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  • Writer's pictureTerence Culleton

Why I Write In Form

Updated: Dec 21, 2020

Have you ever had the urge to bust out with a “Hail Mary” or two?

I’m not talking football here. I mean the actual prayer.

I suspect you haven’t, since, after all, you may be Jewish or Moslem, Jainist perhaps, or Hindu. A Baptist, maybe, or a sturdy Episcopalian. You might be an agnostic or an atheist in all your beautiful honesty. In these cases, I suppose, if you happened of a sudden to belt out this rhapsodic little apostrophe to The Virgin Mary—apropos of nothing and all—you may be considered by others, and even by yourself, to be in need of a diagnosis. Bi-polar, perhaps, in a manic-depressive kind of way.

If, however, you half grew up on a little oblong patch of land in Northeast Philadelphia where the Middle Ages were a thriving concern, you might even now in your almost-mid-sixties occasionally feel a beatitude or two swelling in your soul.

“Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with thee . . .”

This is the prayer the beautiful and sometimes violent nuns who were entrusted with my childhood soul held in special esteem, encouraging us to recite it any time our minds were absent of honest concerns. The thinking was that by filling the voids in our mental lives with its astoundingly beautiful words we would not only bar the door to the devil’s promptings but also fill our souls with grace. And grace, as everyone had better understand, was what rendered us impervious to the suggestions of whatever demons might contrive to slide under that door in the course of a long day, or a long life, in a mostly recalcitrant world.

The ecosphere this prayer inhabited was a string of five sets of ten black or brown beads each—the technical term for a set being “decade”—with refrain beads between them consisting of other wonderfully mystical prayers, including the Our Father, perhaps the simplest and profoundest utterance ever rendered within the Judaeo-Christian tradition—before the Anglicans put that mustache on it about power and glory.

I remember as a young votary being ushered with my peers two-by-two into a vast, musty hall that, though it eschewed any attempt at cruciform design and had nary a flying buttress, nevertheless passed in our minds for a church. There were the requisite statues about—Mary and Joseph on either side up front, The Infant of Prague in the back behind the baptismal font, and, of course, Jesus twisting and bloody on the crucifix above the altar. There were opaque transom windows at intervals along the walls, and, in the vertical spaces between the windows, bass-relief plaques depicting the various stations of the cross, a ritualized sequence of images of essential moments along Christ’s route up Calvary Hill to be crucified. The nuns directed our orderly distribution into pews, making sure we had our rosaries at the ready, and in due time the church was completely filled with us children, smelly and angelic, devout and fidgety, happy to have escaped math class, probably, or history, or even, for that matter, catechism class. We were there to say the rosary. It was Rosary Day.

I loved Rosary Day, but not so much because I loved the rosary. In fact, I found it hopelessly redundant. This was, in part, my own fault, since I wasn’t very good at contemplating the mysteries attaching to each decade. Each decade, you see, had a particular Sorrowful, or Joyful, or Glorious mystery assigned to it (depending on the day of the week) and you were supposed to contemplate these mysteries sequentially as you progressed through the decades. I fear I was much more likely, though, to be contemplating the Phillies’ chances of winning the World Series next year, or, even more obsessively, why Curly was never seriously injured when Moe bopped him on the head with a ball peen hammer. If I didn’t have these issues to distract me, the rosary got pretty boring pretty fast.

What saved it for me, though, besides my own inner distractions, was that we said it out loud—all of us, the entire school, boys, girls, nuns, sometimes a priest or two even . . . the school janitor if he was so inclined. The sound of all these voices in unison, rising and falling at precisely the same syntactic junctures, giving emphases to exactly the same words, rhythmically enunciating vowels and consonants, culminating together upon the solemnity of “Amen” coming around again and again like your favorite horse on your favorite carousel—well, for me that sound was as epiphanic as a Bach cantata is now.

