The Dance of the Villanelle

The word ‘villanelle’ sounds like it ought to be the name of a dance – and perhaps that’s not so far off from what it really is, as a poetic form.

The essence of a villanelle is its mix of repetition and variety: two lines weaving and interweaving through the poem, like figures in a square dance, hand clasped and loosed, switching from one line to another. Just as every dance has its own tempo, and is shaped by the music and the very selves of the dancers who move through it, the villanelle can take on many moods.

The repetition built into the poem means that whatever the mood may be, it builds as the poem goes on; it intensifies. It might be the poignancy of Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” – with “the art of losing isn’t hard to master” building from lighthearted carelessness to heartbreak at the end. Or it could be the fiery intensity of Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.” It might be Theodore Roethke’s eerie “The Waking,” whose “I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow” becomes, if anything, more mysterious by the end of the poem. Or it might be a quiet mood, growing more reflective as the poem moves through its steps, like Dan Lechay’s “Ghost Villanelle” or my friend Malcolm Guite’s “Salvage.” (It’s here, but also in his new collection The Singing Bowl.)

Perhaps what I like best about the villanelle is the way that its conclusion can provide a surprise or a new insight, even though it comes from the same lines that have been weaving in and out of the poem all along. Or perhaps that’s the reason it works: the villanelle works like the human mind works. When I’m thinking something over, I don’t progress from point A to point B to point C like a machine or a logic problem; rather, I mull things over, turning ideas, facts, remembrances over in my thoughts to see what I can make of them. Insight, at least for me, usually comes as a sense of fittingness: the realization that I’ve glimpsed the pattern, seen the way things make sense, or how they could make sense if I go forward in a certain way.

The villanelle, like the process of my thoughts, is more than the sum of its parts; it is a kind of poem that has a human pulse.

***

This piece originally appeared on Kelly Belmonte’s excellent blog All Nine Muses.

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Dr. Holly Ordway is the chair of the Department of Apologetics and director of the MA in Cultural Apologetics at Houston Baptist University, and the author of the memoir Not God’s Type (revised and expanded second ed. forthcoming 2014, Ignatius Press). Her work focuses on imaginative and literary apologetics, with special attention to C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams.

Emily Dickinson and the Art of Doubt

Sometimes designating herself the “Queen of Calvary,” nineteenth-century American poet Emily Dickinson is known as a poet of emotional extremes.  In one moment she is “inebriate of air” and “debauchee of the dew,” the next, she is wallowing in deep despair, acknowledging that she “likes a look of Agony” because she knows “it’s true.”

While tracing the sublime in nature, mapping the descent into romantic disappointment, and defining the psychological extremes of both gain and loss, Dickinson was also interested in the extremes of spiritual states, whether those exist as ones of clarity, or extreme doubt.

In a poem that begins “My Worthiness is all my doubt,” the poet is ostensibly speaking of a beloved person, whose “merit” is all of her “fear.”  However, the poem can easily be taken as a statement on the way doubt works in terms of the relationship between the believer and God.  She likens herself as “inefficient” for “his beloved need,” and agonizes over her unworthiness.  The beloved, who has the power to choose or reject her in terms of being a member of The Elect, is a powerful reminder of God’s power over her imagination and her moments of doubting—not doubting God, but doubting her sufficiency for Him.  She likens her bodily existence to “the undivine abode,” in contract to “his elect content,” and vows that she would “Conform my soul as ‘t were a church/ Unto her sacrament.”  Such religious language not only reminds the reader of Dickinson’s Calvinist upbringing, which was a palpable influence on her art, but also of her lifelong concern with the issue of doubt, one that was so profound that she never did participate in the public profession of faith that was required for full membership in her Amherst, Massachusetts church.

Readers are perhaps more familiar with her famous four-line poem which begins with “Faith is a fine invention/ When Gentlemen can see,” yet goes for the jugular with the wry observation that microscopes are also fine inventions—“in an emergency.”  Gesturing to the influence of empiricism in general, and Darwinism in particular, Dickinson exemplifies the religious person who has spiritual beliefs, yet channels her human doubts into her art.

The very real element of doubt in faith is not a topic that Dickinson is afraid to address.  Whether in social spheres, the classroom, of even among believers who are wavering their beliefs, Dickinson asks the questions that all modern-day Christian apologists have to consider.  She even likens humans to embodying doubt itself, and suggests the constant challenge of alleviating or confronting doubt itself:  “A doubt if it be Us” she posits, then following up with the utility of doubt:  it “Assists the staggering Mind” which must suffer in its state of doubt “In its extreme Anguish/Until it footing find.”

