Do people still have favorite poems? Is it something people rate or collect, like songs or movies, and then there are too many, so you have to say your top ten?
Last week someone tagged me in a social media challenge to list my top ten movies, and I’m still deliberating. But I know my favorite poem.
My favorite poem is “Mythopoeia,” and it’s by J.R.R. Tolkien. It’s longish at 148 lines—longer than Poe said we are comfortable reading in his “Philosophy of Composition,” an essay he wrote about his process of writing “The Raven.” I love “The Raven,” but I love “Mythopoeia” more.
“Mythopoeia” is an occasional poem; that is, he seems to have written it on a particular occasion—following a discussion with C.S. Lewis, where Lewis argued that myths were lies, “though breathed through silver.” In the days and weeks following this event, Tolkien responded with poetry, as such an occasion demands.
He starts with an accusation:
You look at trees and label them just so,
(For trees are “trees,” and growing is “to grow”)
You walk the earth and tread with solemn pace
One of the many minor globes of Space:
A star’s a star, some matter in a ball
Compelled to courses mathematical
Amid the regimented, cold, Inane,
Where destined atoms are each moment slain.”
He’s taking to task all those who see the world with clinical, scientific, quantifying brains—those who assert we can classify and codify all, and that that is the best way to understand it. Tolkien accuses Lewis, essentially, of having no soul, or at least not having the ability to wonder at the mysteries and magic of the world.
Tolkien, a devout Catholic, called God the Creator, but posited that humans were, or could be “sub-creators.” God did the big stuff; humans create little worlds. When he created Middle Earth and The Shire, he was sub-creating. But he did so with a healthy dose of respect and awe for God.
Chaucer’s Franklin comes to mind (doesn’t he, always?). In the Franklin’s Tale, Nature (Mother Nature) claims that she and God are like a well-matched couple. He creates cosmically, and she creates on Earth. Tolkien’s mutual roles here subdivide a little differently—God creates the physical world (no Mother necessary), and artists create little, imaginative worlds. Still symbiotic; still complementary.
I’m not Catholic. Or Christian. Pagan love for Natura comes closest to my faith, I suppose, so I see nothing wrong with these thoughts of mysteries, and I love the idea of complementary creation. Humans, in constant awe at the natural world and its cycles and stories, make new art in our own fashion.
Tolkien goes on to explain how such storytelling takes place:
He sees no stars that does not see them first
Of living silver made that sudden burst
to flame like flowers beneath an ancient song,
whose very echo after-music long
has since pursued. There is no firmament,
only a void, unless a jeweled tent,
myth-woven and elf-patterned; and no earth
unless the mother’s womb whence we all have birth.
Two things strike me here: first, that primitive people made mystical explanations for the natural world, and we have been singing songs to explain and perpetuate those ideas ever since. But that might seem to lend support to Lewis, as the mythic view of things may have been part of our primitive past, but now we know better.
Tolkien says no, however. That each person is “primitive” as they come to understand the world. That childhood is our individual Neolithic phase, and we can choose to keep connecting with those impulses, those feelings of awe and wonder and joy, or we can walk solemnly with Lewis on his mathematical course. I’m not a Luddite, but I am a recovering biology major and the spouse of a biochemist. I vote with science, but my heart loves myth. This speaks to me deeply.
The last lines of the poem yell the loudest, in my opinion. It’s an image of paradise for poets, and one that resonates with some of my favorite images of paradise. Borges said he imagined Paradise to be a kind of library. I do too. So, it appears, did Tolkien.
In Paradise they [poets] look no more awry;
And though they make anew, they make no lie.
Be sure they still will make, not being dead,
and Poets shall have flames upon their head,
and harps whereon their faultless fingers fall:
there each shall choose for ever from the All.
So paradise is a place where poets are gifted with all the material they can ever use, like living in Chaucer’s House of Fame, but with flames upon their heads (like the blessed souls they are) and play their harps and sing new songs forever.
Paradise is doing what you love most, with limitless time and materials and with faultless results, and being blessed for it? You don’t have to be Catholic to love that.
My life runs on an academic calendar. I teach; my partner teaches, and our kids are teenagers—one in high school, and one starting college. The wheel of our year rolls around the semester system.
In some ways it feels more natural to me—seasons correspond to semesters and breaks. It starts in the fall, with the welcome reprieve from Southern California summer. But SoCal summer is where we are now. It’s hot. I’m wilting. If I leave the house, I come back annoyed and sluggish. But one must leave the house, right?
You’d be amazed how many days this summer my kids have not left the house.
But we grown-ups have been homebodies too. On an academic schedule, you bustle from fall to spring, and leave some things for summer, when you have more time. Planning classes. House repairs. Yard work. Vacuuming.
