To Be in Any Form

I think I’ve brought up this line from Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself: “To be in any form, what is that?” he asks. “Mine is no callous shell.” That line about shells can be read as a bit dismissive of traditional form, but what strikes me most is that first question–one that dominates American poetry: what does it mean to write, exist or resist, explore or explode any “form.” It is a major question as poets return to and adapt poetic forms that come with certain ideological baggage, or form their own poetics intended to carry, in their structure and conception, their own beliefs about what it means “to be” in the world and in the poem alike.

The critical prose and poetics statements that we read for today make a number of claims about what it means to compose poems in traditional forms. Which accounts did you find most interesting, challenging, or problematic? And how did this exploration of formalist work and its histories help you think differently or more carefully the more self-consciously ‘connected’ and ‘progressive’ work that we’ve read this semester?


15 Responses to To Be in Any Form

  1. Carl October 5, 2022 at 10:49 pm #

    I was fascinated by Christopher Beach’s near abjection with poetic form. I deeply appreciated Beach’s insight on John Crowe Ransom’s “texture” and “structure.” I never would have thought to apply those two terms to refer to or describe poetry and poetic form. When rereading the poems after having read this article and applying Ransom’s terms, I found the form and poetry richer. I usually only think of poetry within the senses of sight and sound. However, when applying texture and structure, poetry and form now for me has a feel, a smell, a taste, and of course sight and sound. Going back to Beach’s, shall I say, frustration with form: Depending on where one stood within the verse culture of the period, these New Formalists (or neo-formalists) were either reactionaries attempting to turn back the clock to the days of the New Critics, poetic revolutionaries seeking to counter the tide of vapid free verse, or a small and ultimately negligible thorn in the side of mainstream poetry. (Beach 151). I found this statement a bit jarring due to its sense of subjectivity. However, I also found some validity in what Beach was saying as I can agree with the appearance of free verse being insipid.

    • Prof VZ October 10, 2022 at 7:00 pm #

      I appreciate the effort in taking what is most useful–a vocabulary that inspires a way of reading and understanding poetry in any form–from what is often such a contentious debate.

  2. Kathleen C October 5, 2022 at 10:53 pm #

    Personally, I really enjoyed the poetic statement by Sonia Sanchez. I like Sanchez’s practical approach to writing in form and it really resonated with me, especially her analogy with running: “if you were a runner and I wanted to get you in under four minutes, I’d have to work with you, work on your skills and habits, and with writing it’s the same thing” (196).
    I also liked the way that Gioia lays out the importance of remembering the original aural function of poetry and that form (Gioia is specifically referencing meter here) helps to support and give shape to the poetic audience. He notes that free verse is “a more modern technique that presupposes the existence of written texts” (17) and I think that often with free verse we can lose some of the…innateness? – I’m not sure if that’s quite the word – but we lose some original quality of poetry that was paramount in its inception. While I think writing in form just for form’s sake isn’t necessarily generative in a meaningful way, Sanchez points out that she will embody specific forms that suit the words, meaning, or occasion, not the other way around. She says “I am a poet, and the form is not going to form me. I will take the form and say what I want to say” (197). I like her sentiment here as a braodstrokes statement on formalism in general. This is also partly getting at what Julia Alvarez is saying in her statement on poetics, in that she is reclaiming form as a female poet and making what was historically oppressive (I am referencing sonnets here), and uses them as a subversive means to take back her power.

    As far as connecting the aim or goal of formalism, which I took in part as tapping back into the historical function of poetry and using it in new and generative ways, I think that it helped me to be a better reader of poetry, especially some of the more”progressive” works that we read. But in some of those poems, too, I think there is a conscious attention to the aural aspects of poetry, like Ginsberg’s attention to breath, for example, with specific breathing patterns affecting the sound.

    • Prof VZ October 10, 2022 at 7:02 pm #

      I also appreciate the Sanchez piece. Though her own work is often highly political, I appreciate that she frames form here not as inherently progressive or regressive, but just a context in which one works, and a sent of tools that can help one develop as a poet. I also liked the way in which she felt that certain topics called upon a formal space–a space of encounter with her father, for example. The form, then, is the stage, or the site of encounter. Lovely idea. Where does one want to stage one’s ideas? What structures encourage that performance?

  3. Ellen October 5, 2022 at 10:54 pm #

    In terms of form, due to Ransom’s insight on New Criticism I’ve found this week’s poetry the most interesting in terms of form. The idea of poetry containing elements of paradox, tension, and irony through the use of texture and structure working both together and against each other is so cool~
    I write about this a bit in my blog post pertaining to Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry. I particularly found her poem

    “One Art” to be compelling because she uses all of these elements described above: paradox, tension (caused by structure/texture), irony.

