Why don’t I write in forms?

Don’t blame me; the question is Julie’s.

She came at it differently, of course. Because she’s Julie Carter, she’s a sucker for poetic forms, so she began writing about why she writes in forms. Apparently people ask her about it.

So I thought I’d take her up on her question (late) and consider why I don’t write in forms.

Well, the short answer is further down this page: my poems in form suck. Well, that’s not entirely true. I rather liked this one, written for a PFFA challenge aeons ago:

Antisartorial Spendour

What bothers me about my man’s he never wears a tie,
his compliments are billiard-bald, he never tells a lie,
whenever we go out to dine, we rarely can get in;
the reason is a simple one — to wear a tie’s a sin.

I’ve taken him to clothing stores and clad him in a suit.
I’ve tied a silken tie around his neck and cooed, “How cute!”
There’s only one result of all these hopeful dress routines:
he smiles a wide and honest smile and asks: “Where are my jeans?”

Sometimes I shout, “Oh, God forgive reverse sartorial snobs!
What good are smoky bedroom eyes? You’re losing all your jobs!”
My tieless man responds in kind and ends each lover’s spat
by fixing me with honesty and smiling, “Dear, you’re fat!”

The long answer is that when I write in set forms I find that stuff forces itself into the poem that I didn’t mean to be there. Now I know that this is something that forms lead you to conquer. The more you write in ’em, the more familiar they get to you, and the more things you can say in ’em. It’s like learning a new language. On the other hand, my poetry tends to be — and is tending more and more to be — fundamentally metrical, and it incorporates all kinds of sonic echoes which regularly aspire to rhymes.

The difference, I think, is where the intention lies. When one begins to write formally, to impose structure on one’s writing, it’s like driving a car. One is conscious of every little thing. Gearshift’s here, clutch is here, indicator’s here, mirrors are here and there, the steering wheel needs this much of a nudge or a wrench, the brakes need only a little pressure, etc. The more one practises, though, the more unconscious this knowledge becomes, until one can focus on major issues, like what’s coming, what’s between you and the verge, how to avoid an accident, yadaya.

I’m at the point in my writing where metre and sound are largely unconscious. But if I’m writing in a set form, that form’s conscious. I’m counting feet to some degree, but what I’m really doing is pulling up rhymes. And finding them is a long and painful conscious struggle, with the result that the final poem appears laboured, stiff.

Something else, too. A couple of years ago, when doing the first Malpractice workshop hosted by Rachel, I was challenged (by Rachel) to write longer lines in my poems. It wasn’t an overall thing; the subject matter of the particular Lily poem I was working on then (this version of Preacherman) called for more space for development. I resisted. If I wrote long lines, I thought, I’d be forcing things and the poetry would be stiff. So I didn’t write long lines. For me, pentameter was plenty long enough.

(By long lines, by the way, I mean lines longer than a pentameter line. Before PFFA, I had developed the habit of writing tetrameter when I wrote in verse, pentameter for the occasional sonnet (I’d written, oh, maybe three or four), and short modern-poetry two-three-syllable lines for everything else.

Then all of a sudden, last April, in NaPo, every poem that came out of my pen (ha! tapped off my keyboard) was longlined — without any conscious intention. Longlined and fundamentally metrical, for the most part. Some practice had taken place — a couple of Lilies between Preacher and NaPo — and obviously Rachel’s advice had sunk to a level of unconsciousness that enabled that kind of result.

(This, by the way, is in part the result of critique, of reading, of writing crapcrapcrap over a period of months or years, and of thinking — this stuff keeps sinking, settling like sediment, to the level of one’s unconscious, where it undergoes a radical and magic transformation, like leafmould turning to oil.)

So I imagine if I practised, I could write in forms if I wanted to. Thing is, I don’t know if I really want to.

I guess that’s my real answer.

I don’t wanna.


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