Contrasts: Making Juxtaposition Work for You

phaethon

But two days ago I sat in front of the heat vent, a habit from childhood, reading a collection of Charles Simic poems. At the time, I missed the contrast of a nostalgic pastime (the heat passing between shirt and back) and a more modern, tongue-in-cheek experience (Simic’s cool, savvy verse), but now the weather itself has brought the point home.

Mid-May, and Wednesday the temperature was in the high 80s Fahrenheit. Thursday did one better, topping the 90s, setting records around New England’s little towns and its big city of Boston, which hit 95 degrees, breaking a 1936 record of 91.

One minute the gods consist of manufactured warmth rising from a heat register, the next they’re the wheels of Phaethon throwing sparks of heat and humidity that reach the ground, burning between skin and collar. Phaethon, as you’ll recall, took the keys to Daddy’s chariot before he was ready to drive. Kind of like July weather carjacking May — with dire results.

This extraordinary heat brought on more contrasts still: The same people at work who complained just last week about the unseasonably cool weather now started complaining just as vociferously about unseasonable warmth.

Meaning: The house furnace is churning one moment, the house air conditioning is churning but a few days later. Contrasts. As a catalyst, they make it happen.

In writing and poetry, contrasts always make stronger points than they ever could were only one side of the odd couple being described. I found a perfect example of this in the collected poems of Simic I was reading in front of the heat vent:

My Weariness of Epic Proportions

I like it when
Achilles
Gets killed
And even his buddy Patroclus–
And that hothead Hector–
And the whole Greek and Trojan
Jeunesse dorée
Is more or less
Expertly slaughtered
So there’s finally
Peace and quiet
(The gods having momentarily
Shut up)
One can hear
A bird sing
And a daughter ask her mother
Whether she can go to the well
And of course she can
By that lovely little path
That winds through
The olive orchard

Nota bene: jeunesse dorée (literally: “gilded youth”) is French for “wealthy, stylish, sophisticated young people”

Here Simic gives us an effective juxtaposition between Greek gods and heroes and the everyday lives of ordinary people like you and me. Enough already with Homer and his hotheaded heroes slashing and slaying, conquering and crowing! A little girl wants to go to the well. When her mother grants permission (how sweet of the girl to ask first!), the daughter chooses a lovely path that winds through an olive orchard. Can you inhale the lovely, warm smell of olives right now? Can you hear the leaves moving softly to the wind?

And pardon my hubris, but isn’t that what it’s all about? Isn’t that what matters in life–the little things? If you want such simplicity to loom large, park it next to something epic. Epically tiresome. See if your weariness doesn’t get more bang for its buck.

Of course a modern reader of this poem cannot help but compare Greek and Trojan heroes to headline-hogging politicians. Don’t they incite your weariness to epic proportions? Don’t you take refuge by turning off news sources and focusing on the simple, everyday things and people you love?

What a contrast the songs of the spring-morning mockingbird make with presidents and Congressmen, for instance. As Wordsworth once said: “Come, hear the woodland linnet… There’s more of wisdom in it.”

Moral of the story: As a writer and a poet, look to contrasts early and often. Singly, they may be strong, but side-by-side, they are much, much stronger.

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11 thoughts on “Contrasts: Making Juxtaposition Work for You

  1. Now, all that stuff is good lessons for today’s kids but who is passing it along (besides you). Had I been as well intimidated of the perils I may not have blown the transmission and burned down the tires of my father’s chariot while he was on vacation. I had some luck of the Gods or a very good Dad (not sure which) because I don’t think he ever found out. So the next time I was more careful and only ran into a soft earth embankment trying to drive without lights. That’s enough for now.

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  2. Might I toot my own tooter here? Forgive me.

    Notice how I’m juxtaposing like a mo-fo in the second stanza. I really like Simic’s poem although sometimes I don’t get a lot from his work. I think Robert Hass’s “Epic” was the inspiration for this one.

    THE ORAL TRADITION

    Sometimes, in conversation,
    he’ll look away & say
    I don’t want to talk about it.
    I respect that. I really do,
    but like some nosy Homeric hero,
    I can feel the words piling up
    behind my teeth’s barrier:
    tell me, godammit! Tell me
    everything so we can be friends!

    I like to imagine the real
    oral tradition, the Myrmidons,
    those epic heroes, all
    sitting around their cook fires,
    gossiping, trading recipes, even
    consoling one another as they
    mend the horsehair plumes,
    the helmets heavy in their laps.

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