Poets, like infants, relish sounds for their own sake. Poetry is a superior form of babbling.
I suppose I should confess that I am something of a Christianized Platonist when it comes to the topic of poetic forms. This is no doubt an odd claim to make on several levels. To begin with, Plato at times expresses a vigorous suspicion towards poetry and the poets of his own day. In his seminal work, The Republic, Plato says that “there is an old quarrel between philosophy and poetry.” To put the argument in a nutshell: poets are mere “imitators” while philosophers seek the truth behind all appearances. In addition, like music, poetry has the dangerous potential of stirring the emotions, distorting “the truth” and disrupting both reason and calm of soul. Nevertheless, I find Plato’s basic notion of eternal/transcendent forms informing the essences of various physical objects to be provocative. In the “Christianized Platonism” of a scholar like Catherine Pickstock, this has ramifications for both art and liturgical practice: “In the Phaedrus, Plato portrays the transcendence of the good, its beyond presence-and-absence, as a kind of contagion, for its plentitude spills over into immanence, in such a way that the good is revealed in the beauty of physical particulars.” (Pickstock 1998, 12)
Perhaps Plato intuited an organic order in nature and in our own bodies that scientists have since confirmed: down to our very DNA, we are inscribed beings “written” in a code/text that is partial to order and replication. Do I believe there is some eternal and perfect form of a sonnet that all earthly sonnets are a shadow of? Not really. But I do believe that we are pattern making and pattern seeking creatures, and poetic forms are one way of participating in that long and precious inheritance. That inheritance spills over into all aspects of human culture. As Plato has Socrates say in the Symposium, “everything that is responsible for creating something out of nothing is a kind of poetry; and so all the creations of every craft and profession are themselves a kind of poetry, and everyone who practices a craft is a poet.” (Cooper 1997, 488)
For most of my vocation as a poet, I have described myself as a “half assed” formalist. I am no Richard Wilbur, Timothy Steele, or A.E. Stallings in terms of skill, but my poems tend to be at least “formalish”, a phrase coined by my fellow Colorado poet-pal Wendy Videlock. For me, it is mostly the convention of rhyme and sometimes loosely metered (but still very orderly) stanzas that I have enjoyed employing in my work to date. But trying to adhere more strictly to a received poetic form has had exciting consequences. What some poets experience as undue restriction is for others a playing field upon which excellence is achieved only by exercising creativity within the established parameters that govern the game. It is the very boundaries or “rules” that make the game possible in the first place. Regarding his despair over much that goes for “postmodern” free verse poetry today, the Catholic poet and scholar James Matthew Wilson writes the following:
I do not call poets to reassume the chains or nets of formal verse as if commanding their return to slavery. Rather, I insist that grammar is essential to poetry because it offers real freedom, in the same way our speech offers us more freedom than the grunts of a hog or the barks of a dog…Metrical verse offers poets the only kind of freedom that actually exists: the freedom to be determined. (Wilson 2015, 115)
This is a sentiment that goes against much of the American/individualist ethos which is to be as undetermined (or “free”) as possible in all things, including poetry. But all art has its history and conventions, and to be an artisan, one must first be an apprentice. Those who don’t spend some time learning their “forms” first will most likely find that their own poetic innovations lack even the surface enchantment of a decent limerick. And so, learning the technical aspects of received poetic forms is a necessary, if sometimes challenging, practice. As Timothy Steele concedes, while poetry cannot be reduced to its technical forms, “Its rules can be imparted logically. It is even possible to indicate ways in which those rules support and fuse with the more elusive property of genius. And if it is true that technique without genius is arid, it is no less the case that genius without technique is often unfocused, diffuse, and self-defeating.” (Steele 1999, 22) It also bears mentioning that if poetry is to speak to an audience larger than other poets, it behooves us to recognize that outside of the academy the favorite poems of those in the “general public” are often those that still employ rhyme and formal structures of some sort (this is especially true if one also includes the popularity of Rap music and lyrics…where a high density of rhymes and alliteration continue to be highly prized). Bruce Bond, a truly prolific poet and now retired professor of English at the University of North Texas, has written a wide variety of both free and formal verse. As a guitarist/musician, he also brings an interesting perspective to the tension between received poetic forms and rhyme on the one hand with the restless novelty of form (or formlessness?) sought by more experimental poets:
