Meaning-Making and Pattern Breaking

Patterns are important. We need to see how scenes are structured in a novel. We need to notice the rhyme scheme and know the poetic form. It seems natural to think that the “brain establishes patterns quickly and then starts to construct meaning” as Doyle and Zakrajsek propose here. But these patterns get really interesting when they are subverted or broken, like when Flannery O’Connor uses the pattern of violence to break the grandmother’s pattern of selfishness in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” or when Dostoevsky rises above what we expect from a novel and instead offers us polyphony.

Consider Gerard Manley Hopkins’ terrible sonnets, a series of poems meditating on his sense of isolation and artistic sterility during his time teaching in Ireland. Each poem seems to say, to borrow the phrase from another of Hopkins’ poems, “the times are nightfall, look, their light grows less.” This has led us to question whether the poet was depressed. As always with Hopkins, however, there may be something more. There are moments when the pattern of desolation is broken. Let’s look more closely at the patterns in “My Own Heart.”

My own heart let me more have pity on; let
Me live to my sad self hereafter kind,
Charitable; not live this tormented mind
With this tormented mind tormenting yet.
I cast for comfort I can no more get
By groping round my comfortless, than blind
Eyes in their dark can day or thirst can find
Thirst’s all-in-all in all a world of wet.

The repetition of tormenting over enjambed lines gathers the oppressive, unrelenting atmosphere together. There seems to be no comfort, only the fever dreams of a child who vainly waits for the darkness to be lifted. “Charitable” starts the third line in a cumbersome way, as though it doesn’t fit because the speaker doesn’t know how to accomplish it. The harsh alliteration of cast and comfort and can makes even the word comfort comfortless. But, torment doesn’t get the last say. There is a release:

Soul, self; come, poor Jackself, I do advise
You, jaded, let be; call off thoughts awhile
Elsewhere; leave comfort root-room; let joy size
At God knows when to God knows what; whose smile
‘s not wrung, see you; unforeseen times rather — as skies
Betweenpie mountains — lights a lovely mile.

The rhythm changes because the thoughts are called off. It’s still a very regular pentameter, which drew out an unending sense of torment before, but the repetition of single syllables and the increase in punctuation slows us down. Now, the regularity of the rhythm is more soothing than oppressive. The rhyme is different now, more open, softer. Instead of the finality of T’s and D’s, we have the sibilant and the openness of “while,” “mile,” “smile.” Comfort is literally given “root-room” as it’s centered on the line and not jumbled together with other harsh sounds through alliteration. There still isn’t certainty. “God knows when.” But there is joy.

There can be something greatly healing in reading. Don’t worry too much about what every line means. Read it out loud. Let the music soothe you. There’s something to transitioning to the softer consonants of the sestet. The jaw is more relaxed as they’re spoken. Call off thoughts awhile. Look outside where the mountains meet the sky.


2 Responses

  1. I often think we lose the rhythms of words when we write them down – especially in prose. All too often I read prose (non-fiction especially) that – if I were to speak it aloud – merely crashes and bangs along, disruptively. Poetry, because of its structure, forces writers to use rhythm, and it’s something that prose writers need to bear in mind too.

    • Yes! I think it all needs to be spoken. When I work with student writers we read it out loud first. I think it helps distance them from what’s already on the page and see it afresh with its rhythm and tone.

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