Monday, November 19, 2007

Formal Debate

I initiated a discussion on full rhyme and metre at the Poets on Fire forum after reading a critic who dismissed writing in traditional forms as “anachronistic.” I know this issue often polarises North American writers, but I had thought that writing and publishing formal verse was uncontroversial in the UK. However, it seems as though not everyone agrees.

I guess only about 10 percent of my output is in traditional form, and I tend to go for slant rhymes and loose metre. However, the poem (a pantoum) below is unusual for me in that it uses full rhyme and fairly strict metre. Does that mean I’ll find difficulty in getting it published, outside specialised “formalist” publications (which I don’t tend to submit to anyway)? Well, I’ll see. I may do some more work on it, and then I’ll keep submitting it to the mainstream magazines until either someone takes it or I give up. Of course, it won't really prove anything if no one accepts it - it might simply not be good enough. I’ll leave it here for about 24 hours.



Colin Will said...

I don't mind a well-written formal poem, and I've written a few formal poems myself. I like the sonnet form. Something about the iambic pentameter gives a poet space on the line, and the 14-line format makes for focus and concentration. There is, if you like, a 'specification' for the sonnet, but it's sufficiently flexible and hospitable that it doesn't seem restrictive or mechanical, unlike some other forms. One beginning with 'V' springs to mind.

Ben Wilkinson said...

I think that formal verse has as much place in contemporary poetry as freer forms, though the difficulty in pulling off a good (i.e. surprising, exciting and affecting) sonnet, pantoum, villanelle etc that conforms to traditional conceptions of those forms is greater than successful writing in free or ‘looser’ verse. This is probably why we see so little mainstream formalism. Or when we do, it’s formal in that looser sense, without paying total and absolute attention to the rules (take Armitage’s Book of Matches; though ‘And if it snowed and snow covered the drive’ is a very tightly controlled sonnet, and perhaps better than all of the matches for it). That said, then, and I reckon formal poetry forms can often, in a somewhat paradoxical sense, squeeze the best lines out of a poet in their restrictions. Hell knows a lot of aspirant poets would do well to learn from the brevity and carefully crafted power of said forms.

Frances said...

Reading around the contemporary magazines it seems more free verse or looser forms tend to get published than the strict forms. Is this because more people are writing this way, because they find it easier? Or are more people writing this way because this style tends to get published? Chicken and egg?

Cailleach said...

I'd agree with what Ben said, and he said it very well. The more practiced you are with form, the better you can 'subvert' it and make something really fresh and new of both the form and the language.
Funnily enough we are entering the form fray in a Poetic Form class lately, beginning with haiku last week and now moving on to villanelles. I'm keen to get to grips with form as it has eluded me long enough - and I have to say although I've been dragged kicking and screaming against it, I really like form now... who'd figure?
Shame I missed the pantoum - oh well.

Colin Will said...

I haven't felt able to dive in to this debate on POFF. I'm a simple scientist, and I don't understand the language and concepts of literary analysis.

Rob said...

Thanks for the interesting comments.

Colin, I used to like writing villanelles, but these days, I prefer Sapphics and sestinas - and the odd sonnet. The pantoum was murder.

Ben - yes, restriction liberates. It's a paradox and a true one. Spot on.

Frances - could be chicken and egg. Strict form just isn't in fashion, which, of course, is no reason not to write that way.

Barbara - good luck with your formal poems. I doubt you missed all that much with the pantoum. I've posted a sonnet about writing the pantoum this evening, if that's any consolation!