When Paradox Is King

BEHIND the world's facade of literalism, life is teeming with incongruities. Pathos touches comedy; the chuckle finds the tear; the beautiful gets juxtaposed with the bizarre. When we discover how much of human experience is made up of these unlikely relationships, we are learning the poetry in it. And so often it's the poetry of paradox.

What could be more "unlikely" than a creative writing class in a prison? Or a friendship emerging from an encounter in a boxing ring? In this age of reversals, increasingly the incongruous becomes a kind of metaphor for humanity. For the poet in us, there's a meeting point between the lovely and the ludicrous.

Paradox is king.

The poetry of paradox has never stopped surprising me. Walking young and alone on England's Malvern hills some three decades ago, I remember seeing a young mountain ash embracing a fir. The conifer was leaning slightly inwards, its dark trunk encircled by a single branch of the ash. The two trees were talking secretly one to the other as an evening breeze moved their surfaces together audibly. As beautiful as it was extraordinary.

Then only yesterday, I was running with friend Breck here in Sunnybrook Park, when we noticed, yes, a young ash tree in the act of an embrace - as if to make a correlation across the decades. But this time, two of its branches were curved affectionately - if poignantly - about a telegraph pole! Nature is remarkable in its moments of unity. And they are never without some regenerative touch of the absurd.

Paradox.... One has always to look beyond the literal. Some symbolism waits to wash thought clean of urban preconceptions. Something deceptively simple, something totally unexpected. That's when the incongruous becomes poetical.

Even in childhood, we intuitively recognize this. As boys, my brother and I once trudged deep into a wood in Wales. Tired and with a shoelace loose, Philip sat down on the nearest large mound. Shards of afternoon sunlight filtered through the branches onto his curls. But that mound was the citadel of the wood ant!

About a centimeter in length, the British wood ant is at once ingenious and forgiving. Young Phil's trousers were covered with insects before he even noticed. He stood up with alacrity. Not a sting! We both laughed. Then we watched in awe as order was being restored in that magnificent ant hill.

The ants' society is fashioned in silent urgency. Down carefully fashioned tunnels, their diminutive voices tumble like numbers in a matrix. It's easy to confuse their poetry with clowning.

As we become more adept at reading between the lines, pathos and comedy have a strange way of coinciding in our lives. That's the poet and the clown coming together in us. It all has to do with the art of living metaphorically - I mean the ability and willingness to detect the extraordinary beneath the ordinary in our lives. The extraordinary is always present - that is, if we're not apt to "judge according to the appearance."

I keep finding that it's the symbolism in my life that eliminates the literalism in it. That's the poetic dealing with the prosaic! For example, the poetry in our relationships has to do with finding unexpected connections in them and realizing "It's crazy, but it's true!" We might add, "It's funny, but it's beautiful!" All the stuff of paradox.

Some years ago, in my volunteer work for the Ministry of Correctional Services in Ontario, I found myself counseling an underprivileged teenager guilty of several acts of arson. Some progress had been made. Then I had to leave Canada for several weeks. When I returned, the teenager was back in prison on yet another arson charge.

On my way to his cell, it struck me as utterly absurd my having presumed that I could ever "talk" anyone out of crime. Face to face with my probationer, I stood there in the cell without a word. He looked away from me awkwardly. I thought I caught the hint of a grin on his mouth.

At last the silence was broken. "Frank," I said, "You may think I'm crazy - but I still believe in you." A moment passed, then this young kid looked straight at me. To my surprise, there were tears in his eyes. "I don't think you're crazy, sir," was all he said.

There is no formula for redemption here. When I think of it, it wasn't so much the actual words that were shared as a new tone, a fresh direction which, in somewhat bizarre fashion, this whole situation had brought to our relationship. From that day, something larger began between us. Frank was never again charged with arson.

All very odd, you might think. But each of us encounters situations from time to time which, when recalled, stir in us a chuckle and a tear. Something to do with that regenerative touch of the absurd perhaps. After all, human experience is refreshingly full of the unlikely.

The poetry of paradox has its own kind of therapy. We are cleansed by the incongruous.

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