Friday, December 09, 2005

Formal Verse and Hard Aesthetic Choices in Revision

From the villanelle, sonnet, and sestina that I’ve been working on during the last couple of months, I’ve found that adhering too strictly to the form is detrimental to the poem. By this I mean that adhering strictly to the form just for the sake of the form is injurious. My allegiance is always to the poem, to create the best poem that I can. If you fulfill the requirements of the form too perfectly, you tend to get a lifeless, mechanical poem. This reminds me of what one of my teachers said years ago about working with iambic pentameter. He talked about how variation from the meter is welcomed and keeps the poem from being sing-songy or lulling you to sleep. As Ellen Bryant Voight pointed out in one of her essays, much of art is about pattern and variation.

I find it theoretically interesting to think about the hard choices you have to make as a poet when you revise. Often there is a conflict between sound and sense on say a word choice, or the line is too long or too short compared to other lines in the vicinity, or you’ve fudged the meter because it sounds better or says something you really need to say, or the stanza doesn’t look right on the page and makes the poem look ugly on the “canvas” of the page. It seems to me in times like this you have to have some idea of what is best overall for the poem when there no clear and perfect solution. It is also helpful if you have some idea of your hierarchy of preferences. For example, are you willing to use an inferior word in terms of denotation/connotation in favor of a word that makes the line sound better? Do you prefer sound over sense or sense over sound given a choice?


From a fortune cookie 12/7/2005:

You will conquer obstacles to achieve success.


At 8:25 AM, Blogger Justin Evans said...

I have always found myself not writing form poems because of this. I am waiting until I am struck by a poem seeming to suit a form. I have a friend who says with a little tinkering, one of my poems would be a great sonnet, but I can't see it being a sonnet without destroying the fabric of the poem. Maybe I'm not that good, but I would rather wait for the right poem to come along than try to manufacture a sonnet for no reason.

Now a sestina . . . I would love to write one of those, and I have tried dozens of times. I finished one, but it was too prosaic, which brings me right back to my original point.

At 2:15 PM, Blogger Gerald Huml said...

I think with form poems you have to be patient and willing to tinker a lot, but even then a form poem can fail. On the positive side, they are excellent for stretching yourself as exercise poems and force you to write differently than you would in free verse. I have a teacher who thinks some people have a knack for writing form poems well and some people can never write them well.

At 10:23 PM, Blogger Julie said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 10:24 PM, Blogger Julie said...

I've always been a person fascinated by formal poems but didn't try writing them (because I thought they were too, uh, formulaic?). I had a sonnet assignment a few weeks ago and struggled to find material. I took a "dead" free verse poem I wasn't ready to bury and tried to put it in form. Strangley enough, it helped me to focus more clearly on my subject, and the sonnet, while not 100% perfect, ended up being a success.
If there's anything I can say about writing in form, it's that it really makes you pay attention to what you're doing. I've been turning to form in the writing I'm doing lately just because it makes me pay attention. Whether or not the poem stays in form at the end is irrelevant.


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