How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically
Free E-Course Lesson 15
Chapter 5: The Creaky Old House
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An Introduction to Poetic Devices
I grew up in a big, old house that creaked. It was especially creaky just when I was trying to fall asleep at night. The creaking was sinister, my brother, Johnny, told me. Actually, he probably didn’t say “sinister”; it would have come out “thinithter.” I think the word he used was “demonic.”
Ours was a fine, solid, gabled, Tudor-style house set about halfway down a long hill, which terminated at Smelly Creek. If we were playing ball in the front yard, and the ball got loose, it usually rolled into the storm drain. We would run or bicycle as fast as we could down the hill, trying to beat the ball to the creek. The ball always won.
The youngest, weakest kid on the scene – usually me – got bullied into retrieving the ball. It was only a matter of removing your shoes and socks, rolling up your pant legs, and wading into the sludge a couple of feet. This was not the Oneonta Gorge.
The problem was that eventually we would have to go inside and face our parents, who had a preternatural sensitivity to Smelly Creek fumes. Even if you’d washed the mud off your legs and feet with the hose, they Knew. The odor of Smelly Creek gets into your lymph nodes or something.
Evil in the attic
I hated bedtime and the sinister creaking of the house a lot worse than I hated getting in trouble about Smelly Creek.
Where did the creaking come from? It depended on whom you asked. Both my brother and my dad were very good at explaining things. Dad’s explanations were gentle and reassuring. Johnny’s explanations were creative and lurid.
Dad’s explanation. “Houses – especially old houses – creak because of changes in heat and humidity.
“Heat and humidity make things expand, the way our front door and the frame around it expand in summertime. (They expand toward each other until they are actually touching, which makes them ‘sticky’ and hard to open.)
“When things get cooler or drier, or both, they contract – that is, they get smaller. That’s why our front door opens much more easily and smoothly in the winter.
“When the air gets cooler at night, the change in temperature makes things in our house, including the floorboards, contract. If it is wintertime and our furnace goes on and off throughout the night, the floorboards will warm and cool, warm and cool, as the furnace changes the air temperature.
“The creaking sound is the expansion and contraction of the floorboards and other parts of the house.”
Johnny’s explanation. “Witches and monsters live in our attic. Dozens of them. The witches are green and warty, and the monsters are slimy, hairy, warty giants, with worms slithering out of the warts. At night they come out of their hiding places and they plot their wickedness. They are probably hungry. I wonder what they like to eat?”
(On two sides of our attic, near the angle of the roof’s steep slope and the floor, my parents had built long, narrow closets. From the doorway, which was on one end, you couldn’t see the wall of the far end, even with a flashlight. For all I knew, those closets stretched to Argentina. Certainly they were roomy enough for a few dozen warty witches and slimy monsters and maybe a couple of smallish dragons.)
Quiz: Which explanation was correct?
(a) Dad’s, the scientific, rational one
(b) Johnny’s, the “make-believe,” sadistic one
The correct answer is (d) Both.
The witches and monsters were real enough, but they didn’t live in the attic. They lived in my mind – as metaphors for fears I couldn’t name. By personifying my nighttime terrors, my brother gave me a method of escape: I could sleep at a friend’s house or I could crawl in bed with my parents (which, now that I think about it, might very well be why I am the youngest child).
A few times, as a last resort, I slept in the bathtub, with all the lights on. Somehow I just couldn’t envision witches and monsters in our cheerful bathroom with shiny yellow tile. I stopped taking refuge in the bathroom when Johnny told me about the flesh-eating cockroaches.
The monsters in my mind
Pink-cheeked child by day, quivering puddle of protoplasm by night, I heard every creak as a monster’s stealthy progress toward his supper. But if it hadn’t been for the haunted attic, I would have had to find something else to be afraid of.
Right around the time I was born, a lot of bad things happened to our family: deaths of close relatives, polio, pneumonia, and other troubles, one right after the other, like a bunch of homicidal Rockettes parading onstage at Radio City Music Hall.
While my mom was pregnant with me, she had surgery on an ovarian tumor – just a few inches from where I was curled up, sucking my thumb and reading The Return of the Native, to get it over with. Surgery to remove an ovarian tumor during pregnancy isn’t exactly a walk in the park even today, with the availability of Modern Medical Advances such as
(b) miraculous new antibiotics; and
(c) even more miraculous new bacteria that go “Nyah, nyah, nyah” to the new antibiotics and zoom off to overrun entire subcontinents while the new antibiotics are still in basic training, learning to salute.
