The Paradelle

paradelle cover

It has been more than two decades since I encountered the paradelle. It is a modern poetic form which was invented by poet Billy Collins. I first heard about it when I spent a week with Billy in a writing workshop held on Long Island, NY.

Billy had invented it as a parody of the villanelle, which is a well-established and complicated form. He told me that he fully intended to get the form into very official The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics.

He first published his own paradelle, “Paradelle for Susan”, in The American Scholar where it garnered some angry letters to the editor from readers who missed the parody aspect and just thought it was a terrible poem that never should have been published. His favorite letter was from a mother who included her young daughter’s own attempt at the form that she thought was better than Collins’ poem.

Billy Collins claimed in his book, Picnic, Lighting, that the paradelle was invented in eleventh century France.

“The paradelle is one of the more demanding French fixed forms, first appearing in the langue d’oc love poetry of the eleventh century. It is a poem of four six-line stanzas in which the first and second lines, as well as the third and fourth lines of the first three stanzas, must be identical. The fifth and sixth lines, which traditionally resolve these stanzas, must use all the words from the preceding lines and only those words. Similarly, the final stanza must use every word from all the preceding stanzas and only these words.”

Collins’ attempt at the form resulted in “Paradelle for Susan. ” In trying to follow those difficult rules, Collins ended the poem with these two lines:

Quick, your nervous branch flew from love.
Darken the mountain, time and find was my into it was with to to.

Well, his invented form did take on a more serious life. Some poets, including myself, acknowledged the parody but took the form seriously, writing their own paradelles.

I also took the word as an imaginary place of escape and made it the home for my blog Weekends in Paradelle.

Billy wrote later about the form that he “considered using an already existing form, but I figured enough bad sonnets and bad sestinas are already being written these days without me adding to the pile…  The paradelle invites you in with its offer of nursery-rhyme repetition, then suddenly confronts you with an extreme verbal challenge. It lurches from the comfort of repetition to the crossword-puzzle anxiety of fitting a specific vocabulary into a tightly bounded space. While the level of difficulty in most verse forms remains fairly consistent throughout, the paradelle accelerates from kindergarten to college and back to kindergarten several times and ends in a think-tank called the Institute for Advanced Word Play. Thus the jumpy double nature of the paradelle, so unsteady, so schizo, so right for our times.”

I wrote the paradelle below about the two years before and after I had lost someone close to me. It is included in an anthology of paradelles, The Paradelle, from Red Hen Press.


The heart softens with winter,
the heart softens with winter.
Time strengthens your thin body,
time strengthens your thin body.
Your thin body strengthens.
Winter time softens the heart.
Oak and sage edges the river,
oak and sage edges the river.
Rock breaks the water, its rings survive,
rock breaks the water, its rings survive.
Sage, oak and rock survive the breaks.
The river water rings its edges.
From a year without you beside me with the pain,
from a year without you beside me with the pain.
These selected moments surface,
these selected moments surface.
You beside me without the pain,
surface from a year with these selected moments.
The river rock softens its edges with time.
Oak at the heart strengthens as the rings thin.
Sage survives the winter pain.
Your body breaks the water surface beside me.
These moments selected from a year with
and without you.

Kenneth Ronkowitz

Teaching the Daily Practices

Daily practice is a part of many religions and spiritual quests. But the discipline of daily practices does not have to have anything to do with religion or spirituality. The self-discipline of having a daily practice is good for the mind, body and soul.

My writing online is a daily practice that is spread around in a number of places. It is the best thing I have done in my life to improve my writing. I have tried daily writing practices before. William Stafford and other poets are known for their daily poems.

It did that in 2014 with a daily poetry practice that I called Writing the Day. It helps that Stafford, when asked about how he could write a poem each day, replied that he lowered his standards. He didn’t write a gem every day. But he did write every day.

This year, I still write poems and I still contribute weekly to that poetry blog, but my daily practices have changed.

Maybe your practice is yoga, meditation, working in the garden, painting, or making time for serious reading. The list is long with possibilities.

It takes discipline. I know that “discipline” has a bad bad reputation. It makes you think of school and getting sent to the principal’s office for detention. But discipline is good and necessary.

