Byrd or Cage?

An Exaltation of Forms: Contemporary Poets Celebrate the Diversity of Their Art. Edited by Annie Finch and Kathrine Varnes. University of Michigan Press, 2002. 442 pages

As Reviewed By: Jan Schreiber

Seeking still newer ways of challenging themselves with physical barriers to be overcome, young urbanites are flocking to a new sport, called “parkour” by its French inventors. The sport involves vaulting over benches, pivoting on handrails, scaling walls, and leaping across spaces between buildings (among other maneuvers)—all in a smooth, flowing style in which each action blends gracefully into the next. As a rationale, one of the inventors offers this: “Life is made of obstacles and challenges. To overcome them is to progress.”

Something like this outlook grips poets of a certain mindset—those who see in verbal forms not only means of communication but challenges to the ear, the eye, and the whole apparatus of human ingenuity. That difficult forms such as terza rima carry singular expressive possibilities only makes their mastery that much more rewarding: a self-justifying triumph of the spirit. The dual quality of form as both a source of feeling and an intellectual challenge in its own right—a duality inherent in all art—underlies this book and accounts for a good deal of its fascination.

We have here an ingeniously conceived compendium of essays, mainly by practitioners, on forms in which they claim special expertise. There are distinguished names among the contributors. Anthony Hecht writes on blank verse, Rachel Hadas on the hendecasyllables of Catullus, John Hollander on the quatrain, X.J. Kennedy on the epigram, Louis Turco on the sestina, Rosanna Warren and John Frederick Nims on respectively quantitative and “maverick” meters. The contributors—over fifty in all—were evidently instructed to produce short essays and to append to them examples, which end up comprising about fifty unpredictable, non-overlapping mini-anthologies, of the forms being discussed. Relatively few contributors resisted the temptation to include their own work, but most included classical examples too. Our forebears continue to surprise as well as delight. Most of us remember that George Herbert wrote some of the first shape poems in English (“Easter Wings,” for example), but how many recall that his fascination with technical challenges led him to compose a five-stanza poem in which the three lines of each stanza use the same rime, each successive rime achieved by trimming one letter off the previous rime-word (charm, harm, arm)?

Judging from the introduction (“… less a historical anthology or handbook detailing rules than a grouping of modes of flight”), one imagines the editors would be the first to say this is not a scholarly book, and maybe that is just as well, though it is more than the mere celebration it purports to be. To assemble a whole book on form without ever defining the term might surprise the methodical. But perhaps this is exactly the way to get people interested in the subject once again: Do not make it abstract. Do not offer definitions. (Individual forms are defined, but not the concept itself.) Make form seem, if possible, like a natural efflorescence of the human spirit at its most exalted. Stress the inexhaustible variety of forms, their newness (even nonceness) as well as their antiquity. Enliven the seminar with offerings from the contemporary artist’s workshop, displayed side by side with the revered classics. And, as a coup de grace, treat formlessness as just another form, and invite the erstwhile nemesis (the “organic form” poet, for example) to demonstrate her techniques and explain her methods just like the others—which she does with a defensiveness that might have made less generous editors smile.

The book is organized telescopically: it starts small and ends huge. The first part focuses on the verse line and therefore entails a survey of meters: accentual, syllabic, “counted” verse (a bit of a digression, since this form is more for the eye than the ear), and then accentual-syllabic, our primary meter today. It is discussed here in the context of a chapter on iambics, though many types of feet are perceived in English by both their stress and their syllable count, a fact that writers on other meters also emphasize.

The second part deals with stanzaic forms (couplet, terza rima, quatrain, etc.), the third with what the editors call “received forms,” a term they use to encompass ballads, haiku, sonnets, the blues, the ghazal, and rap, among others. And not content to stop there, the editors add a fourth part, “Principles of Formal Experimentation,” an omnium gatherum for everyone who might feel left out of the three previous sections. Here the organic form practitioner rubs elbows with the performance poet, the writer who would take us “beyond found poetry,” the “nude formalist” (don’t ask), the proponent of the low coup (propounded by Amiri Baraka as a buddy for the haiku), and the inventor of the paradelle, a hoax that got out of hand, as its perpetrator Billy Collins explains.

