in which I allude to my father as Laertes. I was attracted to the Petrarchan sonnet form, with an octave that establishes some issue and a sestet that responds to that issue in some way.
          However, I didn’t want to tie myself down, creatively, by attempting to write in a regular rhyme scheme or meter. I’d written poems, sonnets even, in the persona of fictional characters that were strictly rhymed and metered. I appreciated the challenge, but for contemporary poetry I didn’t want to establish those boundaries.
I write by hand in an old-fashioned composition notebook. When I began composing what became “Shroud,” I tried to write line number-one, followed by line number-two, followed by number-three, etc., all the way to line number-fourteen. And it wasn’t working at all. I felt too tethered to the math, and therefore I was neglecting the language and the feel of the sonnet. I revised my approach, and the new process that I began with “Shroud” has carried me through the other sonnets I’ve written.

I don’t worry about the number of lines or line length. I think about the octave as a separate unit. I know, ultimately, it will have to consist of eight lines, but in the beginning, I focus on the ideas and images. 

I search for a workable volta, that point in the sonnet where you pivot from the octave’s issue to the sestet’s response. After I establish a functional volta, I turn my attention to the sestet—again not so much thinking in terms of its being six lines, but rather as a unit in response to the octave.
In the octave of “Shroud,” I focus on the image of my father’s left-behind clothes that my mother couldn’t bring herself to simply give away, so every time we would visit she would try to get us to take a sweater or a jacket or a hat. 

As much as I loved my dad, the idea of wearing his clothes was uniquely unsettling (plus, we’re different sizes), so I would always respectfully decline. 
Since I was thinking in terms of the Odyssey and of my father representing Laertes, the unwanted clothes evoked Penelope’s famous shroud, which she was making to honor her father-in-law, Laertes, but also unmaking every night to keep at arm’s length the unwanted suitors who desired her hand—in other words, she was doing her best to put off the forces trying to make her move on with her life. She preferred to wait for the return of her husband, even after twenty years.
Once I had an octave unit, volta and sestet unit, I went to the computer and began typing the handwritten sonnet-like thing I’d written in my composition book. 
At this point I began thinking about the poem in terms of lines, along with all the other considerations of poetic language, like alliteration, repetition, assonance, internal rhyme, and so on. 

Typically, when I type up a sonnet from my composition book, I discover, once set in lines, that the octave or the sestet may be too long or too short, so I go about cutting, compressing, or adding, expanding as needed to reach the eight-six Petrarchan sonnet structure.
 I have the handwritten first draft of “Shroud” and the final version. I know it went through multiple intermediate drafts as I tinkered with lines, syntax, diction, and so on—but I don’t have those intermediate drafts any longer.

Where were you when you started to actually write the poem?  And what month and year did you write this poem? My entire adult life I lived in a house that was too small for five people, so I’ve never had an office. Instead, I have a leather chair in the corner of the family room, always surrounded by toppling stacks of books, notebooks, and manuscripts; and that chair is where I’ve done all my writing (first drafting at least), for 23 years now (at a previous house I had a similar chair in a similar corner). 
          Even though the nest emptied out a few years ago and I could have claimed a spare bedroom for an office (I thought about it), I realized I was quite used to writing in my big leather chair. It’s next to the house’s front windows, so the light is good (once the sun comes up), and I have an effective floor-lamp positioned behind the chair. 
          I don’t recall writing “Shroud” specifically, but it was in that chair, in that corner of the family room, in the morning, in early January 2016 (or maybe very late December 2015). That spot and that time of day is when just about all of my writing takes place. On a side table I’ll have a cup of French roast coffee, sitting among the books, bookmarks, pens and loose pages that have collected there.
How many drafts of this poem did you write before going to the final? (And can you share a photograph of your rough drafts with pen markings on it?) I don’t know how many drafts the poem went through, but many—dozens. I don’t recall exactly with “Shroud,” but the process is always the same. Although, I was surprised when looking back at the original handwritten draft that it was as similar to the final draft as it is. 