For Dickinson, there is the possibility of finding one’s spiritual “footing,” but one of her striking poetic enterprises is articulating how difficult that can be.  In her well known poem that begins “This World is Not Conclusion,” she is not eliminating the possibility of “conclusion,’ but positing that it cannot be found on earth, but somewhere else.  Here on earth, “Narcotics cannot still the Tooth/That nibbles at the soul.”  Dickinson, who is really at odds with a kind of spiritual propriety that would have been expected of her in her community, is unafraid to note that “Faith slips—and laughs and rallies—“ but she does not discard faith even as she considers its spiritual challenges.

***

Dr. Doni M. Wilson is an Associate Professor of English at Houston Baptist University and has a 6th grader named Christopher. Her interests include twentieth century literature, classical music, and creative nonfiction. She is working on a book about the Pulitzer Prize winning poet Mary Oliver for the University of South Carolina Press.

 

 

Looking at a Sonnet from the Inside

Constraint begets creativity, and the particular demands of the sonnet form are conducive to the kind of poetry that I am drawn to write, with a focus on vivid images or states of mind. A finished poem, if successful, feels complete; it’s hard to imagine it being other than it is – and so I’ve decided to write about the revision of a sonnet of my own, one that has its merits but, in the end, doesn’t quite work.

This particular poem was sparked by my reading about the end of the NASA shuttle program, with the last flight of the Space Shuttle Atlantis. As someone who grew up reading science fiction and watching sci-fi television, I felt like this marked the end of an era, and sought to capture something of my mood in this poem.

Here is the first version.

My childhood’s future sent us to the stars,

To unknown worlds, strange and new frontiers

And empires, strife, and interstellar wars.

Even in space we can’t outrun our fears.

We fell back to the earth, and farther still,

To inner space, where on the nano scale

We thought we could remake, by force of will,

Ourselves. We saw our technomancy fail

To give us what we need: firm ground to know

What kind of thing we are. We’re not machines;

The siren song of space won’t let us go,

And worlds we’ll never see still haunt our dreams.

One day we might look up, and take a chance

And seek to join the stars in joyful dance.

This is not a terrible poem. There are some things I like about it; ‘technomancy’ and ‘my childhood’s future’. It’s not entirely satisfactory, though. I submitted it to a poetry journal and was asked to revise it. It still wasn’t accepted (and rightly so, I think now) but the result was an improved version:

My childhood’s future sent us to the stars,

To unknown worlds, strange and new frontiers,

To empires, strife, and interstellar wars.

Even in space we can’t outrun our fears.

We fell back to the earth, and farther still,

To inner space, where on the nano scale

We now subject our selves to our own will.

But we have seen our technomancy fail

When what we seek is not to shape but know

What kind of thing we are. We cannot chart

The fractal currents of the soul; we go

From dark to dark, and in the hidden heart

We’re searching still. For are we yet machines

If worlds we’ll never see still haunt our dreams?

 What did I change, and why? In the middle of the poem, the awkward “We thought we could remake, by force of will, / Ourselves” has been replaced by “We now subject our selves to our own will.” Better? Maybe. The meter is clunky and forced, although there’s the potential for some interesting double meaning with ‘subject’ (verb) over against ‘subject’ (noun).

Form, sound, phrase, and meaning in a sonnet are all inter-related: the revisions I noted above necessitated a change in the next line. “But we have seen our technomancy fail” is, I think, an improvement; it has a better sound to it, and the ‘but’ reinforces the sense of loss that I’m trying to achieve. However, it’s still unsatisfactory in terms of meaning, because it glosses over the question: Fail at what? In neither version is the next line satisfactory. Version 1 has “To give us what we need: firm ground to know / What kind of thing we are.” Version 2 has: “When what we seek is not to shape but know / What kind of thing we are.” Both answers are dodges: abstract, with no punch.

In version 2, however, there’s a genuine improvement in the following lines. I’ve ditched the stale “siren song of space” and have found the vivid image of “We cannot chart / The fractal currents of the soul.” I like that image, and if I were to re-work the poem now, I’d focus on it, to draw out some of its potential.