The Hail Mary, that is, is as musically beautiful as it is conceptually profound. It’s rendered in what Frost called a “loose iambic” meter and it’s beaded with enough middle-frequency and high-frequency vowels in the stressed syllables to fill up an opera house with its richly sustained resonances. As for consonants, it strings together warm “m” sounds, sifting s’s, cooing w’s, with a few unobtrusive plosives and fricatives interspersed for variety’s sake. Its syntactic rhythms are delicate and childlike, lending themselves to the birdsong sonorities of schoolchildren trying their best to be good in the presence of their invisible but essential mother. I was part of the chorus, but, when not distracted by the physiological mysteries of slapstick comedy, I was apart from it too, listening, transfixed.

This doubleness—being the voice but also the listening ear—is essential, in my opinion, to the prayer experience and also to the closely analogous experience that is poetry. It has to do, oddly enough, with that horse coming round on the carousel. Every prayer boils down to “Amen,” as does every poem, at least analogously. To enlist Frost again, a poem (and I’d also say a prayer) is “a momentary stay against confusion.” Which is what “Amen” realizes for us in a prayer. The music of a poem or a prayer, especially a communally recited one, is informed and, in a sense, necessitated, by its coda, its harmonic resolution, its return to the root chord from which it has emerged. Everything depends on that Amen. That Om. That amazing E major chord at the end of the Beatles’ A Day In The Life.

A prayer (a song, a poem) emerges from its root key, which, in this case, is an homage to the great and wonderful Mother: “Hail, Mary, full of grace!” Mary, that is, is full of her own mystery—her grace. In a sense she is still pregnant with it, long after its incarnation has been birthed into suffering and the many painful departures of life. Nevertheless, we children can still unquestioningly avow that “The Lord is with Thee.” Although The Lord has departed, has ascended His Calvary of suffering, He is still “with” Mary, still fills her with His grace, almost as if the suffering part never happened, although it most certainly did.

In this sense Mary is truly “[b]lesséd . . . amongst women,” her blessedness being mystically fused with an additional observation: “and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.” That word “fruit,” it seems to me, is crucial as a matter of formal realization. Like a musical resolution or a prayer’s amen, the fruit, in a sense, is the telos of the tree. Jesus said as much when He remarked upon the best way to judge a tree. In this case, the case of Mary, judging by the fruit how could we hail her as anything other than “blesséd . . . amongst women”?

The further point, though, is that the fruit, the telos, is, in essence, its entire growing. It consists of the whole sequence and combination of elements and actions of which it is also the culmination. The whole narrative, that is, Jesus’ narrative, embodies Him as both human and divine. The stations of the cross running around the walls of the church surround us with the entire growing of the fruit and so, taken both sequentially and synchronously, compose the fruit.

All this is as much as to say that meaning, like Mary’s womb, like a fruit, like the rosary, like a song, like a poem, and every part of a poem, is round. And this is because what meaning applies to, life, is also round. The horse keeps coming back, around and around, like a refrain, like the Hail Mary over and over on that string of beads, like the Our Father coming in refrain-like between the decades, the horse of realization upon the carousel of karma, the great wheel of life . . . it keeps coming around. And each time it does, it’s the same horse, the same Amen, the same song refrain—or, in a poem, the same prosodic features, more or less, metrical, echoic like end rhymes or alliteration or assonance.

But each time it comes around, we ourselves are different. Each station along the walls of our inner church is both an arrival and a departure, a loss and a gain, so suffering is a key element in the fruition of the fruit. To the extent that, at least momentarily, suffering involves confusion, a loss of meaning, it changes us, challenges us to achieve a new understanding of the old meaning that includes our suffering among its fibers, transforms that suffering into its fruitmeat.

The defining echoic elements of poetic form are repetitive, yes, but the repetition is incremental, as is also true of any good song. Like the Mysteries that govern each decade of the rosary, the stanzas of a song change the refrain’s meaning in that new thoughts, new experience, new suffering, perhaps, have intervened within their spaces. Although the words of the refrain are the same, they cannot be heard, felt, understood, in the same way each time they come around. That is, meaning itself, in all its roundness, is psychological, and our psychology, like the rounds of a song, is musical. It involves departure and tension as surely as it arcs, always, towards some sort of harmonic resolution.

