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Tuesday, August 09, 2011

A response to Dave Bonta on poetic form

Photo by Robin Rudd: The Throne of Psyche, 2011.

A reply to Notes on poetic form at Via Negativa

Dear Dave,

I'd say that you are continually finding the forms that suit you, as am I.  I like the way you work, and I don't think that you are on a plateau but are moving on and searching, as you should be.

But to say that does not mean that my use of more or less "set" forms is confining or limiting. All we have to do is look at any major poet in the history of culture to know that is not true (look, say, at blank verse in Shakespeare--or in Wallace Stevens!  He was the first poet to make short blank verse an important part of his work, though I don't think anybody talks about it much. Good thesis topic for some poor graduate student, I suppose.) For me, the way forward demands passing through the tradition, but I am just one person and clearly that is just one thread in the wild pattern of poetry these days. In general, it is a less fashionable thread, of course.

Nor do I think that form means you must stay more "on the surface." It has not meant that for poets in the past, and some human beings are still wanting to pour their words into vessels, to fight with the angel of form to receive a blessing. But because poetry is not taught as it was once taught in childhood or read as often as it was once read, many young poets don't have a sense of the natural shape of a form. But is just as possible to "dive" and to feel "free" and to lodge truth and beauty in an ode or long blank verse as in anything else. I feel liberated when I write in form because for me, form brings surprise and vigor and unexpected connections--and then I can also feel what Whitman or the Modernists felt when I occasionally toss away set form to find my own.

When I listen to the voices out of poetry world, I find that the manifold put-downs of people who write in forms or people who write conceptual poetry or people who write language poetry or flarf or whatever are pursuing the wrong thing. For me, it's not whether a particular kind of poetry is "right" or "wrong." I don't even find that those choices are in the realm of "right" and "wrong." What I care about is whether an individual poem lives and whether words have managed to fountain into the world with a certain vital energy that lasts through re-readings.

It's as in any creation. I want my Adams and Eves of paper to live rather than lie on the floor, inert and never waking. For me, if there is no meaning and no word-pleasure in a writer's work, then it is simply dead leaves.  (Of course, there are some groups of poets who would reject that view entirely--and with those poets I agree to disagree. Some of them would rather not agree to disagree, but that does not bother me either.)

I am glad you write the poetry you write as you write it, and I am glad of your manifold and interesting web self, which I value as much as I value the flesh-you that I met in Wales.  And now I go off to polish fiction.

Good cheer,


  1. Marly, thanks for the response.
    For me, it's not whether a particular kind of poetry is "right" or "wrong." I don't even find that those choices are in the realm of "right" and "wrong."
    Couldn't agree more! Clearly, what one person experiences as confining and tending toward superficial expression will lead to quite the opposite kind of experience for someone else. I believe that basically every educated person should at least dabble in poetry, and that means that there should be as many approaches to the craft as there are types of intellect and personality. I'm glad we live in a time when there are so many options, much as it might be nice to have poetry more valued by society at large. Had I lived back in the Elizabethan period, there's a very good chance I never would've become a poet at all.

  2. Definitely! Unless you were a courtier... Then you might be expected to write a few poems. (Especially if you were hung--night-before-execution poems being a genre of the time.)

  3. Wonderful thoughts on how we write and what poetic form communicates.

  4. Interesting.
    If poetry had NO discernible form but was just a stream of thought, written out as ideas hit, it would still conform to something learned and appreciated or be meaningless to many.
    The tighter the form, the more shape a poem has, I believe.
    I write poetry of the 'stream of thought' variety and simply rely upon the echoes of form that I have heard and read in my life (impossible not to), but if I were a writer, I would utilize everything I could to give shape to my writing. Traditional poetic forms seem to pull shape out of a chaotic landscape.
    Music is similar, 'formless' music can often lead the mind to search for cadences and phrasing that is the language of music that most people understand and relate to.
    The best poetry can utilize poetic form or not. I think of poetic form as artistic punctuation, in many ways. But the beauty of art and literature (and music too) is that rules can make things beautiful (structure) and free expression can be this too.

    On the other hand, I do believe that successful 'formless' (in the traditional sense) poetry will simply be formalized in time too! Where there is no structure, there is no backbone - and things eventually fall apart or grow a backbone!

