Dear Brenda Hillman,
When I first read “Autumn Ritual with Hate Turned Sideways,” I felt very confused and frustrated—yet it stood out to me for reasons I did not understand. I struggled to discern the rhythm of your poem and had to reread each line over and over and over again before I started to grasp the concept of what you were saying. Even while actively reading, I found myself unable to interpret the deeper meaning of the poem. After an hour of concentrating hard and coming up with nothing, I threw my white flag and decided I would write about a different, simpler poem. However, despite how hard I tried to move on, something about the complex tempo and redolent language continued to reside in my mind.
Reading this poem was a challenge for me because I struggled with dyslexia as a child. Every single night, I had both teachers and parents forcing me to read in order to catch up with my classmates. I dreaded the routine reading, often choosing to meet my parents with tantrums and screams and tears whenever they tried to put a book in my hands. The words all looked like “Weird shapes around campfires”—somewhat like alphabet soup - causing me to read ‘horse’ instead of ‘house’ or ‘quack’ instead of ‘pack’ (l. 26). I constantly re-read or skipped lines, angry and frustrated at myself and my brain for hindering my ability to finish a single page. There was only one kind of literature I did not instantly reject—children's poems by Shel Silverstein. His writing was the most influential in teaching me to read for multiple reasons: the vast alliteration, simple rhyme scheme, and childish stories and pictures made reading feel more natural and enabled me to appreciate the instinctive flow of his writing. At the time I did not realize this but both my mom and I felt satisfied for a couple reasons: I had found encouraging, funny readings I could easily get through, and my mom avoided a meltdown. Contrary to Shel Silverstein’s poems, “Autumn Ritual with Hate Turned Sideways” caused me to think critically about the placement and usage of each word—something I have avoided doing since I learned how to read.
Glancing at the poem, I loathed its unfamiliar structure and questioned why anyone would write a poem this way; the format immediately compelled me into thinking it was a song. As I read, I could almost hear the music in the background and the singers emphasizing each letter of the word ‘hate.’ This use of repetition,“Bump bump,” describing what happened to the letter T adds a break and a cheerful melody (l. 16). As I continued to read I realized that the structure of each stanza, at first confusing, plays an important role in making this poem unique. The punctuation, with a seemingly desultory placement, also has a specific role. Throughout the poem, I noticed that many of the sentences end in the middle of a line causing it to feel choppy. Nonetheless, these unnatural breaks caused me to take extra time in evaluating the significance of each stanza and helped me to see patterns I would not have noticed otherwise. I ascertained that the more lines a sentence covers directly correlates to its importance: “Put/ that Garamond T/ to bed before we kill someone with it” (l. 16-8). This sentence, broken up over three lines, alludes to Jesus. The son of God died on the cross in order to save us from our sins, and because hate leads to sins, it must be eliminated in order to avoid sacrificing more people. Throughout the poem, the definition of each word proves less important than the connotation behind it.
Using alliteration, the undertone of a line is exposed and contributes to why this writing stood out to me. From preschool through first grade I went to speech therapy every week. I sat at a desk across from a white-haired woman in a ten foot by ten foot room for half an hour each week. I watched as she enunciated vowels, consonants, and words asking me to repeat each time. In most of my lessons, I learned one or two new letters and attempted to put them together with other sounds. More often than not, an ‘s’ would turn into a ‘th’ and we would spend half of our time on re-correcting that problem. Sometimes (I think partly for her own amusement) she would have me attempt tongue twisters. In my time with her, I never successfully completed one but I found them very entertaining. My favorite and most challenging tongue twister was filled with alliteration: “Sally sells seashells by the sea shore.” Therefore, “Whack-whack. Weapon contractors in Virginia./ Whack. Get well T. Won’t kill with you,” instantly caught my attention (l.19-20). Out of habit, I read the line aloud and practiced enunciating each sound. This simple literary device caused me to pause and consider the significance of this line.
Through careful analysis, I have grown to appreciate the formerly unmethodical and confusing “Autumn Ritual with Hate Turned Sideways.” I now possess more than a basic understanding and have discerned the reasons for why it intrigued me. This poem took me out of my comfort zone and forced me to look closely at each sentence. Using alliteration and strategically placed punctuation and breaks, certain lines call more attention to themselves. I had to critically think about the phrasing of each line and its implications while consciously realizing the allusions being made. Did you purposely format this poem so that the reader has to slow down and carefully sift through the text such as I did? Or, did you have different reasons for this unusual format with scrutiny as an unintentional result?
Thank you so much for your dynamic and interesting letter about “Autumn Ritual with Hate Turned Sideways.” I was moved by your letter in a number of ways. It’s very impressive that you kept going with the poem despite not understanding it at first. Kudos to you for following your intuition on that. Sometimes a poem speaks to its reader over several readings. Something in the piece may call for a response whether the surface sense makes itself immediately known or not. I like poems that yield more and more each time I read them, not those that I feel I have grasped with one reading. Yet poems are not a secret codes, and the power you get out of them at each separate reading is exactly what is there. As a teacher, I think it is impressive when my students linger over individual words, and there are almost no wrong answers when you read poetry unless you some up with something for which there is absolutely no indication. There are so many right answers if we just slow down and use associative powers in reading.
Thank you for sharing another perspective by writing so movingly about your dyslexia and your struggles to do assignments in a systematic way. You must be a very brave person to deal with this so consciously. I am glad you had some help, despite how difficult it must have been. It is inspiring that poetry was instrumental in your reading education, and that you discovered linguistic beauty through Shel Silverstein. You expressed so well that you learned alliteration and rhyme through his work as well as some of the delights of symbolic language. Though dyslexia is a challenge, your narrative is inspiring to me, as you learned to work with this difference. I can relate because I had a milder form of this condition when I was a child; I read lines of writing in reverse and had to tell myself with interior speech to start from the left when learning even the most basic text. Some of my interest in the visual elements of experimental poetry probably came from these challenges.
Now to try to address a couple of your questions: I am especially impressed by the analytic nature of your long third paragraph. Yes, the form of a poem is always critical and intrinsic to its contributions. That is, if a poet chooses stanzas or pictorial devices as in my poem (the letters sliding down the interior staircases) or non-lexical elements, these decisions are all part of its sense and nature. Sometimes my poems include fragments of writing because like most people I don’t think or perceive in complete sentences when going through my days. Human thought is often in little spurts or fragments. You might have already studied 20th century modernist art in school. I enjoy writing poetry like this because it sounds natural to my brain—which rarely flows like a smooth river but is somewhat rocky, probably because I grew up in a desert! So that’s why I wrote “Whack-whack. Weapons contractors in Virginia. /Whack. Get well, T”—to try to talk in fragments to the letter T, to tell it not to be a violent weapon or a sharp crucifix that might hurt someone, as you point out.
Thank you again for reading my poem. I hope some of this is helpful. I hope you will thrive in school, that you will work against hate and injustice, and can keep poetry in your life.