Different readers will clearly gravitate toward different parts of the book. But they may not stay in one spot. Yes, I am interested in Anthony Hecht’s insightful discussion of blank verse, in the wit and learning John Hollander brings to his treatment of the quatrain, and in the light W. D. Snodgrass sheds on the folk ballad, a form that even sophisticated poets return to when they have a story to tell and a dramatic point to drive home. But I am also curious to explore the underlying principles of rap, and I find the discussion of rap’s metrics by DJ Renegade ear-opening. (As an oral form, it must account for not just stress and rime but also tempo. Beats per minute, the metronome markings of rap, affect the associated feeling, as well as the intelligibility of the piece performed.)

This assemblage is a sign of its times. It marks a resurgence of interest in verse forms and responds to an anticipated need of teachers in both secondary schools and universities for a reference that will introduce students to the great variety of forms and formal techniques in current use. Current use is a key phrase. The book’s signal contribution is its demonstration that these forms are alive today, being employed by both well established poets and—perhaps even more remarkably—those who aspire to distinction. For it is no longer the case that formlessness, or at least the principled avoidance of rime and meter, is the only route to publication, prizes, and prestige. And even though suspicion still lurks in the minds of many editors that formal verse has to be trite (as if all the possible rimes and metrical patterns had been fully exploited long ago—or the only way to write meter is with the “drumming decasyllabon”), others have opened their eyes, and their pages, to the achievements of many latter-day formalists on both sides of the all-too-fast-receding “younger poet” divide.

But besides being a useful and concise teaching tool, this book can serve as a reference for writers. Not every conscientious craftsman remembers the intricacies of a Spenserian stanza or the metrical pattern associated with Sapphics. Some would like to understand the principles underlying free verse. (Here they may be disappointed, for the principles, never easy to articulate, vary considerably from one practitioner to another, and the discussion offered in this book is far from definitive.) And occasionally a poet, with perhaps less lofty motivations, simply wishes to see if anyone cited herein has come up with a sestina half as impressive as the one he or she has just written.

So the editors are to be applauded for their concept and for its execution: they have given all their contributors reasonable scope in which to expatiate, and they have seen to it that no poem was quoted more than once. (Not an easy task, I would guess. Dana Gioia claims Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool” as an example of accentual verse, while Michelle Boisseau cites it—and might have quoted it if it hadn’t been taken—as free verse.) Further, the editors have provided the book with an introduction including suggestions for its use and definitions of basic terms of prosody, and with a serviceable index. The rest is up to the contributors.

It is tempting, and not far off the mark, to say that the more cogent the form being discussed, the more cogent the discussion. Where a form is easy to define and to exemplify, like the heroic couplet (ably dealt with by Timothy Steele) or dactylic meter (expounded by Annie Finch wearing the hat of a contributor), the mini-treatise is informative and lively, reacquainting us with historical examples and surprising us with recent creations in the form. On the other hand, when the form is not really a form—such as free verse or “organic form”—the essay treating it seems diffuse and arbitrary. Of free verse we read, in the essay by Boisseau, “the basic unit … is the line, more precisely the interrelationship between lines and sentences.” What is that relationship? It seems to be constantly “shifting and stretching,” but one approach is to make the phrases of a sentence into independent lines. Writing a poem in “phrasal lines” creates “an exacting semantic and visual equation”—which I take to mean that the free verse poem is a rough diagram of the sentence. But Boisseau goes on to suggest that “phrasal lines” help sort out the argument of “The Idea of Order at Key West”—and I begin to doubt her bona fides, since that poem is written in blank verse, not free verse. The fundamental difficulty of the form may be that it depends on perennial novelty, a point conceded by Boisseau after surveying various tricks of the free-verse trade:

At best radical enjambment and left-margin indentation create bold statements, rumbling undertones, and subtle wit; overused, however, the technique can seem coy and trite. Indeed, when any lineation strategy comes to seem the signature of a particular era, that strategy becomes weakened as it loses its ability to intrigue us.

