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Lytton Smith Gets All Formal and Stuff

By Harriet Staff


Los Angeles Review of Books presents this thoughtful piece by Lytton Smith about the fluidity of poetic forms and the recent anthology Adventures in Form: A Compendium of Poetic Forms, Rules & Constraints (Penned in the Margins, 2012) edited by Tom Chivers.

IN THE BOROUGH of Greenwich, Southeast London, where the meridian time line slices the globe, rippling time zones east and west, an eccentric coffee shop called the MVMNT Café has sprung up next to the Docklands Light Railway. Scaffolding on the roof of the café thrusts rainbow-colored signs into the air, splicing the skyline with loud and vibrant text that you can see as you head towards Greenwich Market, the Royal Observatory, and the landlocked Cutty Sark.

A pop-up structure that debuted just before the London Olympics, MVMNT Café almost seems an excuse to blaze words into the sky: THIS, IS, EYE, CONTACT — words sounding in loud fluorescents, eager neons. The structure is made primarily from panels of recycled shipping containers and looks like it might have been put together in one night by a group of somnambulant builders. It straddles our sense of the fixed and fleeting.

It’s fitting, then, that the words that reside atop the MVMNT café (doubling its height) come from the Twitter account of Lemn Sissay, Britain’s “official Olympic poet.” What is more fleeting than a morning tweet? Sissay’s tweet, written about a month before the start of the games, reads:

This is the House. This is the Path. This is the Gate. This is the Opening. This is the Morning. This is the Person Passing. This is Eye Conact.

“This is the Person Passing”: as you walk along one side of the café, reading, the shifting referent of the deictic “this” makes the sentence a dynamic assertion, perpetually changing for the various passersby passing by. Stopping by the café for a morning Americano, I become the referent. I’m approaching and leaving language, seeing it from new angles. […]

Putting the motion back into poetry — if you ask me, it’s always been there. It’s not for nothing that poems have feet, or that to register a poem’s beats is to use a metaphor from the body, the blood moving from the heart to wherever. Perhaps it’s pushing a point to suggest that moveable type, Whitman setting his own letters for pressing Leaves of Grass, connotes motion more than does perfect binding, the modern technology by which the poetry book becomes perfectly ubiquitous. Still, our reluctance to see poetry as kinetic is today everywhere evident. In the UK, we tend to siphon off performance poetry, place it somewhere away from page-bound poetry, as if one involves movement and the other silent reading.

Tom Chivers’s recent anthology Adventures in Form: A Compendium of Poetic Forms, Rules & Constraints (Penned in the Margins, 2012) promises a corrective to the assumption that poetic form is a fixed thing, an inherited corset. For Chivers and the poets he curates, “form can be employed as a framework for innovation.” Form — which for Chivers includes not just the “sustained organisation of visual and aural elements” but also something more nebulous, the “guiding principle” spurring the poem — propels the poet towards new ideas, unlikely solutions. I’m reminded, reading Chivers’s introduction, of R.P Blackmur’s definition of poetry as “language so twisted and posed in a form that it not only expresses the matter at hand but adds to the stock of available reality.” Form isn’t statuesque; it’s expressive, propulsive, additional.

Smith goes on to think about how the anthology might look to an American audience, where it might seem old fashioned and where it might prove to be innovative. Read more at Los Angeles Review of Books.

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Posted in Poetry News on Wednesday, August 21st, 2013 by Harriet Staff.