Thursday, April 28, 2011

Struggling with Form

Struggling with form, with how poems break out of you and take shape, sometimes beyond your reckoning.

I've said all this before. Sometimes it bears repeating again, just to keep it in mind. And, perhaps, with each contemplation you circle around a little bit closer to the truth, and state matters a bit more clearly. Perhaps in the end approaching something like a creed.

It's unfashionable in this overly rational, left-brain literary day and age to be a writer who goes on intuition and instinct. I take a lot of flak for that. Those who want to tell us how to write seem to want us to be always mentally prepared, intellectually alert: as though knowing exactly what you intend to do, even having an outline, makes for better writing. That sort of pre-planning may be very helpful when writing a murder mystery or an essay, writing in which narrative plot or the sequence of ideas matters, but it can by contrast stifle spontaneity. Lots of prose writers, when they first attempt a poem, make the mistake of thinking that prose rules apply to poetry, where they do not.

For me writing a poem is entirely about spontaneity. A poem comes when it comes. Sometimes I can feel the urge, feel it coming, before it arrives. Sometimes I sit down to wander through my journal, and the next thing I know a poem has written itself, almost entirely without intention or conscious anticipation.

It's also about receptivity: I keep my antennae tuned, as it were, to the poetry wavelength and bandwidth, like keeping your radio astronomy dish pointed at a specific location in the sky, waiting to hear what comes down the aether and into the wires. The discipline of writing that I follow is not to write every day, or try to; it is, rather, to simply be ready. When a poem floats by, you have to be ready to catch it.

I don't write a poem a day, I wait till I feel like a poem wants to be written. I don't go looking out in the forest for poems, I wait for them to knock at my kitchen door. I don't go seeking poems out. I don't set out to Write A Poem. Sometimes what I find myself writing in the morning doesn't turn into a poem, but into something else. I find myself caring less and less about those definitional boundaries between "prose" and "poetry," and cross back and forth over that line without any regard for it.

Maybe that's a passive, feminine, anima-based way of being a poet, but it seems to me that the animus-based, masculine, active ways of being a writer often result in carefully-structured, taut, body-built Poems For Engineers. Poetic culture has become dominated in this age of celebrity cults and marketing by extraverts, and one thing that has always been true is that extraverts rarely understand their introverted cousins. Even though writing can be a very inward activity, often done in silence and solitude, not only introverts are writers, and publicity is itself a very extraverted activity in a culture dominated by extraverted attitudes. Historically, poetic culture has always been tied to listening, to the muses, to right-brain forms of consciousness: until the Modern era, which became dominated (perhaps in reactionary overthrow against late Victorian Romanticism) by left-brain, conscious direction.

Even the Surrealists, who delved into the unconscious for inspiration, took what they'd harvested inwardly and shoehorned it into left-brain modes of writing, the forms and styles already in existence: they were still active and decisive, rather than passive and free-flowing, in the Taoist sense; and unlike the Dada artists, they were still invested in creating artistic respectability. The Surrealists may have wanted to mine the ore found in the right-brain chaos, but they still wanted to refine that ore into the polished chromium gleam of dominator-culture showpieces in brightly-lit galleries. They took what the unconscious gave them, and used it: not on its own terms, but still under their conscious direction. (Magritte as ever was the exception, and he openly stated that he thought of himself an explorer of consciousness, not as a Surrealist painter.)

I usually don't know what form a poem is going to take until after I've started writing. Usually by the third or fourth line, the poem has revealed its form. I rarely set out to write within a specific form, dictating form before content emerges. If you want to adjust form later, during revision, that's a separate yet equal concern.

Form is often revealed in the writing of the poem, then. It doesn't pre-exist. I've invented a few new forms, over time, which began as something stumbled into, or revealed, but which I then might use again, if I liked the structure it gave. Most of these invented forms aren't like things you see in free verse lyric poetry, which of course is a free zone for inventing new forms, or avoiding form. I do agree with those poets who theorize about form emerging organically from the poem's content, about how content dictates form. I feel that way, most of the time, myself.

The only forms I regularly write in that aren't either spontaneous or invented are those I've fondly adopted from Asian cultures: haiku and its related forms from Japan; the Chinese and Indian classical forms. Mostly haiku and haibun.

I think if you worry too much about form, you end up meaningless. This is not about meaning in your writing, poetic meaning, meaning in your poems: it's existential. It's meaning-of-life. It's whether or not your life is pointless and meaningless, or if (following Albert Camus, following Viktor Frankl) you are able to generate some meaning you can hold on to, that gives you a reason to endure the rest of it. Form is inherently meta-meaning: some poets (mostly neo-formalists, but not exclusively) cling to form as if to a life-raft, something to hold onto lest they drown beneath the sea-cliffs of chaos. The over-emphasis on form, and on craft, often seems to be driven by fear of chaos, of formless free-floating anxiety about the absence of a keel and rudder with which to steer through life, be it moral, ethical, religious, philosophical. Whatever mode of structure that gives form to a life, to remove fear of the Void, that is what is clung to.