So summer is when we anti-hibernate and focus on our home. It’s too hot to leave anyway.
Our happy house sits near the top of a hill in a little suburban track, and we own the hillside beneath our back yard. This year we had four sets of squirrel babies on that hillside. The number of bird species I have counted from the patio reached thirty (the last was a road runner! I’m not even kidding—it flew right in my back yard). The skunks continue to visit in the evenings, hopefully taking care of the June Bug larvae, so our tiny lawn doesn’t die.
And we’re gardening—butterfly-friendly flowers in the back, and veggies in the front, where the squirrels won’t eat them. The big goal for outside is to xeriscape the front yard. I’m optimistic.
We’re slowly getting greener and greener, and I’m loving it. This is our first summer with solar panels, so our outlandish air-conditioning habit doesn’t feel so awful. The front lawn has been forfeit since the last drought, but since we’re only capable of sustained effort in the summer, it’s taken several years for us to make it around to that project. This is our year. It will be a tasteful mix of wood chips, stones, and native California plants, right up to the vegetable garden. One cannot live on succulents alone.
My husband has been doing most of the outside work, and I’ve been coordinating the annual purge of extra stuff we accumulate over the year. All year long little piles form like anthills, and in the summer, the donations begin. If I do my job well, by the time school starts in the fall there will be room for new school clothes, and all the things we lost last year will be found, unearthed from beneath stacked books and camping gear that never quite made it back to the garage.
The purge has gone well inside, and outside the garden is bursting with life, even in the heat. As a native Nevadan, I still marvel at how EVERYTHING grows in California. About nine things grow in Nevada, and the top three are sage brush. But here, sunflowers and pomegranate trees and ginger all happily grow about their business with minimal effort, really. I continue to marvel, even after sixteen years. (I should own that I have a very high capacity for marveling, but still—it’s amazing.)
We have a few more weeks of summer and still a long list of household and work-related tasks, but we’ll get as much as we can done before the march back to our various campuses. And while we can, we’ll enjoy the sunflowers.
I can remember always loving words. The first big word I learned to spell was ‘elephant,’ and because I ran around for maybe half an hour singing the letters, I still have an audio memory of their order. I grouped them in to e-l-e, p-h, a-n-t mostly because of the sound of those letters together, but 4th grade me thought younger me was clever keeping the p-h together, since it spelled a single sound.
And that song evoked an elephant for me—every elephant tiny me could imagine, which included Dumbo and Pooh’s heffalumps, as well as more real ones I’d seen in books. As I sang, heffalumps danced in my mind’s eye with African elephants to the rhythm of my song.
That was just the first word I fell in love with.
Since then there have been so many wonderful words that have enchanted me—and I mean enchanted. They sing and they chant and they cast a spell. Mellifluous. Defenestrate. Nefarious.
Then I learned more languages. Éclat, mariposa, Kunst, grembo, uppivözlumaðr. I am an addict.
But I am not alone. And this is actually a blog about picture books.
In the last several years, there have been two picture books entitled “The Word Collector.” The first one was published in Spain in 2011 (La coleccionista de palabras) by Sonja Wimmer and features a girl named Luna, who lives “high, high up in the sky,” above people, apart from them, either in a lighthouse or in the clouds (or in a lighthouse in the clouds—the illustrations are delightfully ambiguous.)
The second book is by Peter H. Reynolds and features an African-American boy named Jerome (although the title is gender-neutral in English, of course—for just a second I had imagined another girl), who lives among people and draws the words he collects from his environment. He writes down words he hears, words he sees in the world, and words he reads in books on strips of paper and puts them away carefully.
Both of these children collect words of all different types, for all different kinds of affinities. Sometimes they like what the word means; sometimes they like how it sounds. But they also like words that seem to fit their referent—‘molasses’ tends to be drawn out, like a slow pour. That’s really a response to the inherent order of the universe, to my eye—to form following function. And sometimes they just like how the words make them feel.
Their crises differ, though. Luna notices the world has become too busy to use—let alone appreciate—words, so she contrives to redistribute the ones she has collected like a benevolent goddess, sowing, weaving, and scattering words like seeds. She gifts the world with the fertile imagination that a substantial vocabulary fosters so well.
Jerome’s journey is both smaller and bigger than Luna’s. He drops his scrapbooks and boxes, in which he’d stored his sorted words, and ends up putting them back together in new, unexpected combinations, discovering poetry and music and seeing that they are good. He thinks about words, learning that sometimes the simplest are the most powerful—“I’m sorry” and “You matter.”
Finally, he comes to realize that his big word collection has improved his ability to understand who he is and to share his ideas and dreams with the world, and he wants that for others too. He releases his words from the top of a hill, and children below scramble to gather them.
