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Should Poets Be More Adventurous in their Use of Form?

Adventurous forms of poetry barely made a showing in the contributions submitted for consideration for Magma 47 – by “adventurous forms” I mean unfamiliar forms, whether old or new, including experimental and invented forms. Even scarcer were poems where these unfamiliar forms were relevant to the poem’s content. Adventurous forms of theatre such as immersive or site-specific are trending at the moment, as a complement to traditional or familiar forms, as writers and performers explore meaning to be found in new spaces. In my view, how theatre uses chosen physical space, and how a poet uses the chosen space of form, have common ground. So why are poets reluctant to take up the challenges of exploring how adventurous forms can add meaning to poetic text?

I have been working as Assistant Editor to Guest Editor Annie Freud who painstakingly read every contribution sent, before making her choices. This gave me the chance to read everything sent in, which was a joyous, humbling and – yes at times – slow process. Most poems submitted are in free form and gloriously cover the whole range of subjects and ideas. And a few are in traditional, familiar forms such as the sonnet and villanelle. But I was surprised how little poetry used adventurously unfamiliar or newer forms – such as the pantoum (an old form but seldom used), concrete or found poetry, the specular or sevenling – when such forms are ripe for exploration. Some did and were extraordinary; and a few were brave enough to try different forms but more as an exercise than as a communication tool. Writing any formal poetry can be challenging, and I know how very hard it is to create a strong poem when experimenting with unknown forms. But is “it’s difficult to do” an excuse for poets not to explore the relationship between different forms and content?

As someone who lives in London, I have seen three recent examples in the arena of site-specific or immersive theatre which serve to illustrate the point. Mincemeat at Cordy House in 2009 was a play presented by the homeless theatre group Cardboard Citizens: the play was set in a series of derelict rooms and was in part about lost identity, at the denouement the audience was invited to sit on remnant mattresses in a reconstruction of a shelter from where the play’s principal character had been plucked. The Old Vic Tunnels is an extraordinary space under Waterloo Station: its two productions so far have seen the tunnels represent the underground caverns of the film Metropolis in Punchdrunk’s Tunnel 228; and the underground refuge or prison of 12 people put there by a government to keep them safe, and whom the audience follow and associate with as they try and resolve their situation in Delirium’s Your Nation Loves You. And thirdly the Maria space at the Young Vic is a studio theatre that was constructed for the run of Kursk as the inside of a submarine in which the audience are promenaders who by their presence become complicit in events that unfold. The relationship between audience and actor or theatrical work is a complex and fascinating one, and these site specific and immersive works look that complexity in the eye and ask questions of it. And they use the opportunities of the space to explore ideas thrown up by the text and vice versa.

However poets seem shy of using adventurous poetic forms in the same way – to explore meaning in text. Any discussion of the relationship between form and content in poetry is revisiting very old territory I know. I continue to be enthralled by the endless beauty of a villanelle such as Dylan Thomas’s ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’ which uses repetition and refrain to explore the pain of imminent lose and its related frustrated anger; and one of the joys of the ever-lovely sonnet form which can be described – as Phillis Levin does – as “a poem that turned and spoke to itself” because it sets up an emotional question in the octet requiring a rational response in the sextet, is that a dialogue of perceptions creates endless challenges for poets. Reading poems in familiar forms is deeply joyful when they are good, as it is wonderful to see an exciting new production of a play by Shakespeare, Miller or new writers through a proscenium arch. But there is a whole other opportunity and challenge for poets who use newer or unfamiliar form to explore ideas and meaning. I can only re-state that I know how difficult it is to marry unfamiliar form and substance and make it relevant for the reader. But if theatre can step into the abyss and make it work, poetry should at least try.

What Do You Think?

Do you agree that poets should use form more adventurously?

Is it possible for adventurous forms to add meaning to poetic text?

This Post Has 29 Comments
  1. It’s a good idea, but ‘should use’ seems too prescriptive. I would say ‘poets should be prepared to use form more adventurously’ or ‘to experiment with unfamiliar forms’, which I’ve enjoyed doing on a few occasions.

