Thursday, 12 January 2006

Relaxed Forms

Why do we have forms? Perhaps they have their origin in song, or at least the oral tradition. Some common reasons given are

  • to control strong emotion - thus making the message more restrained and powerful. Elegies are often in a form.
  • to generate a pattern of expectation/release - once readers have identified the form they will have certain expectations. The writer can exploit these expections, fulfilling them or raising the tension.
  • because form matches the content - Historically, certain forms are considered appropriate for certain types of poetry - a haiku-like experience is best cast as a haiku

Some writers use standard forms as templates - starting points from which to wander. For other writers the standard forms are attractors - if a draft is beginning to acquire some sonnet-like features, the poet will steer the poem in a sonnet direction. Either attitude can lead to poems which are loosely formal.

Sonnets, like other forms, have definitions that offer some flexibility - for example, it's common to have "substitutions" (deviations from the usual iambic). Such variations break the monotony of metronomic iambs. However, if too many rules are flouted, readers may challenge the description of the piece as a sonnet, even if no explicit claim is made.

The amount of accepted flexibility varies according to fashion, form and readers. E.g. it's commonly accepted nowadays that a Villanelle needn't have exact repetition, but an Acrostic needs to be precise. Some readers judge poems partly by their loyalty to the standard form, and look upon deviation as regrettable: acceptable only if compensated for by good imagery, etc. For others, standard forms are just reference points on a landscape that provide a useful way to help describe a poem's format. Factors in reader responses include

  • How highly readers value naturalness - The artifice/naturalness debate sharpened during the Romantic Age (Wordsworth's "Nuns Fret Not at Their Convent's Narrow Room"; Keat's "On the Sonnet") and was further strengthened with the emergence of "Organic Form". Some people think of forms as being restrictive, mechanical, and anti-democratic. Free verse is seen as an expression of freedom or rebellion. Those who distrust form see it as an obstruction between the reader and the content. At best a formal poem is like a formal garden - it may look ok but it's not natural, it's not the real thing.
  • How mimetic readers think form should be - the pure organicist believes that a poem should never compromise content to fulfill the demands of a predetermined form: form should emerge from content. Valery etc thought that sound and sense were independent factors, so maybe form and sense can be independent too.
  • How reader assess visual layout - The traditional formalist look upon form as a metrical and auditory reality, never merely a typographic one. For them, adding line-breaks merely to affect appearance is questionable, except in "shape" poems.
  • How genre-orientated the reader is - some readers begin by contextualising (or even classifying) the text.


Here are some examples of how poets deal with form

  • Larkin - Larkin's conversational tone helped keep his forms unobtrusive. His rhymes commonly become truer towards a poem's end - deviations from the standard form are controlled and carefully positioned. Form and content interact.
  • A.R. Ammons - Ammons said of his stanzas that "Some of them look like purposely regular stanzas and some don't. ... But in some of them there is the random", In some of his long poems, form is reduced to mere format, the shape on the page. Ammons claims that thereby "The emphasis has shifted from the ends of the lines ... towards the left-hand margin." "both ends are being played against a middle... so that a downward pull is created". Cushman ("Fictions of Form in American Poetry", p.168) says that "Unlike Williams, Ammons does not try to defend that artificiality with a rhetoric of traditional organicism ... He ... flaunts the artificiality of form". Cushman suggests that for Ammons regularity is a given, a tradition, that's amenable to local variation. Form's a supple lattice on which words can climb and cling. "In Ammon's hands, the stanza format is an instrument of humor, parody, playfulness, figuration, self-description, and poetic revision", p.173.
  • Catherine Smith - Many of Catherine Smith's poems comprise box-shaped stanzas, all with the same number of lines (2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 13 in one book alone). But for the lines all being about the same width, they have little else in common - counting beats, letters, syllables or words, there's no pattern. There's no surprise/satisfaction because there's little expectation. Any intended end-line effects are diluted by the random ones. Another example of flaunting artificiality?
  • Sinéad Morrissey - The title poem of her most recent book ("The State of the Prisons") has 6 sections of 6 stanzas, each of 6 lines. Why? Who cares? The lines are any old length, and though the rhyme scheme's based on an ABBCAC pattern, some of the line-endings deviate far from this: "remains/harm/return/fell/days/well", "success/along/nation/channel/flesh/irrecoverable", "stop/it/intolerance/midnight/Pomp/light" etc. David Morley in the Guardian said that her strengths include "her formal risk, not least the outrageousness and enchantment of her rhymes, but also the occasional pushed-to-the-brink line-lengths, some of which feel like walking the plank with the eye. You have to trust her".
  • John Kinsella - Line Breaks and Back-Draft: Not a Defence of a Poem

My problem

Write a sonnet, and you drag sonnet's tradition behind you - your poem will be read in the context of the tradition. A poet should expect this reaction from readers when using forms. The tradition changes though, and the sonnet changes. Readers with different experiences will have a range of expectations when faced with formal works

I don't value naturalness or visual layout. If form and content don't combine, I think form should at least contribute something. I'm also genre-orientated. This leads to some problem scenarios

  • (Form/Content) - Random, arbitrary form without some random, arbitrary content seems a mismatch that the poet's too often unaware of. Box-shaped stanzas aren't a neutral vanilla default for me, they're a choice. Perhaps making a "poem-shaped" poem is a statement in itself I suppose, like a contemporary artist using rectangular canvas and oils.
  • (Expectation/Release) - Trouble arises for me when there's enough sonic regularity to assume an underlying pattern, but the deviations from this pattern seem randomly distributed, in a way that's unrelated to the content and more related to how hard it is to find a word that rhymes. If a sonnet has one end-word that doesn't rhyme it's reasonable to assume there's a reason for it. But suppose 2 end-words don't rhyme, or 4 - how many deviations need there be before I should stop treating them as expressive variations? In trying to read the deviations as significant and expressive, I end up feeling thwarted, let-down.

Of course, rhyme, consonance etc need not be used regularly at line-endings. Some poets scatter their effects. However, whereas in a sonnet a poet can defend the use of a rhyme because it's required by the form, in free-form poetry, each inner rhyme is potentially a jangling, jarring, tell-tale sign of the poet's wooden ear. Patches of regular rhythm are like iambic eddies in otherwise "natural", conversational flow. Writers of hybrid free form poetry sometimes fall into a rhythm and rhyme, then just as easily fall out of it without considering the reader reaction. When people say that "free verse" is harder to write than formal verse, perhaps this is partly what they mean.

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