Defining Formalism: Conspicuous Repetition & the Multiplicity of Forms
Annie Finch, Elizabeth Alexander, Lenore Keeshig-Tobias, Honor Moore, Sonia Sanchez, Anne Waldman, & Nellie Wong | March/April 1996
When I began to edit the anthology A Formal Feeling Comes: Poems in Form by Contemporary Women, my barely-formulated, not-yet-articulated definition of "formal poetry" was typical of a poet of our century. Though I happen to have an eccentric proclivity for non-iambic meters and hoped to find some poems in unusual metrical patterns for the book, my basic definition of "formal poetry" was, more or less, "metrical poetry." That first definition did not outlast the initial stages of the editing process. The thousands of poems I was reading and receiving for the anthology included many non-metrical poems to which I nonetheless responded, on the physical and emotional levels, as if they were "formal" poems. There were many non-metrical sonnets, for example; these poems were clearly more "formal" in impulse than free-verse poems, maintaining the rhyme scheme and line count of sonnets, and I wanted a way to distinguish the impulse to write such a sonnet from the impulse to write in free verse. Then there were myriads of poems based in oral traditions, and in the traditions of languages other than English. Again, these poems—which included haiku, pantoums, blues, chants, and poems structured by repeating jokes or puns, which I called pun-poems—were clearly formal in impulse and execution, although usually not metrical.
I felt that all these poems were "formal" in the deepest, most radical or root sense of the word; all played to the human potential for childlike or ceremonial language-play; all found something powerful in a poetic language that was rhetorical rather than natural, different rather than ordinary; all of them answered the desire for language to become more than the sum of its ordinary combinations of parts. I needed a definition that would clarify what all these forms—and forms I hadn't even seen yet—shared in common, what distinguished each of these kinds of poems from free verse.
I arrived at my current definition of formal poetry through the arduous process of deciding which poems could fall legitimately within the compass of the anthology. The definition was inspired by necessity and continually action-tested. A surprisingly simple principle, it worked and has continued to help me navigate my way through the complex variety of contemporary poetry and poetics. Here is the definition: "Formal poems are structured by the conspicuous repetition of any language element."
The "language-element" can be a repeated word-sound, in which case the poem rhymes; a repeated rhythmic pattern, in which case the poem is metrical; or a repeated number of accents, in which case the poem is accentual. It can also be a repeated phrase, making the poem a chant, like portions of Christopher Smart's "Jubilate Agno," or repeated sentences, in which case the poem has a refrain, like a blues poem. A crucial part of the definition is the word "structured," which distinguishes truly formal poems from poems that are merely decorated or enhanced by formal elements. Another crucial element is the word "conspicuous." This element of the definition provides a guideline for distinguishing openly formal poems from poems structured by imperceptible scaffoldings of repetitions (systems such as starting lines with every fifth letter of the alphabet). Most of the appeal of poetic form for me lies in form's physical, sensual, tangible, audible qualities, its generous and available delight in those non-representational aspects of language that anyone can perceive. This accessibility is, after all, why nursery rhymes, memory games, and the poetry of folk and oral tradition are invariably "formal." My joy in this inclusive, encompassing sense of "formalism" guided me through the labor of editing the book.
When the contributors to the book sent in their statements about their own views of poetic form or gave me phone interviews so I could write up their statements, I found that many shared with me the sense that poetry includes, in Elizabeth Alexander's words, "a multiplicity of forms." Printed below are six contributors' statements from the anthology exploring some of the forms that currently participate in that multiplicity. Lenore Keeshig-Tobias discusses the chant form based in Native American poetics; Honor Moore the sestina; Sonia Sanchez the haiku and blues, among other forms; Anne Waldman the pantoum; and Nellie Wong the haiku. Each of these kinds of poetic form has become part of the vocabulary of mainstream poetics in the United States only relatively recently; the sestina and haiku were absorbed into our poetry early in the twentieth century and the pantoum somewhat later. The blues and chant are still in the process of being absorbed.
A Multiplicity of Forms
"Form," per se, is what helps me organize my poems. It is a box or a vessel or an outline or a shape for the words to live within. When a teacher first told me that "poems will suggest their own shape to you," I didn't believe it, but I've mostly found it to be true: early on in the writing a line length or rhythm seems to govern, and I tend to shape the rest of the poem accordingly. The "weight" of the poem, its heft, also becomes pretty much clear as I work.