    Paradox: Her poem is about the art of mastering loss, the implication being she could lose the art of mastering
    Tension: Through structure and texture tension is caused. She wrote this in the form of a villanelle, which, according to Jason K. Phillip, is normally associated with topics of obsession. However, the speaker’s tone in this poem is uncaring and blasé.
    Irony: The use of an elegy combined with the uncaring tone when it’s clear in the last stanza the speaker does care a little bit about their loss

    My next thought on structure in regards to this course is to the Beats poets. For example, in Bob Kaufman’s “from jail poems” Kaufman utilizes the structure of a sonnet while simultaneously breaking it. He uses 14 lines in the first stanza but disregards rhyme scheme and meter. He does this in order to show how one can create art and beauty within the confines of a physical and metaphorical structures. When reading about the origin of the sonnet being either the Shakespearean sonnet or the Petrarchan sonnet, one sees that the origin is white, Western European. By choosing to break this form through manipulation Kaufman soars above his predecessors showing his master of form and ability to go beyond— that he does not need the validation of white traditionalists (an idea prevalent throughout the Beats movement).

    I think after reading about the New Criticism and Formalism, especially Beach’s article, I want to pay attention to the tension that can be caused in poetry. I’m always interested in contrast and juxtaposition within images but never really related that to form (aside from the idea that breaking form can be interesting). I’d like to look out more for this idea of tension and irony, there’s definitely a lot to play with in that context.
    I’ve always loved the idea of writing within form as a sort of discipline and vehicle for expression, this just gives more room for writing, growth, and opportunities for literary analysis.

  4. Isaac October 5, 2022 at 11:37 pm #

    To exist or write within form is quite simple to me. It means taking advantage of poetic devices: rhyme, assonance, consonance, meter, metaphor, etc., and creating symmetries throughout the poem. Whitman’s verse may not be a callous shell compared to the poets of his day, but his free-verse is today’s lyric almost! There are plenty of those devices within Whitman, perhaps not rhyme so much, but he obviously still has ears. I see so many poets on social media with huge followings, and others in huge journals, where there are either no poetic devices or very few. I believe even Ferlinghetti said ” Todays poetry reads like prose, but a good prose.” I admire Ferlinghetti’s work so much, but I completely resent that statement. The “Prose” is full of nothing but sentimentality It feels like we have to start from the ground up again if poetry is just prose, especially in the eyes of one the last Beats who died last year.

    I am not saying that we need a complete return to form, especially if returning to form means just returning to rhyme, which is what I think most think it would be. I would like to see poems that hold in themselves a fluid symmetry, where patterns are perfected, combined and forming bigger patterns, are then cut in half, dissolve, and rise again as something different—altogether changing, but in connected ways. When reading Rimbaud’s Illuminations (the Varese translation) at 18 or 19, I started to wonder why I thought these prose-poems were so perfect. I started to measure everything, syllable counts per line, the balance and distances between recurring sounds, use of color. If you look at my notebooks back then I have nothing but number patterns for both the French and English that display a weird amount of symmetry to them. But I do think something like this is more noticeable in prose-poems. In the Gioia essay she even says that the prose-poem form is the most organic( 21), but interestingly she says it has made the verse poem suffer by forcing poetry to be written as prose. I disagree with this, its simply changing the shape from a vertical plane to more of a horizontal one. I also disagree with her on the matters of translation in her essay. Lorca and Rilke in translation are anything but colorless at least from what I’ve read. Ashberry even said that Rimbaud in translation reads better than all English poets. While I am stressing the importance of the symmetry of poetic devices, it seems that the best poets are able to go beyond this in translation, their thoughts are that good.

  5. williamss11 October 5, 2022 at 11:51 pm #

    My take on this line from Whitman was that he was referring to his body and/or outward personality. Of having a thin skin, emotionally, and of the ability to take in all the sensations around him. In the lines that follow, that, then, could become overwhelming. There is almost a need in the end for some restraint. When applying it to poetry, it could be taken as a dismissal of traditional form in that he wanted to be free to express himself without certain constraints. He saw free verse as an opening up, as a discovery of the pearl within the experience he wished to express. Poetry is all about the creativity which lives in every nook and cranny of the world. What it means to write, exist or resist, explore or explode an “form” is to set it down, to document, a sliver of life or feeling in the best way possible. Poetry can really be anything and take any shape. Certain forms lend themselves better to a message or to a delivery than others. There are endless possibilities.
    I found all of this week’s readings to be fascinating. Sonia Sanchez’s was really interesting, especially as she writes that different forms can help expel different pains and emotions. You can apply the form as a way of getting the point across. I like what she said about practicing your craft within form. That you must master the rules, over and over, before you break them. It can be generative and lead to innovation in a similar way to free verse and other more ‘progressive’ forms of poetry.
    This exploration of formalist work and its histories has helped me think more about how the texture and structure of a poem can enhance the reading experience. There is so much held up against each other and at odds within poems in this way. Within different forms there can be diversity of style and tone. I believe there is merit to both the use of form and free verse; and that both can be used to satisfy the inner ache of a poem (sometimes at the same time).

