Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Adventures In Form

Tom Chiver's increasingly impressive publishing adventure, Penned In The Margins, has now published his edited collection of new and remoded poetic forms, Adventures In Form.  As far as UK poetry publishing goes, at least, this has got to be one of the most eye-opening books of the decade.  It is most noteworthy for two things, I think - cementing Roddy Lumsden as the presiding genius of new poetic forms that he is, and also signalling the mainstreaming of Oulipo constraints among youngish British poets.  Before making a few critical comments, I should say that as a creative writing teacher at university level, this is one book I will certainly encourage my students to beg, borrow or steal (actually not steal) - in fact, I can see myself making it required reading on at least one module.

Supplementing the great Norton anthology of forms, from Boland & Strand, this offers a series of modish and newish formal strategies - as well as some that are not so original (like found poems).  I say modish, because the over-reliance on txt speak and facebook, tweeting etc. is likely to date more quickly than poems about Model Ts did.  As an anthology, it brings many new ways of composing poems to readers, and that is a full frontal good.

However, I have a few comments on the introduction by Chivers, a savvy critic and poet who has won an Eric Gregory recently.  He should know that such an introduction should probably make reference to Angela Leighton's major study of poetic form, On Form.  He should probably mention the idea of organic form.  And he might want to mention words like truth, sincerity, and artifice.  That is because, for all the mentioning of crosswords and puzzles, this book misses a point, or rather, embraces the heartless Tin Man before he gets to Oz.  Poems are written and read by poets, but also by non-poets.

In the gap, I think, is the true nature of poetry, that between space where critics needs to consider the needs of both groups, which may be different.  Bored, jaded young poets always seek new or newly-found styles and modes and forms, to resay the already-said verities of living.  What makes this new turn to form-as-fun intriguing and alarming in equal measure is that it somehow sidesteps the other things that poems can and need to do - that is, to move, inspire, perhaps even instruct.  Formal play delights and amuses, to be sure.  It rarely, if ever, moves. There is no reason why formal play cannot be emotive, of course - but as evidenced in this compendium, formal games tend to emphasise the novelty of discovery and surprise, over any form of moral or personal expression.

To become new critical for a moment (and Chivers ignores these critics completely), form could be said to be an integrating aspect of content itself.  In these poems collected here, there is no fallacy of union between form and content, of course - if anything, the form exceeds content or meaning, or becomes a new meta-meaning, the subject of the poem being the way in which poems can be made, frankly, any which way but loose (and even that way).  I myself am no fan of organic form.  I suspect poems that use their alliterative slaps and gurgles to sound out on the tongue the bogs and mud.

But I equally wonder about some kinds of math constraints that, unlike Houdini's straight jacket made famous by Muldoon, are not so much designed to get out of, as to become the trick itself.  But the trick was not the manufacture of chains and elaborate cabinets filled with water, it was the escapology.  To use the trope of puzzles for poetry misses the point that puzzles are more fun for the makers than the puzzlers-out, at least in the poetic context - and that in fact what has killed poems for most people is the fact they seem like math homework.  Oulipo strategies are likely to make poems seem ever-more artificial, removed, and even inhuman - which can be their innovative buzz-factor.  They release poets from the jacket of emotion, empathy, and even compassion.

But that is surely one adventure not worth risking all for.  Indeed, the British hardly need excuses to forgo emotionality in verse - they invented irony to do that for them.  Behind this impressive book lurks a rather worrying possibility - that we face another generation of poems unable, or unwilling, to concern themselves, in the best possible language, with the full depths of human, and spiritual, experience, what, in a different context, Bloodaxe has called "being alive".  The key of course, is balance.  Poets must push language as far as it will go - but form is not language, only.  To paraphrase Depeche Mode, Form Is Not Enough In Itself.
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