Triskaidekaphobia

This word is floating around a lot today, because the fear of the number 13 is built into our history, and that is the definition of that lovely word.

I first became aware of this word about 14 years ago. I was living in Somerville MA, and walking through Harvard Yard most days (to eat, to catch the subway, to meet my new husband) but only once did I take advantage of any of the events on that campus. On a whim I went to listen to a reading by a poet named John Hollander. I went because I had read his excellent book “Rhyme’s Reason” while at university. It was the only time I’d really come across any explanation of the structure of poetry (beyond someone once mentioning that Shakespeare’s sonnets mostly had 14 lines, with this kind of rhyme scheme and that kind of rhythm). Hollander’s little book was written in verse, as living breathing, often humorous examples of what he was trying to teach.

I’ve always like poetry but usually the stuff that rhymed and had rhythm, like a song lyric. I had never heard a poet read his words, live. Hollander, who was something big at Yale at the time, stood in the dusty classroom on a sunny day, in front of 20-30 young folk and read,

The Mad Potter.
Now at the turn of the year this coil of clay
Bites its own tail…

It was like nothing I’d experienced before. By the end of the poem I was on the edge of my seat, excited by the language, the slow, precise reading, the words, the ideas, the beautiful way he had crafted them. I was beyond surprised.

He read a few more things and talked about one of his books, called “Thirteen”. It is made up of sonnets of 13 lines each. There area 169 of them (13 x 13), and sonnets 156-168 (thirteen of them) are called “Thirteen”. “Thirteen” begins:

Triskaidekaphobia across the centuries
Kept us seating one more at the table, even when
The extra one was silly or redundant or gross.
Moreover, the new arrangements — the sexes paired off,
The doubled sevens, the mysteries of ten and four —
Masqueraded as reason, hiding always our fear
Of dangerous and pungent oddments behind the bright
and interesting arrangements that terror had us make.
Like grown-ups now, allowing the black cats to amble
Across our shadows in the forenoon without alarm,
We can at least, in a poor time for discourse, invite
Exactly whom we please, whom we need: it will be right
In a new shape, finished beyond the old comparisons.

It goes on to cover other thirteens and other thoughts and is really worth finding and reading. You can find it in Selected Poetry

In the meantime, enjoy your Friday the Thirteenth.

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