July 3, 2014

The ABC of Grief

Carolyn Forché
Poets pay attention to forms. A lament is a very old poetic form that expresses the grief of an individual or a community. Finnish shamans perform laments as did ancient Mesopotamian cultures. The Hebrew Bible contains examples the form. Nancy C. Lee writes: "Lament in the Hebrew Bible is an expression of sorrow, a description of distress, or a protest about injustice." It can be a dirge, a poem of sorrow, a prayer.

Laments are ritualized crying, and they occur in fixed and non-fixed forms, in ancient and contemporary poetry. Blue Hour by Carolyn Forché provides an eloquent example.


The Psalms are songs and laments and grapple with loss. As part of a religious and community ritual, the lament gives voice to emotional devastation. It provides a container for grief, one could say, and it's helpful to put it down somewhere. The psalm form does have a pattern.  Lee writes:
While there are a number of parts that may make up a lament, the description of distress and the plea itself are most essential. The following is an outline of the typical literary structure of lament as prayerful plea found in the book of Psalms:

(1) address to the deity (second-person speech)
(2) complaint or description of distress, often with questions
(to or against the deity, about one’s enemies, or about one’s suffering)
(3) expression of trust in the deity and/or remembrance of past saving actions
(4) plea/petition to the deity
(uses imperative verbs; may include call for vengeance)
_________________
(line inserted to suggest possible transition, lamenter was helped)
(5) assurance of being heard
(6) vow of praise
(7) praise of the deity
Many Psalms are also prayers. In some, the prayers are answered, and in others, the questions or pleas are unresolved.

The Book of Lamentations

In his essay about the Book of Lamentations in the Bible, Schwind examines the use of the alphabet acrostic in the Hebrew version (it is not evident in translations).  He notes elements of poetry in Lamentations, metaphor and metrics (a "limping" 3-2 meter not apparent in translation), and he says:
Perhaps the most striking feature of Lamentations is the fact that the entirety of each of the five chapters is an alphabetic acrostic poem in which each of the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet appear in order as the first letter of each verse (Chapters 3 and 5 show some variation but still hold to the general acrostic form). 
Recently, the abecedarian (this is the world used for an alphabet acrostic) seems to have lost this association with the spiritual. It has been often used in children's poetry as a way to teach the alphabet. According to the Academy of American Poets, the form of an alphabetic acrostic has historic links:
The abecedarian is an ancient poetic form guided by alphabetical order. Generally each line or stanza begins with the first letter of the alphabet and is followed by the successive letter, until the final letter is reached. The earliest examples are Semitic and often found in religious Hebrew poetry. The form was frequently used in ancient cultures for sacred compositions, such as prayers, hymns, and psalms. There are numerous examples of abecedarians in the Hebrew Bible; one of the most highly regarded is Psalm 118 (or 119 by King James numbering). It consists of twenty-two eight-line stanzas, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Chaucer‘s "An ABC" is an excellent medieval example of the form. He crafted his translation of a French prayer into twenty-three eight-line stanzas that follow the alphabet (minus J, U, V, and W).   
Schwind concludes that this form is more than a mnemonic device, and that the abecedarian form does confer additional meaning to the text:
In the course of this study, the acrostic form in Lamentations 4 was shown to convey a sense of completeness, and the fact that the unspeakable has occurred, both of which are explicitly developed in the text. In addition, a sense of hope is conveyed by the acrostic form through its imposition of order in opposition to the chaos described in the text. This meaning is not explicitly developed in Lamentations 4 but appears to be a key theological theme that the poet wished to impart. 
The sense of completeness is key: the form has allowed the speaker a beginning, middle, and an end. Psychologically, it's an exorcism. The use of meter in laments is also an opportunity to consider how well irregular rhythms express the emotional content.

The Blue Hour

There is a contemporary example of the abecedarian form in The Blue Hour by Carolyn Forché.
Carolyn Forche's Blue Hour (2003) takes its title from the translated French phrase for dawn.  It also clearly associates the book with grief. In The New Yorker Magazine, the book review says:
In such lines, Forché’s persona—unflinching witness and eloquent mourner—prevails, but in the centerpiece of the collection, “On Earth,” her obsessive documentation of inhumanity overwhelms her best lyric instincts. Forché cleverly chooses the abecedarian form—where the initial letters of the lines form a progress through the alphabet—to portray the agonal flickers of a dying mind, and yet the poem’s collage of horrifying imagery feels gratuitous more often than it does inspired.  
Forché inscribed the book with a quote from the Jewish philosopher of religion, Martin Buber: "These moments are immortal, and most transitory of all; no content may be secured from them....Beams of their power stream into the ordered world and dissolve it again and again."  She refers perhaps to Buber's early transcendent mystical experience, that he later distanced himself from, or the "commotion of human life," a vortex of images, voices, events. It is unfortunate that the book reviewer did not comment on the long tradition of abecedarian forms to express laments, nor the fact that Forché can speak the unspeakable, and that this might be a profound act of witness and healing.