The closing couplet has a substantial change. The close of version 1 is too easy, even saccharine: “One day we might look up, and take a chance / And seek to join the stars in joyful dance.” Blah. In the revision, I converted the statement “we’re not machines” in the middle of the poem into a question at the end: “For are we yet machines / If worlds we’ll never see still haunt our dreams?” This is better, because it raises the unsettling possibility that maybe we have, in fact, become machines – have we gone too far, lost some essential part of our humanity? Note also that the rhyme is no longer exact. In the first version, the full rhyme of chance / dance exacerbated the easy, pat feeling of the closing couplet; in version 2, machines / dreams is less precise and thus works better with the note of uncertainty that I’m trying to achieve here.

As I look at this poem now, a couple of years on and with more experience, I can see why even with the revision, it doesn’t quite work.

First, it’s too abstract. My strength as a poet lies in concrete details, in using specific, clear, vivid imagery. Precision, precision, precision.

Second, it’s too grandiose. I make sweeping statements in this poem because they sound good, not because I’m articulating a genuine insight. What do I mean by “we go from dark to dark” or “in the hidden heart we’re searching still”? I didn’t know then, and I don’t know now. I can’t hide behind the idea that it’s a rich image that contains more meaning than I am consciously aware of. That can happen, but I can tell the difference now. Here, it’s a case of me using a nice-sounding phrase that I didn’t think too much about.

Third, the sound patterns don’t suit my voice. Some poets can and do make excellent use of full rhyme (Malcolm Guite, for one). But I’ve found that my poetry is more natural, and more effective, when I use slant (half) rhyme, sometimes so very much slant that it’s more like 1/16th rhyme than half rhyme! So it’s interesting to look back on this poem and see that one of the genuine improvements from version 1 to version 2 involved shifting slightly away from full rhyme in the couplet.

Good writing is not something that just ‘happens’. It is hard work and involves a great deal of practice, revision, experimentation, failure, more practice, and more revision. Discovering one’s voice and developing it is also a process that takes time; there are no short-cuts. But the good thing is that, as G.K. Chesterton said, anything worth doing is worth doing badly. One has to start somewhere, and one’s early work is always going to be imperfect or even really awful. Even as an experienced writer, there’s always room to grow; and knowing that, I think, makes it easier to get started. Want to write a sonnet? Go for it. Write a bad sonnet! Then write a better one. Repeat. Learn. Enjoy.

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I wrote this piece for Kelly Belmonte’s excellent blog All Nine Muses, as part of a series exploring the sonnet form. You can read the other pieces in the series over on All Nine.

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Dr. Holly Ordway is the chair of the Department of Apologetics and director of the MA in Cultural Apologetics at Houston Baptist University, and the author of Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms (revised and expanded second ed. forthcoming 2014, Ignatius Press). Her work focuses on imaginative and literary apologetics, with special attention to C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams.

Letting Go of Irony: Reflections on the Ode (and on teaching poetry)

Over at my friend Kelly Belmonte’s excellent blog All Nine Muses, she challenged us to think about the ode. (You can read all the contributes on the ode here). I found myself wondering why the ode seems to be such an easy target for satire in the modern day.

Certainly it’s hard to imagine writing an ode like Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” or Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality.” But why not, I wondered? And it occurred to me that perhaps what makes it difficult to write (or write about) an ode today is that the form is not the least bit ironic. The ode challenges us to look long and hard at something and take it seriously.

Taking things seriously is hard for us to do, these days. I think we’re afraid of seriousness, because to be serious means that we care, and if we care, we can be hurt.

Last year I taught several sections of the undergraduate English courses, Great Works I and II. I assigned my students into groups to create a dramatization of a short scene from their assigned book, which they presented to the whole class. The results were often highly creative and delightful – ranging from a guided tour of Dante’s Hell (with tour guides, tickets, and snacks provided) to a talk show program interviewing the characters from Beowulf.

After a while, though, I noticed something that disturbed me. The default approach of most students was that of parody. (In fact, I had to veto a few project ideas as being too flippant to do justice to the book at all.) The predominant ‘voice’ that came out in the projects was ironic. There was a sense of distancing, that the students were working very hard to convey a sense of ‘we’re not taking this seriously.’

