Debra Dean Murphy is assistant professor of religion at West Virginia Wesleyan College and author of Teaching That Transforms: Worship as the Heart of Christian Education (Wipf and Stock). She blogs at Intersections, part of the CCblogs network.
It seems odd in this era of “pervasive cultural irony” (David Foster Wallace) that Americans are so prone to sentimentality. We have been schooled to be cool with the shocking, the disgusting, the daring, the outrageous–to strike postures of ironic detachment and to mask our true feelings by displaying their opposite: indifference, say, for disappointment or amusement for anger. Having recently attended a reading featuring the poetry and fiction of undergraduates, I submit as anecdotal evidence a roomful of students and professors who winced not a whit as bland and clinical reportage about post-adolescent sexual experimentation was lauded as literary art.
A boy, the son of a zookeeper, grows up in picturesque Pondicherry, India. He is bright and inquisitive and unusually attuned to the world around him. He is, by place of birth, a Hindu, and a devout one. He discovers Christianity (“Thank you, Vishnu, for introducing me to Christ”), and then finds the religion of Allah, especially its profound witness to the practice of daily prayer, to be life-giving.
Our assignment last week in my poetry class was to write a sonnet–English or Italian, our choice. But when it comes to sonnets, that, in many ways, is where the freedom seems to end. You can’t write as many lines as you want (has to be 14, of course). You can’t make it rhyme–or not–however you might like (must be abab, cdcd, efef, gg for the English kind). Line length is non-negotiable, too:five “feet” of “iambs” (unstressed syllables followed by stressed ones). Sonnets and the poets who write them take their metrics very, very seriously.