Notes on poetic form

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

One of the most interesting things that Marly Youmans said in our conversation for the Woodrat podcast was that she began using form in poetry as a consequence of writing prose fiction, because she wanted to make her poems as unlike prose as possible. She also said she liked how trying to find words to fit set rhyme schemes and meters pushed poems in unexpected directions. These two statements have forced me to analyze my own approach to poetry a little bit — in particular, why I still prefer nonce forms or free verse, and why I so quickly get bored whenever I try to write in established forms.

Marly’s right: the discipline of adhering to a strict form can enforce more creative responses. In a way, I encounter something like this every day when I try to fit a lyrical observation into 140 or fewer characters for The Morning Porch. On rare occasions when I’ve dabbled with end-rhyming forms, I have been entertained by some of the odd directions in which this can take a poem. But I’ve also been frustrated by the necessity of abandoning other, equally odd and perhaps more fruitful directions because I couldn’t find a rhyme word. The results have tended to leave me with mixed feelings: they are fun to read, for sure, but they also stay somewhat more on the surface than I like.

Of course, one person’s depth is another person’s shallows, and I make no claim to profundity in any absolute sense. But the fact remains that I write poems first and foremost to discover what I am thinking. Writing a poem involves a kind of extremely attentive listening, in which, ideally, every word and every phrase should be questioned: Is this really the optimal way to express the idea taking shape in my mind? And rhythm and sound are absolutely key. Often, I’ll know I need to end a breath with a one- or two-syllable word, but not which one. Quite often, too, the right word is the one with the best assonance and/or alliteration with its predecessors.

This is one of the most pleasurable and surprising — and perhaps also troubling — things about writing, to me: how the best-sounding words and phrases are also those that seem most right. One sees this of course in political and other forms of discourse, as well: how often our supposed search for meaning in fact brings us under “the spell of the sensuous,” to quote philosopher David Abrams’ resonant phrase.

I don’t know if what I write could be considered free verse or not — I’ve never taken a poetry class — but I do know it is anything but undisciplined. I often go out of my way not to include end-rhymes, either rearranging the lines to hide them, or else thinking up other words in their stead. I don’t want my poems to be song-like and melodic; I want them to sound more like the 20th-century classical music I grew up with, with relatively few repeating figures and lots of pleasing dissonances. I’m not saying I always achieve this, of course, but it’s what I strive for:


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