    Now I know about the pantoum, I’ll look for an opportunity to try one.

    Thanks for the suggestion.

  2. At the moment Rob and I are receiving contributions for Magma 48 with its theme ‘it as beautiful’. We’re happy to receive poems in any form, adventurous or traditional. So far we’ve received a shape poem and a poem with musical notation, but we’ve also received sonnets and sestinas and poems at all stages from strict rhythm and rhyme to completely free verse. We don’t prefer any form over another, so please keep sending poems in whatever form you like.

    Laurie Smith (Editor) and Rob Mackenzie (Assistant Editor), Magma 48

  3. I used to write poems in an experimental form when I was very young. Some were
    published in little mags. Some not. I most enjoyed cutting up texts – remember
    William Burroughs’s cut up prose pieces ? Things like chopping up advertising
    leaflets or book club subscription letters. That was fun. It appealed to the film lover/sculptor in me. Yet the dividends of creative satisfaction prooved limited. For me free verse is stiil the best agent for my kind of moral probing. Better if you are comitted to sound poetry ala Bob Cobbings. Still I occasionaly have a go. Like to think I can do it. Try this if you like Roberta. It’s a recent cut up of an ancient BFI catalouge for the films of Georges Mellies. The titles make for a surreal journey.
    All the best,
    Alan Price.

    AN INDEX TO THE CREATIVE WORK OF GEORGES MELIES (Films 1896-1907)

    Playing cards………………………………………………………65 feet
    Arrival of a Train (Joinville station)………………………………65 feet
    The Czar and his Cortege going to Versailles…………………….65 feet
    Academy for Young Ladies……………………………………….65 feet
    The Beach at Villiers in Gale………………………………………65 feet
    Conjuror making Ten Hats in Sixty Seconds………………………65 feet
    A Serpentine Dance………………………………………………..65 feet
    A Nightmare (fantastical subject)………………………………….65 feet
    Peeping Tom at the seaside…………………………………………65 feet
    A Twentieth Century Surgeon……………………………………..65 feet
    Faust and Marguerite……………………………………………….65 feet
    Coppelia, The Animated Doll……………………………………..130 feet
    The Man with Wheels in his head………………………………….65 feet
    Fat and Lean wrestling match……………………………………..130 feet
    Twentieth Century Surgery………………………………………..130 feet
    Excelsior!………………………………………………………………………………130 feet
    Off to Bloomingdale asylum………………………………………..60 feet
    The Sacred Fountain………………………………………………..100 feet
    Blue Beard…………………………………………………………..690 feet
    The Man with the Rubber head……………………………………..165 feet
    The Hat with many surprises………………………………………..165 feet
    A trip to the Moon…………………………………………………..845 feet
    Misfortune never Comes Alone……………………………………..165 feet
    The Cake Walk Infernal……………………………………………..325 feet
    Beelzebub’s Daughters………………………………………………133 feet
    The Infernal Cauldron and the Phantasmal Vapours…………………117 feet
    Ten Ladies in one Umbrella……………………………………………87feet
    Bob Kick, The Mischievous Kid……………………………………..127 feet
    Every Man is his own Cigar Lighter……………………………………70 feet
    The Invisible Siva………………………………………………………95 feet
    An Impossible Voyage……………………………………………..1, 2333 feet
    The Chloroform Fiends………………………………………………..220 feet
    The Palace of the Arabian Nights……………………………………1,400 feet
    The Enchanted Sedan Chair……………………………………………185 feet
    Going to bed under difficulties…………………………………………130 feet
    The skipping cheeses……………………………………………………280 feet
    Sightseeing through Whiskey……………………………………………303feet
    Chopin’s Funeral March Burlesqued……………………………………460 feet
    Who Looks, Pays………………………………………………………..350 feet
    The Bewildering Cabinet………………………………………………..370 feet
    The Conjurer with a hundred tricks……………………………………..165 feet
    The Monster……………………………………………………………..170 feet
    Satan in Prison…………………………………………………………..300 feet
    Soap Bubbles……………………………………………………………230 feet
    Bluebeard……………………………………………………………….690 feet
    The Artist’s Dream……………………………………………………….65 feet
    Marvellous Suspension and Evolution………………………………… 130 feet
    Fun in Court……………………………………………………………….65 feet