    • Prof VZ October 10, 2022 at 6:45 pm #

      I like the recognition that Whitman, here, can be read as referring to literary form, but the question goes much deeper into more ontological issues, and also, as you note, issues related to embodiment. For Whitman, form is a sort of barrier that mediates and filters experience. He so often wants to be in direct contact with the thing itself.

  6. Erin Larsen October 6, 2022 at 12:25 am #

    I was really interested in the argument, made within a couple of the poetics statements and critical introductions, that anti-form sentiment is often paired with anti-femininity sentiment, and that it was seen as preferable to write in free verse because it was more manly. Finch’s preface to A Formal Feeling Comes lays this argument out really well– first suggesting that women were already less likely to pursue “radical innovation” at the expense of “accessibility” and “community building” (1), and then suffering under the very gendering of formal poetry itself, with men like William Carlos Williams and James Joyce dismissing feminine qualities when talking about poetry and essentially making it difficult for women to be seen and respected within the craft of poetry in the first place (2). I guess I’ve been swayed pretty profoundly by the “pumpkin spice latte” argument–whenever something is embraced mostly by women, and especially young women in the mainstream (like the aforementioned beverage), it becomes socially acceptable and even preferable to belittle that thing in public in order to gain credibility. So I agree with Finch that a lot of people protesting form at the time were really just protesting something that was less desirable because it was less “masculine.”

    Alvarez’s essay “Housekeeping Cages” furthers this argument. She points out that rejecting all things “feminine” may not be a productive goal of feminism, and that maybe there’s room in a feminist poetics for embracing and empowering the “feminine” rather than trying to force “masculinity” on everyone and everything. Writing about cleaning, for example, doesn’t throw feminism under the bus, but rather expands the definition of what feminist thinking can mean and do.

    Although a lot of the poetry we have read this far in the semester has eschewed traditional form, many of these poets tried to create something to take the place of form–like “breaths,” in the case of Black Mountain poets and Allen Ginsberg, or imitations of Black musical styles and forms, in the case of many of the Black Arts Movement writers. So I guess I’m flummoxed by the argument that some thinkers seemed to have at the time– for instance, Gwynn’s preface refers to Diane Wakowski’s “notorious attack” on formal poetics, calling it devilish and hyper-conservative, and even insinuating that it’s un-American. It seems like most (good) poets pay careful attention to how their poems are structured, even if they don’t fall into a recognizable pattern (for example, even some of the more spontaneous Beat poets were known to put their poems through a revision process), so the return to traditional forms like sonnets, ballads, etc. seems like way less of a stretch from formal to free than Wakowski, et al. would suggest. Not only is form itself an American practice, but even most poets who reject form still utilize a good amount of attention to how their works look and sound. When I take into consideration the fact that many of these anti-form arguments are sexist to boot, it seems like kind of a non-argument. There’s definitely a place for the study and veneration of both formalist and free-verse poems, in my opinion.

    • Prof VZ October 10, 2022 at 6:51 pm #

      Great attention to the gendering of form. It’s notable that when Eliot and Pound, in the late nineteen-teens, decided that free verse had gotten out of control, the re-frames the return to form (rhyming quatrains in their case) under the rubric of “difficulty” and “hardness”–a sort of classicism that continued to push back on feminized ideas of the sentimental. You also help us see, here, that the rhetoric around form often creates divisions and distinctions that don’t really help. They might help us understand the extremes, but not the broad middle ground of accomplished work in any form.

  7. steversonj October 6, 2022 at 4:00 am #

    I found the “Rebel Angels” article fascinating. There is always a tug-of-war between old school and new schools of anything. What is relevant? Which generation had it best? Poetry is no different as traditional styles of writing make just as much sense as new forms that shy away from restrictive content. In this article edited by Mark Jarman and David Mason, poets born after 1940 reject traditional ideas of writing that use meter and rhyme. This era’s coming of age is surrounded by social issues, war, and revolution. Everything about this era screams “you can’t hold me back!”. So, I understand the appeal New Formalists have with free verse. Jarman and Mason write, “Younger poets were schooled to be unschooled” (xvi). They were taught tradition but opted a more free approach to writing about their experiences. I believe the one thing they kept was the use of meter in their poetry. This article helps me consider our readings more purposefully as every article gives me more information to learn about the evolution of poetry. You have to write what you feel, how you feel it.

