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?