    Ten ladies we are, in one umbrella, playing cards,
    waiting at Joinville station for the arrival of a train.
    Oh what a nightmare was our holiday!
    A Peeping Tom at the seaside, burlesquing Chopin’s
    Funeral march, tried to engage us
    in a fat and lean wrestling match.
    Thank goodness for the arrival of the hat
    with many surprises!
    Out popped skipping cheeses
    smelling like phantasmal vapours.
    These conjuring chloroform fiends knocked out the man,
    with wheels in his head, apparently a practioner
    of twentieth century surgery.
    He was rapidly removed to Bloomingdale Asylum.
    No sooner was he inside the sacred fountain
    than his partner in looking, the man with the rubber head,
    sightseeing through whiskey, appeared.
    Every man is own cigar lighter! he friskily announced.
    Who looks, pays!
    we shouted hurling ourselves from the bewildering cabinet.
    Bob Kick, the mischievous kid, was rubber’s real name.
    A powerful conjuror with a hundred tricks.
    Yet we quick Ladies Ten (moving as a conjuror
    making ten hats in sixty seconds) led young Billy
    a serpentine dance under the seas.
    Soon the weather changed. The beach at Villiers was in a gale.
    The Monster was struck by the invisible Siva.
    Beelzebub’s daughters couldn’t have done better!
    A rogue’s tricks were halted. Satan was now in prison.
    At the academy for Young ladies we’ll be applauded.
    Why what is this? The Czar and his Cortege going
    to Versailles are on the platform.
    Will the Palace of the Arabian Nights entice?
    Shall he grant us an impossible voyage?
    A trip to the moon, on the enchanted sedan chair
    full of marvellous suspension and evolution.
    Or perhaps misfortune never comes alone.
    Is it just an artist’s dream in the cave of Bluebeard?
    Where Faust and Marguerite fight a boxing match
    watched by us dancing girls doing the cakewalk infernal
    and fed a fantastical meal of soap bubbles.
    Excelsior! Excelsior!
    We crying and laughing ladies are now as one.
    Coppelia, the animated doll, having fun in court,
    then going to bed under difficulties!

  4. Dear Magma
    I have a strong suspicion that the way form is used in poetry today comes from the extent of editorial content in creative writing classes, workshops, etc., from the difficulty of getting published even in magazines, and from the peculiar idea of most poetry competitions that all poems should be under 40 lines long. Why 40? It’s not even the number of lines you can get on one page. In ‘free verse’ I have been experimenting with line length and endings, for instance, and every time I submit a poem of this kind the idea of the ‘reader’ – publisher, workshop leader – is that I don’t know what I’m doing (as I gather from their comments), or that the poem isn’t fully developed. I am ‘corrected’ towards a happier mean. No wonder poetry is not very adventurous. No-one, on the other hand, comments much on content, though I have recently had some more of the “what’s the point of this poem?” comments that I had on an MLitt course. It seems that nonsense verse (and poetry written for the joy of it) is also not much in vogue. As you no doubt gather, I am fed up with the very restricted current ideas of what poetry actually is. If a jazz song, for instance, can meander all over the place, why can’t a poem? We are producing poetry by committee in this country at the moment – a most depressing state of affairs – especially as the audience for poetry readings seems more adventurous, indeed quite happy with whatever form or formlessness a poem takes (not being poets themselves in the main).

  5. I love the discipline that the constraints of formal poetry impose on me as a poet, and often read modern “free-form” poetry which to me is self-indulgent meandering in need ot an editor’s blue pencil! Of course there’s a happy medium, but I shall continue to write terza rima, villanelle and sestinas when the subject matter tells me that’s what I should do.

