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Freedom in Structure

We all got up to weird pursuits during the pandemic, so I don’t think my sudden obsession with set forms in prose and poetry is all that eccentric? I lost so much that I used to delight in – long conversations with friends over coffee, dinner parties with fascinating interactions and goings on.  I find people mysterious and I like to come home and sit on my sofa to try to figure them out.  I am always puzzled why certain couples are together and love to ponder the conundrum of what attracts them to each other.

My friends developed some pretty odd lockdown hobbies. After crocheting like mad on her usual table runners and afghans, Alice took to crafting stranger and stranger beings – first a Bernie, then an elephant (orange, in Ganesha God style), and, finally, fuzzy rotund quasi-human beings squatting mysteriously on every service in her house.   Ruth developed a weird affinity for her houseplants, endowing them with names and personalities and engaging in intense inter-species discussions.  Cats and dogs suffered mental agonies in the hands of bored owners who refused to leave them to their own devices while insulting their existential felinity and doggedness by treating them (and dressing them!) like humans.

In this context, what I got into (besides sleeping with stuffed animals and bathing with my rubber ducky) wasn’t all that weird.

  I am a writer – in my youth of poetry, in my career of academic tomes, in retirement of novels, and presently of newspaper columns and features. Of necessity, I do a lot of reading, and as the pandemic wore on I became more and more focused on turns of phrase I stumbled across, until I decided to try some out for myself.

Antitheses, for but one example, are figures of speech based on words arranged in parallel structures that are opposite in meaning. 

“True humility is not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less.”   C.S. Lewis

“The United States Right long ago rejected evidence-based policy in favor of policy-based evidence.” Paul Krugman

So inspired, here is an antithesis I thought up to explain my theology to my skeptical (atheist, recovering-Catholic) friends;   “My faith is not based on my certainty of presence but on my uncertainty of absence.”

There is something liberating about putting words into set forms.  It is related to the paradoxical freedom you experience in a group that acts according to agreed-upon rules of conduct.   That is why the rule of law (January 6, evening) is so much more appealing than the law of misrule (January 6, afternoon). Another antithesis!

Yonks ago, at the beginning of the second wave of the Feminist Movement, we National Organization for Women members followed all kinds of procedures and by-laws which, we insisted, left us more liberated than Women’s Liberation.   While they mocked us as “bourgeois” in our “structural tyranny,” we thought they were hampering themselves with their “tyranny of unstructuralism.”  (it seems I have been alert to antithesis longer than I thought).

I started my writing life as a poet – dubbed, at various times, “a Georgia poet,” “a Wisconsin poet,” and “a Feminist poet.” I swiftly realized, however, that writing poetry wouldn’t feed my family, though I could get a raise if I wrote a book. Like a lot of long ago pass times my friends took up during the pandemic – knitting, board games, crosswords, jigsaw puzzles – I suddenly wanted to write poetry again.

This time, it was metaphysical poetry in set forms.  The metaphysical part has to do with the unusually complex stuff I found myself enjoying in my pandemic reading – how linear time relates to synchronous time, what quasars and quantum strings are up to, how fractals and algorithms structure the universe.  The thing is, in the past several years I have felt a familiar fizzling in my brain, the same cracking electricity running up to the ends of my hair that I experienced during a similar intellectual surge when I was 14 years old.  At 84, of all things, I feel it all again, although I am perfectly well aware that it could all fizzle out like a damp squib any day now.

There are all kinds of set forms in poetry – Haiku of just 17 syllables, Sonnets of 14 lines in patterns of Octaves and Sestets, along with Tercets and Quatrains, Rondeaus and Villanelles. I chose this last form for the poem I am about to subject you too. It has five (three-line) Tercets rhyming aba,  ends with a (four-line) Quatrain, “and with the first line of the first tercet serving as the last line of the second and fourth tercets and the third line of the initial tercet serving as the last line of the third and fifth tercet, these 2 refrain lines following each other to constitute the last two lines of the closing quatrain.” (The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics – I thought you might want to know this).

Well, I didn’t exactly conform to all that, but it was fun to get as close as I could.  Metaphysically, the pandemic lockdown left me digging and delving toward a slightly less dim grasp of the universe than before – but ask me tomorrow, when I will probably have changed my mind:

          FRACTAL VILLANELLE
I find I am a fractal of the heart
Of everything, all paradigms aligned:
Not mine nor yours nor anything apart.

Seed heads in whorls, and the intricate spread
Of mushroom rootlets do not spring from mind:
I find that they are fractals of the heart

Of all things. Ratios are where we start,
Alogorithmic in the womb, mathematically entwined
Not my geometry nor yours nor anything apart.

I find I am a fractal of the heart
In starling murmurations, patterned lines-
All swoops and dips and geometric arcs.

Did we spring from mystery? Some arcane art?
We can do the math, but never comprehend
How we became the fractals of a heart
Not yours nor mine nor anything apart.

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Spring Poem

I have always loved poetry, and I have always loved spring. Far and away my favorite poem in the world is Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Spring”:

Nothing is so beautiful as spring –

When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush,

Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush

Through the echoling timber does so rinse and wring

The ear, it strikes like lightening to hear him sing.

Try reading it out loud.

Did you notice something about the sounds?

It is written in a Welsh poetic tradition full of alliteration (words starting with the same letter) and “internal” rhymes that occur within the lines as well as at the ends. And the words sound just like what they are describing – anyone who has heard our American Wood Thrush, a relative of the English variety, knows how its song really does “rinse and ring” through the forest canopy.

I was so in love with Hopkins’ Welsh prosody (Dylan Thomas’s as well) that I wrote my own poetry in it. Fame-wise, that was one big mistake:  in the sixties and seventies, when terse verbal minimalism was in fashion, I was often dismissed as “Tennysonian,”  too “nineteenth century.”

Oh well,  my poems sounded terrific when I read them out loud; I was quite popular on the poetry reading circuit and was once known as a “Georgia” and, later on, a “Wisconsin” poet.  sic transit gloria mundi.

 

 

October

The Prairie Fellowship, a beloved Unitarian community that provided me in anchor in my peripatetic years, used to spend a weekend every October in the Wisconsin Dells. One year I was asked to read autumn poems out of doors and so, on a warm-enough sunny morning, I sat under the forest canopy all ablaze in gold and crimson to await any participants who might come.

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