Auld Lang Syne

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

writing in form... oh yes you can

So, here's the thing: without a firmly poured and seasoned foundation, your darned house might just fall down. It's the same with poetry. If you want to break out of form, you must know it, have time in the trenches with it, understand HOW to break it. The "rules" for writing in form help with the framework of any kind of a poem — except perhaps the language poets' work, which does not rely upon rules. I think (no, I BELIEVE), that poetry with formal underskirting is more easily understood by readers because it has a reliability to it that makes it accessible.

I see loads of poems where the poet has no idea at all how rhyme and meter work. I see singsongy rhymes that relegate the poems to predictability, sap, or sentimentality. I see poems where, no matter what, the rhymes end every other line, no matter if the rhymes don't add a thing fresh to the ideas of the poem. I see SO many poets writing to the rhyme, using a dictionary or thesaurus to chart the course of their poems. (yes, these "thesauri-poems" are obvious). I see poems that have no meaning beyond the surface ideas. I see poems with lines that struggle or that falter in length, strength, and music. I see writing that has no music whatsoever, but is simply prose that is chopped into lines and stanzas and called a poem. Oh say it isn't so! We are smarter readers than to fall for these as being universal. Why is it that Whitman, Frost, Keats, and others are still read today? Indeed, because of the firmly poured foundations they used for writing. Many contemporary poets, such as Kay Ryan and David Mason, BH Fairchild, Dorianne Laux, and others, are making use of formalism in their writing no matter how much or little is recognizable in their poems. We remember and admire their poems BECAUSE of the musicality and fresh use of formal strategies.

I am often asked about writing in form, in fact sometimes criticized for doing so by those who think free verse is "modern" or more contemporary, and that form is passé. I had one professor who called writing in form "making it old." The truth is, I write in free verse most of the time, but with a metrical, formal underpinning. It is perhaps why many critics have called my poems "lyrical, musical, smooth, flowing." I am certain that having a firm formalist training and aesthetic, I am in tune with form as I write any kind of poem. It is like the hidden heartbeat underneath the poems I write. I can spot it immediately in others' poems.

It is not that the poets without formal training are bad poets. Not at all. But they are disadvantaged a bit in terms of possibility by their lack of knowledge of some wonderful tools to use in their work. Knowing about feminine endings vs. masculine endings is one thing that often eludes the non-formalist. Knowing about a volta or turn or hinge in a poem, knowing how to make a poem slow down or speed up via line length, knowing how to make rhyme subtle by slanting it, internalizing it — all of these are gifts of grace for the poet that might be available if only the poet had at least STUDIED formal poetry.

And there is a kind of joy that comes from tackling form and finding that a pantoum or a sonnet is not so difficult to at least try. I used to eschew writing sonnets. I was stubborn in my resistance to this form because it seemed so HARD. I came to my senses. I now rather enjoy the form, and definitely enjoy BREAKING or TWEAKiNG the form. I even invented a way to write a sonnet (my broken form is the perfect reversing sonnet).

I now enjoy writing all kinds of forms, will try just about any (recent resistance to Terza Rima now conquered and overcome!). The basis for my willingness to write in form is of course that the elements of form can be used in any kind of poetry I write. I can incorporate elements of a sonnet (the volta for example) into a free verse poem and thus add an element of surprise smoothly into a poem without its seeming jarring or inappropriate. I have the knowledge of the volta and it is now a part of my toolbox for writing. Same is true for meter. I know that iambs and trochees are a part of natural speech. I can vary this for effect by using spondees or anapests. I don't have to be writing form to use these. And knowledge of form makes my use of them both appropriate and timely. I enjoy the heroic couplet. Do I have to be writing an ode to use this? Not at all. I can use a few well-placed heroic couplets for dramatic effect. Or to emphasize something special in a narrative poem, such as dialogue.

My point in all of this is that it seems like a good idea to study formal poetry, that which we grew up hearing from our relatives who memorized poetry and recited it. I think we all need to consider the foundation poured and standing under our poems. Is it shaky? Could it use some reinforcement?

I am NOT suggesting we all take to writing sonnets or ghazals or odes. But why not see if some of the techniques therein are worth incorporating into our poems? It can't hurt to expand ourselves and our repertoires. And remember: once you have mastered a form, you can take it apart at the seams and refashion it for your own use! Go on, do it! Yes... you CAN!

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