In my entirely anecdotal and unsystematic experience, it seemed that the groups that had leadership from very engaged, interested students – ones who weren’t afraid to show that they really enjoyed the books – were the least likely to do parodic or highly ironic presentations. Their projects were often leavened with humor, but not to the point of subverting the story. On the other hand, the groups with students who were, I think, somewhat afraid of being ‘uncool’ tended to be much more parodic – as if that were the only way they could engage with the material safely.

But I also sensed a deep yearning to drop the irony, to let go of parody and enjoy these stories for themselves. Several times a semester, I’d have the whole class do an activity that involved reading or acting out part of the story, such as reading scenes from Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex (in front of HBU’s ten Grecian pillars!) or having the students traipse across campus to act out the pilgrimage from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. We always had fun – unironic, enjoying-ourselves fun. Probably it worked because, if they felt like they looked silly, they could just blame it on the crazy professor.

How does this come back to the ode? I think the ode is profoundly non-ironic, even anti-ironic. The ode calls us to take seriously what we’re looking at, or remembering, or thinking about. It challenges us to use the language of deep emotion, and not be embarrassed by it.

Irony can be a necessary seasoning, like salt; but, just as salt plowed into the ground will sterilize it, irony can kill our ability to feel.

The ode provokes us to let down our cynical, ironic guard – and I think that’s a good thing. If we can’t truly admire, and be awed, and be serious, neither can we truly laugh, and enjoy frivolity. And we need both.

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Dr. Holly Ordway is the chair of the Department of Apologetics and director of the MA in Cultural Apologetics at Houston Baptist University, and the author of Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms (revised and expanded second ed. forthcoming 2014, Ignatius Press). Her work focuses on imaginative and literary apologetics, with special attention to C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams.

Many-Splendored Things: a Review of The Singing Bowl by Malcolm Guite

What is poetry? To seek an answer is to find a seeming infinity of thought. There are many fine and famous replies to that question.

In one beautiful line, Lamartine tells us that “poetry is the morning dream of great minds.”[1] And it seems a thing inexhaustible, for in one sonnet, John Keats wrote “the poetry of earth is ceasing never.”[2] Then too, Jonathan Swift never wrote a better line than when he said: “truth shines the brighter, clad in verse.”[3] And to these sterling thoughts, so many more might be added.

Still, when reading them, one thing seems certain: we will never find the last word on what poetry is. But we may find something like a welcome and star-like host of words that point to the realm of poetry, with all that beckons there.

 * * *

Some fine books of poetry are like that: they point to places of possibility—in everything—from the commonplace to the transcendent.

The Singing Bowl, by Malcolm Guite, is such a book.

At its heart, the range of subjects covered in this collection of verse holds the bright secret to its appeal, for clearly, Dr. Guite (of Cambridge University in England) is a questing poet.

For example, one rich sequence of poems is written conversation with Dante, another reverent cluster of three poetic sequences centers on the practice of prayer in somber seasons—with explorations of what it means to persist in the presence of a God who hears and knows us in time of trouble.

Other poems seek “heaven in the ordinary,” amid “local habitations.” They remind us of common grace, and the anyplace where it might be found. One superb poem in this part of the book is “Cowper’s View, All Saints Hartford.”

Here, we look with gratitude upon “the Great Ouse,” and see “flood-meadows holding scraps of sky.” At the same time, there are kind reflections on the despair that sometimes overwhelmed Cowper. These bring comfort, though Cowper knew so many days that eluded solace. Last, we find this moving close that evokes a sense of kinship and gentle sympathy, mingled with a subtle, yet undeniable hope—

 

I watch with Cowper through my darkened days,

And wait with him till we shall see sunrise.

 * * *

Throughout this collection, Dr. Guite’s sureness as a technician, and sureness of touch as a artist are blended in equal measure. His book may be likened to a canvas of many hues, where every brush-stroke tells.

And one is so often grateful for his insight as a poet, as in these lines:

 

Begin the song exactly where you are

Remain within the world of which you’re made

Call nothing common in the earth or air.

 

Here, and throughout The Singing Bowl, Malcolm Guite has given us a book rich in things that hallow what it means to be human. Take up this book. Travel its paths of pilgrimage. Discover many-splendored things.

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An award-winning author, Kevin Belmonte has written and edited over a dozen books, including biographies of William Wilberforce and G.K. Chesterton. He is also a columnist for BreakPoint magazine, and a frequent contributor to The Huffington Post.



[1] See page 348 of Memoirs of Celebrated Characters, vol. 1, by Alphonse de Lamartine, (London: Richard Bentley, 1854).

