There’s a thrilling moment where love for poetry starts to become focused. Instead of digesting all of it with equal affection, there are favorite structures. The Romantic poem, with a touch of timeless subject matter brokered by powerful rhyme scheme, is my dramatic and soothing favorite structure. These wise, kind words imprint deep beauty, and although I respect a good haiku or free-form, the elegies, sestinas, and sonnets are the Ladurée macaroons of cookies in my world. There’s a reason I should study Keats, Walcott, the author of Psalms, and Baudelaire. They are masters at their craft. And while aching to see more female poets published in this glorious tradition of thoughtful writing today (like the former Phillis Wheatley, Anne Bradstreet, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning), I’m not going to stop reading phenomenal artists because they’re crusty old men. I’m also prone to head for the dictionary lovingly, and not wince anytime it appears someone has used a thesaurus. Isn’t part of the fun searching for aesthetically-pleasing, unfamiliar etymology? If not, many of us don’t care and rebel against other suggestions. Seeking to know the difference between arrogant self-promotion and enthusiastic word play, we plow on.
So last week I stumbled on a formal poetry journal, convinced that my style of writing is too “thesaurus-saturated” for The Greensboro Review. Understanding that many modern readers prefer sparsely-written and quicker poetry, I now know that it may not be the best idea for me to spend time and energy appealing to contests that I’m ill-suited for. This is a wonderful learning experience! And while my tastes are different, I don’t deny the use for newer forms. I just don’t do a good job of reading or imitating them. Here’s the poem that got me thinking about these things, by John J. Brugaletta of Cal State Fullerton:
When Yellowstone erupts and earth goes dark,
its pyroclastic flow eliminates
some faithful, and its virulence deflates
their egos with the cougar and the lark,
this great ablution, purifying all,
will sterilize at once our seven sins
with our delights, our kindnesses and grins,
and leave us shrouded in an ashy pall.
Is this the providence for those who crook
the knee—be it ourselves or progeny?
Is nothing real but when we strike and see?
Is nothing holy, neither flesh nor book?
How we, naïve as infants, all mistook?
Are we to be but pure fragility?
The questions in this sonnet are real, and the imagery incredibly clear. But the author peppers his lines with a cadence of words like “pyroclastic,” “virulence,” “ablution,” and “progeny” among others. The language reminds one of religion, of the mysterious unknown that we encounter in the breakdown of nature and perfection. His work requires several readings to uncover what’s being said, to work at how he places the structure with the subject to create fluidity.
Les Mis captures this romantic power of poetry for many, many pages. At times surprised by the amount of times I need to open a Webster’s, I’m also floored by Hugo’s language and his story. He not only writes lengthy passages about France’s history and her people, but also writes some of the most thought-provoking character descriptions I’ve ever seen. Case in point, his observation of Inspector Javert early in the book:
“The peasants of the Asturias believe that in every litter of wolves there is one dog, which is killed by the mother, lest on growing up it should devour the other little ones. Give a human face to this dog son of a wolf, and you will have Javert.”
Or the ecstatic illuminations of the Priest:
“He was there alone with himself, collected, tranquil, adoring, comparing the serenity of his heart with the serenity of the skies, moved in the darkness by the visible splendours of the constellations, and the invisible splendour of God, opening his soul to the thoughts which fall from the Unknown. In such moments, offering up his heart at the hour when the flowers of night inhale their perfume, lighted like a lamp in the centre of the starry night, expanding his soul in ecstasy in the midst of the universal radiance of creation, he could not himself perhaps have told what was passing in his own mind; he felt something depart from him, and something descend upon him; mysterious interchanges of the depths of the soul with the depths of the universe.”
To find and jot down/type these pleasing honeycombs of poetry will be my life’s work. The best gift I can think to give to the Creator and His world is diligent, graceful, brave and humble art. It’s fluffy, sweet, but has a creamy and delicious filling that offers both snack and dessert.