“Before you take something apart, look at how it goes together.” The advice my dad gave me for working on cars continues to haunt and bless me in a number of other areas, especially in writing. His words became key to my duplex poems. The form became a lifesaver. The grief of my mom’s death in January 2022 essentially shut me down. Writing has always been my personal safety-valve. Nothing was coming out, nor was I inclined to try. Falling back onto a form with which I had worked and also with which I had been comfortable helped me back into a routine and to start dealing with that pain. While I was doing this, Dad’s advice kept me out of the rut of repeating myself. It kept me looking not just at what I was expressing but also into the mechanics of that expression.
Those mechanics would, at first glance, seem to fly in the face of how duplex poems were intended to work. Jericho Brown, who originated the duplex in 2018, had in mind “a sonnet crown that only included the repeated lines....a series of couplets with something murdered between....”1 He states the specific boundaries for the form as follows:
Write a ghazal that is also a sonnet that is also a blues poem of 14 lines, giving each line 9 to 11 syllables.
The first line is echoed in the last line.
The second line of the poem should change our impression of the first line in an unexpected way.
The second line is echoed and becomes the third line.
The fourth line of the poem should change our impression of the third line in an unexpected way.
This continues until the penultimate line becomes the first line of the couplet that leads to the final (and first) line.
For the variations of repeated lines, it is useful to think of the a a’ b scheme of the blues form.2
The key word here is “echoed.” The echo for Brown appears to be mainly a repeat. Changes are subtle and the context in which the lines reappear do the lion’s share of the shifting. Brown pulls this off brilliantly—the shifting context and enhanced emphasis in the lines themselves work extremely well. The catch I found for myself, when I wrote as strictly as Brown has, was this: for the reader even more than myself, the repeated or near-repeated lines made the poem seem static. Relying on context alone was either too subtle or simply not effective enough. I had previously attempted a strict approach to form when writing a pantoum along the lines of John Ashbery’s poem “Hotel Lautréamont.” When my poem was workshopped, other members found it stilted. I had hoped the duplexes would fare better with their comparatively smaller scale.
About this time, Julie Standig’s duplex “Wild Raspberries” appeared as part of Silver Birch Press’s “How to Heal the Earth“ series. Standig impressed me with her flexibility in echoed lines. Not strict repeats, they played with the contexts of the words themselves. Here are the first six lines:
On a bad news day, we picked wild raspberries.
They were tart, but not distasteful—a little like us.
The jelly rings went sour and left a tart lingering note.
Three deaths, one hastened, one forlorn, one unborn.
Three lives hastened, unborn, forlorn, have left their mark.
She could not recall which leg had the smooth, oval, snake bite.3
Standig’s focus on a micro level (the words) seemed at the expense of cohesion at the macro level (the context of line against line). It was definitely riskier—her leap from Line Six to Line Seven, “Lilith’s bite is worse than a snake’s and leaves a smooth, oval stain,” is a big one—but tethering the lines loosely by key words was not unwarranted and offered considerable rewards. It also played upon the concept inherent in ghazals of the two lines in each couplet not necessarily to be related in context, upon which Adrienne Rich and Jim Harrison leaned in their respectively loose approaches to the ghazal form.
The next step seemed obvious. If the primary focus becomes the words tethering one couplet to the next, what can be done with the words themselves? From here, Dad’s advice came into play—looking at how things came together before taking the lines themselves apart. I started looking at how the second line of one couplet would work in consort with the first line of the next. How would they complement each other? How would they dialogue or comment upon each other? As long as there was an implied connection from one couplet to the next, expanding the range of possibilities seemed not only feasible but also very attractive.
I was aided in this line of thought by having worked in a form which emphasizes implied connections over stated ones. The cadralor, created by Christopher Cadra and Lori Howe in 2020, is a five-stanza form in which each stanza can function as an independent poem. There is no direct or obviously-stated link between the stanzas and they do not form a single, linear narrative—“the stanzas should be contextually unrelated.”4 The emphasis in overall cohesion comes from implied connections, hints, and associations which stem from the juxtaposition of stanzas.
As I continued focusing on how the end of one couplet would “go back together” with the beginning of the next, other aspects of the form began to morph. Call this process a relaxing of rules or a move toward greater intricacy and a wider palette of grey with which to clothe the overall form. Either way, the bottom line was a more complex and varied interaction between elements the lines shared.
“Duplex Beginning with a Line by Cynthia Hogue,” for instance, begins with the couplet, “The window closing, or opening. / Sparrows do not sing till ravens caw for light.” I broke the couplet’s closing line down to three key words—sparrows, ravens, and light. Once I had isolated these words, I sought out related ones. “Sparrows” remained the same. Ravens are part of the corvid family, which led in combination with the hue of their feathers to “corvid-dark.” Synonyms for “light” suggested dawn, then daybreak. Shuffling the new words with “sparrows” resulted in the opening line of the second couplet, “in the corvid-dark verge of daybreak. Sparrows.”
