Confronted by a Human Angel: Experimental American Sonnet in a Workshop for Writers

Poetry as a Response to Challenge

Workshop for Writers: Unexpected Secular Encounter with Church Music Provokes an Experimental American Sonnet

Beginning writers in a workshop setting often wonder where they will get the ideas and materials for their next writing project -- the one after the first one where they said everything they knew to say!

The poem "Confronted by a Human Angel" virtually wrote itself in one midnight session after I had returned home from a Maundy Thursday night service I visited at a local church in the west Chicago suburbs on April 21, 2011.

My first thought was to write a strictly lyrical sonnet with general meaning, but the dramatic intellectual and emotional story of a real-life character emerged which forced me beyond the sonnet's traditional five-foot lines (hence an "American" sonnet), as well as beyond the sonnet's traditional 14 lines (hence "experimental.

I found myself wanting to tell the story of an adult person with little or no background knowledge or interest in Christianity responding positively, yet innocently, to such an experience. But I wanted it rooted in my own concrete personal experience that night, with allowance for some slight poetic exaggeration to clarify key points. This led me to 20 lines of iambic feet mostly in seven-foot lines (iambic heptameter), with the rest in eight-foot lines (iambic octometer).

For one precursor of what I call the "American sonnet" (more than five iambic feet), see the sonnets with longer lines by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889), notably "Felix Randal" with its lines of varying length (written 1880, but not published until 1918). For previous "experimental" sonnets (more than 14 lines), comprehensive anthologies contain examples from George Meredith (1828-1909) who wrote a sequence of 50 sixteen-line sonnets in his notable work Modern Love (1862).

During the church service, when bell-choir music began, I distracted myself by reading something in my pocket (because amateur bell-choir music is not my favorite, to say the least), when suddenly I heard a voice singing that did catch my attention. An authentic woman with obvious operatic training was courageously winning the battle of trying to be heard through the clanging of those confounded bells!

When I got home, I used the internet to find the exact lyrics, and then to research the composer and arranger listed in the program. Twila Paris first released "The Lamb of God" on her album "Kingdom Seekers" in 1985, and the single rose to #2 on the Adult Contemporary Christian Chart for June 25, 1986, www.twilaparis.com.

The Maundy Thursday performance reviewed in the poem used an arrangement of "The Lamb of God" for a handbell choir (Ring Out! Press, 1997; now Jeffers Handbell Supply) written by Tammy Waldrop (Baylor University, Masters in Music Theory).

Some readers might consider this poem strictly religious, but I don't think so, because it deals with an important interface occurring more and more often as modern, secular-oriented individuals with a broad liberal education come face-to-face with the persistent ideas of traditional religions derived from ancient cultures, and try to make some sense out of them.

We need more poetry, and indeed more writing of all kinds, describing this key interaction between the old and the new, because how we deal with it will no doubt help shape the intellectual and spiritual destiny of human civilization.

In any event, I hope you like the poem.

Confronted by a Human Angel

I might have overheard a human angel sing tonight,
some sacred theme reverberating on “the lamb of God,”
a murky, obscure reference scarcely brought to light,
but something about Jesus being called a son of God.

A sacrificial death will always get our sympathy,
authentic deep commitment to a worthy cause, no less,
but “what,” I shrugged and asked myself, “has that to do with me?”
As I grow older, such things seem to matter less and less.

But suddenly the singing angel turned the song around
to sing about herself, her unassuming daily love of God,
her being “led" relentlessly "by staff and rod” aground,
until she finally herself became "a lamb of God.”

This message clearly represented life and death and breath
for her, engrafted to this gathered holy family
through memory of one man’s ancient life and undeserving death
presumably for not-so-innocent humanity.

While influential white-clad angels wearing wings do not fly near,
I find myself confronted with the message of a human angel.
The metaphor “a lamb of God” still seems to me not clear,
but where does one sign up to take the test for "human angel"?

April 21-22, 2011
Revised April 5, 2012

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Copyright © 2012 by Max J. Havlick, Villa Park, IL 60181-1938, all rights reserved.

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