Form is a product of routine, a reflection of rituals of existence, the hallmark of which is dependability, predictability, and the familiar.  Surprises, uncertainty, chaos and upheaval only produce the staid reliability of form when people are in search of the nostalgia of form.  This is why form is often old-fashioned.  It is old in the way that things we come to rely on and come to believe to be the norm and to be orderly are old.  Tradition is about the old and proven, isn't it?  And the absence of form, for what it is worth, is often the hallmark of change, innovation, disquiet and perhaps suffering. 

Were my local church a poet, she would be spending half her time wrestling with whether to write in received form or whether to break out and write in new ways.  She will long for the days when everything was as it should be, when everything was known, when everyone was now.  And yet she would be strangely excited by the uncertainty of the future--the new faces, the upheavals that come when the old feel neglected and disrespected and the new are demanding ownership of the sanctuary.  You see, the new tend to be quick to see in the old, an unwillingness to move forward, a kind of irrelevance; but more than that, they see the old as disregarding their ideas, their sense of belonging and their ability to contribute to what the church is.  The old, especially when it seems like the new have taken hold of the imagination of the church, start to feel neglected, and start to believe that the future is grim.  They see the new as disrespectful of the old traditions, and they live in constant disquiet at the unfamiliarity of the unpredictable.

New literatures, revolutionary literatures, 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, and they tend to create upheaval in the body poetic.  It may well be that they are simply reflecting their existence--an existence that demands a forward vision as a way to contend with life, over a backward glance.  Looking backwards, for many new societies, is to look back at oppression and repression--it is to look back at failure which is the very thing they are pushing away from.  If they must look back, they do so in search of the emotion fodder to feed a push forward into the unpredictability of the unknown.

Do we need tradition and the staid?  Of course--it is, after all, the dream of everyone.  Tradition, you see, means that you can start living in a permanent structure and not a bivouac.  Tradition means that even if you live in a tent, it is a tent that is part of a ritual of building tents a certain way, moving one's community along the predictable nomadic paths of tradition.  We all want to have a sense of the familiar, of order.  We all want to know where the next meal will come from, and that it will come.  And when we make poems that celebrate this comfort, the poems will eventually assume the patterns of the familiar--the predictable, the orderly.  In other words, we will produce formal poems.

The formal, alas, can become boring.  It need not be.  Boredom, after all, can be a product of security and comfort.  Not always, but often.  Boredom can also be part of the malaise of repression, but not unpredictable repression--instead, predictable repression.  We get bored in jail, for instance.  Sure, there is great repression, but it is predictable, it is part of tradition.  When we seek to break out of that boredom, the uncertainty destroys all boredom, and with it, all predictable forms and rituals can be lost.

This is just one way to think about form and the resistance to form in poetry.  Of course, it goes without saying (though I will say it here) that there is really no such thing as the absence of form.  After all, even the work that seeks to break away from form and ritual, must create a new form which, while resisting the predictable, must develop its own language of unpredictability.  And once we begin to think about language, we are thinking about memory, and we are thinking about ritual, and we are thinking about form.  But it is a matter of degrees, so let's not be distracted by the truism.

All cultures that seek to create great and exciting work, must know how to balance their reliance on the comforts of form (yes, writing in form may be hard in the way that getting a recipe right is hard, but really, the quest is to achieve the familiar--there is an existing ideal that we can look to as we create--that is comforting) with the freshness and and regenerative power of invention and newness which we all hunger for and need.  These sparks of change often must grow out of repression and the absence of comfort.  The societies that manage to survive long tend to be those that manage to co-opt the innovations of their repressed people into the body poetic, a kind of injection of chaos into the predictable to create something fresh and something that will help to redefine the culture.

I can think of a long list of examples of this phenomenon, but I will let you do this on your own.  Suffice it to say that in my church, the clash of the past and the future is making us a lively and uncertain church.  We have this common tenet of our existence that is fundamentally rooted in tradition--the tradition of our raison d'etre as a body of people, and that singular thing makes us--the old and the new--one.  But it is not enough to ensure the comfort and ease of the familiar for everyone.  If Poetry, with a big P, is our common truth, the thing we can ultimately agree upon, the rest is about how we manage the clash between the old and the new--the comfortable and the uneasy, the satisfied and the unsatisfied, the backward glance and the forward gaze.

Is it obscene to imagine, looking at these tent cities strewn all over Port-au-Prince, that something "torn and new" is emerging--some new poetic that will challenge us, enliven us, and transform us?  Perhaps it is the poet's romanticism at work here, or a desperate quest for something to hold onto:

We come from Trench Town
Trench Town
Dem say we come from Trench Town
We free our people with music
We free our people with music
With music, oh music, oh music....

Bob Marley

The electricity is gone again.  In the silence you can hear the city waking slowly, a lone rooster, the light is tender.

Originally Published: April 30th, 2010

Born in Ghana in 1962, Kwame Dawes spent most of his childhood in Jamaica. As a poet, he is profoundly influenced by the rhythms and textures of the country, citing in a recent interview his “spiritual, intellectual, and emotional engagement with reggae music.” His book Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius (2007)...