Deciding on this line meant breaking one rule of the form. Each line in a strict duplex is meant to be a complete statement in its own right, a concept inherited from the ghazal. Ending with an enjambment meant finishing one statement, beginning another, and leaving that second statement to be continued in the following line. This establishes tension, leaving the reader to wonder what follows the end of that line and so to keep reading. How does the line remain an independent statement if a dependence on what follows it is thus established?
Rhetorically, in a macro sense, this line does not and cannot work independently. In a micro sense, focusing on the words within that line and their relationships to like-words in lines that precede and follow it in a process of continual variation, offered a coherence which could counterbalance this loss of independence. The question then becomes what happens next—how key words in the last line of the second couplet might influence the first line of the third. The second couplet was, “in the corvid-dark verge of daybreak. Sparrows / tremble branches brittle as spun glass as,” with the key words becoming “tremble” and “branches.” There was also another enjambment. This offered the potential, though, of establishing a pattern for the reader onto which his or her ear and eye could latch, much as William Carlos Williams does with the second line of each couplet in his well-known poem about the red wheelbarrow. No matter how long or short the first line in each of Williams’s couplets might roam, he falls back on two syllables for the second line as a stylistic anchor.
Here is how the first seven lines of “Hogue” play out, enjambments and all:
The window closing, or opening.
Sparrows do not sing till ravens caw for light
in the corvid-dark verge of daybreak. Sparrows
tremble branches brittle as spun glass as
walking wobbly I scatter millet, long arms
gangly, head somnolent. I offer prayer in
awkwardly-served breakfast, seeds of confession.
In terms of word order, “tremble” in Line Four led to “wobbly” in Line Five, “gangly” in Line Six, and “awkwardly” in Line Seven. Branches as extensions from a tree trunk in Line Four suggested arms as extensions from a human torso in Line Five, while arms pivoted as a part of human anatomy to head in Line Six. There is also a continual sense of assonance at play here—the “a” sounds of sparrows, branches, glass, arms, and awkwardly; the soft “i” sounds of corvid, brittle, and millet, which lead in turn to the soft “e” sounds of millet, somnolent, prayer, and breakfast.
Also, in breaking one formal rule by the continual use of enjambments, I fell back on another dictum of duplex form—the nine-to-eleven-syllable line-length of the blues line. Sticking to this timespan offered the reader a second anchor and myself a way to maintain focus and clarity. Rather than restricting me, this choice opened opportunities, riskier options on where to break each line. The bottom line always remained how these elements were going to work together—how they would interact with one another and cohere as a complete unit—along with Robert Creeley’s ever-present dictum that form is an extension of content.5 Altogether, what happens in “Hogue” and, by extension, the duplexes I write as a whole boil down to two indispensable and extremely heartfelt words.
Links below were retrieved on 11 May 2022.
- From “Invention” by Jericho Brown at Poetry Foundation:
Featured Blogger: Harriet: Books (18 March 2019):
See also “From the Archive: Pulitzer Prize Winner Jericho Brown’s
‘Invention’” which includes an introductory note by the editor of
Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog (15 May 2020):
- From “Wild Raspberries” by Julie Standig in Silver Birch Press:
“How to Heal the Earth” series (15 November 2021):
- From “Cadralor: Rules of the Form” in the Submission Guidelines for
Gleam: A Journal of the Cadralor:
- Robert Creeley: “Form is never more than an extension of content.” From
“Robert Creeley in Conversation with Leonard Schwartz,” a radio interview
conducted on 24 November 2003 on “Cross-Cultural Poetics” (KAOS 89.3 FM,
Olympia, WA, USA); transcribed by Angela Buck in Jacket 25 (February 2004):
is a Los Angeles-based writer and photographer with an MFA from California State
University, Long Beach. His work has appeared in San Pedro Poetry Review,
Synkroniciti, West Texas Literary Review, Gleam: Journal of the Cadralor,
MacQueen’s Quinterly, and other publications. His second poetry chapbook,
Beneath a Glazed Shimmer, won the 2019 Clockwise Chapbook Prize and was
published in February 2021 by Tebor Bach.
Le Grand Matin by Jonathan Yungkans, a Finalist in
MacQ’s Triple-Q Writing Challenge (Issue 11, January 2022)
La Porte by Yungkans in MacQ’s special
Christmas Eve issue (10X, December 2021)
Two Duplex Poems, plus author’s notes on the poems and on
the form, by Yungkans in Issue 10 of MacQ (October 2021)
Lawful and Proper, poem in Rise Up Review (Fall 2020)
Cadralor in the Key of F-Sharp as It Cuts into My Spine, in
the inaugural issue of Gleam (Fall 2020)
I’d Love to Cook Like Hannibal Lecter [video], read
by the poet at an event sponsored by Moon Tide Press (10 October 2019) celebrating
the anthology Dark Ink: A Poetry Anthology Inspired by Horror
⚡ Saving the Patient, poem in The Voices Project
(18 January 2018)