Some Experiments in Form

Poetic forms commonly use patterns based on sound (metre, rhyme) or number (syllabics) or both (iambic pentameter). Graphological forms (based on spelling) are neglected. Perhaps this is because As exhibit 1, let's take this poem.

Sound and Sense
Lines; truths by committee,
tones buried in words
like a sword in stone.

Stock quotations tumble.
Culture's very core is shaken; recovery is slow
until a rag man risks an anagram.
Letters are united, untied from form.
The broken shield is held aloft in triumph,
reflections more serious than first thought.

Seeking narrative, the chosen one
draws words from tones,
constructs new meanings - enigmas almost:
close enough for now.

Here the anagrams ("words"/"sword", "tones"/"stone", "very core"/"recovery", "a rag man"/"anagram", "united"/"untied", "shield"/"is held", "meanings"/"enigmas" - almost) are integral to the theme - where does sound end and meaning begin? Equally one could ask where spelling ends. Anagrams have a long history of use in poetry dating from the Romans and Greeks to U.A. Fanthorpe. They can add meaning to a poem just as other low-level effects (rhyme, alliteration, etc) can. As a carver might relish the feel and grain of wood, so poets can exploit (rather than gloss over) the raw material of their craft. In this first piece the anagrams are signalled as they would be in crossword clues. They are irregularly positioned, so it's not really a form. But what about this?

Two ways to make it
The latest sex god
     made an album - a bum deal man,
he later said. After
     headlines and lies he
was penniless.
     Oh Eros, the hot heroes
like you once
     rose sore
from bed,
     each ache
a proof of love. Now
     actors co-star
in divorce
     suits - it's us
they envy. While they sink in
     scandal, lads can
laugh it off, forget the arguments
     over the hate long ago, let go, have another go,
while the once famous
     sad men, haunted, unashamed, tend
to their past.

This has more rigid constraints - alternate lines are anagrams - which like regular rhyme and meter can lead to padding and tortured syntax. In this example the form relates somewhat to the theme, and (except for the line-breaks) doesn't disrupt the poem. Indeed there's a case for saying that the form doesn't disrupt the poem enough - readers might not notice it! An ostentatious form needn't be advertised, but readers nowadays might need a footnote if the form isn't obvious, even if hints are in the title.

Lost Letters
"Too staid", the critics said, "and much too sad. Poems shouldn't
mean but be". So must the work of men like me who
chose Jarrell's hose or Heaney's hoe become
sparse, hard to parse as they disappear up our collective arse?
Can't they swing and sing as if prose were a sin?
Should they be palaces, places where thought paces in ermine
or night-classes where we pretend that lasses don't have asses?

It's hard to know what to do now there's no Eliot
daring to preach about eating a peach. We each must find
the thread to pull, tread lightly but read heavily,
suckle at the breast of the wildest beast, seek the best
public forum and private form for expression,
learn about meter, earn a good ear before we try life's university,
flee abroad, get off with some broad on a road not taken,
or get a grant to rant like a rat on a sinking readership.

Upstarts strip away pretence, trip over feet, tip the pointless press.
Their stuff's just prose in a pose. Poe's turning in his grave.
While stolid, solid poets slid into obscurity they've zoomed like
human cannon-balls into the canon, ousting poor anon.
Mon frère, I'll explain your free verse to you, for a fee,
with wit it's easy to avoid selling out to any lout with clout who
brought cheap joy, bought their way to the top. They ought to stop,
accept there's no way through to fame now. Though it's tough, I know
I'll never cast pearls before swine or serve wine to win friends.
Let them eat cake. I'll earn my bread, read their books, always see red.

People will notice the internal rhymes but there's a more regular pattern - each line has a triplet of words (cannon/canon/anon, for example) where letters are 'lost'. Some lines also have triplets where letters are gained.

George Herbert's Paradise uses similar word-play
What open force, or hiddenCHARM
Can blast my fruit, or bring meHARM
While the enclosure is thineARM

Ideas for such forms can come from word puzzles. For example
a pore sport
adore a port
a dope a poet
adopt a post
adapt a past
adept a pact
a debt apart

Here the title is mutated a letter at a time in 2 related columns. The next poem is another exacting form - a multi-word pun

Doubled up in pain
He'd long desired her. Twilight restored,
he wondered on the way, doubtful of fate,
still only a boy, far from sure. No ring -
it was finished, a lover gone. No mistake.

He'd longed. He sighed, hurt, while high trees stalled,
he wandered on the wade out, full of hate,
still lonely, a boy far from shore, knowing
it was finished, all over, gone. No missed ache.

Forms can be borrowed other cultures or eras, where such forms are more common: multi-word puns are more popular (and easier) in French; Anglo-saxons used regular alliteration; the Chinese had 'magic square' poems which could be read in various directions. Lewis Carroll enjoyed such challenges and wrote the following

I often wondered when I cursed,
often feared where I would be -
wondered where she'd yield her love,
when I yield, so will she.
I would her will be pitied!
Cursed be love! She pitied me ...

which reads the same whether it's read the usual way or read column by column.

A popular form (even Dante used it) is the acrostic. Here's a sonnet which (as the last line says) is also an acrostic

The Gaulling, gowned Emperors of Lit Crit
Herd classed canonfodder by degrees o'er
Exam pass to pastures new; infinite
Borderless text, Bakhtin to no corner.
Unchained from life's Vortex through Derrida
To hors-texte, transparent, once unequalled
Language rings false, peels from the coarse reader,
Exploits forms written off, discontented.
Racked by shopped prose, they plot authors' brutal
Deaths, yet despite these headlined, unread crimes
Informers live off the logocentric.
Discounted verse sells out, its capital-
Ist craftsmanship penned in by the right rhymes
Taut with feeling, on the left a cross/tick.

Form can primarily be for the benefit of the writer - an invigorating constraint. In his book on rhyme Peter Dale says that maybe rhyme's "real worth [is that] the need for rhyme makes a writer mix in the mind registers and topic fields in an unpredictable way" and the same might be said for the devices in these poems.

There are those who say that only if form contributes to meaning should it be appreciated at all, otherwise it's a distraction. I think most of the forms illustrated here support the content, but not in a way that will satisfy everyone. To some readers sound has an intrinsic, even visceral, effect that letter patterns can never replace, but I think there's room in the poetry world for many more forms (and combinations of forms) than we're currently using.


Unattributed poems are by the author: the first from Weyfarers 87, the others unpublished.
Tim Love