Jerome’s story is about self-empowerment and paying it forward. Luna’s, with its visual artistry of the text as well as images, is more about sharing the gifts of beauty and connection to others. But they both begin with a sense of wonder at words and end with sharing their beloved words with the world.
Why do they both feel like gods to me when they dispense their words? Is that what Little Me was responding to—the power that words confer on their wielders? Maybe. That is old magic, as we know from lots of traditions (the songs of Orpheus, the logos of the New Testament, the runes of Germanic paganism, or the tradition of true names that can be used to control people or entities).
But so much of the appeal for me is wonder and joy at the music of a word or the perfect capturing of an idea, or—as Jerome discovers—the serendipitous collision of a few words that make something new, unexpected, and utterly splendiferous.
The Anglo-Saxons referred to language as their “word hoards.” (First—obviously—that’s that’s why I fell in love at first sight with Anglo-Saxon.) Second—I am heartened to know this glorious tradition has not lost any ground in the intervening centuries. Words are still gemstones to be marveled at, collected, and shared.
E-l-e… p-h… a-n-t. I dare you not to see one dancing in your head.
A friend asked what he said was a Dante question—what are the seven deadly sins, and was that Kevin Spacey movie right.I started explaining the difference between the Seven Deadlies and the levels of Dante’s Inferno, and it got me thinking about life, the universe, and everything.
The Seven Deadlies as most modern folk think of them (including the crazy serial killer Kevin Spacey plays in the film Seven) are Pride, Anger, Envy, Greed, Gluttony, Sloth, and Lust, and that list has been in use for centuries, deriving from medieval patristic sources, the earliest of which was probably Pope Gregory I.
As the Middle Ages wore on, penitential handbooks were produced that offered models of the sins growing out of one another (the “concatenation” of sins). Medieval manuscripts show the sins as the fruits of a tree, the root of which, in the Gregorian tradition, was Pride. From pride all other sins proceeded one from another, like fruit on branches. Later medieval authors would argue greed was the root, as the Feudal System crumbled and the working class argued for wages.
Penitential handbooks were like the rules to get to heaven.They explained what kind of penance was appropriate for particular sins.They outlined the seven deadlies and gave corresponding virtues that one could practice to combat a tendency toward sin.
We have a number of different examples of these handbooks with varying specifics, but the point was that we could fight our sinful nature. Sin may damn us, but virtue might save us. The oldest set of virtues were the four Cardinal Virtues (inherited from the classical tradition) of Prudence, Temperance, Fortitude, and Justice, plus the three Theological (read: Christian) virtues of Faith, Hope, and Love. Penitential handbooks drew out the smaller divisions of these big sins and virtues, and offered solutions almost like a doctor would prescribe a remedy—practice humility if you want to avoid pride, and so forth.
Dante used these sins and virtues to structure his Divine Comedy, but he had more circles to fill and more axes to grind. He made use of those subdivisions in the penitential handbooks (like separating pride in to hypocrisy, fraud, despair, and others), and then he took them even further.
Fraud was the worst for him—a purposeful misuse of our God-given reason. Simple fraud (stealing, seducing, counterfeiting, and others) is punished in the 8th circle, but the 9thcircle, where Satan himself resides, includes treacherous fraud—purposeful, planned deceit of family, of countrymen, of benefactors, of God. Dante’s Purgatory and Paradise, of course, have corresponding virtues, in probably the most elaborate extension ever of the ideas in those penitential handbooks.
The idea that we can combat the evils of the world and in ourselves remains attractive. And the idea that there are always rules to follow (I think also of Apollo’s Creed, that people should “Know themselves” and have/do “Nothing in excess” as well as the Golden Rule or the Ten Commandments–heck, even Little Red Riding Hood’s rules of “Stay on the path,” and “Don’t talk to strangers”) means that we’re pretty consistent about wanting things spelled out for us.
There is comfort in knowing there is a remedy. And there is comfort in knowing that the evils you see have a name. That is old, old power—naming something so you can control it.
As usual, I find we haven’t changed much over the millenia. We still find strength in identifying evil, naming it, and working to undo it. We still work efficiently with rules to follow; it’s just that the rules shift some with new contexts and culture. We still try to improve on certain scales—practice gratitude to be happy (that’s a splinter of humility, by the way); cultivate a practice of generosity by volunteering and donating; practice, defend, and enact justice.
People haven’t changed, really. I find that comforting too.
(I stole the title for this post from Georges Perec’s novel, but I expect it’s been used elsewhere as well; it’s all connected. And the image is a creative project for my Epics class this spring–a pinata depiction of Satan’s head as described by Dante. It was glorious.)