Blue Hour captures the ineffable, and goes forth broken, blind and believing in the transformational power of language. In Forché's hands, the abecedarium is heaped with alliterative sound and evocative image:
a chaos of microphones
a city of a thousand years
a city shaken and snowing 
a coin of moonlight on the shattered place
a confusion of birds and fishes
a consciousness not within us
a corpse broken into many countries
a cup of sleep
a desire to live as long as the world itself
a door opening another door
a feather forced through black accordioned paper
Her catalogue of grief is thorough as the Book of Lamentations. Several phrases are broken off from earlier poems in the book and echo. In her notes, she writes: "Gnostic abededarian hymns date from the third century A.D. Along with Christian and Buddhist texts, they were recovered from small towns on the northern fringe of the Taklamakan Desert early in the twentieth century. The texts were written in seventeen languages, including Sogdian and Tocharian, as well as Aramaic and the "Estrangelo script," a script for Syriac."  This attests to the universality of the need to speak about loss.

"On Earth," in Blue Hour, the alphabet provides a structure that stitches together the first word in each of the many lines. The structure gives the poem an order and sequence--a litany of w's prevails--while the ends of the poetic lines are allowed freedom.  Some are short and some are long; there are parallel structures. By freeing the meter and rhythm and in this way, the lines create a pulse that falters but beats. The poet Jane Miller praised the book and called it a “masterwork for the twenty-first century.”

Meter and rhythm of the language can reinforce or provide a relationship to the meaning of the words. While reading, I came across the words of Susanna Aarnio (a shaman, lament singer, and artist) and Tuomas Rounakari (shaman, violinist). Aarnio says the function of the shaman is to perform laments as well as travel in the spirit world for the purpose of healing. Rounakari demystifies the trance states he uses in music as well as in spiritual practice. All of us fall into a trance at least twice a day, going to sleep and before waking.  In fact, the "flow experience" of creative work must be a trance state.

Ruonakari had interesting things to say about meter as well. The part of the brain that we use most often is the linguistic part, but the brain has other layers. The analytic part has a bit slower rhythm, and the symbolic part even more slow. In the world, free meter is often found in the form of laments, he says.

According to him, the lack of beat allows access to deeper and more symbolic parts of the brain, and it heals. He seeks random tuning of his violin and wants to play with a free meter instead of the common 4 beat or 3 beat rhythm. He prefers to think of meter or beat as a "pulse."  He seeks to play music in a trance state, in theta brainwave state.

Often the decision about meter and rhythm is made for the poet by the poem itself, because there are inherent sounds and music in language.  The poet listens for and enhances the patterns.  If we consider meter and rhythm as a pulse, then it help us shape the overall form and sound of the poem. Is the pulse soft or strong, fast or slow, regular or irregular? Is it spirited?

Do poets, like shamans, have spiritual guides to help them in their work?  I think Forché used the lament form effectively to do this. In exploration, intuition, and deliberation, poets and shamans use rituals of healing.




Work Cited:

"A Modern Shaman,"  Helsinki Times. February 23, 2014. Retrieved 3 July 2014. Web.  http://www.helsinkitimes.fi/lifestyle/9491-a-modern-shaman.html

"Blue Hour." Books Briefly Noted.  New Yorker. May 5, 2003. Retrieved 3 July 2014. Web.  http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2003/05/05/030505crbn_brieflynoted2

Forché, Carolyn. Blue Hour. Perennial. HarperCollins Publishers. New York.  2003.  Print.

Lee, Nancy C., PhD.  Lament in the Bible and in Music and Poetry across Cultures Today. Society of Biblical Literature. E-newsletter.  Accessed 3 July 2014. Web. http://www.sbl-site.org/assets/pdfs/TB7_LamentMusic_NL.pdf

"Poetic Forms: Abecedarian and Acrostic."  2004. Academy of American Poets.  Web. Retrieved 3 July 2014.  http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/poetic-forms-abecedarian-and-acrostic

Scott Schwind. "The Use of Poetic Metaphor : Lamentations 4 and the Alphabetic Acrostic." December 9, 2010. Essay written for a class assignment.  Accessed 3 July 2014.  Web.  http://www.stvincentpampa.com/documents/FrChristopher/The%20Use%20of%20Poetic%20Form%20as%20Metaphor.pdf

Tuomas Rounakari - The Pulse and Power of Free Meter in Music from WildHeart Vision on Vimeo.

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