Form to me does not just mean European forms such as the sonnet. It also means forms suggested by the blues or jazz, soul music, call and response communal talk, vernacular speech. It's important to understand the logic to those shapes, as well, and to think about the various syntactic, rhythmic, and organizational logics available to writers who are listening and looking for a multiplicity of forms.
An Ancient Technique
Repetition connects my poetry with the oral tradition. I'm Native, so that's my background. I refused to study English literature in university, even though I write in English, even though most First Nations write in English. Instead I studied on my own, reading other Native authors. I felt safer with that, because they had already done a lot of the work of sifting out what was irrelevant to our way of expression.
I have spent a long time developing an understanding of the technique of oral storytelling and its purpose. I am a storyteller; poetry to me is just a style, a way of storytelling. Our people say that storytellers are teachers. They say that mother is the first teacher. As storytellers we have to realize that our stories have an impact on people—the people who hear or read us as well as the people the stories are about. The storyteller must take responsibility for that. I expect that people will learn from the content of the poems, but also from the form. From the form, they'll learn about traditional storytelling, and also about nurturing.
Repetition takes place in a number of ways in the oral tradition—repetition of sounds, words, incidents and events. To me it's very important; it's a teaching device. Words on paper are like recipes in a cookbook-writing to me is just a memory technique. It would be nice if I could create wampum or something to record my stories, but instead they're in words on a page.
With the repetition in "Mother with Child," I was also thinking of the repetition that takes place in nurturing. When I was brushing my children's hair, I would feel like my mother brushing my hair-and my mother told me she remembered the same feeling from being with her mother. And when you're encouraging someone to be brave and courageous, not to be afraid to do something, you need to use repetition. The repetition in this poem is about the subject of mother and child and the continuousness of mothering.
It was only after the university, when I started reading traditional narratives and listening to oral technique, that it began to click in my mind that I had been doing the same thing unconsciously and that other Native writers had been doing it too. Since I have become more aware of traditional techniques in storytelling, it has given my work more validity, to know that I am using an ancient technique. But I try not to overdo it; I use repetition just enough to create a nice tension. The skill comes in recognizing when not to overdo it.
The Walls of the Room
I wasn't going to be incarcerated in "their" forms, was how I saw it in 1970. I was infused with the energies of feminism—we were inventing a new poetry. Yet, as I became more experienced, I became frustrated. While responding to a sheaf of poems I had brought to him, a poet suggested syllabics, sent me to read Auden and Marianne Moore. I was skeptical: I wrote a more "confessional" poetry than either of them. Direct emotion was an element of my integrity as a poet. But I was intrigued. I began to count syllables. I made my own rules, which were in the direction of condensation and difficulty. I found I relished technical challenge. I began to play with the counterpoint of syllabic sequence and sentence, to see enjambment as an opportunity to encode a poem with messages which would deepen or set off its ostensible "story." After a while, syllabics became my instrument.
Then I was seduced, in readings I heard Marilyn Hacker give, by the sestina. The incantatory dramatics of the recurring end-words haunted and challenged me. Having created my own forms, was it possible to appropriate one of "theirs"? I attempted several sestinas, enough to be daunted. I was not ready.
I had some material which had been lying around in notebooks for a few years. I had read about the murder trial of Joanne Little. A black woman in the South had stabbed with an ice pick a prison guard who was raping her. The prosecutor was quoted as saying, "What!? You didn't holler, you didn't shout, you didn't fight him off?" When I thought of the absurdity of the question, seeing in my mind the small black woman and her looming, beefy attacker, I remembered an incident from my childhood. I had written some lines about Joanne Little's experience. Now I began to write my own memories: a small room at dusk, my baby brother, the young male babysitter dressed in black, hair slicked like Elvis Presley. But what I had written would not cohere, and I put it aside.
A couple of winters later, I went to the MacDowell Colony. One morning, as I walked the narrow snowpacked road through the forest to my studio, I heard the rumble behind me of a car and stepped aside, barely in time, as a man, a fellow colonist, swerved toward me in a gas-guzzling American sedan, a leering grin on his red, bulbous face. I reached my studio, sat down at my desk, and, still shaking with fear, pulled out the material about the babysitter dressed in black. When the car lurched toward me on the snowy path, I had become the young woman facing her attacker, myself at five years old, powerless to protect myself.
