Formal Verse and the Unexpected

This weekend my summer poets are busily drafting two poems at once (nature poem and free choice), so the next poem assignment, The Form Poem, may not be on their radar yet, but it is Poem 5 in their quest for 8 Poems in 8 Weeks. It may seem odd that I am so enthusiastic about using form  for contemporary literary poetry, the kind that gets published in literary journals or books, especially considering how hard I work for beginning poets not to emulate poets from other eras, AKA getting over the idea that they are going to be Shakespeare or Edgar Allen Poe or William Carlos Williams or e.e. cummings. Using form does not mean going back in time. It is also not culturally western-centric. For example, one of my favorite poems in the alumni volume of Moon CIty Review 2011 is Sara Burge’s “Jobless Pantoum,” an eastern form. The repeated lines and phrases that the form demands strengthens the poem and adds to the emotional impact. This is a good example of subject and form matching well. The situation, being jobless, involves lots of everyday things spiraling into tragedy; things that would not matter when you have a steady paycheck become monumental when it is not there. For example, Burge writes one-third into the poem,

The cat yowls for an open door
because we have nothing for him.
Pity is in short supply
and desperation stretches itself out on the couch.

We have nothing,
so plans include ramen and peanut butter.
Desperation stretches out on the couch.
We know we will last only so long

The interlocking repetons create a lockstep progress to an unpalatable future, but the process does not seem forced, and it is possible that a reader who does not know the form would not detect it without the clue in the title. That, I think, is the secret to using form in this millennium. Since so many readers do not have form in their reader lexicon, using a form must have an organizational or thematic purpose. It also mustn’t shout out, Hey! Using a form here! Rhyme that is singsongy and extra “rhymy” defeats the function of form, which is to create a structure that lets the poet soar. If the structure becomes the point, the form is not functioning as a viable poem.

I hope that doesn’t sound too hard. It can be hard, but more often, form allows the poem to create a little self-misdirection while drafting. Often, while the drafting poet is concentrating on following the form rules, some unexpected things show up in the draft– new directions in the expected narrative, new word choices, or surprising images. Sometimes sonnet writers or poets using other forms with end rhyme will line up end rhymes in advance that use words with multiple syllables or combinations that will add interest. I do this sometimes, but only for the first few lines. The end rhymes then jump-start the subject of the poem.

Fooling the conscious self in this way into diving into the sub-conscious can only be good, since poetry need fresh language and images and the subconscious is your backpack, the place where you carry around things for later. So, if something unexpected shows up in your sonnet, go with it. See where it goes. In my face-to-face version of ENG 203, I do a collaborative sonnet draft, either on the board with verbal suggestions, or as a round robin where the draft moves from student to student with each line. The unexpected happens this way, guaranteed, and parts of it will be nonsense, but there are always one or two sparks, places where magic happens. When that happens in your own draft, keep it. If keeping it means throwing away your preconceived idea of where the poem will go, no loss. In the battle between poet and draft, the draft should always win. Form can give you more of those moments.

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Author of the poetry collection The Tethered Ground and Professor of English at Missouri State University. Contact me for readings or for workshops on writing/publishing and on teaching writing online.

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