Called to Order: How We’re Wired to See, Hear, Think and Create in Form 

By Rhina P. Espaillat 

If the headlights and grills of oncoming traffic look like a swarm of approaching faces to you, as they do to me, don’t feel weird: you’re simply obeying an ingrained human tendency to see faces where there aren’t any, if anything at all—any symmetrical arrangement of lines and dots—gives us an excuse to do so. The same tendency to find patterns and assign meaning to them that may be arbitrary has created the far-fetched figures of the zodiac, and other subjective interpretations of natural phenomena.

Why do we habitually superimpose on the landscape, the sky, and the look of machinery and manmade structures, images we’re drawn to see? Because it pleases us, although we may not be able to explain the pleasure involved; because we seem to have evolved with a taste for finding patterns in our surroundings, or at least for imagining patterns, and finally for creating them.

A look at the history of art suggests that the human search for repeated pattern has always been there, and that it forms, in fact, the essential background, the guarantee of order and stability against which deviation becomes a value, a new source of pleasure and surprise, and of tension that enlarges the possibilities of art, whether in the gestures of a dancer, the composition of a painting or a piece of sculpture, the variations on a melody, or the arrangement of syllables in a line of verse.

The repetition of some element, the interruption of that repetition, the change that indicates a new direction, the resolution—or lack of resolution—all keep the viewer or listener or reader attentive and aware, not only to the way he is being “spoken to” by a work of art—the “how” of communication—but also to the substance, the “what” being communicated to him by means of subtle alterations, differences between expectation and fulfillment. Poetry, the oldest of the literary arts, knows how to exploit that capacity for surprise by temporarily disappointing the expectations of the reader or listener. Like music—its early sidekick—poetry gives auditory pleasure by repeating and varying and then varying the variations; but, like story-telling and drama, it also mirrors experience, and works on both feeling and thought. And it uses sound to do that. Poetry has mastered the trick of suggesting what it doesn’t say, of subverting what it seems to say, of raising questions in the listener or reader, simply by manipulating the relationship between sound and sense, most often through the use of rhyme and meter, which are among the oldest means, at least in Western cultures, for achieving the complex goals of poetry.

They are not, of course, the only means: free verse has its own techniques, and so does the poetry of non-Western cultures, whose prosody differs from ours in that it may count something other than syllables or metrical feet, which are combinations of accented and unaccented syllables to create certain patterns. But meter—the repetition of syllables in a given number and arrangement—and rhyme—the repetition of vowel and consonant sounds, either at line endings or internally—have been for centuries the most reliable tools of the poet, and are inexhaustible resources, if the poet is ingenious, imaginative, and capable of “singing in his chains,” like Dylan Thomas, or knows how “in singing, not to sing,” like the oven bird celebrated by Frost.

During the twentieth century, it became common to accuse rhyme, meter and every other traditional prosodic device of having outlived their usefulness, and, in fact, of nailing down the poet to stale thought and empty formal ingenuity. Only free verse, some said, would guarantee authenticity, because the poet, once liberated from formal “rules,” would pursue the truth. But no, there was just as much bad writing after the free verse revolution as before, neither more nor less.

It turns out that constraints, far from inhibiting the poet, spur his imagination in directions it might not have taken otherwise, as the sudden vicissitudes of a game alert  the skillful player to both risks and possibilities. Poetry is, after all, a game, among other things: the poet is, on one level, engaging in play, even if it is “for mortal stakes,” to cite Robert Frost again. To play is to be challenged, both by goals and by restrictions; to be willingly constrained, and to use both learned strategies and intuitive deviations—established order and thoughtful momentary disorder—to succeed at the hazy but compelling goals of any art.

If one of those goals is—as I believe it to be—communication at the deepest level with another human mind, why not employ every tool in the toolbox inherited from poets whose work still speaks to us today, including rhyme and meter? And why not, as well, every daring deviation, every gambit invented by poets today and in the future, in the interests of producing a delight that seems bred into our bones, connecting with one another, and maybe—if we’re lucky—speaking to that future?

Rhina P. Espaillat has published nine full-length books and three chapbooks, comprising poetry, essays and short stories, in both English and her native Spanish, and translations from and into Spanish. Her work appears in numerous journals, over seventy anthologies, and dozens of websites, and has earned national and international awards, including T. S. Eliot Prize in Poetry, the Richard Wilbur Award, several some from the New England Poetry Club, the Poetry Society of America, the Robert Frost Foundation, the Ministry of Culture of the Dominican Republic, and a Lifetime Achievement Award from Salem State College.

Espaillat’s most recent publications are a poetry collection in English titled Her Place in These Designs, a book of Spanish translations, Oscura fruta/Dark Berries: Forty-two Poems by Richard Wilbur, and a book of Spanish translations titled Algo hay que no es amigo de los muros/Something There Is that Doesn’t Love a Wall: Forty Poems by Robert Frost. Both of the latter are available from the translator.