[2] See page 49 of The Complete Works of John Keats, vol. 1, ed. by H.B. Forman, (New York: Thomas Crowell, 1900).

[3] See page 174 of The Works of Dr. Jonathan Swift, vol. 6, (Edinburgh: A. Donaldson, 1759). See also page 205 of The Complete Poems, by Jonathan Swift, (London: Penguin Books, 1983).

Seeing and Discovery: Where Poems Come From (2)

Where do poems come from? Kelly Belmonte has written a series of posts exploring that very topic (read them here), and invited me to contribute my thoughts on her excellent blog All Nine Muses. In my first response, I reflected on the ‘discovery’ aspect of writing poetry.

But the starting point for discovery, for the play of words that I love so much, is nearly always located in the act of seeing.

Many of my poems, or images within a poem, come from a visual image, usually something in nature: a goldfinch landing on a bare twig; light shining through leaves; the view of a canal through a stone bridge’s arch.

That’s one of the reasons I like to walk, when I can: the slow pace of walking allows me to really notice my surroundings, and to stop and stare in order to really take in what I see. Then, later, I might try to show the reader some glimpse of what I see, in words that will open up some of the enchantment I felt:

…I pause beneath a bridge, and watch
The water flowing onward in the light,
Into a living picture framed by stone.

What I hope for, as I work with an image, is to open it up, to be fully present to it, and in so doing, to discover (and express) something of what the image means.

Dayspring

When I was writing a poem for my godson, on the occasion of his baptism, I wanted to write something that connected with the land, with the family farm. I had an abundance of possible images to choose from, but one that kept coming to mind was of fences, which made it into the poem:

Winter sunlight spills past their shadows, across
Fenced fields and pastures, each line the mark and measure
Of a man’s mind.

As I held the image in my mind, in the composition of the poem, I came to realize how important fences are for a farmer: not merely as boundary markers, but as safeguards to keep the sheep from straying, and of ways to divide the farmland into different uses: pasture, yard, vegetable garden. And so the fence became both part of the description of landscape, and also an element that spoke of the farmer’s intentionality and mindfulness in his vocation.

It’s my favorite image in that poem – not least because I also discovered, as I found words for it, that the line fell naturally and fittingly into an Anglo-Saxon-flavored alliterative form. Seeing, and discovery!

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Dr. Holly Ordway is a poet, academic, and Christian apologist. She is the chair of the Department of Apologetics and director of the MA in Cultural Apologetics at Houston Baptist University, and the author of Not God’s Type (2010; 2nd ed. forthcoming, 2014, Ignatius Press). Her work focuses on imaginative and literary apologetics, with special attention to C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams.

Reversals: Poetry and the Heavens

For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
(Colossians 1:16-17)

 

What do we see when we look up into the night sky?

Darkness; scattered points of light; and the vast empty spaces between the stars. We are looking out, from a tiny little ball of earth and water and air, out into a void…

Or are we? C.S. Lewis, in his book The Discarded Image, reminds us that this is but one ‘image’ of the universe; it is not the way that people saw the world in medieval times. They were just as aware as we are that the earth is exceedingly small compared to the rest of the cosmos, but instead of looking up and seeing the cosmos as empty and vacant, a vast and frighteningly lonely place, they saw the seven heavens, arrayed with order and meaning.

Modern science would have us believe that we are nothing but clever mammals scrabbling for existence on a cosmically insignificant bit of mud and rock circling in the vacuum. One could see it that way – the same way that one can stare at a page of print long enough for the words and letters to blur into meaningless black marks on the page. One could see the cosmos as meaningless… but what if it’s not? What if we could blink and look afresh at the page, to see the letters re-shape into words, the words jump out with meaning?

We might catch a glimpse of the meaning of the heavens, a snatch of the music of the spheres – a hint of the way that “all things hold together” in the Word who made all things…

G CIEL 1_025

Gerard Manley Hopkins gives us such a glimpse in his sonnet “The Starlight Night.”

Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies!

  O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air!

  The bright boroughs, the circle-citadels there!

Down in dim woods the diamond delves! the elves’-eyes!

The grey lawns cold where gold, where quickgold lies!

  Wind-beat whitebeam! airy abeles set on a flare!

  Flake-doves sent floating forth at a farmyard scare!—

Ah well! it is all a purchase, all is a prize.

Buy then! bid then!—What?—Prayer, patience, aims, vows.

Look, look: a May-mess, like on orchard boughs!

  Look! March-bloom, like on mealed-with-yellow sallows!

These are indeed the barn; withindoors house

The shocks. This piece-bright paling shuts the spouse

  Christ home, Christ and his mother and all his hallows.

 In the first line, Hopkins calls our attention upward: “Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies!” Ecstatic, he calls the stars “fire-folk” and “circle-citadels,” compares them to windblown white flowers, “Flake-doves sent floating forth at a farmyard scare!”

And, having connected those bright points of light far above to the here-and-now of trees in a farmyard, to a “May-mess, like on orchard boughs,” he takes one more imaginative leap: these stars are a barn: “withindoors house / The shocks.” And this barn, with its “piece-bright paling” of stars, houses Christ himself, the firstfruits of the Resurrection.

A lovely image, but a distant one, it seems: Christ far above us in the heavens, separate from us here on the earth… but wait! Where are we in this sonnet? We are the saints, the souls made holy or ‘hallowed,’ to use the old term; and in a swooping change of perspective, Hopkins shows us, delightedly, that the stars are not walls shutting us out into the darkness, excluding us, but walls that surround us, making the whole cosmos into our own home:

…This piece-bright paling shuts the spouse

Christ home, Christ and his mother and all his hallows.

A dizzying change of perspective: we are at the center, because Christ is at the center, and we are in him.

***

This post first appeared on Transpositions, as part of a symposium on Poetry and Theology. The other poets who participated were Malcolm Guite (writing about his poem “Trinity Sunday”) and Timothy Bartel (writing about his poem “The California Condors.”)

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Dr. Holly Ordway is a poet, academic, and Christian apologist. She is the chair of the Department of Apologetics and director of the MA in Cultural Apologetics at Houston Baptist University, and the author of Not God’s Type (2010; 2nd ed. forthcoming, 2014, Ignatius Press). Her work focuses on imaginative and literary apologetics, with special attention to C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams.

Where Do Poems Come From?

Good question.

Kelly Belmonte has been writing on this subject on her excellent blog All Nine Muses, and invited me to reflect on my creative process, in response to her pieces (parts one, two, three, and four).

For me, writing poetry is seeing and discovery; open reception and active building; a fascination with the words themselves, and a tension between the chosen word and the experience that is always fuller, richer, deeper than what the word expresses.

I feel for words, testing them out, and following where they lead me. I love the way that different words evoke different images, with subtle shifts, the way that sound interacts with meaning in a word. I am fascinated by etymology, the way that a word’s linguistic origin flavors it.

Sometimes the right word often comes only after long experimentation, the testing-out of almost-right and not-at-all-right words until the key clicks in the lock; sometimes the right word comes at once, trailing the rest of the line with it, perhaps shaping the whole poem around it.

The stream runs black between soft banks of snow,

Sleek over tumbled stones. Ice films a fallen 

Branch, caesura in the water’s way 

As it murmurs through the woods and fields. 

The first line came to me nearly complete. I was walking along a brook in the winter after a fresh, heavy snow, delighting in the sharp contrasts of color and texture: the snow piled along the banks of the brook, the clear, dark, moving water; the crisp films of ice. Since I feel a deep connection to Anglo-Saxon poetry, I am drawn to the use of alliteration and assonance to create (or discover) music in a line; that’s probably why I decided that first ‘found’ line was worth building a poem around.

The rest of the quatrain was ‘building’ rather than discovery. Because I write mainly sonnets, the constraints of meter and form shape my choices. The shaping is what makes discovery possible: the testing-out of words and phrases, images and themes, in conjunction with the music of language and the shaping discipline of the form. The very difficulty of sonnet-writing, the need to make the poem work in fourteen lines, with rhyme (sometimes full; more often slant), with meter, creates a crucible in which images and words are tested, reshaped, born into something good – something, indeed, that may be more than I consciously meant.

The word that makes this quatrain work is caesura. It’s a technical term for a pause or break in a line of poetry, and it’s one of the characteristic elements of Anglo-Saxon alliterative poetry. When I hit upon this word, I knew it was the right one. The pause in the rippling water as it came to a half-submerged broken branch seemed an apt image for the pause for breath in the middle of a poetic line, and it connected the poem-as-written with the image that prompted the poem. Finding the word ‘caesura’ was probably related to the choice of ‘murmurs’ (since both have to do with spoken words) but I’m not sure which came first.