          In my other sonnets the differences between the first and final drafts tend to be even more plentiful. Perhaps, since it was the first sonnet that I wrote, in the sequence, I’d thought about it longer before trying to compose it; perhaps it was more formed in my brain from the start of writing it. 
          I’d like to mention, too, that when I get in a sonnet-writing mood, I begin by reading from The Making of a Sonnet: A Norton Anthology, edited by Edward Hirsch ( and Eavan Boland—not so much to get concrete ideas, but rather to pay homage to the sonnet’s long tradition and to offer up a kind of prayer that I will make something that is not too unworthy of it.
Were there any lines in any of your rough drafts of this poem that were not in the final version?  And can you share them with us? In the first draft I had a false start. Initially I didn’t begin the poem as an apostrophe, addressed to my father. Instead, I wrote: “Penelope wove and unwove the shroud / to keep her suitors at bay.” I crossed out those beginning lines and began again: “Your left-behind clothes still / occupy closets and clotheslines / in the basement.” Through all the drafts those lines remained (although they were compressed into two lines when the poem was typed). The lines about Penelope weaving and unweaving were shifted to later in the poem, near the completion of the octave.
What do you want readers of this poem to take from this poem? The sonnet is written to my father—all the sonnets in the sequence are—but it’s really about my mother’s pain, my mother’s loss. I suppose I may have shifted my own pain, in the poem, to the persona of my mother. She hung on for several more years, living in their house without him, but she died this past January (2020). More than one editor who has published poems from the sequence has mentioned their almost palpable sadness, and I would agree they are laden with grief. 

          I’m not a morose person in my day-to-day interactions with people. I think most people would see me as a happy, carefree kind of guy, which I am generally speaking. I release the sadness, the bereavement and so forth from my psyche via my writing. I’ve never visited a therapist, and I think I’ve never felt the need because my writing has always been my therapy.
Which part of the poem was the most emotional of you to write and why? In the poem I say that my mother didn’t want to get rid of the clothes because she was trying “to stay the complete- / ness of [my father’s] death, leave the final act unfulfilled,” and those lines bring back the image of my mother in the hospital room after my father passed, begging him, begging him, please, to come back to life and not leave her alone. 

          She’d sat by his bed holding his hand for two straight days, almost without interruption, not sleeping, barely eating, because she couldn’t stand the thought of his dying without her being right there, holding his hand at the very end.

Has this poem been published before?  And if so where? “Shroud” was published in Bellevue Literary Review (spring/summer 2019).


Your left-behind clothes still occupy closets and
clotheslines in the basement. She refuses to
donate them away, insisting that family may want
them (implying should want them). But it feels like
clothing oneself in Laertes’ shroud, where an un-
finished thread may hang exposed, left incomplete
by clever Penelope, who wove and unwove to
keep the suitors at bay, to halt time, delay the fated.
Just as she is doing now, to stay the complete-
ness of your death, leave the final act unfulfilled,
a thread left unfixed. Clothes hang here, are folded
there, frozen, amplifying your absence more than
the framed photos on the walls, as she awaits your
sail, white on the horizon: gift of beneficent gods.

Ted Morrissey's most recent novels are Mrs Saville (Manhattan Book Award) and Crowsong for the Stricken (International Book Award and American Fiction Award, both Book Fest). He has been writing his Laertes Sonnet Sequence to his late father off and on since 2016. His short stories, novel excerpts, poems, essays and reviews have appeared in approximately 80 journals. He teaches high school English and is a lecturer in Lindenwood University's MFA in Writing program. A new novel, The Artist Spoke, about a pair of poets on the loose in the big city, will be released in 2020 via his own Twelve Winters Press.
follow @t_morrissey –


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#131 Backstory of the Poem
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#185 Backstory of the Poem
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#186 Backstory of the Poem
July 6, 2020
“The Alabama Wiregrassers”
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#187 Backstory of the Poem
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#188 Backstory of the Poem
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#189 Backstory of the Poem
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#190 Backstory of the Poem
July 14, 2020
of patience” 
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#191 Backstory of the Poem
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Threnody by the President for Victims of COVID-19, Beginning with a Line from Milosz”
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#192 Backstory of the Poem
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#193 Backstory of the Poem
July 17, 2020
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#194 Backstory of the Poem
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#195 Backstory of the Poem
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#196 Backstory of the Poem
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#197 Backstory of the Poem
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“Will Be Done”
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#198 Backstory of the Poem
July 22, 2020
by Ted Morrissey

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