Far from suppressing spontaneity and imaginative play, formal symmetries open up possibilities of musical surprise. As any good jazz musician knows, too much change is boring: in a world where anything can happen we’re hardly surprised when anything does. It takes recurrence to raise expectation and so then artfully to break it. Not only does rhyme tolerate difference, it requires it. (Bond 2015, 93)
Poetry and song are closely related in human history. Poetry obviously predates literacy, and it is easy to imagine our human ancestors chanting poems around a campfire to ensure a successful hunt or harvest. In my own development as a writer, poems and lyrics/music have been closely intertwined. My discovery of Bob Dylan as a teenager was the first time I remember feeling like song lyrics could approach the status of literature. My own poems tend to be “musical” in nature, including rhyme and usually foregrounding a lyrical “I” just as my song lyrics favor rhyme and a first-person perspective. And I have always loved stories and narrative as well…two elements that poetry and song (especially ballads) often share. In fact, “the ballad came to poetry from song. It is a form found in every language, every country, every culture. Its shape, structure, and rhetoric are all defined by its roots in the oral tradition.” (Strand and Boland 2000, 74)
Of course, despite their similarities, there are important differences between page poetry and song lyrics. Even though many of my poems favor a strong element of order and closure, they also tend to be a bit more loose in their expression of both meter and metaphors than my song lyrics typically are. Poems, even those written in a received form, often feel less circumscribed to me than most song lyrics do, even when the poems have more compression or “condensery.” To state it bluntly, poems make their own music while song lyrics usually need the addition of music to come to full life. Put another way, “a song’s poetry is better heard than seen—or rather, better seen and heard together.” (Bradley, 2017, 13) Other than the ballad form, it has been my experience that just adding music to a poem (unadapted) is very challenging work and can often feel forced. As the great musical theater composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim reflects:
Poems depend on packed images, on resonance and juxtaposition, on density. Every reader absorbs a poem at his own pace, inflecting it with his own rhythms, stresses, and tone…Music straitjackets a poem and prevents it from breathing on its own, whereas it liberates a lyric. Poetry doesn’t need music; lyrics do. (Sondheim 2010, xvii)
The thing about writing formal poetry well is to do so without the poem itself becoming overly formulaic. What the poet wants the poem to “say” and how the poem ends up being “said” are both part of a dialectic in which the finished object is a synthesis of both. In my view, all good poems have a form of some sort, whether received or invented. As Denise Levertov once told an interviewer: “My notion of organic form is really based on the idea that there is a form in all things—that the artist doesn’t impose form upon chaos, but discovers hidden intrinsic form—and on the idea that poems can arrive at their form by means of the poet’s attentive listening.” (Brooker 1998, 10) I would add that such attentive listening can only become well developed if one also practices listening carefully to one’s poetic predecessors. Every novice writer who asks an established author what they should do to become better writers is told the same thing: read as much as you can, as broadly as you can, as deeply as you can…then read some more. Learning different poetic and songwriting forms is essential, but: “No instruction manual can teach as much as careful attention to the sounds in even one great poem.” (Pinsky 1998, 7)
Bond, Bruce. 2015. Immanent Distance: Poetry and the Metaphysics of the Near at Hand. Ann
Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.
Bradley, Adam. 2017. The Poetry of Pop. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
Cooper, John M. ed. 1997. Plato: Complete Works. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company,
Pickstock, Catherine. 1998. On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy. Oxford and Maiden:
Pinsky, Robert. 1998. The Sounds of Poetry. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Sondheim, Stephen. 2010. Finishing the Hat. New York and Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf.
Steele, Timothy. 1999. All the Fun’s in How You Say a Thing. Athens: Ohio University Press.
Strand, Mark and Evan Boland. 2000. The Making of a Poem. New York and London: W.W.
Norton & Company.
Sutton, Walter 1998. “A Conversation with Denise Levertov.” In Conversations with Denise
Levertov, edited by Jewel Spears Brooker, 10. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.
Wilson, James Matthew. 2015. The Fortunes of Poetry in an Age of Unmaking. Menomonee
Falls: Wiseblood Books.