The Pursuit of Form
EDITORS' NOTE: This essay was originally published in Singing School: Learning How to Write (and Read) Poetry by Studying with the Masters (W.W. Norton, 2013).
Here’s another way of thinking about “body knowledge” and poetry: pursuing excellence, athletes and musicians willingly, even eagerly, submit themselves to tedious, grinding repetition and analysis. They try to cultivate by practice the most effective way of doing each thing, each best movement so reliably summoned that you don’t need to think about it in the fluid, immediate, rapid, intuitive performance of your skills. The goal, in a word used by those who work in these pursuits: to perfect their form.
But beyond that process, or extending it, true form is creative. As a verb, “form” means to make or generate. (In a neat parallel, the verb “generate” is related to the noun “genre.”) Coaches rightly speak of the best form, but there is no mechanical template: true form is what each person discovers, enhancing or adapting it each time. Form is what makes the batted ball sail over the fence, or the leaping dancer sail across the stage, and for no two people is the successful form exactly alike. Similarities may be important, and they are worth studying, but the best form has an element of idiosyncrasy. Everyone is different. And in practice, any one person will hit the ball or leap a bit differently each time.
In keeping with that flexibility, form should be transformative and original. It can elevate the ordinary, re-sharpen the familiar:
You that seek what life is in death
Now find it air that once was breath:
New names unknown, old names gone,
Till time end bodies, but souls none.
Reader! then make time, while you be,
But steps to your eternity.
The author of this poem, Fulke Greville, a sixteenth-century Christian, did not invent the idea that in trying to comprehend death one confronts an absence. Nor did Greville invent the idea that life is short, or that life is followed by eternity. Such conventional, unoriginal notions do not generate a poem, nor does religious doctrine, nor does even an emotion—not even a strong emotion of mingled urgency and dread.
Thinking about breath and air does, perhaps, begin to generate a poem, because considering those two forms of air, particular and general, inward and outward, mortal and eternal, may help create the form of a poem.
Greville’s poem involves unstable or unequal pairs of nouns, beginning (and in a way ending) with life and death. Air and breath, new names and old names, bodies and souls, in four lines arranged in rhymed couplets. In the fourth line, the additional or unpaired noun “time” complicates the symmetry. Except for the first, the lines divide symmetrically, with a central pause between nearly equal halves. That pattern of even twos is broken by the final, clinching couplet. There, the first of those two final lines is divided by an emphatic, dramatic pause that comes asymmetrically early in the line, not in the middle: “Reader!” The final line too is divided asymmetrically, with a less emphatic but distinct pause after “steps.”
“Reader!”—the moment marking that small but effective deviation in the pattern of pauses—might be called a formal intrusion or swerve: from declaration to address. And the sentence that follows has three nouns rather than two, with the opposed duo “time” (no longer unpaired) and “eternity” separated by the intervening “steps.”
To describe the form, as I’ve just tried to do, has required more words than the poem itself: a disproportion between act and description familiar to anyone who has tried to describe even a few moments in a movie, dance, or sporting event, where elements that are familiar are deployed in a way that astounds. In ways that go beyond what can be described, form enables emotion, in shapes of speed and suspension. Form concentrates force.
No recipe predetermines Greville’s poem. Its form does not arise from some construction like: “A form consisting of three iambic tetrameter couplets, with asymmetrical pauses in the first and last two lines, with the final couplet serving as an indented conclusion or critique or turn.” On the contrary, that recipe is an after-the-fact reduction. The poem discovers a form that is beyond description or reduction. It is a unique play of symmetry and asymmetry, energy and balance.
The poetic line is a means of performing energy and balance in writing. As in other kinds of performance, or in editing a movie, the relation between pause and movement is essential to writing in lines. From the same period as Greville’s poem, consider George Peele’s “Betsabe’s Song”:
Hot sun, cool fire, tempered with sweet air,
Black shade, fair nurse, shadow my white hair:
Shine, sun; burn, fire; breathe, air, and ease me;
Black shade, fair nurse, shroud me and please me:
Shadow, my sweet nurse, keep me from burning,
Make not my glad cause cause of [my] mourning.
Let not my beauty’s fire
Inflame unstaid desire,
Nor pierce any bright eye
That wandereth lightly.
Silence is part of rhythm: a truism these pauses demonstrate. But the pauses are made effective by the varying kinds of change and movement around them. In each of the first two lines, a pair of two-syllable, adjective-noun units (“hot sun” and “cool fire,” then “black shade” and “fair nurse”) are followed by the longer units (“tempered with sweet air,” then “shadow my white hair”). The remarkable third line, with its imperative verbs, makes a pause after every syllable, until “and ease me” feels relatively long in contrast, balancing the tension, though it is only three syllables.
In other words, the poem has the taste, which could also be called efficiency or purpose, to keep the rhythm changing and moving. Emotion comes partly from the intense balance of hesitation with explosive force. The line “Inflame unstaid desire” compresses these energies into three words: verb, adjective, noun, all three with the same rhythm: “ta-da.”