  5. Hannah,

    Thanks--always glad to hear that you like such a thing since you have thought about it so much yourself.


    I would say that a number of threads in the poetry scene are indeed deliberately made to be meaningless to many (in some cases, to any outside the "club" of those interested in certain l=a=n=g=u=a=g=e poets or flarf and so on) or at least present such barriers to sense-collection that most readers are unwilling to try. In the case of conceptual poetry, the whole enterprise of talking "about" the unreadable book that it entails is simply not interesting to most readers, just as certain Duchamp projects, say, were uninteresting to many viewers. (We seem to be practically a century behind here, but hey--each to his own.)

    I recognize that I have a different slant on the world and on poetry than many, and I don't try to enforce my ideas. On the other hand, I wish they wouldn't bother to try and enforce theirs. So few are listening, and life is brief. When in the kingdom of writing, I don't have time to bother with anything but making my work.

    It is impossible to be utterly formless. If we look at somebody like Whitman, we find someone utterly steeped in the forms of the King James Bible...

    The problem now is that we are getting some poets who are not steeped in anything much. And we even have tongue-in-cheek figures who are willing to extend certain experiments in the visual arts (back to conceptual poetry again) to poetry. I find them often clever in what they say, but the whole project is monumentally boring. Which is a thing they freely and amusingly admit, but that doesn't make it more interesting.

    I do think a writer has, as Leena Krohn said in the article I read today, a duty: "The first obligation of the writer is to write as well as possible. In fact, thinking about it, that is the writer’s only obligation."

    Poets from the last 100 years disagree about what that means more than ever in written history. Other eras have had literary wars over aureate language or use of tropes, but we--we have splintered into endless sects and sub-sects.

  6. Stimulating fare. As I see it, though I do not usually choose to write in set forms, it is exhilarating to try them occasionally. People are always moaning that they need a prompt or something to spur their writing; forms are a ready made prompt. If one could try to write a sonnet of a given sort or, more likely, a more involved, challenging form, one of those French or Italian ones that gives me a headache when I try to keep up with where I'm supposed to repeat this or vary that, I sometimes get felicitous ideas. Of course, I generally end up throwing away the poem, but it may start me on the path to a poem that needs to get written with some of the lines I have come up with.
    The more the merrier--the one or two times I have gotten to teach a workshop, I marveled at the number of personalities and styles that were present just in that room, people who could, if they wished, continue to pursue poetry for life, happily going off in their own directions. And I felt good about it.

  7. Yes, I'm a let a zillion flowers bloom sort of person--let the weeds and wildflowers and garden flowers riot!

  8. Wonderful discussion. "What you're steeped in" is always what you write in response to, or reaction against. The poetry the last couple of generations have been steeped in is nursery rhymes and song lyrics -- I don't know how many free verse poets have confessed to me that "when they rhyme, they sound like Dr Seuss." Well, of course they do. When you pick up any form, the first thing you do is write echoes of what you know in that form. If it's Dr Seuss, or the lyrics to Eleanor Rigby, that's what you're going to sound like, right out of the box. It's not surprising to me that so many poets can't stand the jogtrot and the schmaltz that they dip out of their brains when they first attempt the forms. (Not that I have anything against either Dr Seuss or Lennon-McCartney. But they're a little sticky and syrupy for most adult taste.)

  9. Dale,

    Thanks for interrupting the Great Prose Burnish: I was growing a little tired of it!

    I think that business about Dr. Seuss is very interesting. I'd never thought about the omnipresence of Seuss and how that's almost the only rhyming verse-on-the-page many young men and women have ever encountered. And song lyrics, of course: and a good many of those need the support of music and could not stand alone.

  10. I read a lot of Dickinson between the ages of 8 and ten. I think she was a formative influence on my free verse.

  11. Dave,

    That is interesting. Great thing to read for a boy! I did read a lot of poetry and fiction since my parents were academics (my mother a university librarian), and I owned some big compendiums for kids when I was little. By high school I was hanging out in the university library afternoon and reading a ton of poetry. Browse-and-devour.

    People say that a lot of MFA students are poorly read in anything pre-1900. I don't know, but I wouldn't be surprised after having three kids in public schools first in both the Carolinas and then in New York--there's a real variation in what English teachers introduce, and sometimes kids get to pick for themselves and don't get enough guidance.


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.