Sunday, May 11, 2008

Preparing to Teach Poetic Forms

Nine more days before the start of my New York Writers Workshop class, and I have four sign-ups. The class needs six to run, so I'm casting around for ways to make the numbers. I've sent out pest emails, posted on craigslist, blanketed Cornelia Street Cafe with homemade flyers for three Fridays, recruited friends to spread the word, and left a flyer with the neighborhood falafel shop.

Preparing for the first class on sonnets, I remembered Molly Peacock's lovely poem about the shoulders of women, a sonnet as it turned out. I read it first in Raw Heaven, and liked it still more when I read it again in her Cornucopia: New and selected poems.

The Shoulders of Women

The shoulders of women are shallow, narrow,
and thin compared to the shoulders of men,
surprisingly thin, like the young pharaohs
whose shoulders in stick figures are written
on stones, or bony as the short gold wings
of cranes on oriental screens. Lord, how
surprising to embrace the shortened stirrings
of many bones in their sockets above breasts! Now
what I expect, since I’ve long embraced men,
is the flesh of the shoulder and the cave
of the chest and I get neither—we’re so small.
Unwittingly frail and unknowing and brave
like cranes and young kings, the shoulders of women
turn to surprise and surprise me again with all
their gestures of renewal and recall.

A 15-line sonnet, with a turn after the octave, and a concluding couplet. I like to think the additional line makes this a bony sonnet.

The sonnet, in Cornucopia, is a subset of the dominant form. Most of the poems are written in one block, rhyming ababcdcd etc. When I first encountered this, I was excited about a poet's discovery of a flexible personal form in which to communicate a range of experience. But even during that first reading, I felt relieved when Peacock broke out of that mould to write longer and more varied poems. Sometimes the mould just does not fit the experience, and, when the experience is pressed into the mould, it sticks out in awkward enjambment and rhyme.

The problem is not merely one of craft, I think, for Peacock's craft is evident and subtle. The problem seems to lie in the identification of a particular poetic form as one's signature style. After a while, the form feels less like a map and more like a manner. The same feeling came to me when I was reading Kay Ryan's poems in POETRY, a while back. Having enjoyed The Niagara River, especially her deft handling of short line and sly rhymes, I was disappointed when I came upon the same lyric form in the POETRY poems. To individuate oneself by implementing an individual style (here, most concretely, in a poetic form): such an undertaking looks too limiting to me, and speaks too solemnly. It is missing the wit that, for me, characterizes the use of poetic form. Wit acknowledges that, great though poetry is, greater are we and the world.

Peacock and Ryan have distinguished poetic forebears in this drive to individuate one's style, most obviously, Whitman and Dickinson. Whitman was path-breaking, but often I don't want to follow him down the long and winding path of his lists; I get bored. Dickinson stuck to the hymn stanza, and made many great poems, and many not-so-great ones. Her ellipses, dashes and gaps can be read as ways of overcoming the limitations of using the same form: they punch a hole in the wall to look out into eternity; they crack the floorboard holding up the poem; but they also risk the shock of, not electricity, but eccentricity.

When I think of the English poets who use the same poetic form for at least a stretch of their career, the form is not individual, but of an age. Pope and the heroic couplet. Shakespeare and the sonnet. The English poets who migrated to America also did not feel the compulsion to individuate their style by means of a particular poetic form. Auden and Gunn used traditional forms but did not make any one a signature. The signature cannot be in a form--I can forge my own signature by copying it on tracing paper--but in the spirit animating each time I sign off.


eothen said...

That shoulder sonnet is gorgeous. i'm gonna be looking at shoulders differently from now on. Thanks for the introduction to Molly Peacock.

i'm wondering about the line between having a signature style, and falling into an artistic rut. i've got a hangup about artistic renewal and innovation - i'd rather see an artist try something new and fail than just stick to the same-old successful same-old. How do the great writers do it - the ones who manage to keep that element of freshness and surprise in their work, while still having an identifiable *signature*? It's got to have something to do with 'the spirit animating each time I sign off', as you put it. i'm thinking about how this works out in music - Beethoven always sounds like Beethoven, but he was pushing the boundaries of musical form etc all the way till the end, composing sonatas for pianos that had not yet been manufactured... Perhaps that's it: formal and technical innovations, together with a characteristic 'spirit' or 'feel' or 'sound' (whatever the word is) that is unfortunately very difficult to distil in words?


Patricia Markert said...

What you say about Dickinson's ellipses, dashes and gaps-- that they "punch a hole in the wall to look out into eternity..." is brilliant.


Jee Leong Koh said...

Hi Rui,
I think one can only try to keep pushing the envelope (to use a cliche). The identifying spirit rises from the life.

Jee Leong Koh said...

Thanks, Patty. A lucky metaphor.

Eshuneutics said...

An interesting post. But is it true? Or is the truth really in the generalisation? I can think of contemporary voices (this side of the Pond) that contradict your conclusions. A fine poet, like Andrew Waterman, in "Out for the Elements", wrote using Pushkin's formal stanzas. That was not a product of an Age. Aguiar also has written sustained sequences of poems using set stanzaic forms, which (again) are not products of an Age. Could it not also be argued that the signature can be in the form? The sestina certainly bears the signature of Arnaut Daniel. The signature is not available to the diluters, as Pound would say, to those who follow the originators. And what of free-verse? There are poets, in the UK and USA, that are as derivative in their free-verse as the sonneteers. Free-verse is very much of an Age could it be argued that a lot of this does not bear the signature of the poet?
Much USA free-verse, to my ear, is as dead as the metric of many who use set forms. It is a complex debate indeed. And fascinating!

Jee Leong Koh said...

Hi eshuneutics,
Thanks for your thoughts on this. I have not read Waterman nor Aguiar, but from your description of both they don't seem to be attempting to individuate their style by using a single new poetic form. In my post I am describing poets who innovate a particular form and then stick to it as their signature. I find that limiting. My examples of Whitman and Dickinson make it clear that such a strategy can yield great poems, but it can also lead to bad ones, or bad parts of one. Of course one can argue that bad poems can be written while pursuing other strategies too. I am not familiar with the work of Arnaut Daniel either, but surely he wrote in other forms besides originating the sestina. If he did, then he does not belong to the category I describe: poets who define themselves in terms of a particular poetic form. Free verse, to my mind, is not a form. The label describes too many kinds of verse, and so does not serve the individuating function some American poets wish poetic form to serve.

Eshuneutics said...

Poets who only write in one form. I see. That would be a rather select group then :-) Wasn't free-verse conceived as a form by Pound?

What about looking at this another way? There are poets who wrote in a variety of forms, then settled on one. Dante... triple rhyme, Milton, blank verse, HD, trines, Pound, free-verse (which has defined structural techniques)...did this in anyway limit their poetry? The Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, Trilogy, The Cantos? I am not sure that writing in a form that has become a mental syntax is confining. In some ways they produced greater poetry than poets who chop and change and are limited by an ignorance of form.