Form not Formlessness

Nancy Flynn Apostrophe Blog Archive, Book Report, Writing

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The Apostrophe Blog

Musings on Writing and Life.

One of my resolutions for 2010 is to jump-start what I’ve taken to calling my solo MFA regimen. I know I have many gaps to fill, knowledge-wise. But, instead of spending $30K for another (I already have a degree in fiction)—I hate to say it but likely useless, job-wise—master’s degree in poetry—I’m slowly wending my way through the many books on poetic theory and form that, over the years, have found their way to my shelves.

So far, some pretty freaking nerdy stuff. Lewis Turco’s The New Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics veers into the esoterica PDQ. Not for these gray, low-light winter days! I made it to page 28 in the chapter about sonic levels only to lose my footing in his back-and-forth discussion (sometimes with examples, sometimes not) of headless iambs and tailless trochees.

Don’t ask.

But great stuff has been swimming to the surface as well. The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms by Mark Strand and Eavan Boland is a wonderfully clear and easy-to-apprehend primer. Each form’s traits are listed, then the history of the form is recounted, and wonderfully accessible examples of contemporary poems written in each of these forms are then offered up. “Poetic form is not abstract, but human” is the axiom of this very helpful book.

In Western Wind, what I’d call a classic Poetry 101 textbook, I learned—math dunce that I have long been—about the series of “golden numbers” called the Fibonacci sequence, where each number is the sum of the two preceding ones: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55 and so on. Apparently such sequences turn up time and again in nature—in the generation of bees, in the number and pattern of leaves or petals on certain plants, the patterns made by the spiral unfolding of a sunflower. And they find their way into artistic creation as well—how musicians work with duration in their rhythms, and painters decide where to place what on a canvas.  And, of course, in the creation of a poem—from the number of syllables in a line to the number of lines in a stanza to the number of lines in a poem. And I had long wondered why I often ended up with  poems of 13 and 21 even 34 lines and they somehow seemed, well…right.

It’s complicated to explain further here so I’ll give you the erudite scribes at Wikipedia to further expound. But suffice it to say, pretty darn cosmic and cool. And, according to Plato, “God always geometrizes.”

Iambic pentameter is the familiar heartbeat of the English language. Blank verse—unrhymed iambic pentameter—is poetry’s “tool of all trades.” You can count only the syllables in a line of poetry and that’s a form—haiku does this. Same with counting words. Any and all of these form decisions affect the tone and energy of your work. Free verse has much to do with the interrelationship between the line and sentences. And then there are the newer kids on the block, concepts like fractal poetry where (if I got it somewhat right) a three-dimensional discontinuity of plane, surface, texture, opacity, transparency and understory is what the poet makes her or his textual assemblages about. This is some pretty out there stuff!

I know this level of exploration and book-learning isn’t for everyone. Many folks who write poetry are content to simply get down their “first thought, best thought” as Allen Ginsberg famously said and leave it at that. But the longer I immerse myself in the art form that is writing poetry, the more I fing I both want and need to have at least a skeletal handle on what all the fuss was about in the ages before I showed up and wanted to break my thoughts out into lines and/or stanzas on a blank page. And that takes me back to the basics: rhyme and meter and form.

Poetry began as an oral art form, the telling in memorable ways of stories and myths and tales and epics to be passed down, our song and heartbeat, in forms from rap to Lear’s final soliloquy. There’s something to be said in these too-much-speedy-information days about the fact Robert Frost pulled it off a very difficult eleven-syllable rapid and skipping rhythm so effortlessly in his poem, “For Once, then Something” that most of us never even need to know it’s the hendecasyllabic meter of Catullus. And Catullus was a great admirer of Sappho, whose poetry centers on her passion and love for various personages and both genders. That sounds awfully contemporary to me…

Nancy Flynn
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