You know, the music of the spheres and all.

During the school day, remember, my experience was quasi-medieval.

This is where, oddly enough, that ballpeen hammer comes in.

Watching the Three Stooges on TV was a purgative experience for me after a long day spent navigating the shifting moods and whimsies of the black-gowned women who inevitably were mother figures to me, but who didn’t always display the sort of mildness they taught us to esteem in Jesus’ Mother. In fact, my guess is that the part of the beautiful prayer they most especially, and perhaps even a little vindictively, wanted us to meditate on was the second half. Here we all asked Mary to “pray for us.” But the pronoun “us” was not in itself sufficient without the additional appositive element “sinners.” And this element itself accrued meaning with the subsequent concept of temporal progression, or the lack thereof, introduced when the prayer equates Mary’s praying for us “now” with her also praying for us “at the hour of our death.”

The conflation of these two moments in time, besides negating whatever might transpire in between, also had the psychological effect of forward-reducing the present moment to the moment of death, which Mary, by the way, avoided, and rightfully so, when she was assumed into Heaven. The rhapsodic music of the first half of the prayer modulated in the second to a darker key, the key of moral anxiety stimulated both by the reminder that we were “sinners” and by this troubling temporal conflation. Death, the prayer reminded us—with, as it were, a nun’s arched brow—was nigher than we were prone to think in our frivolous and childish engagement with sunlight and birdsong, sponge balls and jump ropes. And, of course, death wasn’t simply death. There was a lot at stake there, so much so that, in addition to the prayer’s wonderful and reassuring “Amen” coming around time after time, those sponge balls and jump ropes, when we were released into the schoolyard for recess, were in and of themselves great reassurances.

At any rate, both the prayer’s certainty of salvation through Mary’s intercession, and its recognition of our depravity, our unworthiness, and our inescapable mortality, made manifest certain assumptions about our status vis-à-vis the good sisters that were existential, informing just about everything that happened in the course of a given school day. It would be perhaps vindictive to go into detail about these things, especially since these were women of profound faith who earnestly believed in their mission to save us from ourselves. However, the moral and existential messages we received on a more or less regular basis, punctuated as they frequently were with punches, shoves, and slaps, with verbal humiliation, and, occasionally, with something very close to primal screaming, conduced to an almost unmanageable level of fear and anxiety in us mere children.

This may be why, after school, the sight of mop-topped Moe, whom I admired for his unequivocal sense of purpose, bopping fat, bald Curly, in whom I delighted for his childlike simplicity, right on the crown of his head with a ballpeen hammer was, well, if anything, reassuring to me. I “knew,” even as I winced in the watching, that the blow, savage though it was, would not cause permanent damage, either to Curly’s head or to his soul. I’d even laugh as he scrunched up his face and rubbed his head, then either slammed Moe back with a two-by-four or got distracted by a balloon man passing on the opposite side of the street.

So it may not have been simply childish weakness that made it so hard for me, while sing-songing my way through the eternally recurring words of the rosary, to meditate on the Joyful Mysteries. It may have been an instinct, in fact, of self-preservation, a reminder of sorts that, in spite of everything, the amen was real, that Mary would pray for us, that it was okay, we, I, could be a child, could go through all of life’s painful departures and restorative arrivals, make whatever mistakes I was going to make, even commit my human quota of sins, and, for the most part, things would be all right. The whole of it would mean itself, and Mary, in contrast to the all-too-human women assigned to look after our souls, would understand, she would get my meaning, which was my life.

Which was round, like a sphere, as meaning is a sphere—rotating, returning on itself over and over, rhythmically, rhymingly, stanzaically.

And like prayer, or hymnody, poetry is the music of that sphere, in-formed by it.

A stay, Mr. Frost tells us—like Amen.

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