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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Homily” is concerned with the continuing challenge to find balance in life in the face of numerous seductions. Instead of the traditional, socially accepted language and subject matter offered in the church tradition, Harrison uses graphic images of temptations and behaviors that create humor on the surface of the piece. Underlying these comedic aspects, however, Harrison suggests the complexity involved in attempting to live a moderate life.

The poem begins with the relatively easy “rules to live within.” These rules become habits that allow for a structured life. In addition to practicing certain kinds of habitual behavior, the speaker of the poem offers a few of the more obvious rules related to dangerous behavior, variations on the clichés most young people are told as they are growing up. The poem creates humor by employing more distinctive images of those things to avoid, including “blue food and ten-ounce shots/ of whiskey.” The theme of the poem moves from a foundation of the basic principles of practicing positive behavior as an outcome of good habits and avoiding negative behavior by practicing common sense.

As the poem continues to develop, Harrison complicates the theme by introducing choices that are less easily defined and less easy to make. The poem moves to those experiences that are healthy and positive at a certain level but become increasingly dangerous with excess. The poet insists that dangers are not always a result of the kind of choice that has been made; they are sometimes a result of the degree to which one engages in these behaviors. Food is a life-giving necessity at one level and an unhealthy danger if consumed in overabundance. The imagination is a wonderful invention, but fleeing from real experience to a solely imagined life leads to misery. After the right choices are made, one must be on guard against excess to live a balanced life.

The continuing tension between the free will of choices and the fatalism of what happens builds to an...

(The entire section is 506 words.)