An ode to Jane Austen

I really ought to put pen to paper and send some thoughtfully composed lines to friends. My handwriting, alas, has deteriorated significantly over the years. These days, I must concentrate to make my scrawl simply decipherable, let alone artistic, though mine never compared to the wondrous curves of one friend’s cursive or the modernist angles of another’s. The latter friend attended school in Switzerland when we were teenagers and I delighted in receiving her well-travelled letters, living vicariously through these chapters of her overseas escapades and eagerly awaiting the next instalment every few weeks. Her personality illuminated the lines on the delicate stationery, the tales coming to life as the blue ink cast a shadow through to the other side, now part of a cinematographic dream sequence in my memory.

Letter-writing has of course long been a literary and film device, with dramatic deliveries of news from afar, invitations to effervescent balls, or kiss-offs sealed dramatically with red wax, which, once broken, forever change the plot and fate of the characters. Imagine a Jane Austen novel without letters! It was the catalyst of understanding between Lizzie and Darcy, for pity’s sake! Or that heartfelt – though dreadfully late – letter of confession from Thomas Hardy’s Tess Durbeyfield to Angel Clare, which stays ominously hidden, quite literally kept under the rug, and becomes a clear harbinger of doom.

There is both a literal and figurative – and certainly tactile – difference in the nature of electronic communications that is dramatically less satisfying, even with stylized fonts. And indeed, a whole generation of young people has never experienced the exquisite pining wait for a piece of personal handwritten correspondence. Nor have they enjoyed the anticipation and elation of unfolding the stationery to reveal the physical beauty of the written word and the romance of the art that someone took the time to create just for them.

The idea of waiting for anything in this world of rapid-fire discourse is perhaps what is really at issue. We’ve become addicted to the immediate gratification of the latest buzz of electronic snippets. When I’m in a cell dead zone or my battery is out of juice, I sometimes feel the adrenaline shoot through me and the fear grow in the pit of my stomach that I must be missing something important, whether relevant to my existence or not.

Eventually I succumb and put the phone away, defeated. Next time this happens, I hope that I dig out pen and paper and write a letter about it. Perhaps I’ll even do so in a park under a tree. I know of a bench that has a metal plaque with the apt quote: “To sit in the shade on a fine day and look upon verdure is the most perfect refreshment.” Yes, those are indeed Jane Austen’s words. Who better to inspire a letter?

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A few words about poetry

The words of ancient poets danced and droned as they spun tales of delight and dread about gods and goddesses; fight, flight and plight. Legends were borne brilliantly through metaphors, dreamscapes and visions, illuminated by wit and wonder.

Language was precious then and remains precious now, but for different reasons. In this day of short attention spans and information overload, what place has poetry?

In our glut of words, we need to find a new efficiency; an essential epiphany. Those lines that stay with you – that provide the visceral, evocative, poignant and resonant meaning to create a lasting impression – are the essential epiphanies. This is how poetry can help us cut through the clutter in an art of language that creates understanding and connection.

Here, too, less is often more. It’s not about absence, but intensity; where themes and ideas are expressed through the eloquence of essential meaning. Here are a few reminders from 100, 200 and 450 years ago…

dickinson

auden

keats

shakespeare

 

And one from me: Demarcation: A Riddle.

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The Heart of Frost

Suddenly, it struck
crisp as that winter day:
“Look!” I said. “A heart – right there.”

We watched buds in spring
turn deep green from gold
the heart then secret,
whispering beneath
rich hues that fell away

Only cold laid bare its beauty
lightning creator defied;
silenced by irony

Then the trimmers came
methodical and swift,
oblivious by task, duty
And as the chipper ground,
I knew again what Frost meant:
“Nothing gold can stay.”

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Patience

You are the master of wit,
storyteller’s storyteller
A rare book of rare words,
impish grin and wily tricks,
quiet lines and lasting looks
But wow, you pissed me off
Then, before I understood;
earned a few greys myself
Devil’s advocate of debate,
you challenge us to think,
to learn and do; create ourselves
to know when joy is enough
And still you imbue wisdom
but now we can as well
your protégés, bickering back
egging you on for more.

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*For Bill G. and all who knew him.