with critique by Jendi Reiter
time slips from great to good or, from terrible to wors'ning
down entropic road we pay our toll
paved start toward never ending
that god, what god? the mirror asks, tone optimistic, while condescending
the urge to organize is quite strong
make amends, then share the booty's blending
time slips from me to us or, from you and i to loving
our valentine then seeks its mate
goes the prolific downward sending
that god, what god? the reflection quests, while the last winter sno's still clinging
that holonic symbol, our family crest
wears the blood from each upbringing
the urge to love is as strong to hate, to blend, then split the winnings
our junior is the sum of both
but adds "new" moment's vendings
time drives us from then to now, its final destination reaching
tho next can never touch our lips
it's law, relatively speaking
that god, what god? the question begs, and who should i tell him's asking?
an urge to love and proliferate...
life's sentence, and time's unmasking
Copyright 2008 by Thom Adams
Critique by Jendi Reiter
The form of this month's provocative poem, "Entropy Road", embodies its theme of order struggling to remain distinct from chaos. The headlong rush of syllables in the longer lines and the fragmentary, zigzag presentation of the poem's argument give the poem a restless energy. Meanwhile, the "-ing" rhymes repeating in the first and third lines of every stanza, the refrain "that god, what god?" and the semi-regular meter attempt to corral that energy within a poetic framework.
Making the rhyming words present participles (verb forms, or nouns derived from them, ending in "-ing") was an inspired choice. These words describe action in progress. Just as the stability that the narrator seeks is always a moving target, the concepts on which he depends to convey this argument will not stay put. Each rhyming line also ends on an unstressed syllable, which gives the poem an open-ended, unfinished cadence.
Entropy, of course, refers to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which basically states that the energy levels in an isolated system will tend toward equilibrium. Entropy has sometimes been described as a measurement of the disorder or randomness within a system. In the poem, as in popular usage, it symbolizes universal mortality and dissolution. If evolution drives organic life to ever-higher levels of self-organizing complexity, entropy is the opposite force, that which pulls down and breaks apart complex systems into nature's simplest building blocks. It means that all material energy will ultimately spend itself and be unrecoverable.
As self-aware components of this dying system, how can we find the motivation to go on living, loving, procreating, and planning for the future? Which will win, our philosophical sense of futility or the inward compulsion to survive and create?
Perhaps no one wrote about entropy in this sense more powerfully than the 20th-century British poet Philip Larkin. A sample poem can be found here.
Larkin generally settles the question on the side of death, but Adams disagrees: "the urge to love is as strong to hate". The life force has a fighting chance. Yet it is hampered by our inability to articulate a reason for hope. "that god, what god? the mirror asks, tone optimistic, while condescending". Existentialist philosophers looked to the self to create meaning in a universe made absurd by death's finality. The poem suggests that this answer is insufficient. The individual is merely part of the closed entropic system. He cannot inject it with new energy to reverse its decay.
There are positive, hopeful moments in "Entropy Road" but they come from outside philosophy and science. Whatever the intellect may say, instinct confirms that human connection and creativity are not futile. "time slips from me to us or, from you and i to loving/our valentine then seeks its mate/goes the prolific downward sending". The opaque last phrase may have been chosen mainly to fit the rhyme scheme, but its vagueness felicitously makes it more symbolic than a specific description would have been. It called to my mind both the release of seed in copulation and the movement of the child through the birth canal, but other associations are possible, such as rains watering the earth to bring forth crops, or the descent of angels.
The birth of a child does seem like a miraculous creation ex nihilo, the opposite of entropy. First there were two, now there are three. "Holonic" is a word coined by 20th-century philosopher Arthur Koestler to express the observation that entities in biological and social systems are always interdependent, never completely self-sufficient units. This law of interconnection and symbiosis contrasts with entropy's pull toward disconnection and stasis.
"our junior is the sum of both/but adds 'new' moment's vendings". Is "new" in quotes because the narrator's intellectual side reminds him that this is not a real solution to the problem? On the human scale, parenthood may feel like a triumph over mortality, but on the level of the cosmos, it does not stave off the decay of the whole system, looked at in purely materialistic terms.
The poem ends by leaving the question open, a humility that rings true. Adams does not claim to decide whether the emotional or the scientific perspective on the human condition is correct. He suggests that it is really a question about the nature of the self, or perhaps its very existence. "that god, what god? the question begs, and who should i tell him's asking?/an urge to love and proliferate..."
If pressed to define the self, Adams would emphasize the impulse to love and create, however blind that impulse is, over the scientific description of the individual as a collection of atoms arranged in a temporary order. He chooses the insider's perspective over the outsider's, life as it feels to us, rather than life as the scientists say it is. (After all, they too are part of the flawed system, not truly above it.) Yet the final line, "life's sentence, and time's unmasking", expresses the fear that some trans-human perspective would prove us wrong; the joke of the universe is on us, after all. The dilemma brings us to the limits of reason, where some have found faith, and others merely the willpower to live without it.
Where could a poem like "Entropy Road" be submitted? The following contests may be of interest:
Kent & Sussex Open Poetry Competition
Entries must be received by January 31
British literary society offers prizes up to 700 pounds for unpublished poems by authors aged 16+; fees in UK currency only
Strokestown International Poetry Competitions
Postmark Deadline: January 31
Irish literary festival offers prizes up to 4,000 euros for unpublished poems in English, Irish or Scottish Gaelic languages
Hart Crane Memorial Poetry Award
Entries must be received by February 12
Free contest from ICON, the student literary journal of Kent State University's Trumbull Campus, offers $100 for unpublished poems, any length
Envoi Poetry Competition
Entries must be received by February 20
Thrice-yearly contest from venerable British poetry journal offers prizes up to 150 pounds; no simultaneous submissions; online payment accepted for non-UK entries
Oregon State Poetry Association Contests
Postmark Deadline: February 29
Twice-yearly contest offers prizes up to $100 in categories including traditional verse, humor, open theme
This poem and critique appeared in the January 2008 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free). If you'd like a chance to be critiqued, please email your poem to email@example.com. Please send your poem in the body of your email, rather than as an attachment. One poem per month only, please.
Several of our critique poets have asked me whether their poem would be considered "published", and therefore ineligible for most contests, after appearing in our newsletter. My guess would be yes, but check with the contest coordinator just in case, because some publishers may treat print and online publications differently.