I began to write, raw in my childhood memory, and the poem came, taking dramatic, sequential shape in the sestina form. Its restraint became the walls of the room, the recurrence of end words a verbal equivalent for the relentlessness of the molester's intentions. Embraced in its sure architecture, the violated child, silenced for thirty years, is free to tell her story.
Form & Responsibility
I am a poet who has from the very beginning written in free verse, but there have been times in my life when I have retreated to form. When I have had to deal with formal pain, I have written in the sonnet. When I have thought I had very little time to put some of my thoughts on paper, I've retreated to haiku and tanka and felt a world of form that allowed me to live and breathe out my pain and joy. When I have been expansive and sassy and wanted to flaunt it and to come off the edge of the paper, I have dealt with the blues, sung the blues, lived the blues, tasted the blues—I have made the blues, I've been the blues.
I first started to study form at N.Y.U. with Louise Bogan, who taught us forms like the sonnet and villanelle. I wrote the "Father and Daughter" poems as sonnets because talking about that formal pain, talking about this very formal man, required a form. The poems began with a line I had left over in a journal from the sonnet-exercise in Louise Bogan's course. I started writing haiku on my own, after I stumbled across a collection of haiku. Haiku gave me room to say what I needed to say in fewer words, and there was a satisfaction from that. At a time when I was very sick and didn't have time to write longer poems, I zeroed in on the haiku. I thought it would be cliched if I wrote nature haiku, so I delved into it in the sense of making it modern. I had done ballads in the Bogan class, played a lot of blues, listened to a lot of blues, and so I drifted into the blues form also. I like the blues because it has the history of African American people in it, and it always has sexual undertones that you can play with a great deal.
To this day, I teach form to my undergraduates—haiku and tanka to blues and ballads, etc. Students come into my class and they say, "Your politics are so hip and then we get in here and you throw this form at us"; they say, "Let's get out of here." I have to explain to them that 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; you have to deal with form. I tell them, we all write free verse mostly, but all free verse has form, there is a form there. We assume a line can go anyplace, but once you truly know form, free verse becomes familiar and you understand free verse better.
Young people tend to overwrite; that's why I start with haiku. "That's an easy form," they say. Then they come back the next week and they look at you and say, "That was not as simple as it seemed." They write tanka and cinquains and then they make up their own syllabic verse form (the way I made up my own syllabic verse form, the songku), and then they write free verse. After three weeks of compressed forms, they think they will be able to spread out in free verse. Then they say, "I know why you gave us the forms, because now when I write free verse I look at each word—I examine it; I ask, What is this word doing here?" Then I make them write forms for three weeks more before they write free verse again. We study iambic pentameter, and I make them understand that they speak in iambic pentameter.
I began an elegy for my brother in rhyme royal because I was teaching Gwendolyn Brooks' "Anniad." I thought it would be maybe 15 stanzas. I thought we were always in control, but this piece disproved that; the stanzas kept coming. It kept coming. Then I said, Oh, this is not just rhyme royal; I realized it's what I call a neo-slave narrative, about a young African American man who moves from the south to the north, is alienated in the north, moves towards education, thinking that will free him.... You can use form and you can make it do what you want. In this day and age, people are listening to rhyme more. but the form lets rhyme come out in a different way. By using it, I was trying to make the poem ancient and archaic, in a sense, so you understand that this form means giving honor to him.
Form makes you understand that you are responsible for the words you write. I don't feel concerned about any political implications of form. I'm a poet, and the form is not going to form me. I will take the form and say what I want to say; the form will not deform me. Most of all, what I've learned from form is that my free verse has form also. It has taught me that poetry is form and that poetry demands form and discipline, even if we call some of it free verse.
There are two places the writing delivers itself from: inside and out. Propelling forward or responding back. An arena exists between these polar opposites (inside/outside, subjective/objective), and the energy of the poem can vibrate from any region within it. From the objective point of view, I often just tell what I see, hear, and know. Another category under the "objective" umbrella is the work with forms: pantoums, sestinas, ghazals, sonnets, cut-ups, canzone, haiku, doha. Where the form dictates the poem by providing an external structure.
