Paradox with Dream vs. Reality

For poetry lovers, we’re going to start up a series of blogs, Poetry Lessons, guest-hosted by Emily R. Dunn of Writers Ink Books.  Visit our page on every multiple of 7 (7th, 14th, 21st, and 28th) to see which poem has inspired a lesson in thinking and writing. 

This lesson is about “Counting Stars,” written by Ryan Tedder and performed by OneRepublic.

“Stars” symbolically means “goals that we hope to accomplish, goals we cannot reach.”  To count stars is to look at the dreams we have and contrast it with the reality we face.


Lyrics for “Counting Stars” can be found here.  (The music video, while “interesting”, defaults to the trite Hollywood criticism of religion.  This song is not about religion–unless it is how we can become so devoted to dreams or materialism.) Click this link > Lyrics

The opening chorus presents that the young couple is just starting out.  The persona is “dreaming about the things that we could be”.  The goals that they have set are money-based;  this is the reason he wants to abandon “counting dollars”.  They need to re-cast their goals into something that is not dependent on money.

Verse I

Dreams are like a “swinging vine”, one of those that we jump on to send us into the river of life–life, not mere existence, freedom, not slavery to the dollar.  The persona wants to jump on that vine, but “flashing signs” are warning him to stop, re-consider, change.  The biblical allusion of “seek it out and ye shall find” serves as a prod to pursue the dream he wants.

As the verse continues, he reflects that he is “old but I’m not that old”.  This contrast seems impossible, yet it presents the mistakes he’s made.  He is experienced (old) but young in years;  life has tossed him around, yet he’s still trying.

“Young but I’m not that bold”:  his turbulent experiences that matured him at such a young age also have warned him not to continue ahead recklessly, an idea reinforces with the practical wisdom of others: “I’m just doing what we’re told”.  Should they follow that practical wisdom?  Counting dollars has helped others get close to something that somewhat resembles their dreams.  Should they continue?  Or should they count the stars and cast off their original dream?  The line “I don’t think the world is sold” appears to say “yes” to the second question.  But “thinking” doesn’t mean reality;  the world is corrupted by the pursuit of the almighty dollar.

Which leads us to the three paradoxes that make this song so clever:

“I feel something so right by doing the wrong thing

I feel something so wrong by doing the right thing

. . . Every thing that kills me makes me feel alive.”

How can we feel such excitement when we do the wrong things while feeling “wrong” (saddened, depressed, caged) when we do the right things?  That adrenaline rush we get when we break society’s rules makes us take risks to “be burned up with beauty”, as Don Marquis informed us in “The Lesson of the Moth” (previous blog).  We want to feel alive, so we recklessly abandon good sense to pursue that beauty.

These paradoxes are his truth.  He could lie to himself and to her, but he won’t.

Verse II

The paradoxes help us understand that the couple must abandon “counting dollars” and a practical existence in order to achieve their starry goals.  And they have to pursue those goals actively.

Which leads us to “Hope is our four-letter word”.  Four-letter words are curse words;  to this couple, hope is a curse.  If they merely “hope” instead of taking action, if they merely dream instead of believe, if they merely dream instead of taking action, their dreams will gradually fade in their pursuit of the dollars that they mistakenly think will lead them to their goals.

Which leads us to the new paradox:  “Everything that drowns me makes me wanna fly.”

The daily pursuit of dollars drowns us, drowns our dreams, drowns our souls.  He recognizes the crisis they are in, and he realizes they must flee from any practical goal that society approves.

The repetitive lines of the bridge serve as the final reinforcement to abandon society’s perspective:

“Take that money watch it burn / Sing in the river the lessons I learned”.

Pursue a life of personal goals, not society’s goals.  Give up the drowning focus of practical living.

This isn’t logical, but . . . where is logic in the pursuit of dreams and love?  Jump into the river.  Pursue life.  Stop hoping and do.

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Resolutions

Over at Writers Ink Books, M. A. Lee is finishing off a series of blogs entitled New Advent and concerned with how to begin to think like a writer.  For the New Year, her blog is “Be Resolved”.

For poetry lovers, we’re going to start up a series of blogs, Poetry Lessons, guest-hosted by Emily R. Dunn of Writers Ink Books.  Visit our page on every multiple of 7 (7th, 14th, 21st, and 28th) to see which poem has inspired a lesson in thinking and writing.

Our first lesson is Don Marquis’ “Lesson of the Moth”.

The New Year:  a time of reflection, of re-charging, of resolving.

Whenever we analyze our lives, we consider our dreams and strive to turn those dreams into goals.

On my wall I have “Dream.  Believe.  Do.”

In “Lesson of the Moth,” the philosophizing bug archy also considers dreams.  As a bug, archy can’t use the shift key to create capital letters, and he ignores punctuation.  Read on to see what archy learned from another bug.

The Lesson of the Moth

i was talking to a moth
the other evening
he was trying to break into
an electric light bulb
and fry himself on the wires

why do you fellows
pull this stunt i asked him
because it is the conventional
thing for moths or why
if that had been an uncovered
candle instead of an electric
light bulb you would
now be a small unsightly cinder
have you no sense

plenty of it he answered
but at times we get tired
of using it
we get bored with the routine
and crave beauty
and excitement
fire is beautiful
and we know that if we get
too close it will kill us
but what does that matter
it is better to be happy
for a moment
and be burned up with beauty
than to live a long time
and be bored all the while
so we wad all our life up
into one little roll
and then we shoot the roll
that is what life is for
it is better to be a part of beauty
for one instant and then cease to
exist than to exist forever
and never be a part of beauty
our attitude toward life
is come easy go easy
we are like human beings
used to be before they became
too civilized to enjoy themselves

and before i could argue him
out of his philosophy
he went and immolated himself
on a patent cigar lighter
i do not agree with him
myself i would rather have
half the happiness and twice
the longevity

but at the same time i wish
there was something i wanted
as badly as he wanted to fry himself

The structure of this poem helps to emphasize Marquis’ words.  And I’m not talking about his gimmick with archy.  Sometimes writers resort to gimmicks to get their ideas to the public, and Marquis certainly caught the public’s attention with his buggy archy and unusual capitalization and punctuation, much as e.e. cummings did.

What structure am I talking about?

The beauty of free verse is how lines can be manipulated to focus on certain words.

In stanza 2, the anaphora for “and crave beauty / and excitement” helps emphasize the moth’s desire.

Touches of alliteration throughout keep us focused on that desire: “close / kill”, “be / burned / beauty”, “live / long” and “be / bored” and “better / beauty”.

The reversed anastrophe “come easy go easy” reinforces the moth’s backward thinking:  he doesn’t think like humans do now but as humans “used to”.

Contrasting “half the happiness and twice / the longevity” through the math of the line returns us to the logical human way of looking at things.

Yet look at the last stanza, specifically the two lines that end with “i wish / i wanted”.  Here is archy’s own desire, cast at the end of the line.

“Lesson of the Moth” looks simple, but it is carefully crafted.

Play with anaphoras, alliteration, and anastrophes as you write both free verse and pure verse.  Your poems will tighten up structurally as well as begin to focus your ideas.

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