  6. The book “Postmodern American Poetry” (Norton, 1994) contains a spectacular array of invention in poetic form, in poetic voices, in typographic experimentation and prose poems. If anyone reading this is interested in discovering the possibilities of new and experimental poetic forms, I’d recommend that they start with that book. They might then move on to reading some tremendously inventive younger poets like Joe Ross whose book “EQUATIONS=equals” published by Green Integer is both a highly exciting and formidably challenging read. Or a more flamboyant inventor of poetic forms such as Christian Bök in his book “Crystallography”.

  7. I suspect that the answer to Roberta’s question is twofold; the first has already been given by Rosemary and Alan, shape poems are widely regarded as fit only for children by both editors and poets. I know of only one poet who has recently been published who devotes herself to shape poems, an Australian called Melody Lemond, who compares her poems to music and dance: http://blogs.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=blog.view&friendId=308914179&blogId=508514360
    although there are several who have had one included with other, conventional poems.

    However the second answer shows that the question is itself a category mistake, rather than asking “Should Poets Be More Adventurous in their Use of Form?” Roberta should be asking “Where are the poets that are experimenting in their ‘Use of Form’?” and the answer is that they have forsaken normal paper based media to experiment with multi-media. In America they have some very professional and beautiful multi-media poems, such as this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mNfSKMlNquE as well as many poets experimenting either by themselves or in collaboration with musicians and film-makers. This is by two people collaborating: http://www.scart69.net/synapticgraffiti/Pages/BOMBS.html
    and is most impressive.
    In some ways this work by the same partnership is even more impressive:
    http://www.scart69.net/synapticgraffiti/Pages/mybeat.html

    I think these examples answer your two questions. Unfortunately you are looking in the wrong place.

  8. Hi
    What an interesting discussion you have opened! I would just like to make the obvious point that poets submit work which they feel suitable for the magazine. Glancing at Magma 43 for example it is clear that the poems published/expected are very much of a similar size and shape, most fitting neatly into a half page slot. It is only once the editors take the lead and indicate approval of innovative poetry by actually publishing it that writers will begin to submit their more unusual work. Great magazine, constantly evolving. Cheers marion

  9. “We are producing poetry by committee in this country at the moment”

    This is an uninformed and defensive statement and goes against all my findings as someone who considered 400+ poets in my anthology preparation. The sheer number of poets published by reputable publishers (50% more than 15 years ago, 100%+ more than 30 years ago) means we have incredible diversity. And that’s just in full books. If only we had more engaged and open-minded readers (and book buyers) to match this richness of published writers.

  10. I found this blog article very interesting. Over the last six months, I have done several projects on using different form – sonnets, sestinas and mimic poems of some greats. I am only just getting around to thinking about being published but one thing that puts me off sending in one of my more ‘formal’ poems is that I have not seen similar poems published. The result – I was not sure anyone would be interested in them!

  11. I long since came to the conclusion that I have never chosen the form of a poem; it chooses itself. You try different forms on it, as you might suits of clothes, but if they don’t suit it, it will tell you so until you find the one that does. But that also depends on how you’re feeling and thinking at the time, and often enough you find that do what you will, your thoughts fall naturally into the particular rhythm that currently dominates them and refuse to sound “right” in any other. I have, at different times, got stuck on free verse, regular sonnets, loose terza rima, Doty couplets (unrhymed 2-line verses) and, currently, a variant sonnet in couplets where the rhyme crosses the couplet break. Sometimes I get embarrassed about everything coming out the same and consciously try to do it different – it’s clear, seemingly, when something would suit terza rima or sestina for instance. But often as not, it insists on the clothes it likes best anyway.

    i think form can be especially appropriate to a text, but there’s never just one that’s right. A poem is a walk through a wood that has a lot of different paths . There’s no one right way through, they’ll all get you there (or most of them, some are dead ends) but each gives a different journey.

    Re “should”: there is nothing a poet “should” do.

