Follow Harriet on Twitter
Form and Suffering
Kwame, dear Kwame, don’t forget there is an inside to every outside, a trajectory to every incarnation! You say, “the absence of form, for what it is worth, is often the hallmark of change, innovation, disquiet and perhaps suffering.” You say, “literatures that are finding voice after having been silenced by the repressive control of old literatures tend to want to break out of form–they tend to be what we call experimental.” Do take a look at the sixty women poets who wrote about why they choose to use form, in the introductions to their poems in A Formal Feeling Comes: Poems in Form by Contemporary Women. You’ll see common threads that tell other stories: that show that, for these women at least, form grows directly out of suffering (as in Honor Moore’s searing description of how it was only in the sestina that she was able to confront a decades-old story of pain and abuse). Look at the fabulous energetic richness of the formal poetry being written at Cave Canem, much of which I’ve seen for an anthology I’ve been coediting with Marie Elizabeth Mali, and that Tara Betts has been collecting for an anthology of contemporary African American formal poetry. These are certainly some poets for whom finding voice in the face of oppressive tradition involves claiming a formal pattern.
Yes, every poetic revolution has been also a formal revolution, but these revolutions take the form of tightening as often as loosening, whether in creating new forms (as a lot of so-called “experimental” poetry does, from Oulipo to proceduralism) or in revitalizing previously-used forms in a new way. For every Whitman or Brooks discarding meter for free verse, you have a Dickinson or Hughes embracing ballad stanza for radical and unexpected reasons; the eighteenth-century movement to discard the sonnet as old-fashioned is balanced by the nineteenth-century movement to pick it up again as a revolutionary vehicle of individual expression.
You say, “when we make poems that celebrate this comfort, the poems will eventually assume the patterns of the familiar–the predictable, the orderly.” While this may be true of some poets, such as the great Dunbar, about whom you and I have corresponded, there are just as many for whom form is anything but a celebration of the predictable, but rather a new kind of patterning for a poem to explore or stake out or reclaim, or perhaps a firm ground from which to arc out more strongly into the severely unpredictable; look at the use of form analyzed here in McKay’s “If We Must Die.”
Kwame, both the formal and the informal can become equally boring and equally repressive. I’m sure we have each experienced far too many boring examples of both! It may be time to move beyond this dichotomy and into other areas of discussion–representative language, for example, or questions about syntax. But if we are going to talk, maybe we can find some vocabulary that is objective and descriptive. You say, “once we begin to think about language . . .we are thinking about form. . . .it is a matter of degree.” But common sense tells us that it is not simply a matter of degree. Form and language are not the same; formal poetry means a specific thing, which I have defined after many years of thought as “poetry whose structure is derived through the predictable repetition of any language element.”
I totally agree with you Kwame, that past and future need to intersect, to learn from each other, to balance. They do so in so many many ways, for so many different people at different times, that perhaps here, as in so many other situations, it is wise to do one’s best to avoid generalization and remember that each of us is on a unique path. I love your ending with Bob Marley’s wonderful variation on a traditional form . . .