So imagine how terrifying this surgery must have been to my mother in 1947 – long before hospitals had acquired advanced lifesaving technology – when the practice of medicine was so primitive that your invoice was written in pencil on one of those pads of newsprint-type paper with blue carbon-paper backing that made a mess all over your hands. But the fees were much lower then (Item: Bullet to bite on ……… 8 cents).
Babies feel the sadness and fear that surround them. When Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.
That sadness and fear stuck to me for years, especially at night. Daytime was a different story. I was a happy child when the sun was shining and there were books to look at and friends to play with… brave souls with whom I even ventured into the attic, a cozy retreat on a winter afternoon.
But at night, alone in my bed, I was beset by (literally) nameless fears — until Johnny named them: Gruntilda, Aradia, Sasquatch, Bozaloshtsh, the Blob, Hecate, Medea, the Giant Frog Creature, Professor McGonagall, and, of course, (1) Aundulim, Baurobalinirng, Calroth, Falul, Gbargot, Ingoglor, Mamorgur, Orirchaur, Thau, Thaug. Knowing your adversary’s name might be cold comfort, but it’s better than no comfort.
Draw me a picture
Fears are intangible. You can’t draw a picture of “a fear.” The cause — a rhinoceros charging toward you in Sumatra — and the effects of your fear might be tangible, especially if your heart is pounding and there is sweat pouring down your face. But emotions, such as fear, love, happiness, sadness, disgust, dread, and anger, are intangible.
Intangible things are not experienced through the five senses, through which your body tells your brain what’s physically happening around you (and inside you, if you are feeling the pain of, say, Acid Indigestion because, for example, you have just eaten, with a spoon, the entire can of Betty Crocker Sour Cream Frosting that you bought to ice the cupcakes you made for your son to take to school on his ninth birthday, after you had given up on Never Allowing Your Children to Ingest Food Containing Processed Sugar).
Which has more power: the tangible or the intangible? Ideas or objects? Emotions or facts? Fantasy or physical actuality?
All art, even that which is solid and realistic, depicts the intangible. Writing poetry is like painting feelings and ideas. When a poem is honest and courageous, the poet can sometimes see herself in it — maybe for the first time in her life.
Key Vocabulary — Figures of Speech
Here are some examples:
PERSONIFICATION: A description of something nonhuman — often a feeling or an idea — in human terms, giving it human attributes.
Adolph Hitler personifies evil.
Santa Claus is a personification of generosity and love for the innocents.
In her wicked stepmother, Cinderella saw the personification of cold, cruel vanity.
This sentence — “Breaking the grip of the vicious wind, the sun’s warm fingers stroked my face” — personifies the wind and the sun, giving them “hands” with which to grip and stroke.
Other relevant definitions
TANGIBLE: Able to be experienced with the five senses.
INTANGIBLE: The opposite of tangible. Similar in meaning to…
ABSTRACT: Existing in the mind but having no physical reality.
LITERAL: Physically actual. LITERALLY: In a literal sense.
Dangling from the helicopter, Marcia was literally high as a kite.
VIRTUALLY: Almost completely; for all practical purposes.
In the storm, without a phone and miles from any neighbor, Lobelia was virtually cut off from civilization.
FIGURATIVELY: In a manner of speaking; metaphorically.
Mom was boiling mad (figuratively speaking, of course).
NOTE: Contrast virtually and figuratively with literally.
The story of King Henry VIII of England, below, illustrates the power of intangible ideas, emotions, and beliefs to produce tangible results. Using the Henry VIII story as model, create a similar illustration for one of the suggested topics, or choose your own — listing the relevant intangible ideas, emotions, or beliefs, and their tangible results.
1. Adolph Hitler was a charismatic orator. During his rise to power, he spoke to mass audiences, exhorting them to cast off “the yoke of Jews and Communists” and build a new empire.
2. Football commentator and former Oakland Raiders coach John Madden is famous for his fear of flying. He reportedly refuses to do commentary for the annual Pro Bowl in Hawaii. Several of Madden’s friends – members of the Cal Poly football team – were killed in a 1960 plane crash. This tragedy may help explain Madden’s phobia, though he continued to fly until he experienced a panic attack on a 1979 flight out of Tampa. Madden claims he’s not afraid of planes or heights but of being encased and unable to get out. He travels between assignments on a luxury bus, the Maddencruiser.
