Posted tagged ‘verse forms’

After the Sestinas–Why Bother?

October 14, 2009

As I wrote down the rules for a sestina in the last couple of posts, I have to confess that the question “why bother?” went through my head with the regularity of the six repeating “end words” of that form.

Why bother writing formal poetry?  (Much less blogging about it?)

Seriously, isn’t poetry supposed to be about free expression?

So why bother with all the restraints and requirements of a poetic form?  Why not just write free verse all the time?

Ten reasons:

1.         Writing formal poetry limits your choices.  (If your form requires rhymes, you are limited to words that rhyme.)  This is a big help if you don’t know exactly what you want to say (and if it doesn’t involve oranges.)

2.         Writing formal poetry defines your choices (i.e. once you decide to write a villanelle, you know your poem will have two repeating lines that have to work as a couplet at some point, and will probably not end in “orange”.)

3.         Writing formal poetry terminates your choices.  (If you write a sonnet, you’ll be done by line fourteen.)

4.         Poetic forms provide inherent music and, if you can manage it, rhythm.  This is great if you don’t have a good ear; even greater, if you do.

5.         Sometimes the music of a poetic form, and the cleverness of its dance, can substitute for profundity (which is wonderful if you never found out what exactly you wanted to say.)

6.         Writing formal poetry is fun; there is a game-like quality to it.  (It has rules!)

7.         Even failing at the chosen form makes you more conscious of language, and, it is to be hoped, a more musical and adventurous writer.  (Oh Orange!)

8.         Even bare success at the chosen form puts you in the company of some of the greatest poets of all time.  You, like Shakespeare, will have written a sonnet; like Dylan Thomas, a villanelle; like Elizabeth Bishop, a sestina.  This sense of camaraderie, and the understanding that arises from even a brief turn in the trenches of prosody, will make you a more appreciative and attentive reader.

9.         Finally, it must be understood, and grudgingly accepted, that a good sonnet, sestina, villanelle or pantoum is not good because it follows the rules, but because it’s a good poem.  That said, it’s hard to write a good poem.  Maybe you don’t have it in you one day, maybe not any day.  However, if you follow the rules, which can be done by simple diligence (if not always inspiration), you can write what qualifies as a sonnet, or one of the other forms.  You may not have achieved a good poem, but you will have achieved a sonnet, a sestina, villanelle or pantoum, which itself deserves a modicum of pride.

10.  “Orange” is supposed to be one of the few words that, allegedly, has no perfect rhyme in English.    But it works just fine in a sestina (or mid-line.)   And, if you do manage to rhyme it, well….

If you prefer counting elephants to counting syllables, check out 1 Mississippi by Karin Gustafson at link above.

Pantoum – Hard hard hard: “Overheard on the Esplanade”

September 27, 2009

I’m tackling a different poetic form today – the pantoum.

Pantoums are sometimes compared to villanelles because they too involve repeating lines.  But pantoums are, to my mind, much harder to write.

As explained previously (see e.g. post comparing villanelles to banana pudding), writing a villanelle is largely a matter of assembly.   It takes preparation time, but once you get two reasonably resonant, flexible, lines (the ones that will be repeated), you can just kind of layer them.   (Like your pudding, your wafers, your bananas, your whipped cream.)

Writing a pantoum is more like setting up a house of cards–a house in which the same cards are used to build both the lower and higher levels.  (My attempts sometimes remind me of a clown stacking boxes to reach some high place; because of a shortage, the clown keeps putting the bottom boxes on top, until, slowly, she realizes she’s just not getting anywhere, at least anywhere transcendent.)

Pantoums also make me think of some Groucho Marx or Charlie Chaplin schtick in which the same coin or flower is recirculated (tied to his pocket etc.)   My brain here keeps picturing Roberto Benigni as waiter in Life is Beautiful, re-serving a light fish dish (abandoned by another customer) to the Nazi commandant with an ulcer by emphasizing the “fritti fritti fritti” quality of the mushroom omelette previously ordered by the commandant.   (Comparing a pantoum to recycled fish is probably not fair.)

The problem and also the magic of a pantoum is that all the lines are repeated.  The form is made up of quatrains.  Traditionally, it involves a rhyme sequence, though some writers dispense with rhyme.   Frankly, it is a type of poem in which “slant rhyme” or near rhyme works well to avoid a sing-songy quality.

It sounds more complicated than it is.   I’ve included a line-by-line breakdown, after my sample, below.

A note:  in reading, pay close attention to punctuation, which trumps line breaks.  (Meaning that pauses are only to be taken at commas, periods, dashes, etc. and not at line breaks unless punctuated.)  Sorry to sound churlish, but punctuation is particularly important in pantoums as it is one of the few tools for sculpting the repetitions.

(Sorry also for grim subject matter of poem.)

Heard on the Esplanade, a Pantoum

The woman cries
that she doesn’t believe it.
“Don’t tell me lies.”
She pulls away from him.

“That she doesn’t believe it—
Is that what you’re telling me?”
She pulls away from him
in the sun of the walkway.

“Is that what you’re telling me?”
Sky overbright on sleeves
in the sun of the walkway
twists the fall of fall leaves.

Sky overbright on sleeves
he holds onto.  Her, she tries to tear,
twists, the fall of fall leaves.
All pretend not to hear.

He holds onto her.  She tries to tear.
“Tried to rape me,” rings out.
All pretend not to hear.
“How can she, how can she not—”

“Tried to rape me,” rings out.
“Don’t tell me lies.
How can she, how can she not?”
The woman cries.

(All rights reserved, Karin Gustafson)

Now for the truly curious, here’s the breakdown:

For notation purposes, “A” and “B” refer to the end rhyme of the line.   “A1” refers to a specific whole line (which is repeated) and which uses the A rhyme;  “A2” refers to another specific whole line which also uses the A rhyme. “B1” is a specific B rhyming line; “B2” another specific B rhyming line.

A1
B1
A2
B2

B1
A3
B2
A4

A3
B3
A4
B4

B3
A5
B4
A6

A5
B5
A6
B6

B5
A2
B6
A1

A pantoum can have any number of quatrains as long as the patterns are maintained.

If you’d rather count octopi than repeating lines–check out 1 Mississippi at link above or on Amazon.