Thursday, November 12, 2009

Inventing New Forms 2

I've written before how I like it when a poem's form emerges organically from within the poem itself, revealing itself as you go along. It can be a continuous process of formal revelation, not knowing what form you have just discovered till you're halfway through the poem. I enjoy it when a poem tells me what it wants. I enjoy the surprise of not knowing where I'm going I might set out to write a poem, and have it turn into an essay, or a prose-poem. I might set out to write a haiku and it becomes a haibun, or an invented post-haibun-like form. I might set out to write a contemplative essay, and it becomes a prose-poem, or a Spiral Dance essay. I never know when starting out where I will end up, and I like it that way. Writing is exploring; writing is discovery.

There are some poems whose forms are so organic to the poem itself that you never use that form again. Other forms that you discover become fascinating enough that you end up working with the form several times, to see what it can contain, how it can re-structure verbal thought into compressed-image poetry. You fool with grammar and syntax, sometimes letting them go entirely, if the form demands it; sometimes relaxing grammar or punctuation, to create a run-on flowing stream-of-consciousness effect during playback, is what leads to the union of form and content. I always tend to feel as if a poem succeeds best when the sense of the poem is containered appropriately, the form matching the subject as one.

Frank Lloyd said of architecture and design: Form follows function—that has been misunderstood. Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union. That is just as true of poetic form and function; and perhaps of music as well.

A few months ago I wrote that I was going to turn away from words for awhile; turn away from writing a daily essay, feeling that in writing daily as I had been for several months prior that I had been pushing myself too hard, and spraining my metaphoric mental ankles. I did that. In the interim, I completed a long piece of notated music, worked on several visual art and photographic projects, and wrote a few haiku anyway. (I always seem to be able to make an occasional haiku, even when nothing else is happening. In the mid-1990s, I went through a long period, a turbulent period in my life and health, in which I wrote nothing but haiku for almost two years.) I still feel like I don't want to push at writing, just let it happen when it chooses to happen. I still feel that pushing at writing, for me at least, is too coercive of whatever river of inspiration I swim in, and I choose not to push at it for fear of permanently damming it. More precisely, it is an article of my faith that that river will always be there, no matter how it is expressed through various creative media; so I choose to never force it, or pretend to control it, or try to direct it to my egoistic willfulness. I prefer to stay in the process of the flow rather than try to turn it into an overly-planned irrigation system.

So with all of that still being true, I found myself this morning making a new poem, responding to a recent photograph of mine, in a new form: the old Buddha. The image is made from a photograph of a Buddha candleholder on my altar, that I often light during meditation. I love the way the light shines up on the Buddha's face, as though coming from within.

Here's a few notes on the process of discovering the form as I went along. Or inventing it, if you prefer. I don't feel much like an inventor, at these moments, though.

I feel like the poem's form reveals itself as the writing progresses, making itself known to me. I feel like an explorer, an adventurer mapping new lands—like the Spaniards discovering the "New World," which had of course already been there, but which for many years was mysterious and terra incognita to them. I feel like a mountain-climber summiting an unknown peak. None of these analogies get it quite right; suffice to say that I feel, in the making of the poem, that I'm uncovering something that already existed. There is no sense of my own ego-self inventing, like an engineer or scientist, no sense of my intellect engaged with problem-solving, no sense of being a designer inventing a design. My will is engaged, because your will has to be engaged or you'll never finish anything, but my will is not steering the process, just sending power to the wheels. Will keeps you going, it gives you thrust, but it doesn't tell you where to go. Words fail me in these attempts to describe the making; I am only able to make these imprecise analogies.

Perhaps it was my thinking long and deeply about haiku and its related forms these past few days. And I found myself writing a short-form poem in several stanzas while contemplating the image of the old Buddha. I can remember when each insight happened, although I can still only say that it feels like discovering what's already there: a process not of formation but of revelation. I find out what's happening as it happens.

The word-count of the form revealed itself to me by the end of the second stanza: two lines of two words or any length or syllable count, followed by a third line of four words. There are no intentional end-rhymes or metric stresses anywhere in this form. It's based solely on word-count and stanza.

Halfway through the third stanza, by which time I had allowed myself to also use compound words (compoundwords, if you will) to expand the poem's images, i.e. to be able to get it all in within the form's constraints, I realized that I was going to make a final stanza in which the four words of the first two lines of the final stanza would repeat the last words of each preceding stanza. (Does that make this a post-sestina form?) This would necessitate writing four stanzas with end-words that would open the fifth and final stanza of the form, which would again be a stanza of the same form as the others.