And since lineation strategies are at the heart of free verse as here defined, its practitioners often watch their creations grow stale with age, while they scour the landscape for new modes of expression. Hence the slightly desperate tone of the Poundian dictum “Make it new!” One might say that one of Pound’s other dicta—that poems should be at least as well written as prose (a dictum with which I heartily concur)—helps to save whatever free verse can be saved. For, to the ear at least, a free verse poem is often simply a short piece of prose, punctuated by rhetorical pauses, and as prose it finally will stand or fall.

(It would be unfair to pass over this discussion of a century-old style blessed with more exemplars than anyone can count without noting that other theorists have discerned a pattern of stresses in certain types of free verse. By manipulating the primary stress in a phrase in relation to lesser stresses, some writers believed they could construct a pattern that could be varied and intensified for rhetorical effect. An intriguing if not altogether convincing discussion of this type of free verse is included in Yvor Winters’ In Defense of Reason, published nearly sixty years ago.)

Readers who naively thought “organic form” was another expression for free verse will be undeceived by Hilda Morley’s essay. Morley devotes several paragraphs to explaining the difference. Free verse, in her terminology, is less personal than organic form, more public, and often based on repetitive rhythmic structures. She cites as examples two of Whitman’s most obviously rhythmical poems—“When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed” and “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking”—while ignoring a century of poems their creators would have described as free verse which show no obvious differences from those she says are in “organic form.”

But these are quibbles. What Morley means by “organic form” is an arrangement of words and lines that arises in the process of writing. “The poem in organic form requires that the pulse or pulses of the poetic experience be shared in a kind of fierce, unswerving intimacy.” And again, “The poem of organic form molds its phrasing and spacing to conform to the pressures of the poetic content.” In short, the poem in organic form is a snapshot of the act of composition. Extremely bad writing can be, and often is, justified by saying it is in “organic form.” And invoking an unlikely champion—Paul Valéry, who never wrote a line of verse that was not in a recognized objective form—does not do much to enhance Morley’s argument.

It is easy to ridicule this sort of thing. Yet there is an element of value here. What poet has not scribbled down words that seemed pregnant with meaning and possessed of a peculiar charm, while paying little attention at the moment to their poetic “form”? When the time comes later to make the line (or lines) into a poem, a writer searching for something lasting and rhetorically powerful must decide whether they will fit into the pattern of a sonnet, or a rapid trimeter stanza, or perhaps, if the stress pattern is irregular or unobvious, into a poem in syllabics. Maybe they suggest an unusual arrangement of short and long lines, or a play of assonance or internal rime. This is the moment when the poet listens to what Valéry called “some deep magnificence— / A bitter, somber, and reverberant well” out of which the poem will be born. In that sense, “organic form” need not mean simply a sanctification of the poet’s momentary mood, but a pattern of sound that can become the template for the rest of the poem as it develops. Such a poem may be highly formal, and the form may or may not be traditional. But it is truly a form in the sense that it is productive of other similar sound patterns, and it is organic, if you will, because it grew out of the aural qualities of the words that first arrived in the poet’s mind.

In giving this much attention to the looser “forms,” I do not mean to suggest that the editors favor them. Quite the contrary. The elaborate, even baroque, metrical and stanzaic forms possible in English verse are surveyed to a fare-thee-well. The essay by John Frederick Nims on “Maverick Meters,” to take one example, is a small education and a delight. As Nims observes, many of these meters, resuscitated from the Latin or Greek and approximated in English by matching stressed or unstressed syllables with the classic long or short ones, are the sort of thing one wants to use only once in a lifetime. But they make the point that it is possible to write interestingly in a complex form that can still be held in check so that the meaning of the poem prevails over its not-too-insistent sound pattern. Indeed, a first pass through some of these poems thrusts the reader into the attitude of a naïve auditor: It sounds nice, he says to himself, and it has a noticeable rhythm, but I really couldn’t tell you how it was constructed or what meter it’s in. That may be exactly the innocent stance from which the poem as a whole can be best heard. We simply enjoy the performance and stop counting syllables.

