Thursday, June 08, 2006

Axiomatic Run Down

I woke up this morning at 9 to the sound of whimpering. Archie the Incredible Italian Greyhound needed an escort outside. At the moment, he and Dixie the Dastardly Jack Russell are locked in mortal combat. They dart about the yard circling the widow's tears, diving through the hosta, and crashing through the daffodils. Their mouths hang open, ready to snap, as they lunge in the direction of one or another with a come-get-me growl or a bring-it bark.

Slowly, they tire. The air fills with the chattering tweaks of birdsong and the slow measured clacking of my keyboard. The air is damp and chilly. Yesterday, thunderstorms soaked the soil and filled the sky with the clatter of thunder. Now, both dogs mill about on the patio, taking slow gulps of water then filling their jowls with kibble. Their once white fur is speckled with black soil from the flowerbeds and dotted with violet berry stains. Archie hovers near the backdoor, as though he’d liked to shoot up the stairs to the kitchen and curl somewhere in the living room for a long sleep, but for now, none of us are going back inside.

You see, this morning, Archie had problems. At first, when I took him outside, he seemed fined. He went about the business of relieving himself and then convinced me to let him back inside. When I returned inside, after watching Dixie for a few minutes, I discovered that he wasn't fine. Archie, the perennially ill puppy who is cursed with allergies—just as I was when I was a child—was having gastrointestinal difficulties. Sadly, the poor little lad could not hold it long enough to be taken outside, and the result is now engrained deep in the carpet fibers of my office. To make matters worse, as he tried, with his tiny puppy mind, to avoid the wrath that he must surely expect for such indiscretions, Dixie wanted to play. She attacked him, thumping him to the ground, not quite realizing that Archie was having trouble with his belly.

Now, as he yips at a nearby lawnmower, he seems furiously happy. I’m hoping, for his sake and for the sake of my bank account, he simply ate something last night, like peanut butter or cheese, that did not agree with his digestive state.

Who among us cannot relate to Archie's pathetic state this morning? Who among us has not spent the morning wishing that our bodies would better behave? Who among us has not gone on with the tasks at hand even as we wished that the feasting of the previous day had never taken place?

Indeed, during my sophomore year of high school, among the many afflictions of an upper respiratory nature, I was stricken by an affliction similar to Archie’s. Yet, in all honesty, I don't remember the actual illness. Instead, I remember that Christmas break was approaching and that I simply missed the end of the semester. More, those absences brought the total to something like 30 or 40 over the course of November and December. When I returned to school in January, my history class gave me a large, hand-made get-well card. Class time was obviously used to make the glitter-filled keepsake (which I've long since lost), and even at the time, I was embarrassed beyond words. I never actually told anyone why I’d missed so much school, but clearly, I did not have the sort of life-threatening illness they must have imagined. To this day, people from high school probably still believe that I made a remarkable recovery from scarlet fever, cholera, or perhaps lupus.

I think, in large part, I simply didn't have much direction in school. I simply went to school then went skating or sat in my bedroom tapping away at the Nintendo. I wasn't a great student—mainly because I lacked motivation. And, often enough, the idea of staying home watching TV was far more appealing than the notion of walking to school.

The next year, everything changed. I participated in Academic Decathlon, a competition consisting of seven multiple choice tests, an interview, a speech, and a very brief quiz taken in front of an audience—all over the course of two days.

Of course, that activity made missing long stretches of school impossible, so it was well worth it. More, with Academic Decathlon, I actually tried. I became a better writer and more self-confident. Like most people my age, I was accustomed to using the five-paragraph form for an essay. Although I now understand why this technique is taught, and have actually taught it myself at a community college, for some reason, in high school, it never occurred to me that an essay could be written in any other way. As odd as it sounds, I just assumed that you needed five paragraphs to support any kind of thesis. So, when I started writing the speech I was disconcerted to discover that I only needed four paragraphs to convey my thoughts. I panicked. I asked my English teacher for her advice, and she told me that if anyone could do it, I could. And I did. At the ensuing regional competition, I think I earned a gold medal.

I think, at the time, it was exhilarating that such a task could be executed differently, that I could, if you will, break the "rules" about essay writing I'd learned and still compose something that was effective.

Indeed, much of what is taught about writing is based on rules. To begin with, you learn the basics of grammar and sentence construction. You learn that fragments should be avoided at all costs. You learn that all paragraphs need a topic sentence. You learn that an essay consists of five paragraphs. But, eventually, you learn that all of these rules can—and should—be broken.

Poetry is no different. If you study poetry in a workshop setting, you'll learn the imagistic credo to "show, don't tell." You'll learn to position your speakers in specific settings. You'll learn to avoid mixed metaphors. You'll learn how to write metronomic sonnets or villanelles with feet that fall perfectly along an iambic path.

At some point, after you've learned all these rules, you'll notice that Emily Dickinson sometimes mixed metaphors to stunning effect. You'll notice that, sometimes, as in the work of Ashbery, and sometimes Stevens, abstract language can convey ideas that simply can't be communicated through the accumulation of details. More, you'll notice that much of the auditory beauty of Shakespeare's sonnets comes from subtle variations within the meter.

To me, those rules are a bit like that meter. For the most part, I abide by what I’ve been taught. I realize, that like Archie’s crate, those rules are designed to keep me safe, comfortable, and out of trouble. But, like Archie, much of the time, I want to break out, run around the house, and tear things up.


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