April 2013 Discussion Guide

Verse's Versatility

Functions of Form in the April 2013 Poetry

Verse's Versatility

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The April 2013 issue of Poetry chronicles the tug-of-war between form and content. "Don’t think what you have to say is important," William Logan instructs in "The Nude that Stays Nude," his Ezra Pound-inspired poetic manifesto. "The way you say it is what’s important. What you have to say is rubbish." A review of Glyn Maxwell reveals that the British writer values form just as highly as Logan does, if in gentler terms. In the volume under consideration, On Poetry, Maxwell writes: "the only worthwhile study the poet, as a maker, can make of poetry is—which forms survived and for what reason?"

That argument doesn't convince Gwyneth Lewis, who, alongside two other reviewers, discusses Maxwell and two other writers in "An Exchange." "Versification is only half the story," she notes. "An account of poetry requires attention to 'whatness' as well as 'howness.'" She quotes Sir Philip Sidney’s Apologie for Poetry (1595): "One may be a poet without versing, and a versifier without poetry."

When you read or write poetry, do you attend more closely to whatness or to howness? Does a resonant rhyme tickle you more pleasantly than a crucial concept? Do you turn to some poems—say, Swinburne's "A Leave-Taking"—for stylistic delights, and others—say, Eliot's "Four Quartets"—for essayistic argument? Or is such a distinction false: do these components of poetry rely on and inspire one another?

Michael Lista suggests they do. In "An Exchange," he argues that form should operate as a metaphor for content: "When poems of each kind succeed, it’s because their containers—poetry is the only art form that is its own container — are constructed out of the materials of their contents, in a kind of infinite feedback loop." In this issue, poems such as J.T. Barbarese's "Reading Primo Levi Off Columbus Circle" exemplify this phenomenon:

Still, one table away,
these two, with gnarled empretzled hands,
seem unhappy in the old way.

Notice how the word "way" is folded—empretzled—within its rhyme word, "away." Even that delectable neologism "empretzel" seems gnarled, twisted into itself—like aging hands, or like romantic partners who grow ever closer as they grow old together.

In "The Dead House," Barbarese again follows Lista's prescription, basing the poem'sarchitecture on its furniture. It begins:

Fireplace blocked,
sealed with
cardboard, and taped.
Furniture trashed,
paneling smashed.
On the second floor
mid-corridor,
a rotting cat
furry and fey
in a nap
of gore
glued flat

to a spot
on the floor. . . .

Narrow as the house's corridors, this poem feels as claustrophobic as the house it describes—and the reader in turn feels "blocked," "sealed" into an airless space, like the unfortunate cat "glued" to the floor. The procession of rhymes that conclude the lines link them with a verbal glue, and Barbarese marks similar meanings with similar sounds—"blocked" and "taped," "trashed" and "smashed"—even as the poem's lurching meter and unpredictable rhyme scheme unmoor us. The reason for the speaker's own disorientation becomes clear at the poem's conclusion, when he observes "terns where we made love, / gulls where we fought": the house, we discover, is a memorial for a relationship—and so is the poem.

Mary Moore Easter's "Muscadine" sprouts from the same formal tree as Barbarese's works. Her poem describes a lover's hand that "vines my chin my throat," and it wanders over the page like that hand, its lines splaying to recall fingers, promising the same wonders as a lover's touch. And like a diligent romantic partner, the poem engages all five senses; the characters see and hear each other, and Easter mentions musk, sweetness, and ache. "Muscadine" is a "concrete poem"; it physically resembles its subject. For other examples in the genre, see Lewis Carroll's "The Mouse's Tale," which straggles down the page like a tail, and e.e. cummings's "I(a," which both describes a falling leaf and recalls the descent of a leaf through air:

l(a
le
af
fa
ll
a)
one
l
iness

How do such correspondences between form and content affect your reading experience? Do they echo and enforce your understanding of the poem? Or do you find them distracting, and prefer to focus on the meaning of the words—the whatness rather than the howness?

And what about form in prose? This issue includes the formally innovative review mentioned above: three critics discuss three books, singing praises (or the opposite) in a literary round. Each reviewer posits his or her argument, replying to and advancing the claims of the others. Meanwhile, the piece's form makes an argument of its own: that reviewing is a conversation, an exchange, even a call-and-response—that the solitary reviewer stands in for a community of reviewers, readers, and writers. Through considering books by a Canadian, a Briton, and an American, the critics—a Canadian, a Briton, and an American—implicitly indicate the size of that community. In "An Exchange," whatness cooperates with howness to enrich and enlarge the piece's purpose.

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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