Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Nuns Fret Not

Young children love structure in their games. Don’t you think that structure is the main reason games such as “Mother May I” and “Hide and Seek” have been so popular with young people for so long? Kids in my family want rules and they want them enforced. My children were that way and so are my grandchildren. Games reinforce their sense of justice and fair play. Later in life, when it is time for baseball, sportsmanship is in place and they insist on abiding by the rules. Playing by the rules enhances self-esteem, in that, even in defeat, a player can take pride in an honest loss.
As a child, I played baseball with insufficient equipment in vacant lots, with bases made of rags or ply-board or even rocks. The younger or less athletic kids would volunteer to be umpires and what they said went, not without some controversy. But we loved the structure and abided by the way the game was supposed to be played. We might throw a fit, but the rules ruled!
Free-form games like “Sling-the-Statue” were not nearly as popular because of the infinite variations possible. Win or lose, we wanted anticipated outcomes. Our sense of security and community demanded it.
Likewise, more sedentary adults like games with a similar form of structure with well-defined rules. Consider the crossword puzzle page, Sudoku or Cryptoquotes. These mental games require considerable conformity so that honest completion brings a kind of catharsis.
In literature, game rules such as formulae and forms have been ever popular, all the way from the limerick to the sonnet. Even Shakespeare had a formula for all his great tragedies: there was always a war in the background; there were always conflicted lovers; there was always great disorder culminating in a terrific sword-fight in the last act; and some important official always restored order at the end.
The famous romantic poet, William Wordsworth, even wrote a sonnet about writing sonnets in which he observed that “Nuns fret not in their convent’s narrow room.” The analogy was to the “narrow room” of the sonnet form, 14 lines of iambic pentameter with a set rhyme scheme, not an easy form to manage.
The villanelle is perhaps the most intricate poetic form and the most difficult to write with its restrictive rhyme scheme and strategically placed repetitions. Two of my favorite villanelles are Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” and Roethke’s “The Waking.” The form of these poems plays a huge role in the overall effect.

Even this column has a kind of form and formula. I try to keep it to 500 words more or less and I strive to give it a little twist at the end. So, all the way from “Mother May I” to newspaper columns, there is a form upon which thought rides. The writer hopes that his art will hide the formula and that the thought will shine. After all, there is something satisfying about baseball well played.

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