Monday, August 22, 2011

Form and Substance: How a Sonnet Saved My Life

The Sonnet

The sonnet is the most restrictive of
Poetic forms. A scheme is strictly set
Dictating poet's rhyme and rhythm, yet
He chooses it for lofty thoughts of love,
Admiring noble deeds, or saintly stuff.
Indeed, the sonnet always seems to let
Transcendence have its way so as to get
A sense of freedom. Thus we see it prove
To be the highest, freest form to whet
A true Poetic. Often when I see
The bounds within which I must find my way,
(The cold collective spreads its mindless net
And freedom seems to fade) I wish to be
A living sonnet soaring through the day.

CLK                                       2/82

The sonnet, like so many aspects of society, provides rules, structure and boundaries. We can find comfort in those boundaries we see in society. Boundaries give definition to what is expected and provide security in our roles. On the other hand, boundaries can be restricting and oppressive. We have common metaphors that speak to this paradox: “keep your hand on the plow,” “stay on track” are just as familiar as “he was chomping at the bit,” or “pulling at the traces.” Boundaries indeed offer guidance, but sometimes one must slip the traces or jump the tracks. I recently read some words from Spanish poet Antonio Machado:

Why should we call
these accidental furrows roads?
Everyone who moves on
walks like Jesus, on the sea. [1]

The sonnet above is one that I wrote when I was 28 years old. I offer it as an example of how one can be awakened by one’s own poem. At the time, I was teaching English at Hong Kong Baptist College on a two-year assignment with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board. I had graduated from seminary and had plans to go into ministry upon return to the States. During my first year back in the U.S., I was in the middle of a chaplaincy training program at a Baptist Hospital in Birmingham, Alabama. One evening I was re-reading the sonnet that I had written two years before. For some reason, I imagined myself as a 68-year-old man and a young man was reading the sonnet. The young man asked me if I ever learned how to be a living sonnet. The only honest answer I could give in that imaginary situation was, “No. I never did.”

It was at that moment that I realized I needed to get out from where I was at the time. Toward the end of my training, I was offered the opportunity for a residency as chaplain in the hospital. To the director’s surprise, I never applied for the position.

Finding New Directions

“Where will you go from here?” the Pastoral Care director asked. I had no clear answer, except that I knew I had to go away from where I was at that moment. The next year proved to be a formative year. I left the Baptists and found St. Andrew's Episcopal Church where there was a commitment to high liturgy and social service. While there, I found employment at St. Andrew’s Foundation working with adults with developmental disabilities in group home settings. The overarching ideal at St. Andrew’s Foundation was “normalization,” meaning that we would allow each person to live as normal a life as possible, with normal routines rather than being defined by their disability.

The home where I worked was a couple of blocks away from St. Andrew’s Church.  In those days, the bell in the church steeple would sound out the hours. The liturgical hours (Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline) were designated times of prayer throughout the day. This was a form that I was unaccustomed to, having grown up Baptist. While I worked with clients at the group home, even though those liturgical hours were unfamiliar, it was meaningful to hear the bells sound during the day. It reminded me to stop, if only briefly, to acknowledge that I was working within a larger context of meaning.

Even more than the liturgical hours in the background, the group home residents themselves gave my life a centering. More than teaching and certainly more than professional ministry, my work now seemed like real life. Teaching and ministry are both wonderful and needed professions, but my own strengths and abilities did not fully align with the tasks in either milieu. I was therefore not finding life within those structures.  At St. Andrew’s Foundation I sat on front porches and in living rooms of those group homes visiting and talking with residents who were limited in many ways, but they helped me to see more clearly what real life is about. All manner of assumptions were dispelled during those days. We were all learning each day how to better find our way in the world. They needed help with shopping, banking, household management, job training, and managing the conflict that arises just by living with other people. They were learning to have a home of their own, and I felt like I was finally home.

I would later recount, "It was at St. Andrew's that I came to realize that people who live with disabilities have something very important to say about what it means to be human. How we respond to people with disabilities says something very important about who we are as human beings." [2]
Nothing is constant, however. After several years of rewarding work at St. Andrew’s Foundation, I was also starting a family and needing to broaden my possibilities. To that end, I went back to my old alma mater for a degree in Nursing. My first job in the Nursing field was as a psychiatric nurse at the same hospital where I had once been a chaplain. I remember walking across the hospital grounds one evening, recalling how I had made that same walk years before as a chaplain. Back then I was thinking, “I don’t belong here.” That night, however, as I walked the grounds as a nurse, I said to myself, “This is exactly where I belong!”

