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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.


Poetry Pleases! said…
Dear Todd

I love the line 'what has killed poems for most people is the fact they seem like maths homework'. I believe that one of Roddy's many talents is compiling crosswords. And I think that there are connections. For example I quite often find myself searching for a three syllable adjective beginning with, say, B that isn't totally bathetic or banal.

Best wishes from Simon
Last para, third sentence, "likes" = "lurks".

I'm not sure if Adventures in Form would support me, but I'd want to say that new form can expose new content and vice versa, i.e. the dialectic mechanism, so well expressed by Stalin, - 'Content is impossible without form, but the point is that a given form, since it lags behind its content, never fully corresponds to this content; and so the new content is obliged to clothe itself for a time in the old form, and this causes a conflict between them' - this bumpy process can go the other way too. Sometimes a new form exposes the possibility of a range of new insights and emotions. Our conceptions of the human and the spiritual are not immutable; they too are of our own time. Jazz or film noir would both be great examples of form changing the dimensions of human experience. No-one would suppose that they arose in a doodling arid purely-artificial context, yet once we get beyond our reverence and read the history, it turns out that frivolous playfulness and invention did play a part in them too.
Having been schooled first at an Oulipian-like altar in Ormskirk by Scott Thurston and Robert Sheppard, where the core poetic textbooks are Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris's Poems for the Millennium volumes one and two, I feel able to speak with some smidgen of familiarity about adventures in form.

And though one's own natural bent tilts more towards a formal lyrical center, this does not mean I am automatically resistant to the post-modern practitioners in po-biz.

However what does strike one about, sadly, a majority of the po-mo practitioners, is that when heard read aloud their poems, more often than not, fail to engage a wider audience. Even the poster boy of the British wing of the movement, Sean Bonney, falls, in my ear, flat when ripping through his ditties.

But there's always exceptions that prove the rule, and the one uniquely original exception, at least that I have heard, is the Dundalk poet Ronan Murphy. His Sound poetry (as well as his lyrical stuff) is truly mesmeric on both the page and in performance.

He was in the Spring and Autumn 2010 editions of Fuselit, along with a recording of him on a CD they produced. Chivers may be unaware of him as he would be up there near the top of the list of poets packing out this anthology.

This is a recording of him reading at Kit Fryatt's Wurm in Apfel night in Dublin on 25 March 2010.

The Sound poetry begins just before half way.
"Men escape from realistic limitations on the wings of an artist's fortunate intuitions about his medium.

Yet what does form mean? I do not even know what it means to ask the question. All I know is that when I ask it, I am in the existential world. The answer may, in fact, be the existential world."

--Carl Rakosi, Ex Cranium, Night
Jon Stone said…
"However what does strike one about, sadly, a majority of the po-mo practitioners, is that when heard read aloud their poems, more often than not, fail to engage a wider audience."

No. No, no, no, no, no. No. Come on. It is absolute pan-in-the-face absurdity to say that a problem with one particular section/style of poetry is engaging a wider audience, as if that isn't a problem faced by the larger spectrum of poetry.

Besides, I went to my first pure sound-poetry event recently, and if anything, it's dangerously close to being far more engaging than the usual kind of poetry reading, for one simple reason: it's closer to music. As soon as the brain realises it doesn't have to knot itself up in an effort to make sense of the sounds it's hearing, you find yourself, oddly enough, more relaxed and tuned in. The experience left me seriously doubtful of the worth of me standing up and reading out text from a book, and aggressively set on finding some way to make it as sublime as what I'd just experienced.

"But there's always exceptions that prove the rule, and the one uniquely original exception, at least that I have heard, is the Dundalk poet Ronan Murphy. His Sound poetry (as well as his lyrical stuff) is truly mesmeric on both the page and in performance."

This is the second time I've heard this claim, the second time I've read/listened to the example and been baffled by it. Not that he's bad, not by a long chalk, but it sits very neatly in the veins of both lyrical and sound poetry that I'm familiar with.
Jon Stone said…
Todd, I really disagree with your assertion that Oulipo-style constraints "release poets from the jacket of emotion, empathy, and even compassion". As you say, we have irony for that. For me, those constraints (when calibrated correctly) are almost the opposite. Conventional poetic construction is the straitjacket which too often forces a kind of grandiloquence, a pretence of authority or mastery over emotions or subject matter. This is because the lyric pushes for conclusion. Formal constraints are liberating because they foreground the game, or the construction, over the poet's voice, which leaves the poet free to be vulnerable, to explore feeling without having to provide the answers.
Jon, obviously I worked as a performance/soundscape poet for years in Montreal and know what you mean about its joys. Do you know The Four Horsemen, for instance? And Christian Bok is a crowdpleaser, of course he is. But it is true, I think, to say that some modes of poetic expression are more appealing to a broader audience - not that that means one has to write or compose for that audience. But to deny that is to claim a lie - that art house films appeal more than blockbusters. A Seamus Heaney reading just does appeal to a wider section of society than a reading by Sean Bonney. That isn't a value judgement, it is a fact. We have the sales figures of books and tickets to show for it. As for the lyric pushing for conclusion, how so? Games and rules liberate - all poets know that - but my point is games without some passion or depth of feeling behind the play can lead to aridity of effect. Not necessarily in the short run, but over time. Which French Oulipo poets do you think are "vulnerable" and explore feeling the most?

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