Not every metrical type is so subtle. Reading Nims’s sample poems uncued allows the rapid judgment of the ear:

There the paired strong accents sound forced and unidiomatic, particularly when reinforced by the rime. The poem is ingenious but we would not wish it longer. On the other hand, consider Nims’s liquid tribute to water in what he calls a “Pindaric grid”:

Such verse, like the sweet Thames, could run softly for a long time without tiring us. This is a form waiting to be adopted and, in the right hands, given a new life in English.

I appreciate the editors’ light touch. It is easy to get carried away by forms—by the idea of form for its own sake—and to write a villanelle, say, for the sheer technical challenge, and maybe because it’s one of the few poetic forms that doesn’t require the poet to compose new material for every line. But as soon as formal writing becomes simply another sort of athleticism, it loses some of its emotional power. In the early twentieth century, that loss, that sense that form was being indulged for its own sake, motivated the modernist revolt and the concomitant destruction that is only now being slowly reversed. What is not needed at this juncture is a treatise defining right and wrong ways of doing things: a fence that would separate “us” from “them.” The editors bring a welcome and distinctly feminine virtue to their project: they are inclusive rather than confrontational. It may be less intellectually rigorous to treat as “forms” some modes of writing that others would call formless, but doing so has the virtue of putting everyone in the same tent, where they can have conversations—even debates—without overt hostility.

Not only can formalists challenge each other (Vince Gotera taking issue with John Hollander on the nature of the pantoum); people whose understandings of form are radically different can have their say. So Mark Wallace, in his essay on “Predetermined Avant-Garde Forms” writes, “… for Creeley and many poets featured in Donald Allen’s 1960 anthology The New American Poetry, the goal of poetry was not to control experience by distancing oneself from it through formal devices [in the manner of Auden and Tate], but to engage experience more openly and directly.” The very act of talking past each other so markedly is revealing. I know of no form-espousing poet who would maintain that the goal of poetry was to control experience by distancing oneself from it—through form or any other device. One wants to pursue these questions. Is understanding experience, or some aspect of it, the same as controlling it? Is engaging experience openly and directly that same thing as writing down words as they come to mind? What, after all, does it mean to “engage” experience? Do we need compositional principles to write a poem? Is grammar an element of form?

The problem of form is a problem of human psychology. We crave order and we flee from it. We recapitulate in miniature the cyclical history of our universe: starting with a small and compressed kernel of competence, we blow it apart, seeking the new and untried. Our expanding disorder gradually slows and coalesces, and a new order begins to take shape, one that we warily prize. Eventually it will solidify, the expansion will turn to contraction, and we will witness a gradual retrenchment toward orthodoxy. That has not happened yet, but when it does, a new revolution—a new explosion—will be ready to occur, and the cycle will repeat.

I do not mean by this somewhat fanciful analogy to suggest a merely mechanical and repetitive process. Language, culture, and mores all evolve, though they do not necessarily improve. The revolution of our grandfathers was not just like the revolution of their grandfathers. If we are wise and discerning, we will prize the genuine achievements of rebels and counter-rebels alike. But we are not always wise or discerning, and prejudice impairs judgment at every turn. This book documents a moment in cultural history that may seem quaint in thirty years. All the more reason to delve in, to learn from the oddities it offers, and to turn back to the honored rules ably professed. Old forms are always valuable, while soon our fads will wither. But our books are strewn with tantalizing traces of our quest.

About Jan Schreiber

Jan Schreiber is a poet and critic. His books include Digressions, Wily Apparitions, and Bell Buoys, as well as two books of translations: A Stroke upon the Sea and Sketch of a Serpent. His poems and reviews have appeared in the Hudson Review, the Southern Review, Agenda, the Formalist, and many other publications, as well as on-line journals and anthologies. A song cycle, Zeno’s Arrow, based on seven of his poems, was composed by Paul Alan Levi and premiered in 2001.
Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *