Torture your brain for fun?
We do it all the time, disregarding the danger of acquiring time-consuming, relationship-destroying addictions. (We prefer the euphemism “expert status”). What are we doing so recklessly? Crossword puzzles! Sudoku! Riddles! Cognitive-training games like Lumosity! Some people even succumb to solving Rubik’s cubes, and playing chess!
It’s all well and good, because the general population seems to have given these types of activity the stamp of “normalcy.” Everyone sticks to the rules to solve the problems.
But what if you’re one of us subversive types whose game is to juggle words, secretly, endlessly, often late into the night? On one hand we agonize over the challenge of making the words fit into a particular set of rules, and on the other hand we cheat by sneaking in new rules. The only place you can get away with that is in the arts. Today I’m specifically referring to Poetry. The beauty of it is, if you change the rules, you might even be credited with having created a new artform! Ha, try to do that in chess!
In some circles, April is National Poetry Writing Month (NaPoWriMo), inviting or challenging people to write a poem a day. Thirty poems in one month! Even for those of us not participating, the website is full of interesting samples, links, and information about poetry. I wish I had looked at it earlier!
At the beginning of the month, I toyed with a personal challenge of writing a tanka poem (5 lines, with 5-7-5-7-7 syllables per line). Apparently, there are actual rules about content, but I was going to ignore some of that. I focussed on mere structure, with the first three lines rhyming, followed by the last two as a kind of “rhyming couplet.”
Inspired by memories of hiking around Sunset Crater, Arizona, last September, I spent most of an April day coming up with 7 tanka lines of nice imagery–a day spent endlessly whispering lines while counting syllables on my fingers, and writing out lists of rhyming words.
But in the end, the poem had an unsatisfying humpety-bumpety mix of rhyme for rhyme’s sake, and syllables for syllables’ sake. It was sort of like a Rubik’s cube where you couldn’t quite get the last colour to fit, or a tricky Sudoku puzzle where you notice in the final stretch that you have two of the same number in one line.
What to do? My brilliant big brother said, “Well, why don’t you write a sonnet? Use your imagery, but the regular rhythm might be more satisfying.”
Oh sure, he made that sound easy enough. I did a quick review on Wikipedia to see what the rules for a sonnet might be. Fourteen lines! Rather daunting, but my logical brain said to simply think of the first 12 lines–three “quatrains” (group of four lines)–as individual stanzas of normal poems stuck all together, plus a rhyming couplet at the end. Maybe I could work in some geologic history of the Sunset Crater area into the first two quatrains. This being a big Shakespeare-400th anniversary-celebration month, maybe there’d be enough of the Shakespearian-sonnet spirit in the air, that a little might waft into my efforts too.
Ok, a big breath and yet another day’s efforts, and I finally turned my tortured tanka into one quatrain and a rhyming couplet. It’s a “sestain,” meaning the last six lines of a sonnet, assuming I will write two more quatrains to precede this one.
Not a big problem; I usually like to let poems sit for awhile anyway, a little like taking a deep breath while my chess opponent figures out his next devastating move. But after yet another unsatisfying day of wordsmithing, I threw in the towel:
A pox be upon it!
I can’t write a sonnet!
6-1/4ths must do,
Or my sanity’s through!
So, here it is, only 6/14ths of a sonnet. Maybe I could claim a new, original poetic form? No such luck. It’s just a “sexain” or “sestet” (6-line poem), but as such, it’s a complete work, and I can legitimately leave it at that!
Above the desert plains, they tower high,
These mystic mounds, these silent cinder cones
With ashen slopes of crumbled lava stones,
Dry, desolate beneath the arid sky.
Yet from such rock mysteriously emerging,
Green shoots divulge creation’s secret urging.
PS: Happy anniversary, Shakespeare! Please don’t roll over in your grave over this tiny “tribute” to the art and sweat of sonnet-writing.