As I’ve been writing this piece, and looking again at this quatrain, I can see now another connection that was not in my mind as I wrote it. The choice of ‘caesura’ to describe the slight pause in the water’s flow serves to point out that the winter brook is a wordless poem, as we see in Psalm 19:

The heavens are telling the glory of God;

    and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.

…There is no speech, nor are there words;

    their voice is not heard;

yet their voice goes out through all the earth,

    and their words to the end of the world.

I did not have this in mind when I wrote the quatrain, yet it was implicit in the words that I chose: it is a discovery that came from being receptive to the language and the image. I like this connection very much, now that I see it!

When I wrote this quatrain last winter, I intended to develop it into a full sonnet, but it stalled out after the fourth line, so I let it rest. Perhaps now I have discovered the thread to follow to open it out into a sonnet.

I look forward to seeing where it takes me.

***

Dr. Holly Ordway is a poet, academic, and Christian apologist. She is the chair of the Department of Apologetics and director of the MA in Cultural Apologetics at Houston Baptist University, and the author of Not God’s Type (2010; 2nd ed. forthcoming, 2014, Ignatius Press). Her work focuses on imaginative and literary apologetics, with special attention to C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams.

Traveling Through Failure

I wrote this piece for Kelly Belmonte’s excellent blog All Nine Muses, as part of the Muses’ exploration of W.B. Yeats’ poem “To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing.” You can find all five pieces here – each approaching from a different angle and providing distinct insights! Here’s mine:

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It might apply to me, or to you, this poem by W.B. Yeats, “To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing.

Perhaps something you’ve worked at has failed, and you know it.

You tried your best, really did, and so you can’t take the easy excuse of thinking “if only I had worked a little harder…” No; you gave it all you had.

You really cared, so you can’t dismiss it by saying “It’s no big deal.” No, it is a big deal.

People think less of you because of it, so you can’t say “Nobody noticed.” They did.

In all of this, if you have a friend who can tell it like it is, a friend who stands the test of true friendship and stands with you (not trying to get you to hurry up and feel better already), then it is a great blessing.

What next, though?

Yeats hints at it, in his poem. He tells his friend that he is “Bred to a harder thing / Than Triumph.”

What is this harder thing that the friend should do?

It’s hard to “turn away”: to stop trying to shape public opinion, grasping at straws.  It’s even harder to “be secret” about failure rather than keeping on the easy path of whining about the injustice of it all.

The hardest thing of all, perhaps, is to recognize, still, that the work is worth doing – no sour grapes.

And to pick up and keep going.

Because, as GK Chesterton said, if a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly. Any skill worth having must be worked at, studied, practiced – and the first efforts (and third, fourth, tenth…) will “come to nothing.” The more important the work, the more skill it requires, the more that the preliminary work will, indeed, ‘come to nothing.’

Until one day it doesn’t.

The long, slow, patient work of learning one’s craft, of failing and learning from failure, of leaning on one’s friends and then taking the deep breath and stepping out once again to work: perhaps “of all things known / That is most difficult.”

And worth doing.

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Dr. Holly Ordway is a poet, academic, and Christian apologist. She is the chair of the Department of Apologetics and director of the MA in Cultural Apologetics at Houston Baptist University, and the author of Not God’s Type (2010; 2nd ed. forthcoming, 2014, Ignatius Press). Her work focuses on imaginative and literary apologetics, with special attention to C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams.

Words Open Doors: Night on the Great River by Meng Hao-jan

At Kelly Belmonte’s excellent blog All Nine Muses, we are currently talking about three different translations of Meng Hao-jan’s poem “Night on the Great River.” As with other poem discussions, the All Nine writers will each reflect on the poem for that month, bringing out insights from different perspectives.

Looking at three English translations of Meng Hao-jan’s “Night on the Great River,” I was struck by the richness of the words in the first two lines of this short poem, and so for my piece, I chose to focus on just a few words in the poem, refracted into three different translations. Interested? Go read the whole piece at All Nine!

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Dr. Holly Ordway is a poet, academic, and Christian apologist. She is the chair of the Department of Apologetics and director of the MA in Cultural Apologetics at Houston Baptist University, and the author of Not God’s Type: A Rational Academic Finds a Radical Faith. Her work focuses on imaginative and literary apologetics, with special attention to C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams.