The Moth Cinema

April is National Poetry Month. 

I have dabbled in poetry hardly at all since high school.  Why is it that all children are poets by nature?  In school, prosodic lines flow out like seeds from a dandelion.  Kids who cannot begin to fashion a paragraph can express themselves in reams of vivid verse.  It is not all good poetry, for sure, but it is all personal and genuine.  Where does that go?

Last fall, my son, a Miller Arts Scholar at University of Virginia, was involved in the installation of a Moth Cinema on the Arts Grounds.  The cinema, designed by famed eco-artist Natalie Jeremijenko, consists of a screen stretched across a garden filled with moth-friendly plants and bathed in gentle backlight.  The moths cavort in their playground as their shadows perform their intricate puppet plays.  I attended the groundbreaking for the installation and the artist described the cinema as a continuous love story.  Strangely compelling experimental music was being played at the site and I could imagine the balletic flitting of the elegant insects, spurred by whatever mysterious urges pass through their sightless and soundless existence – to fly, to mate, to lay, to die – a perfect circle of narrative.

The artist asked for student and faculty members of the Arts Council, the sponsoring organization, to contribute a thought or a story about moths.  The stories ranged from reminiscence to romance, all touched by a lyrical quality that anticipated the installation in its full effect.  She did not ask for audience contribution, but my mind searched for some expression of the ethereal novelty that the as yet unborn moths would provide.  It insisted on a poem.  The accompanying piece emerged fully formed, ready to flick its gossamer wings into flight:

Maybe poetry is part of a child’s nature because all the world is new to them.  Like fledgling moths, they flit through their world, sampling the untasted nectar, feeling the vibrations of the undreamed music that surrounds them.  Poetry is the most honest reflection of their developing emotions.  As adults, when we have heard it all and done it all, we close ourselves in the cocoon of prose – solid, comfortable, risk-free prose – and burst out into the light only on those wonderful rare occasions when our hearts chance on the novel, the wondrous, the ethereal.  Then it is our dance of delight which can be reflected in shadows on the screen.


Everything That You Absolutely Have To Know (About Hyperbole)

There are thousands of figures of speech.  Almost everything that a person may say has a term to describe it, often of Greek derivation and known only to a handful of grammarians and rhetoricians, as well as high school students during their once in a lifetime pilgrimage to the shrine of proper English.  It is in turns impressive and insufferable to not only know terms like “anaphora” or “litotes” but also to be able to give clever little examples of their use, but it will not generate a lot of free beer at the local bar.

One figure is universal to all languages and to the human condition.  Hyperbole, the classic overstatement of exaggeration, can be found from our first declarations (“You never buy me candy!”) to our final breaths (“The rest is silence!”).  I think it is a very human response to pretend to expand our own importance in a world over which we have shockingly little control.

For most of us, our first awareness of the word, “hyperbole” comes in grammar class in the ninth or tenth grade.  The word sneaks in with all the other Greek mouthfuls that our instructors try in vain to teach us, but I think it lasts with many of us for two reasons.  First, it is the easiest to remember – a word that sounds well to describe something we all understand, making it almost unique among grammatical terms.  The second reason is that around the same time we learn the English class version, we are also taught a Mathematical variant.  Out of the morass of arcane geometric terms comes the “hyperbola” – a sort of crowning version of the boring arc of a parabola.  In fact both words are from the same Greek root, leading to even more confusion with the adjective “hyperbolic.”   For once we need to remember what class we are sitting in.

All crises pass.  Few of us have need for either of these words in our daily parlance.  We may see hyperbolae (the math variety) all around us but the only part of us that remembers what they
are called is the cringing shadow of our prepubescent memories.  We, as humans, exaggerate in a constant stream, but we only recall the Greek name for our bold expostulations if we are editing or trying to win a bet.

Which is a shame, really, because names do have power.  The act of identifying a statement as a figure of speech allows us to master it.  Not all paper tissues are Kleenex and realizing that we have experienced synecdoche reminds us that variety is the spice of life.  People who answer their own questions (“Where have all the flowers gone?  Young girls have picked them, every one.”) are not be shunned as crazy or arrogant, but recognized as devotees of hypophora.

No matter how bold or brazen the exaggeration, by exposing the hyperbole we can shrink the statement down to a manageable size.

I remember the first North Carolina State Fair that my son (then seven) and I attended.  The very concept of a State Fair is hyperbolic in its implication that the entire state is involved, but we’ll leave that point aside.  The midway is a sea of exaggeration, full of improbable and impossible promises – wonders of the world and never-before-seen treasures magically transported there just for our benefit.
We poised before the ticket booth below a sign boasting the World’s Smallest Horse.  My son read the words and looked up at me.  “Dad,” he asked, “how do they know?”

Hyperbole tamed.