While caring for my post-operative mom in Zimbabwe this winter, I signed up for a creative writing class. Although it was an introductory class, I knew that coming away with just one new skill or “ah ha” moment that moves my writing forward would make the day worthwhile. Besides, I needed to do something that would get my head (and pen) back into writing.
The facilitator was John Eppel, an award-winning poet and novelist, and newly retired English teacher. I didn’t know his work, and with no Internet connections available to me, I arrived without expectation. There were sixteen of us in the group, seated on dining room chairs gathered in a circle in his living room. We were all ages, and a good mix of men and women. I relaxed. This all felt comfortable and familiar.
In his introduction, I learned that John was primarily a poet, and had been raised in a small mining town not too far from my own home town of Bulawayo. Like me he had been through the Rhodesian civil war of the 60s and 70s, but unlike me, he had remained in Zimbabwe, teaching English at a private school and for South African Universities. He told us that the day would be spent not “learning how to write”, but learning about the power of words. Perfect! I love words. Today I would be a happy word-wallowing hippo.
And the day delivered—in spades. There were many “ah ha” moments. Here’s one about paradox:
“Philosophy gives up at paradox, but that’s where poetry begins.”
Poetry begins? A paradox is a situation, person or thing that seems to combine absurd or contradictory elements that prove to be true. I liked John’s explanation that dual meanings in words allow room for reader interpretation, and the wobble in logic makes the reader stop and think about what is written, even if only at a subconscious level.
He’s right. Take this line from D.H. Lawrence’s poem “Mountain Lion.”
….blue is the balsam, water sounds still unfrozen, and the trail is evident…
If water “sounds still” there is no noise, but if it is “still unfrozen” is must be running and therefore making a sound. A paradox, but one for me that now suggests new sounds, perhaps the creak of ice forming, or pop of a bubble trapped in the forming ice.
Now stretch that concept to an image (a cluster of words to which one or more of our senses respond.)
Image paradoxes, like word paradoxes, merge opposites. In the well-loved poem by Robert Frost, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” an image that has always intrigued me is in the line:
…Of easy wind and downy flake.
I realize now that image is a paradox. What is a “downy flake”? “Downy” suggests soft and warm (life), yet “flake” suggests stone-sharp and cold (death). By using opposing words together, the image attempts to evoke a simultaneous experience of living and dying—which, (not coincidentally) is the theme of the whole poem.
But John Eppel took it a step further. He introduced me to symbol paradoxes. First he explained: “A symbol is an image with a more fixed connotation than other images.” We all recognize a white dove as a symbol of peace or a red rose as a symbol for romantic love. Symbolic images gain even more power when they are used in an opposing way.”
A unicorn is a symbol of purity and also, paradoxically, of lust. In the play, “The Glass Menagerie”, the glass unicorn represents fragile Laura’s lust for self-absorbed Jim and also her lack of sexual experience. The breaking of the glass unicorn becomes a symbol for Laura’s failed attempt at seduction.
Heady stuff for sure, but it fired up our discussion over lunch. We all agreed that it was freeing and motivating. I couldn’t take home the Zimbabwe summer sunshine, but that day exploring paradoxes on the other side of the world travelled home with me. Now, I’m inspired to drag out some of my poems that “aren’t quite there” and see if working in a few paradoxes might make them sing.
DID YOU KNOW?
Spring Thaw, our upcoming retreat, is the perfect opportunity to play with paradoxes in your writing, and focus on your work in progress and receive feedback from two skilled editors. Join us for three days or five on the shores of Rice Lake for an all-inclusive escape to write.