Friday, 20 April 2012

Stumped by the Form

    Todd Swift wrote an interesting post recently about the new Penned in the Margins anthology Adventures in Form. A few people commented and I thought it was going to turn into a much-needed debate about the relevance and function of poetic form in a time when a kind of unpremeditated, invariably autobiographical free-verse enlivened with phrase-making and perhaps a few clever similes has become the norm for the majority of up-and-coming poets (although this anthology's emphasis on poems written under strictures and restraints suggests the resurgence of an alternative,Oulipan tendency.)
      Before I got round to contributing (and not, I hasten to add, that I'm advocating a New Formalist-type return to an inflexible use of rhyme and metre), Eyewear had moved on but this passage from a recent article (from a psychologist's angle) seemed highly pertinent, inferring how without a well-honed sense of form poetry can become facile and un-inventive:

"The constant need for insights has shaped the creative process. In fact, these radical breakthroughs are so valuable that we've invented traditions and rituals that increase the probability of an epiphany, making us more likely to hear those remote associations coming from the right hemisphere. Just look at poets, who often rely on literary forms with strict requirements, such as haikus and sonnets. At first glance, this writing method makes little sense, since the creative act then becomes much more difficult. Instead of composing freely, poets frustrate themselves with structural constraints. Unless poets are stumped by the form, unless they are forced to look beyond the obvious associations, they'll never invent an original line. They'll be stuck with clichés and conventions, with predictable adjectives and boring verbs. And this is why poetic forms are so important. When a poet needs to find a rhyming word with exactly three syllables or an adjective that fits the iambic scheme, he ends up uncovering all sorts of unexpected connections; the difficulty of the task accelerates the insight process."
          (from 'The Neuroscience of Bob Dylan's Genius' by Jonah Lehrer, Guardian 6.4.12)
  Following this line of thought, poets who complain of writer's block should realise that the block is the writing and endless rewriting: it's what you must work gradually through to get to the poem inside, as surely as a sculptor chisels away at his or her stone-slab with a blind, intuitive sense of the shape he or she wants hidden within.
    Perhaps as gradual as the prisoner in The Shawshank Redemption who - day by day by day - chips an escape-route through his cell-wall with a teaspoon. Perhaps the sign of having written a genuine poem (where internal and formal compulsions finally meet) is this sense of breaking-through the very constraints you have set yourself.

No comments:

Post a Comment