So, we could map (I use this word deliberately) this form as follows:

xxx xxx
xxx xxx
xxx xxx xxx AAA

xxx xxx
xxx xxx
xxx xxx xxx BBB

xxx xxx
xxx xxx
xxx xxx xxx CCC

xxx xxx
xxx xxx
xxx xxx xxx DDD

xxx xxx xxx xxx

I like forms like these that can be thought of as fractal: containing these types of self-similar recursions. I also like how the last line remains open, non-recursive; I like it when a poem "lifts off" at its end, taking off into space, or lifting up, staying open-ended.

Poems that have too-solid endings risk being moralistic and overly conclusive, of having pat endings that thud down rather than rise up. I always find it interesting when a poem's last line lifts off, or leaps, rather than ends with a too-solid period. Of course not every poem needs to do this, and many great poems do not. The lesson here is to be aware of the last line's energy: does it rise, does it sink too fast and too far, does it stay on an even keel? Each of these types of energetic ending are appropriate to different kinds of poems: again, form follows function.

Now that I've over-analyzed this new poem's form, will I ever write another poem in this form? Who knows. At the moment, I think not. I worry sometimes that in analyzing the process of making a poem, too soon after its making, one tends to get into those very mind-games that kill the creative process. It's all too easy to start analysing and theorizing all-too-soon, and write from your theories (ideologies) rather than from the union of head, hand, and heart. I risk that here, in my attempt to describe the process of how an invented form can reveal itself during the writing process itself.

But I don't worry too much. I have faith in that deep river of inspiration, that it will always be there, to be dipped into whenever necessary; that even if I cannot follow through or finish my current projects, the river will always give me more, new ones to explore, reveal, and make. If this one thuds, perhaps another will catch light, and lift off.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

This was interesting but it does feel to me that trying to write another poem in the form defeats the purpose of your opening argument that a poem's form should emerge organically. I normally only become aware of that form well into the poem but never beforehand. To me form is equivalent to tune: you have your lyrics and you want to set them to music but what's the tune? (I know most songwriters seem to work the other way round but just to make my point let's assume we're the other kind.) Any number of tunes could go with those words but only one will feel right. I feel that about form. I could chop my lines up a dozen different ways and the meaning will not be lost but the poem's feel will be affected.

For several years now I've used the syllable as the unit of measurement when I write. It's far from perfect but I can't think how to structure a poem on the page in a way that its rhythm is obvious without notating it in some way. I don't write my poems to be read aloud but I've just recorded one this morning for someone, the first time ever actually, and what I noticed was that the stresses, the highs and lows, the pauses especially are so unique to me. I can't imagine anyone else reading the thing that way. Not that I'm especially pleased with the result but it'll do for starters. I expect it'll need redone.

4:36 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

That's exactly right: "trying to write another poem in the form defeats the purpose of your opening argument that a poem's form should emerge organically." I completely agree. It's why I don't think it's likely I'll eve re-use this poem's form. (I wanted to describe what the process was like, mostly.)

So let me clarify or add a bit:

Like you, I normally become aware of the poem's form only when I'm part-way into it. What I have noticed, on occasion, is that sometimes when I get partway into the poem, the form does reveal itself as something I've used before. Not that often, yet it does happen. I view that as still emerging organically, because the poem is still letting me know what it wants; I don't set out beforehand having planned to write in any form. It's still the poem letting me know, part-way through.

The only exception, really, is when a haiku will arise from a haiku moment. Sometimes it's just the images that come, sometimes it appears almost fully formed. Perhaps it's that a haiku emerging is almost like the first line of another poem emerging, but because it's so short as a form, I know what the form is going to be before I write it down. Haiku is pretty much the only form I know a poem is going to be before I write it. Even then, sometimes I think I'm going to write a haiku, but then the poem keeps going, and I end up with something else.

One of the invented forms I have reused begins with a haiku, and continues on with a haibun-like section of usually around 8 lines, then ends with two very long lines. A couple of poems that use that form began as what I thought were going to be haiku, but then the poem kept going, and within a few lines more, I knew what form it was going to be.

Haiku does remain, however, the only poetic form that I consciously, or intentionally, set out to write. If a new poem starts to fall into one of the forms I've invented, I don't try to block it, though, I just let it happen. So the poem's form is still emerging organically from the writing, from my perspective.

11:07 AM  

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