October 2012 Discussion Guide

In Good Form

The Art of Craft in the October 2012 Poetry

In Good Form

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A well-turned line, a sparkling rhyme: craft is essential to the art of poetry, writes Poetry editor Christian Wiman in the October 2012 issue. He explains:

The sound and form of the poem are everything; they buffet it against its hard journey through time and indifference. Or, to change the metaphor, they enable it to insinuate itself into the hard carapace of our consciousness, so that the poem’s “message”…won’t just bounce off the glaze of us. Craft matters because life matters. Craftless poetry is not only as perishable as the daily paper, it’s meretricious, disrespectful (of its subjects as well as its readers)….

Why do you think craft matters? Do well-crafted poems hit you harder and remain with you longer, as Wiman suggests? Why might poems devoid of craft seem disrespectful—perhaps because they demand our time without rewarding us with pleasure, insight, or staying power?

The most recent issue of Poetry provides plenty of fodder for such questions. It offers several poems in received forms, such as Joshua Mehigan’s sonnet “The Professor” and Elizabeth Seydel Morgan’s villanelle “September 2011.” And it features invented forms as well. Take Marie Ponsot’s “Private and Profane,” reprinted from a 1957 issue:

From loss of the old and lack of the new
From failure to make the right thing do
Save us, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu.
     From words not the word, from a feckless voice
     From poetic distress and from careless choice
     Exclude our intellects, James Joyce.
From genteel angels and apostles unappalled
From hollywood visions as virgins shawled
Guard our seeing, Grünewald.

Ponsot directs this adaptation of prayer toward pagan gods: the seventeenth-century writer Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, the twentieth-century novelist James Joyce, and the Renaissance painter Matthias Grünewald. She concludes each brief address with a name that rhymes with its immediately preceding lines. What’s the effect of this arrangement? Does each name land like a punch line, lending humor? Does that humor distract from the poem’s seriousness, or highlight it through contrast? Can we read the poem as a comment on its own form, which strives “to make the right thing do,” to avoid “careless choice”?

Paul Goodman’s “Dreams Are the Royal Road to the Unconscious,” which first appeared in Poetry in 1947, harnesses form in a similarly unexpected way. It begins:

The King’s Highway to the Dare-Not-Know
— but I beg my rides and oh I know
these boring roads where hundreds and hundreds
of cars fade by in hundred-hundreds
of flashing windows too bright too fast
to see my face. I am steadfast….

Goodman pushes the couplet to an extreme, concluding each pair of consecutive lines with identical rather than rhyming words. Note the connection between form and function: he writes of “boring” roads, of cars passing so quickly that they “fade by,” and of drivers’ failure to see him distinctly. Goodman’s end-words blur together in a reflection of the obscure world he describes.

Campbell McGrath provides another triumph of formal innovation. “Pentatina for Five Vowels” features five stanzas of five lines each; each line begins with one of five different words. The poem progresses through the English vowels in order—one stanza emphasizes the “A” sound, then “E,” then “I,” then “O,” then “U.” The second stanza, for instance, reads as follows:

The future’s a promise there’s no guaranteeing.
Today is a fire the field mice are fleeing.
Love is a marriage of feeling and being.
The past is a mirror for wishful sightseeing.
Nothing goes missing without absenteeing.

In McGrath’s poem, form conspires to create a stirring music. Fittingly, the poem refers to a “trumpet” and “anthem,” to “saying” and “baying.”

What about the craft behind free verse? Do you agree with T.S. Eliot’s observation that “there is no freedom in art” and that good free verse is haunted by “the constant suggestion and the skilful evasion of iambic pentameter”? Traditional rhyme and rhythm certainly inflect Todd Boss’s free verse poem “Accounting”:

Its fine
incisors
grinding

my mother
fed my
father’s
fledgling
carpentry
concern
into her
adding
machine

Boss adheres to no strict form, and yet he offers plenty of craft: the string of “i” sounds in the first stanza give way to a flight of “f”s and a pair of “c”s; the poem alternates between two and three syllables per line, and makes good use of stanza breaks. (The pause between these stanzas encourages us to suspect, for a wild moment, that the machine is grinding the speaker’s mother.) Boss’s brief lines complement his wordplay, too: after we read “fledgling,” but before our eyes move down to “carpentry,” we might imagine that the mother is feeding a fledgling—a child, perhaps.

The “costs and / savings” amount “to nothing,” Boss writes later, but as this issue shows, carefully crafted poems add up to a great deal.

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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