  12. I would love to see more scope for inventive use of form and creativity in modern poetry, or any poetry come to that.
    Personally I love to test myself with the discipline of established forms such as sonnet, villanelle and tanka but I also like to be as experimental as I can on other occasions. The biggest difficulty I find myself having is that of communication because what makes sense to me and is totally logical does not come across that way to someone who is reading the poem from a different perspective and therefore sees it as jumbled nonsense. I still continue to experiment and hope that I will always do so because if I don’t then I am stagnating in some aspects of my creativity even if I am being successful in others.

  13. Somebody recently said to me, after a reading where they had offered a rather gorgeous rhyming poem, that it wouldn’t work on the page because it had so many big end rhymes at the end of lines – and that full rhymes stand out and aren’t permissible these days. Not the first time I’d heard that kind of comment and I would always challenge any view that doesn’t allow me to use all the tools of language at my disposal. If the rhymes fall out of the in-process poem naturally, that is a wonderful thing. If you can harness rhyme and use it well (which is of course a tough call), if it is congruent with the content of the poem and makes it shine, why not? In such circumstances, to try to excise rhymes or try to bury them is just contrary.

  14. It seems to me that rules can be followed, adapted, used or ignored depending on what you need at the time. When a poem isn’t quite working, if I apply something like a sonnet form to it, either the poem is improved or it helps me work out what’s wrong and I change it or bin it. On the other hand I have been known to play with the shape, line length and spacing to the same effect.
    Recently there have been a number of really uniformed and off putting articles in newspapers about haiku, which have emphasised the form, over content – I write and publish a lot of haiku, the rules are there to follow or not and there is a wealth of variation. There are basic ideas about haiku capturing a moment and being short but 17 syllables on 3 lines is optional.
    Some really excellent work comes from experimenting in all writing but when I look at magazines often the poems are about the same shape, which must surely influence submissions. So maybe the answer is – we might all enjoy experimenting but it’s not compulsory.

  15. Reading your comments is really interesting. I mean “should” not so much as a prescriptive “Poets must” but more as an enabling “Poets can”.

  16. This is a really interesting topic, and I think debate on this subject will carry on for some time.

    Last year I toook an evening course in Experimental Poetry, taught by Nickie Mellville at Edinburgh University. I found it fascinating and discovered, concreat, shape, sound and found poetry. I especially enjoyed found poetry and I am currently constructing on at the moment.

    However I have found it difficult to find outlets for my found poems, or other forms, such as villanell, which I have experimented in.

  17. One says I should,
    p’haps then shudda?
    Another says, I’m sorry,
    but you never should say, “should”.
    All this bossin’ ’bout the formin’
    makes me shudder
    cos the provin’ of the puddin’
    Is, is it any bloody good?

  18. I agree with Richard Soloway: the printed medium can only go so far with experimentation in poetry, and there are other places to explore. For example I have a live dual-media project called Utter:Jazz in which we create improvised compositions using poems and music. It is distinct from other jazz/poetry projects as the music is neither a separate, parallel entity nor a pre-composed score, but rather a live response to the words as they emerge.

    As the words of a poem are spoken aloud (pre-existing poems – we found improvised words did not create the same tension in this context) the musicians respond to each other as well as to the words, creating a symbiotic exploration of texture and text. The music then affects the way the words are delivered (tone, tempo, timbre, time etc). It may illustrate the poem, or illuminate new meaning, or develop into an extended exposition with a life of its own.

    You can hear examples at http://www.myspace.com/utterjazz. Judging from the responses we get at theatres, jazz clubs and literature festivals (including Cheltenham last year) audiences are hugely appreciative of this approach. They consistently report that it has helped them enjoy something they previously felt alienated by (either poetry or free impro – about 50/50!) and their excitement reveals they plug into the risks being taken on stage. As a great admirer of the work of Punchdrunk, I’m thrilled to have brought some of this to poetry.

    Anyway, I’m off to try my hand at a Sevenling – thanks Roberta!

