Why Grappling with Form is the Gateway to Beauty (With Thoughts From a Guest)

“We live in an age increasingly unaware of the power of its own expression. . .”               Todd Anderson

Speaking from experience, I think I can say with a fairly sure degree of accuracy that many people treat poetry like small children treat food – eat what you know, avoid what you don’t. But while hanging around home base might seem like a safe bet, if you never make friends with pickles, you will never get acquainted with relish; without an armistice with anchovies, you will only ever endure Caesar salads. To avoid pursuing those endeavors, like poetry, which require some degree of courage, will ensure you live a rather tepid life subsisting on cheese sandwiches and Peek Freans.

In short, exposure to the literary world outside your door (in sonnets, limericks and odes as it relates to poetry) ensures that you will not return to your hole under the hill the same hobbit that left.

As I’ve explained in a previous post, artistic forays into the meager wells of self-expression do not automatically result in crystal clear H2O. In fact, quite often the opposite. It’s one thing to say you’ve at least attempted to wield established forms and still haven’t quite found a medium that does what you want it to; in that case you may well be on the road to true innovation! But I think I’m standing on fairly solid ice when I say these instances should be the exception. Today however, we have made beauty working through form an anomaly rather than the rule and, as Todd will mention, when convention takes priority, artistic expression (not to mention everything else) will sink the easiest, infinitely less savory, denominator.

Honestly the following thoughts should probably be integrated into some kind of academic journal and not hung out in a slum the likes of which you find ‘round these parts, but I guarantee if you take time to read and work through the following, you will be rewarded.

Poetry is utterance in contention with form.  

Let me unpack this statement.  From the oldest songs of the Greeks by the blind Bard to the raunchy ballads of the troubadours to the most implacable scraps of contemporary English poetry, the Western tradition is replete with authors who wrestled with the formulation of language.  It begins (and is even used today) as words set to music, migrates to inscription and monument as language begins to take hold, and explodes into its own at the advent of manuscript (and eventually print).  Poetry, uttered in these three fundamental ways (song, inscription, writing) has always struggled, striven, and stretched the forms it encountered. The rhythms of music bend words to specific qualities and lend a cadence to speech.  Over time, poets gradually adapted themselves, and their words, to fit choice musical settings; words were sometimes shortened, altered, re-arranged, or otherwise structured in new ways in order to harmonize the two forms.  All poetic conventions grow up out of these simple roots.  

Convention communicates the idea of a “body” or “gathering” – that is, an agreed upon standard by which one might pursue an artistic endeavor.  Critics speak of the conventions of “epic poetry”, for example, which is based on the rhythm of the Greek dactylic hexameter line and subject matter of cosmic import.  It includes a rich tradition of allusion, vivid description, and invocations of a Muse.  The convention of vivid description (or ekphrasis) shows up in other poetic modes, like the sonnet.  In this case, the poet is less concerned to describe in detail the armor of a heroic warrior, and more interested in a lavish depiction of a lover’s eye or lips.

Much poetry has been written explicitly against such conventions.  This is one of the reasons why the statement, “poetry is utterance in contention with form” is so appealing: it grasps the tension exerted by poets of all ages to wrestle language into new or alternative forms.  As much as some poets attempts to eschew formal elements (contemporary poetry, for example, avoids strict metrical length, plays with spacing on the page, and experiments with multi-media approaches to utterance), every new attempt to “write poetry” (however conceived) involves a straining against form.  The implicit argument each poet sews into his or her work is that their work can be conventionalized.  

What does this mean?  

Only that poetry is also public – it possesses and is possessed by an audience – in addition to being private, and any transaction between public and private includes an appeal to convention (however subtle).  If your work is so idiosyncratic as to be completely unintelligible (perhaps it is a rhymed tetrameter rendering of stalactites growing in a cave, but set to your own code language made up entirely of pixilated variations of the letter ‘Q’), you will not have an audience for very long; but the salient point is that you would still be wrestling with questions of form.  In this case, your formal elements have utterly defeated the publicity of your piece, and therefore entirely closed off your work within the private sphere.

Form, therefore, is not merely important; it is already present at the moment of composition.  But also present is the concerns of the audience – which are inclined to accept and reject certain conventions with regard to their consumption of poetry.  Music and poetry are still a dynamite team in contemporary society.  But the poetry portion is highly conventionalized, even with the plethora of genres.  Try writing a popular song that doesn’t rhyme.  At the same time, poets laboring to produce work that has a similar effect without the aid of music are inclined to pursue the Romantic vision of a writer who produces a taste for their work (as Wordsworth said).  Or, with the explosion of the internet, coupled together with a sense of urgent friendship (that is, the pressure to affirm whatever our “friends” are doing, however we define the term) there is a rise of a generation of poets clamoring for prizes and approval.  On top of this, we might consider the rise of identity poetics, which is a heightened attention to the Romantic vision of the self, except condensed into a smaller, increasingly fraught framework.  These too are “forms” that contend with utterances.

Perhaps the worst advice that could be offered to an artist keen to express their ideas is an adherence to specialism of form.  This will have the unpleasant effect of framing the budding poet’s encounters with other modes of expression in idiosyncratic terms.  And this is the current (though perhaps unacknowledged) pulse of contemporary idiom, summed up by the disarming phrase: “write what you know.”  Rather: “read what you don’t know”.  Put another way, it is much better to show would-be poets the range and effect of many kinds of poetry, from extremely structured forms like the Villanelle to the unhinged free verse of today.  Sip a sonnet.  Observe an ode.  Prance in a pastoral.  Endure an elegy.  More than this: try different formal elements; experiment with alliteration (check out Middle English poems like the Morte d’Arthur for a taste), try different lengths of feet.  Chew on the import of trochees for those used to Iambs.  Get your muzzle into every style.  Read things out loud; read them softly.  In short, recognize that form is always tied to utterance; it is always stretched and stretching our use of language.  To ignore it is to remain a fool in poetic terms, always returning to the same tropes, meters, idioms, and images.  To grasp it is to grip the power of expression itself, for we will begin to see that an ode can do something that a limerick cannot.  We will notice that rhyme serves well for some topics or moods, but makes a mockery of others.  

We live in an age increasingly unaware of the power of its own expression, and it is largely due to an abandonment of any knowledge of the import of this statement: poetry is utterance in contention with form.  

If you want to connect with Todd, you’ll most likely find him saddled up with lute and song just over the hill at The Angled Eye Tavern. Tell him I sent you – If he doesn’t spit in your eye, he might just tell you a tale.

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