The pantoum's ostensible simplicity is deceptive. A pantoum is originally a Malayan form ("pantun" in Malayan), which appeared in the fifteenth century in Malayan literature. It had earlier oral roots and most probably originated in India. Making up pantoums was a popular art and Malayans knew the most famous ones by heart. The Western version of the pantoum is a poem of indefinite length made of four-line stanzas, whose four lines are repeated in a pattern: lines two and four of each stanza are repeated as lines one and three of the next stanza. In the final stanza the second and fourth lines are the same as the third and first lines of the opening stanza (rhyme is optional). The pleasure of the form could be how the context of each line shifts in its relation to the next. This is difficult to achieve. In the past I would start the poem lose the flow and be frustrated by the strain of repetition. It's easy to write an endless chant poem proclaiming "I am a this woman I am a that woman," and yet when it comes to repeating the same six words seven times in a sestina or the same phrases twice in a pantoum they sound strained, confined, wooden, tedious.
When I wrote "Baby's Pantoum" I had been spending most of my time with my infant son in a small cabin in the mountains outside Boulder, Colorado. The father of the child was away working much of the day. I lived inside long twilight days in which I was highly attuned to the way the baby was discovering the world; any mother will tell you this—how they relive creation through a newborn babe. And the environment was minimal, functional, in the service of the baby. There was not a lot of clutter in the house or in our lives. So it was very late the only time there is any time to write when you have a baby and I wanted a gift (as Christmas was coming) for the father of the child and tackled again the pantoum which hadn't been working for me for a number of years. I began writing in the voice of the baby, it was natural to do this, and I was writing in longhand rather than typing to avoid waking the baby, and into the third stanza the problem of the "form" had vanished and the poem began to flow through me. "I" couldn't (because I was the baby speaking) get fancy in my vocabulary. I found the repetitive structure of the pantoum conducive to expressing the baby's thought process. The pantoum lends itself to the idea of the experience of the baby's mind working. The baby's mind would observe things in a series of unconnected glimpses and realizations. Because each line has to be repeated in another context, it's difficult not to have every line be a single phrase or statement. In an older person that might get artificial or coy. Here, single thoughts in the blue don't refer back to a self conscious body of knowledge. So the pantoum became the primary observations of an empty mind, a new arrival. These lines are obviously not what's going on in the baby's mind, but a projection that felt accurate. I felt myself to be a kind of conduit for the baby. The music of the poem was working. I spoke the lines as I wrote. What filled the form, the things said, or seen, were the details of the life going on in the cabin. Every action in the care of the baby is ritualized. The same tasks are performed again and again. The baby is held and rocked and shown the same objects and images, the baby is bathed regularly, the baby is nursed every few hours and so on. The repetitions reflected in the poem were the natural conditions of our daily existence.
When Form Flowers
When I first became interested in poetry in the 1970s, I turned to reading English translations of haiku and tanka, the Japanese forms, because they fascinated me. I was intrigued by the imagery, the density and light that shone from the pages of the books I was reading. A scene of nature was usually evoked in the poems I read, so I began to think of writing some short poems, realizing that the haiku form was limiting, yet freeing. I tried my hand at writing some haiku, not clearly understanding why this form flowered, why the images came from my heart and my hands. I believed then—and I still do—that there was a symbiotic relationship between the words and me, between the haiku form and the world I lived in. How tantalized I was to envision birds flying against the sky as words took off my pen onto the page.
I began a love affair with making form. At the same time I realized that form alone wasn't what intrigued me. The colors, textures, shapes, and sounds of words fell onto the page, forming a collage, a content, that held me in awe. Indeed, I discovered magic in making form, but I loved the content of the poem as well. I discovered the power of words, not loose beads lying unused in a sewing basket, but strung into a necklace that could be worn.
I like using form to see what I can come up with something new, something different. Sometimes I'll use a line of someone else's poem and see what words flow onto the page. Sometimes I'll put letters of my name down vertically on the left-hand margin of a page and make a new poem, restricted by the necessity of writing down a word that must begin with a specific letter that is already on the page. I'm unable to choose a word of my own. Yet, at the same time, I am choosing a different word compelled by a certain letter of the alphabet.
In Bertolt Brecht's poem, "Praise of Learning," the poet writes:
Learn the ABC. It won't be enough,
but learn it! Don't be dismayed by it!
Begin! You must know everything.
You must take over the leadership.
Writing poetry, making whole from form and content, is learning the ABC. I am enthralled by it. I, along with my comrades and co-workers, must know everything. We must take over the leadership.
Annie Finch's most recent book of poetry is Changing Woman; she has edited a book of essays, Beyond New Formalism: Essays on Poetic Form and Narrative. Both are forthcoming from Story Line Press. She is on the creative writing faculty at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.