  19. Most of us over a certain age were introduced to poetry as a formal thing, and I remember at the age of 12-13 when our English teacher moved from Charles Causley’s ‘Timothy Winters’ (nicely formal, big fat rhymes) to Louis MacNeice’s ‘Prayer Before Birth’ (less obviously formal, less obvious rhymes) most of my classmates made a face and called it ‘weird’. Perhaps we as adults find it hard to accept that Causleyesque formality is an adult form? Maybe we also associate form with lightness of topic or lack of emotional substance, which is sometimes the case but also throws the many wonderful exceptions into sharp relief.

    I do like to experiment with form, but most of these experiments produce such poor results that they stay in the laboratory. The few things I’ve had published by editorial selection have been relatively non-formal (excluding the lesser formalism of rhythm and metre) so maybe we should test out the publishing world with some more formal experimentation and see if editors and publishers can rise to the challenge and put them into the public domain?

  20. True, but I think we were only ever given that one Causley poem to go on at 13, so that poem got fixed in my juevnile mind as being ‘This Is Charles Causley’. Shame, because it took years for me to find the rest of his poetry, and largely wonderful it was…

    Sorry Roberta, I’m getting ‘off-topic’ here…

  21. To get back on topic, but still from what Andy said: I think some prospective poets are deliberately put off rhyme by teachers. I have heard teachers say “discourage then from rhyming because their poems will be rhyme-led and inept”, which is a bit like saying “discourage them from playing the violin because they’ll make a fearful noise”. They will, but only until they learn how to do it, and practice is the only way. I have also met teachers who are anti-form on ideological grounds, ie that the use of form is somehow elitist and undemocratic. Weird, because folk poetry is nearly all formal, and the delight children take in rhyme, naturally and without urging, is undoubted.

  22. Well. Have just submitted four sonnets for Magma 48. And all were rejected. Maybe my poems aren’t good enough. But the only reason I submitted them was because of this blog. I wonder if Magma really wants poems in form because before this blog, submitting them was never something I would have considered. I don’t think that Magma attracts poems in form.

  23. Hi Kathy,

    I’m sorry you were disappointed not to appear in the magazine. As a Magma editor and member of the Board, I can assure you that we definitely like to receive poems in traditional forms and publish plenty of them.

    I’m not involved in the editing of Magma 48, and we would not in any case make a public comment about an individual submission. However I can say that in my issue, Magma 34, I published several sonnets (including Mary MacRae’s ‘Virgin and Child’ which you can read on this website), a pantoum, a sequence of Japanese tanka and an amusing rhyming couplet, as well as poems in more contemporary and idiosyncratic forms. And there have been lots more traditional forms in issues by other editors.

    One of Magma’s distinctive features is that we have a different editor with every issue, which makes it very hard for a uniform editorial taste to emerge. An individual editor may have a preference for traditional vs experimental, but the next editor is likely to have a different taste. It’s one of the things that (we hope) keeps the magazine fresh.

    I don’t know if it’s any consolation, but you may be interested to know that I recently submitted a sestina to Magma, and had it rejected! 🙂

  24. “This is an uninformed and defensive statement and goes against all my findings as someone who considered 400+ poets in my anthology preparation.”

    Shame you didn’t publish them in the anthology then

  25. Should poets be more adventurous
    in their choice of form?
    Should they keep the meter running
    as to the task they warm?
    Is it now a crime to rhyme
    in this new age of free verse?
    Or is content without form
    like incontinence, but worse..

  26. It’s interesting to say submissions to Magma lack adventurous form, but the emphasis on sending work in the body of an email as opposed to sending attachments can be off putting in some aspects. I personally find sending work in email restricts many aspects including use of glyphs, typefaces and overall layout.

    For instance copying text from a word or inDesign document negates using underscores and strike thrus . . .

    Other than that it does seem that form has taken somewhat of a backseat in contemporary poetry.

  27. Hi C Silverthorne, thanks for your comment.

    Like all poetry magazines, Magma has a preferred format for submissions. However, if you read the guidelines on our contributions page you will see that we do accept attachments, for precisely the reason you highlight – i.e. for poems whose formatting would not be preserved in the body of an e-mail.

    We are very happy to consider poems written in adventurous forms – including imaginative use of “glyphs, typefaces and overall layout”.

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