Friday, April 28, 2006

National Poetry Month

Last year I wrote a few words about formal poetry, and I feel compelled to write about it again. For the most part, formal poetry is "out"--that is, most of the poetry we see is free verse. But there are still poets writing formal verse, thank goodness, and some say it is making a comeback. Many journals treat formal verse with contempt, but then many journal editors do not even appear to understand what it is, with their warnings that they accept free verse but no rhymed verse (what about all of the formal poetry that does not rhyme?).

I had an instructor who described the form as "a kind of stand-in for inspiration," and that is a beautiful description, and one I have found to be true in writing my own formal verse. To me, there is nothing more satisfying than completing a sestina or a pantoum or a sonnet. Any of these forms or any of the other forms--rondeau, villanelle, triolet, etc.--is difficult to write.

Here is a sestina. And a pantoum. A piece of blank verse. A Petrarchan sonnet. And here is a rondeau, originally published in the 2005 issue of Manorborn:

Rose Culture
By Diane E. Dees

Old garden roses ramble, climb and spread
in shades of amber, apricot and red;
while nearby, stiff and fussy hybrid teas
stand rigid and impossible to please,
which makes them look a trifle overbred.

These modern roses in their formal beds
must constantly be sprayed, pruned back and fed;
and while they pose there, looking ill at ease,
Old garden roses ramble.

'Belinda' scrambles up the potting shed
while 'Mermaid' climbs a tree that--although dead--
now shimmers cream and gold with every breeze,
and steals the show from all the greening trees.
While hybrid teas, erect, look straight ahead,
old garden roses ramble.


I think part of the problem is that there is so much bad formal poetry out there... or poetry trying to reach into the "formal" registry....

This poem is gorgeous. It represents the form wonderfully.

Yet too often, the adoption of old, time-honored forms are yoked with or force an overdependence on dead or dying or stale metaphors, and thus create a piece of writing that gives away too much--fails to reveal new meanings, fails to challenge and suprise its reader (and good poetry, literary poetry, always should take reflection, time...) I enjoy any well-written poem; all well-written poems are well crafted, whether we have named the form or have yet to assign the form a name...I enjoy avant garde work which takes as a good part of its task challenging traditional forms--because any tradition written and placed needs be interrogated, for obvious reasons--if not, art dies....
I am an avid reader of Joan Retallack and Susan Howe, as well as Molly Peacock and Amy Clampitt...Cathy Wagner as well as Louise Bogan, as are many poetry-consuming citizens of this country (I've yet to meet any one of us who doesn't read all kinds of poetry)...but I must admit I hold more admiratioin for the more experimental poets-- for attempting new ways of knowing is always more difficult than depending on old to make new--and I admire those who take on difficulty. It just isn't true that writing in cherished forms is more difficult than attempting new forms...and their is a political reason we need to bend and break or tweek or manipulate the old...depending on inherited master-forms and "reforming" in their image just doesn't produce a living and excitiing "revolution"--reform makes nothing happen. Revolution rolls us out into the unfamiliar, prerequisite for social change. It's never been a question of form v. free, since "free" strives to work within multiple forms while simultaneously going beyond them--at least the good literature does...Susan Howe again comes to mind. Or someone like Janet Sylvester. Anyway. The healthiest cultures allow for all sorts of poetry, as ours does--the American Poetry Review, for instance, publishes excellent traditional-form poetry when they receive it. So does The New Republic (they really like Jackie Osherow--a traditional, brilliant poet) and The New Yorker. Again, Your poem is beautiful and wise. Thank you for sharing it!

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:09 PM  

Thank you.

I would follow what you said so well by adding that any good poem, regardless of form, can be difficult to write. That is the nature of poetry.

I, too, enjoy Clampitt and Peacock.

Experimental poetry (or fiction), when it is not done just for the sake of experimentation, is stimulating, just as formal poetry, when not done just to wearily satisfy the form, is exciting.

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