As a teacher, applying what you learn is one of my top goals for my students. It’s also a goal that we should have in our non-academic life.

When I was more seriously into meditation practice, it became important to me that the practice moved into some actions in my life. The idea of meditating peacefully on some hilltop or is some tranquil Zen monastery is very appealing. But it also seems very self-indulgent.

Buddhism is generally not taught in America as a religion. Buddhist teachings are offered in a very practical, nonreligious way, and students of any – or no – religious background can benefit from learning them and putting them into practice.

When I stumbled upon the European Institute of Applied Buddhism in Germany, that’s what I was thinking about. EIAB has a mission to not only offer training but also “methods for using Buddha’s teachings to relieve suffering and promote happiness and peace in ourselves, our families, our communities and in the world. “

The institute operates under Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, the world-renowned meditation teacher, scholar and writer, and with Dharma teachers in the Plum Village tradition.

People apply Buddhist teachings in such a way as to release tensions of the body, reduce bodily stress and pains, and in many cases alleviate not only symptoms but also underlying causes of illness. Can you pass on that knowledge and teach others to have a daily practice? I think that is the ultimate point of gaining the knowledge.

The other place I see this happening is with yoga – a practice that I have very little experience with. (I took a 5 week class that didn’t work for me.) But i saw a blog post about Yoga from the Heart by Seane Corn and she talks about a concept of “body prayer.” She applies her yoga practice to her humanitarian efforts. (There is a a video excerpt of her demonstrating the movement of “body prayer”)

I see yoga classes being offered everywhere from corporate centers to churches, hospitals, schools and storefront and formal fitness centers. It’s a 5,000-year-old spiritual practice.

Healing yourself is good, but healing the world, or at least a small part of it, is better. I have been a teacher in schools for my entire adult life, but my sense of the “teacher” is not really connected to schools but to every experience.

I have posted on another site about contemplative practices. I posted something about a very simple and brief guided practice using a bell sound meditation. It takes five minutes to do. Everyone can do a daily practice that only requires five minutes. But that is still more time than many people seem willing to give to quiet contemplation.

Even a daily practice of five minutes a day requires discipline.

One of my new daily practices is taking a few minutes every night before I go to sleep to review the day and note what I am grateful for from the day. Honestly, when I started, for a few nights I couldn’t come up with anything I was grateful for that day. That first saddened me, but then it bothered me. How could there be nothing that day I was grateful for? Sure, I could say I am grateful for being alive and healthy, for having a job, and for being married to someone I love and for my children. But that sounded corny, a bit of a cliche and too easy. I could use them every night. I am grateful for all those things every day, but it is harder and more important to probe deeper and

In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu says, “Do you have the patience to wait until your mud settles and the water is clear? Can you remain unmoving until the right action arises by itself? The master doesn’t seek fulfillment. Not seeking, not expecting, she is present and can welcome all things.”

At the top of this page is the Tree of Contemplative Practices, which is a nice visual of seven branches of practices, that I found on the website for the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society.

You can see that it ranges from quiet practices for stillness (sitting meditation; centering prayer) to movement (walking meditation; pilgrimage). These practices can be done alone, but most of them actually involve others (especially work and volunteering or storytelling), Some of these practices can produce tangible results. That might be music, art, a house, a sacred space, a journal or a dialog with someone.

I asked a co-worker this past week if she sets aside any time each day for conscious contemplation. She said that it was those ten minutes that would sip coffee while waiting for the train every morning. “What do you think about?” I asked. “Nothing. I stare mindlessly at the tracks.”

I know that many teachers of meditation will encourage you to empty your mind, but the “mindless” nature of my co-worker’s practice make me think it’s not a contemplative practice.

You can add another level to an activity that seems mindless or just relaxing. For example, gardening is one of my favorite activities and I consider it to be a contemplative practice when I am conscious of an intention of cultivating awareness. I know someone who gardens as a way of developing a stronger connection with God. That’s different from just gardening.

You can do it while sitting quietly, walking in the woods, watching a fire, gazing at the ocean waves or resting on the couch, but you have to move beyond the experience and the moment.