Writing New Avenues and Looking Inward

I continue to make a living in healthcare, and I also continue to write. The point of sharing my sonnet is to show how the process of writing can help us to know who we really are, at least that has been true for me. My writing has taken the form of daily journals, personal letters, dream journals, essays, and poetry. The poetry that I have written over the years often has served as a kind of spiritual diary, recording where I was, what I was thinking, and how I was feeling at the time. Sometimes the writing surprises me by opening up new windows and new avenues. Sometimes the writing, as with this sonnet, helps me to see a bit more clearly how to live more congruently with my inner self and ideals.

For all who have an interest in writing, I say, by all means write! Don’t worry about whether it is “good enough.” That sonnet that I wrote all those years ago is certainly no Shakespeare or Dante, but it contained a true observation that allowed me to take a probing look within myself. Make sure that what you write is your true voice. You will probably learn more about yourself, and the writing might even save your life.

                                                                                                               Charles Kinnaird


1.  From I Never Wanted Fame, by Antonio Machado (translated by Robert Bly), Ally Press (limited edition) 1979.
2. From "An Ordinary Life" at

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  1. Charles, your title alone was intriguing enough to take me here. I so appreciate the journey you've outlined here. Just yesterday in a class we were discussing "who we are" and we talked about how we often define ourselves by what we do. That is not a bad thing. I love the quote by Frederick Buechner: "The place that God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet."

    I've been very aware of parameters lately in writing short pieces for a newspaper. There is not a single spot for an extra word. I think it's good poetry practice to try traditional forms from time to time. Thank you for this.

  2. Charles, thanks so much for these words which reflect (as you know) some of my own journeying. The search for vocation is often a yearning for integrity, living (as you remark) congruently with one's inner self and ideals.

  3. Charlie,

    It is nice hearing from you, especially your heart. It may have seasoned with age over the years but its still the same Charlie I knew and love. In your sonnet you speak of boundaries, structure, guidance, and the paradox of metaphors. I have learned to deal with these over the years, maybe excelled too well at conforming to expectations. Getting married, starting a family, pursuing a career, all these forces shape our actions and thus have their affect on our lives and dreams. In my heart remains that Missouri country boy in his ’52 Chevy pickup truck running over the yellow tube dividers on Doyle Drive leading to the SF Golden Gate Bridge asking, “What barriers?”

    I offer my Haiku in response to your Sonnet

    • An old car!
    A boy jumps in-
    The sound of engine roaring.

    • The first soft rain!
    Enough to feed the dying grass
    And the Prickly Pear’s pain.

    • In the Moondoggie’s cry
    No sign can foretell
    How soon it must die.

    • No one travels
    Along this way but I,
    This spring evening.

    • In all the Sea Fog of May
    there is one thing not hidden -
    the bridge at Coronado Bay.

    • The sun’s last beams
    thoughts and loneliness;
    into the ocean, flash of green.

    • Night appears, then clouds
    and bring to lovers a chance to rest
    from looking at the moon.

    • SeaMoon:
    around the ocean beach I wander
    and the night is gone.

    • California's child -
    The car he starts & it grinds,
    and gazes at the key.

    • No gas and no joy,
    and he is standing, walking
    all alone!

    • Won't you come and see
    loneliness? Just one kiss
    from the girl Mariah.

    • Church bells die out.
    The fragrant jasmine remain.
    A perfect evening!

  4. Thanks Kathleen, Arlen, and Dan (aka bed1302e-ce0b-11e0-a31b-000bcdcb5194).
    Kathleen, I love the Buechner quote! Thanks for stopping by my blog.
    Arlen, you have done well on the journey - you honor me by indicating that mine may be comparable to yours.
    Dan - I remember that 52 pickup tromping over those barriers. We had a time at Frisco Bay! I am thrilled that my blog inspired your poem that you posted here!

  5. Charlie, "I hardly knew ye". What an inspiration your writing is to us all. Many years ago, when I was filled with a lot of angst, I wrote poetry. It was catharic for me. I quit for some reason--I guess Ithought the writing was terrible--but anyway my jpourney as a nurse opened many "learning" and spiritual moments for which I am most gratful. I am glad you found your true path and appreciate your "blog".


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