The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 507

“Homily” is a free-verse poem written in thirty-five lines with no stanza breaks. The construction of the poem is free from most formal conventions of poetry, including patterned rhyme, rhythm, and meter. Its organization follows the development of the poem’s content, which is aptly described by its title. The term “homily” refers to a sermon often delivered in church to a congregation. The subject of the sermon is often designed to instruct or enlighten the audience for moral or spiritual improvement. In “Homily,” Harrison offers his readers a list of “do’s and don’ts” that escalates through the vices of indulgence in wine, song, pornography, and lust, culminating in the dissolution of the subject as he is torn apart by his desires. Though the persona of this poem could be said to speak to its readers (its congregation), the speaker in “Homily” also appears to be speaking only to himself, as if the reader were listening to someone talking alone in an attempt to find a balanced and moderate middle road in life.

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The poem begins with a statement of “simple rules to live within.” The first image is related to writing with one pen in the morning and another at night. Soon the poem’s imagery moves to the kinds of indulgences that traditional church homilies often spoke against: “avoid blue food and ten-ounce shots/ of whiskey . . .//don’t read/ dirty magazines in front of stewardesses.” The catalog of images includes a number of activities that might prove hazardous to one’s physical health; other images relate to one’s positive mental health. A few of the images are based on stereotypical words of common sense, such as “don’t point a gun at yourself” and “don’t use gas for starter fluid.” The reader is reminded that a balanced life is not as easy as simple choices between right and wrong. Harrison asks, “who can/ choose between the animal in the road/ and the ditch?” These lines suggest that at times the choices one faces may not offer easy alternatives or clear avenues to a decision. Further, the lines imply a situation where the only offered alternatives are to do harm to another (the animal in the road) or to do harm to oneself by avoiding harming the other.

As the poem continues, images become more peculiar and inventive. The catalog of images focuses on the subject of love: self-love, love of another, infatuation, and fantasy. The climax of the poem is the admonition not to “fall in love/ with two at once.” In the final set of lines, the reader is asked to look down upon the person who is now part of a threesome, “though one might be elsewhere.” The person looked down upon from above tears himself apart and whirls in a circle: “he whirls so hard everything he is flies off.” Because of this indulgence, this lack of moderation, the subject crumbles, only to experience the same fate again: “He crumples as paper but rises daily from the dead.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 438

One of the significant features that individualize Harrison’s poetry in comparison to so many of his contemporaries is the lack of consideration he gives to formal constraint. His poems often encapsulate wild flights of the imagination and surreal images that lack any definite closure and that do not demonstrate the least hint that any of the language was constructed in advance. Even when he has written in form, Harrison has most often employed the ghazal, a short series of couplets that allows a “metaphorical leap” from couplet to couplet, thus offering the kind of freedom within the form that Harrison continually appears to seek. He has stated that his tendencies “run hotly to the impure, the inclusive, as the realm of poetry.”

“Homily” demonstrates Harrison’s exuberance and wit as well as his facilities with language. The main device Harrison relies on to create the poem is the blazon, the catalog of images related to a single idea. The blazon supports Harrison’s desire for inclusiveness and helps to develop the tone of dark humor that the poem suggests. The poem is a satire of the homily, a form delivered over many years in church services that, in the cleanest and most socially acceptable language possible, warned churchgoers of their potential for sin. Harrison’s images warn against excess, but the images are so stark, so free of self-consciousness, that the reader can respond to the honesty and authenticity of the lines.

Harrison employs a number of the more common literary devices, including an early pun on the word “snipe” and a late series of similes that concretize the ways in which one might “fall” in love. Harrison’s similes offer heterogeneous comparisons and unusual connections between images whose disparate natures create a high level of energy. There is also a natural cadence to the lines despite the lack of a patterned rhythm or meter. The sound cadences resemble those of speech, as the poem attempts to replicate the building intensity of an orally delivered homily. The sentence patterns employed in the poem are similar, usually consisting of imperatives that, because of their identical structure, create a rhythmic cadence. Though the poem is constructed in lines, conventional patterns of sentence structure and punctuation are used. The opening lines build with images in the longest sentence of the poem, quickening the pace of the reading. After the opening ten lines, sentence lengths vary but are generally relatively short as the poet’s admonitions become more unusual and complex. In addition, the use of comparable phrases embedded within sentences of the poem supports the flowing cadence of the homily.

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Themes