To say George Peele’s poem aloud (as one should) is to hear something essential about the nature of lines and the nature of form. The early modernist H.D., in free-verse lines, creates a similar force, partly from pauses and the varying lengths of the units around the pauses:
Rose, harsh rose,
marred and with stint of petals,
meager flower, thin,
sparse of leaf,
than a wet rose
single on a stem—
you are caught in the drift.
Stunted, with small leaf,
you are flung on the sand,
you are lifted
in the crisp sand
that drives in the wind.
Can the spice-rose
drip such acrid fragrance
hardened in a leaf?
H.D.’s harsh, sparse, and acrid rose represents a certain sense of beauty, and of poetry. Her defense of something beleaguered, “stunted,” “caught in the drift,” with its rhythms of halting and pressing forward, has some formal similarity (along with plenty of difference) to George Peele’s words for the threatened, vulnerable Bathsheba.
It’s possible to think of both Peele and H.D. creating these examples like someone noodling at a piano, toying with chords, or someone pushing paint around on a surface, toying with forms and colors. Of course a poem may originate from ideas, feelings, plans, but a kind of line can be generative in a physical way. One could study the art of poetry, trying to enhance one’s sense of form, by thinking about kinds of line. There are countless variables, among them the length of the lines, uniform or varying, the degree and timing of enjambment, iambic or loose iambic or not iambic at all, arranged in stanzas or not, degree and kind of rhyme, end rhyme or not, degree and kind of intensity on a range from prose to incantation, etc. Possibly more useful than such categories, here are some examples:
Elizabeth Bishop syncopating a straightforward, reason-bound narrative, in even four-beat lines, by subtly countering the line with grammatical units that flow across the lines, often end-stopped, but in a self-correcting, parenthetical or not-quite-even way that makes the narrative a bit weirder, less straightforward, in “The Weed”:
A few drops fell upon my face
and in my eyes, so I could see
(or, in that black space, thought I saw)
that each drop contained a light,
a small, illuminated scene;
the weed-deflected stream was made
itself of racing images.
I now think, Love is rather deaf, than blind,
For else it could not be,
Whom I adore so much, should so slight me,
And cast my love behind:
I’m sure my language to her, was as sweet,
And every close did meet
In sentence, of as subtle feet,
As hath the youngest he,
That sits in shadow of Apollo’s tree.
Robert Frost, in “To Earthward," separating iambic pentameter’s three-foot and two-foot units and arranging them into a four-line stanza of three, three, three, two, which creates overlapping pentameters at the borders of each stanza. So, for instance, “I lived on air” serves as the second part of one pentameter (And once that seemed too much; I lived on air) and the first part of another (I lived on air / That crossed me from sweet things):
Love at the lips was touch
As sweet as I could bear;
And once that seemed too much;
I lived on air
That crossed me from sweet things,
The flow of—was it musk
Wallace Stevens deploying repetitions to launch an incantational, long line, in “Madame La Fleurie”:
Weight him, weight, weight him with the sleepiness of the moon.
Alan Dugan tossing one outrageous end rhyme—a moment of drinking song or limerick, transforming the lines around it—into a poem otherwise without end rhyme, amending or disrupting the rapid, short, free-verse line in “How We Heard the Name”:
but it went by, it all
goes by, that is the thing
about the river. Then
a soldier on a log
went by. He seemed drunk
and we asked him Why
had he and this junk
come down to us so
from the past upstream.
Creating a writing assignment for oneself by trying to make a poem with a formal element, with a deployment of lines somehow like these (or unlike them, in reaction!) is demanding, in a good sense of the word. Finding a form, or a kind of line, can be instructive precisely because it is difficult—yet possible. Following the formula for a sonnet or sestina, with certain patterns at the ends of lines, also may be instructive; but sometimes the formula can become merely a way of evading the nature of the line. Writing that conforms to the recipe for “a form” may or may not have the quality of form. At worst, “forms” can be a poor substitute (or excuse?) for actual form.
Putting aside the idea of models or formulas, what’s the best process, in the pursuit of form? The answer will be different for different writers at different moments. But one suggestion might be to say or at least mutter some words—words you think, or have read, or have heard spoken—and keep listening, patiently and calmly, for something that feels right in their arrangement.
Church Monuments by George Herbert
During Wind and Rain by Thomas Hardy
Caelica 83: [You that seek what life is in death] by Fulke Greville
Elegy for Philip Sidney by Fulke Greville
Howl by Allen Ginsberg
[My prime of youth is but a frost of cares] by Chidiock Tichborne
Question by May Swenson
Sea Rose by H.D.
from Several Questions Answered by William Blake
The Cruel Mother by Anonymous
The Man of Double Deed by Anonymous
The Negro Speaks of Rivers by Langston Hughes
The Lullaby of a Lover by George Gascoigne
To a Poor Old Woman by William Carlos Williams
Excerpted from Singing School: Learning to Write (and Read) Poetry by Studying with the Masters by Robert Pinsky. Copyright © 2013 by Robert Pinsky. With permission of the author.
Robert Pinsky is one of America’s foremost poet-critics. Often called the last of the “civic” or public poets, Pinsky’s criticism and verse reflect his concern for a contemporary poetic diction that nonetheless speaks of a wider experience. Elected Poet Laureate of the United States in 1997, his tenure was marked...