  8. Rachel October 6, 2022 at 5:04 am #

    I understand why you bring up Whitman’s quote from “Song of Myself” in relation to formalism. It contradicts what Beach has to say about the New Formalism renewal of traditional forms. Beach’s argument is that the poetics of traditional form can be limiting and is not revolutionary and therefore should not be categorized. The New York Poet, Barbara Guest had a similar opinion in “A Reason for Poetics.” Her manifesto proclaims that formalism is limiting. In her words, “Language can lead to trouble when words are selected solely for their sound, and meaning is then forced to hurry along after, trying to catch up. Sometimes it is necessary to dispense with a word, or rather to be cautious, when it intrudes upon form” (873). Many of the New York poets committed to free verse because it allowed for person expression and a focus on the art itself rather than the poet’s intention for the art’s meaning. The New formalist poets reinvented traditional poetics while being completely unique from the other poets within the school. They found a way to write their truths, their interests, their passions with intention. The English language is so vast. I ask, why shouldn’t poets challenge form and their own vocabulary to with a particular focus on rhyming words, iambic pentameter, and form. What is form? Is free verse not its own form? I don’t feel that formalism takes any passion or identity from a poem. My favorite poem from the New formalist school is “Sonnet 42” by Julia Alvarez. She describes the process of writing herself into a poem using the sonnet form. Her final line reads, “Who touches this poem touches a woman.” Form is personified and her poem is a metaphor for her physical form which is a fascinating and inventive concept.

    • Prof VZ October 10, 2022 at 6:54 pm #

      And this all comes back to Whitman, who famously wrote in one poem “Who touches this poem touches a man.” Here, she brings into the sonnet form a sense of female embodiment–not objectification, as the history of the sonnet would have it, but true, embodied subjectivity.

  9. T October 7, 2022 at 11:31 pm #

    Dana Gioia’s statement on poetics I found the most interesting, challenging, and problematic, simultaneously. His allegiances seem always to be shifting; he makes more nuanced and intricately supported arguments about the history of lyric than even some of the critical essays we’ve read this semester.

    The focus on the sound of language was especially illuminating. I think Gioia is right in his assertion that poetics soon considered “form in the wider, more elusive sense of poetic structure,” but it is easy to forget just how essential sound is to poetry. The new formalists were reminding us all of this. I am intrigued by his comments about poetry in translation, because I have almost no experience with this. I also buy his argument about the effect of the university on the arts more generally: they have different missions. This can help to explain the pedantic function of some free verse today. And more generally, I admire the effort to justify writing in form. I ultimately have a similar writing practice to that of Gioia’s, where I write in both open and closed forms. Perhaps we needed free verse to explode things, and formalism to show us we can but don’t have to only pick up closed forms, to end up in a place where we can see poetic craft is many different techniques, exploited, neglected, or undiscovered.

    Whereas Gioia seems to be arguing at once for a greater connection to the English verse tradition, he also speaks with frustration, if not disdain, about the effect of the academic study of poetry on poetic production. A colleague of his, Roger Kimball, is notorious in many academic circles for his critique of the tenure system. I wonder why he locates this to be one of the problems. This is where his argument seemed the weakest: if writing in traditional forms requires highly specialized knowledge about forms’ histories, meter and aurality, rhyme, even prose and other aesthetic deliberations, then how is it that the university also the place that makes it “cut off from the vulgar vitality of popular traditions”? The university, its function for the expansion of “democratic” values after World War 2 (read also: inoculation of increasingly global American publics against the spread of socialism, an alternative to free market capitalism) is paradoxically the site of this esoteric higher learning AND the self-defeating fountain of recent poetic production AND propagates too much “middle class verse” AND is the locus of poetry’s severing from the popular ear. I’m suspicious. Too much is going on there. It could be that these are just the broken logics of a broken culture. But maybe the University is just a Big Other in Gioia’s account.

    In regards to the “more self-consciously connected and progressive” movements we’ve studied, Gioia has some trenchant remarks. Sanchez’s statement helps to explain some of this, where particular forms are not fetishized as much as form is seen as an inescapable part of poetry.

  10. Prof VZ October 10, 2022 at 6:59 pm #

    I appreciate your capacious sense of poetic craft here, and the exploratory sensibility that is too often overlooked when we favor one specific kind of poetic vehicle over another as a matter of ideology (even if disguised as aesthetics). I also like your incisive comments here on how Gioia uses and mis-uses and over-used the university as a sort of argumentative backdrop and bogeyman. For such a thoughtful writer, Gioia kind of goes off the rails on that one!

Leave a Reply

Powered by WordPress. Designed by Woo Themes

Skip to toolbar