3. One of Russian composer Igor Stravinsky’s greatest works is The Rite of Spring, which premiered in 1913 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. The Ballets Russes staged the performance, which was unlike anything the audience had ever seen or heard. Many were shocked by the intense rhythm, the pagan theme (featuring fertility rites), and the violent dancing. Before intermission, the work’s supporters and detractors began a noisy dispute, which quickly degenerated into a riot persisting throughout the performance, even after police intervened.
4. Annie Sullivan (Anne Sullivan Macy) was born in Massachusetts in 1866. Her parents were illiterate Irish immigrants – her mother suffering from tuberculosis, her father an alcoholic. By the age of ten, Annie had lost her mother, her father had abandoned the family, her younger brother had died, and she had been sent to the state almshouse at Tewksbury. After four years there, Annie approached a visiting state inspector and asked permission to enroll in the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston.
Though several operations at Tewksbury had failed to improve her vision, surgery in Boston was more successful. Extremely intelligent, she quickly learned to read, write, and use the manual alphabet.
In 1886, an Alabama woman, Kate Keller, read Charles Dickens’s American Notes, which contained an account of the education of a child like her own Helen, who had been blind, deaf, and mute since she was nineteen months old. Mrs. Keller began a search for help for six-year-old Helen that led her to Perkins and Anne Sullivan.
Annie spent most of the remainder of her life with Helen. Under Anne Sullivan’s determined but patient tutelage, the little girl’s education progressed astonishingly. At twenty-four, she graduated from Radcliffe College magna cum laude.
Keller’s life is legendary for its achievements in literature, social reform, and other areas. President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964, four years before her death at eighty-eight.
King Henry VIII of England: A Story of Pride, Fear, and Love
When King Henry VIII of England married Catherine of Aragon, Roman Catholicism was virtually the only form of Christianity practiced in the realm. Though royals and nobles usually married for political reasons in the sixteenth century, Henry and Catherine apparently shared love and respect.
But Henry wanted – believed he needed – a legitimate son to inherit England’s throne. Catherine bore him only one child, a girl. When Catherine’s childbearing years had all but ended, Henry fell in love with Anne Boleyn. She was young, beautiful, and passionate – and likely, Henry believed, to bear him a male heir. After almost twenty years of marriage to Catherine, Henry determined to divorce her and marry Anne.
When the Pope refused to annul the marriage of Henry and Catherine, Henry broke with the Roman Catholic Church and established the Church of England with himself as its head. 2 By the time Henry married Anne, she was despised by almost everyone else. Numerous pregnancies produced but a single daughter, Elizabeth. Henry was easily persuaded that his wife was a witch, and he ordered her execution. He would marry four more times, but only one of his wives, Jane Seymour, gave him the male heir he desperately wanted, and Edward was a sickly child.
What intangible ideas, emotions, and beliefs motivated Henry’s actions?
Among Henry’s motives were
hubris (the pride that seemed to require a male heir; the arrogance that often comes with power)
love (of England and, for a time, of Anne Boleyn)
fear (of dying and leaving England without a strong ruler)
What were the physical, tangible consequences of Henry’s actions?
Separation from the Catholic Church, and Henry’s penchant for having people beheaded, would lead to thousands of deaths in the ensuing decades. Monarchs were quick to execute “enemies of the throne.” Their armies died defending their sovereign’s right to the throne. And of course it was necessary to destroy “heretics,” Catholics or non-Catholics, depending on who was ruling at the time. Mary Tudor, Henry’s daughter with Catherine of Aragon, was a devout Roman Catholic whose unpopularity as queen made her desperate. Suspected heretics were tried, declared guilty, and either burned or hanged. London became a virtual forest of gallows, and the city reeked of rotting bodies.
The reign of Mary’s half-sister, Elizabeth I, was much more enlightened and tolerant, but persecution resumed after Elizabeth’s death, when her Stuart cousins succeeded her. Religious intolerance at home stimulated English settlement along America’s east coast.
Please send your assignment via e-mail to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. Your work will not be graded, but I will return it to you with comments.
1 Courtesy of the Seventh Sanctum Evil-Sounding-Name Generator, seventhsanctum.com
2 This is a gross oversimplification of a complex set of maneuvers involving years of “negotiations” with the Pope and other representatives of the Church. In the process, Henry had several people executed, including former allies and close friends. One was Sir Thomas More, Henry’s onetime adviser and secretary. The 1966 Academy Award-winning film A Man for All Seasons beautifully depicts this historic transformation of friendship into treachery.