Sunday, September 9, 2007

Nothing in Heaven Functions as it Ought by X. J. Kennedy

Nothing in Heaven Functions as it Ought

Nothing in Heaven functions as it ought;
Peter’s bifocals, blindly sat on, crack;
His gates lurch wide with the cackle of a cock;
Not with a hush of gold as Milton had thought;
Gangs of the slaughtered innocents keep huffing
The nimbus off the Venerable Bede
Like that of a dandelion gone to seed;
The beatific choir keep breaking up, coughing.

But Hell, sweet Hell hath no freewheeling part:
None takes his own sweet time, nor quickens pace.
Ask anyone, “How come you here, poor heart?”
And he will slot a quarter through his face—
There’ll be an instant click—a tear will start
Imprinted with an abstract of his case.
--X. J. Kennedy

Welcome to a week about sonnets. Our first is from an Ensign article called, "Liberating Form" by Marden J. Clark. I think his comments are a good way to start out the week because the sonnet is all about form. If you want to call it a sonnet, you have to have 14 lines, and one of the expected rhyme schemes. As Clark shows more elegantly below, it is a restricting rule, but it lends the finished whole a powerful elegance.

I just thought of an analogy. If writing poetry is like dancing, writing sonnets is like dancing the waltz in a ballroom competition. There are plenty of other legitimate forms of dancing -- from folk dance to tap to the almost formless "modern dance" -- but there's something eternally fascinating about watching the two bodies in perfect synchronization gracefully sweeping around the floor. The gentleman's tuxedo and the lady's flowing ballgown and high heels, far from seeming restrictive clothing, lend a sense of occasion to the dance. In the same way, sonnets aren't the only form of poetry, but they certainly are an elegant and impressive one.

Here's what Marden Clark had to say about the sonnet in his article, "Liberating Form"

It’s a simple enough poem, at least on the surface. This particular kind of sonnet came to us from the Italian poet Petrarch. It “scans” with a rhyme scheme of abba abba cdcdcd. The rhyme scheme divides the poem neatly into two parts: the eight-line octet and the six lines of the concluding sestet. In this sonnet form the octet traditionally sets up some kind of problem or question or situation, the sestet somehow answers or responds to or plays against the octet. In this poem the picture of hell in the sestet plays against that of heaven in the octet.

We may be struck by the unusual qualities the poet imagines in heaven and hell and the images he uses to make us see each. We may even be struck by the unusual subject matter for a sonnet. But we recognize the traditional sonnet form used without too much variation.

I describe the poem as a sonnet not to give a lesson in poetry but to get at something else. The sonnet is a highly restrictive form. Each of its fourteen lines, almost by prescription, has ten syllables with five accents in each line. The tight rhyme scheme almost dictates a poem of two parts. The form is artificial and prescriptive. There are those who feel it restricts them, ties them down. And yet some of the most lovely, most spontaneous, most energetic poems in the language are written in the sonnet form.

Where does the energy in this poem come from? Partly from its ideas, of course, from the inverted views of heaven and hell, from the unusual and sometimes powerful pictures it makes us see. But these ideas stated in ordinary language would not have had the force they have in this tight form. The poem gets most of its energy from what the poet does with the form: from the way the poem works within, yet strains against and plays with the conventions of its form.

Without the form, what do we have left? “Neither heaven nor hell is what we think it is; people make mistakes in heaven, but that is better than hell, where nothing goes wrong because no one is free.” But where is our energy? We could get some of it by adding details. We could even build up a prose form that would get quite a bit of it. But this is a remarkably energetic sonnet, and prose can hardly catch its vigor.

Because of the rigid form, the poet can make subtle statements by the way he uses it. In the octet, for example, the accents do not come in perfect order, and the rhymes slant—huffing with coughing. But in the sestet, there is not one departure from the rigid form: the poet emphasizes that in his idea of hell, the soul as automaton cannot deviate from any norm. Prose could not demonstrate that contrast. The rigidness of form emphasizes the deadness of hell, but the form itself pulses with life.

The major energy of the poem, though, comes from the way the two parts play against each other. Our first reaction to this whimsical view of heaven may be negative. We may think the poet doesn’t like heaven. But when we look back from the orderly but mechanical hell the poet pictures, where no man takes his own sweet time, nor quickens pace, suddenly one’s own sweet time becomes very sweet and precious indeed. The imperfections of this poet’s heaven are humorous, but they become precious because we recognize that they result from freedom.

That, I presume, is mostly what the poem is “about”: the meaning of freedom, not so much in the afterlife as in this world. It is easy enough to make a prose statement of that meaning: the price of freedom is a certain amount of inefficiency; lack of freedom may produce efficiency but its price is infinitely greater: the soul becomes a mechanism. Latter-day Saints, of course, can see a parallel with the two plans in the preexistence. But the plain statement, contrasted with the poem, is insipid. All the paradoxical qualities of heaven and hell, all the fascinating contrasts set up by the two parts, all the nuances of sound and rhythm and image are lost.

And the prose statement obliterates an additional source of energy in the form. Since the sonnet is traditionally a love poem the poet gets an intriguing irony out of using it for what seems at first to be a theological discussion. But the irony goes further: the form suggests that because God loves us he gives us freedom, even to err—the poem may be a love sonnet, after all!

And here we come again to perhaps the most intriguing paradox in art—and in life: Form—the form that seems to restrict, to limit, to hold one in—is the means of liberating creative energy.

PS. I love the image of gangs of slaughtered innocents huffing the nimbus off the Venerable Bede. It makes me laugh. Also, in the picture, the guy in the middle with the video game is not intended to be Jesus, but some guy named Brian who just died.


  1. The thing I like about sonnets is that they always end with a good couplet.


  2. Um...Yeah. The Shakespearean ones do anyway. This one didn't.