NOTES ON FORM

“Behind every free verse poem there is the ghost of a form” –Roetke

Form, by dictionary definition, is “the visible shape or configuration of something,” and more specifically, in poetry, the “arrangement and style in literary or musical composition.”  I would be more inclined to argue a case for the third listed definition of form, however:  “a particular way in which a thing exists or appears; a manifestation.” In my experiences with poetic form, I have created a rift between free and “un-free” verse—a divide that separates the “supernatural” experience of introducing a first draft to a page and the arduous, terrifying practice of writing with structural limitations.  When I know that a free verse moment is about to happen, there is not much thought; within minutes, the words are there, and at times they are hardly what I expected they might be.  In contrast, my attempts at writing in form this semester were quite the opposite; I sat, impatient, and forced my mind to work within different frameworks, and there was simply never any hope for valuable subject matter to enter into the moment.  I do not attribute this problem to some type of failure of form; clearly, this was not a problem held by others before me (and presently).  Rather, I believe my experience with form was doomed from the beginning of my infatuation and arguably religious adherence to free verse as an elevated concept altogether.

My own ideas about free verse align with D.H. Lawrence’s claims in his essay, Poetry of the Present:

All we can say is that free verse does not have the same nature as restricted verse. It is not of the nature of reminiscence. It is not the past which we treasure in its perfection between our hands….But in free verse we look for the insurgent naked throb of the instant moment. For such utterance any externally applied law would be mere shackles and death. The law must come new each time from within. The bird is on the wing in the winds, flexible to every breath, a living spark in the storm, its very flickering depending upon its supreme mutability and power of change.

This is not to say that my work with form has been fruitless.  Simply through reading countless works in a variety of forms, I continued to expand the spectrum of what I know to be possible, effective and new within the practice of poetry writing.   Part of my own fear of form comes from witnessing the genius of the poets I studied this semester—I’ve concluded that if one wants to be satisfied with a rough draft, do not ever read Elizabeth Bishop beforehand.  In fact, one might put a few days between Bishop and drafting.  After reading mostly works in form this semester, I became interested in the emotional experience of writing in form versus the experience of writing in free verse.   It is evident that poets like Bishop and Yeats were writing with a driving “poetic mentality”—but I am inclined to suggest that there is a line between this mentality that works under the guidance of form and the mentality that waits for the shape of the poem to come from elsewhere or within.  I cannot say what this difference really consists of, but it seems to be there; is it purely emotional? Is it simply due to my own inexperience with form? I believe there must be a point that I haven’t reached yet in which form will operate quite differently, and instead begin to inform the subject matter by liberating the mind from the content of the piece—but for now I cannot avoid the rift in my writing experiences that points to authenticity in free verse in contrast to the forced meaning, arrangement and sound of any form poetry I have attempted.

With my present criticism of the writing experience that formal poetry produces, I must also question whether or not “free verse” poses certain limitations as well. Barbara Guest writes,  “This invisible authority may be the unconscious that dwells on the lower level, in a substratum beneath the surface of the poem and possesses its own reference. A fluidity only enters the poem when it becomes more openly aware of itself” (Invisible Architecture). Having considered the boundaries as well as the exploratory possibilities of form, I conclude that all form is conscious—and although writing in “free verse” might feel subconscious, and have a type or level of subconscious thought, it still must derive from a place/location within the mind that is rooted in “something”—free verse is not exempt from this rooted position—and therefore, we/I can break the barriers of form consciously by deciding not to use the same “traditions.”  When I speak of the “12-line epiphany” poetry that I have experience with, I am still working with mental habits that produce these 12-13 lines.  This leads me to believe that the practice and habit of working with form would allow me to plant “subconscious” patterns that are new/different from these 12-13 line structures, and I would also maintain the epiphany-experience if the habits were practiced enough.

As a result of a semester working with form, my aim is now to begin working more with “ghost form.”  In her lecture at University of Iowa, Katie Ford declares that the term “’free verse’ is also a bit of a lie.”  She suggests that every free verse poem is guided somehow by form, and that once we admit to this, we can work with traditional forms in new ways that do not adhere so closely to a “dogma.”  Ford delves into the sonnet as an example, explaining that a “not sonnet” might not adhere to much to rhyme scheme, for often, “rhyme scheme can very often carry the mind to the most obvious next word.”  It certainly presents the poet with innumerable options, then, to free the mind from every constraint of the sonnet, for example, and to blur the rules of one area (say, rhyme) while leaving others intact, so as to fulfill the skeleton and organization of the initial form tradition.

William Stafford is one poet to steal from in regards to his successful use of ghost form. .  For example, in “A Ritual to Read to Each Other,” Stafford does not adhere to a strict rhyming pattern necessarily, but it is clear that this is a highly organized poem.  The meaning of the ending words seem to mirror one another in some ways; in the first two lines, “If you don’t know the kind of person I am/ and I don’t know the kind of person you are”, the idea of “I am” and “you are” in the first two lines of the first stanza certainly seem deliberate. Similarly, in lines three and four, “a pattern that others made may prevail in the world/ and following the wrong god home we may miss our star”, “world” and “star” have a subject-driven relationship as well.  In the second stanza, “break” and “dyke” bring us closer to a traditional rhyme; and “break” certainly has a relationship with “broken dyke” in terms of meaning.  One could argue that “tail” and “cruelty” in the third stanza have a sound-based relationship.  In the following stanza, “talk” and “dark” possess similar sound and visual traits.  Finally, in the last stanza; “For it is important that awake people be awake, / or a breaking ling may discourage them back to sleep;/ the signals we give—yes or no, or maybe—/ should be clear: the darkness around us is deep”; the obvious rhyme of “sleep” and “deep” offers the reader a conclusion or fulfills what feels like a pending promise by this time in the poem.

My encounters with form this semester have, more than anything, demanded that I view the realm of poetic technique with a wider lens.  Rather than exhibiting frustration over the presumed “limitations” of form, I can agree to a gradual discovery of possibility within form that will manifest itself through practice and time.  Instead of viewing form solely as a collection of boundaries, I acquiesce to the notion that free verse is comprised of its own rules and limitations—they are just hidden better.  As Robert Hass states, “The form of a poem exists in the relation between its music and its seeing; form is not the number or kind of restrictions, conscious or unconscious, many or few, with which a piece of writing begins.   A sonnet imposes on set of restrictions and a poem by Robert Creeley with relatively short lines and three-or four-line stanzas imposes another…the music of the poem as it develops imposes its own restrictions.  That is how it comes to know form.”