Another way, not a better way, just an opposite way, is the embrace of the Void—out of which meaning can also be wrestled, but not by imposing a pre-existing structure out of fear. Rather, by finding in oneself the code of what one believes to be right livelihood, right interaction, right work, right action. There can be a thin line between Buddhist psychology and existentialist philosophy, when apparently divergent paths arrive near similar endpoints. When one stands on the lip of the Void, looking in, sometimes one discerns a Smile on the face of the Void: an awareness that there is something living in there, something maybe worth living for, where it seems there is Nothing. The vision of the Void comes in pairs: first the despair, then the acceptance. First the horror, then the realization that one can still go on living: even if one must create one's own meaning in life, or discover it. We seek meaning, even if that meaning is nihilistic or based on other kinds of rejection, rebellion, reaction. The angels who rebelled against Heaven are the same archetype as any teenager rebelling against parental authority. When an angel grows up, it realizes that maybe, the parental was the friend after all, and they discover themselves to have evolved into their own parents. Form can be similarly self-generating.

There appears to be some function in the Universe that generates emergent order. Systems formerly inchoate become complex enough that they generate emergent patterns of governance. I don't know if a divine impulse is necessary to propel evolution, since self-organizing systems seem to be the way all life coheres. You and I are not singular organisms, we are vast collections of trillions of self-organizing cells; and living cells themselves have been anciently colonized by symbiotes and parasites, each performing a function within the generator. Discrete organelles, the mitochondria that power us were once invaders, then symbiotes, now integral sub-systems.

Poetry can be similarly self-organizing and generative. It does not have to be willed: as though the will alone was all that's needed for creativity. Thinking the will and intellect alone are all we need to generate poetry is what got us into this postmodernist mess to being with; and you cannot think your way to a solution of a systemic problem by using the same kind of thinking that got you into the problem to being with. Organic form emerging from the writing itself is like a biological self-organizing system—if not exactly the same, the analogy is still useful.

That self-organizing systems can emerge from primordial unorganized soup affirms the mathematics of chaos theory, in which it can be shown that order does emerge from apparent chaos, and that meta-levels of order are present even in fully turbulent, chaotic systems. There is nothing truly random in nature: what we perceive as chaos we simply haven't understood as ordered, as yet. This lack of randomness in the Universe is a great mystery. Many seek to interpret it as a divine impulse, a primum mobile, an original creator's impulse. I've always found it ironic that both religious texts and many poets hail the source of all the Universe as beginning with a single Word. It amuses me that many poets, especially those who believe in the primacy of words over all other artistic media, are sublimely unconscious that their laudation of the Word is a primary religious instinct. The left-brain rational form-worshipping poets are essentially worshipping at the altar of the First Word.

But there are other metaphors of creation, equally self-generative. The First Light of the First Day, an explosion of Light as the big bang. The First Sound, which is not a word per se but a Voice, singing. I wrote an aphoristic poem, years ago, following a visionary experience, that remains, for me, a summation of the nature of the divine:

For God is
an infinite voice


in a place
filled with


One of those insights and intuitions that just comes to you, in the same way that poems do, and maybe from the same well or river. After all, making art is bound up with Creation: we even call it "creativity." That's no small word, in any context, although we often take it for granted, rather than contemplate its truly puissant nature. It would be catastrophic to go around on a daily basis surrounded by perceptions of the true nature of the Universe, those fields and flows of energies and particles, the lack of solidity of matter, the truth that everything is in vibration, expressed as frequency and amplitude, which is what a singing voice is: pitch expressed as frequency and amplitude within a carrier medium. We are immersed in a breathable atmosphere, the outer skin of our planet's systems: air, which transmits sound, fluidly and sensually.

So poetic form, to follow this existential conceit to its conclusion, is a religious, biological, mineral, energetic necessity. You cannot actually separate form from content—except arbitrarily and intellectually, both of which in the end are illusory. Thus, to let the poem invent itself as it proceeds, to let it determine its own emergent, organic form, is a form of worship. Perhaps closest to the root of awe, the Taoist flowing acceptance of the energies behind appearances makes the most sense as the structure of a Way of Poetry, a religious practice of poem-making, a Way of enlightenment not distinct from Zen or the Tao as a path towards completion, fulfillment, and transmigration. We all evolve from chaos into order—but the order is self-organizing, not willfully imposed from without by a structured ideology we'd rather believe when we can't deal with what we actually perceive.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

Exactly! You can write a poem and you can engineer a poem. I find every time I try to produce a poem to order it falls flat on its face and yet when you look at all my mature poems the one thing you can’t avoid noticing is that they are all structured. I never set out with a pattern in mind. I scribble down the words and only then do I see if they form a shape and invariably they do with very little alteration. In fact I’ve just looked at the last poem I wrote, on Saturday, and all I added was a single word. The original shape was 8-8-8-11, an odd configuration I give you but that’s exactly how it ended up on the page. The only other change I made was to split that 11-syllable line into two, a 5- and a 6-syllable line. And that was it.

I get very frustrated when it comes to organising words on a page because I think musically. I want to add in triplet marks and pauses and all the wonderful dynamics available to composers because the simple fact is that no two people will read a poem or any text the same way. Just think about how many different ways actors have said, “To be or not to be: that is the question.” So I stick with syllables and resist what is a very strong urge to notate my poems.

I’ve sat wee tests to see if I’m left- or right-brain oriented and I’m pretty much in the middle which I think shows in my approach to poetry. I can enjoy mimicking other poets – I wrote one in Pinter’s voice a wee while back – but I’m more than happy with my style and see no reason to try to change it to please anyone.

4:19 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I find myself in the middle, too. Integration and balance. I think the whole person does find a dynamic balance that works for them. If we are only right-brain or only left-brain, we're incomplete and unbalanced.

As a composer, I love the idea of musically-notated poetry. I urge you to share some of that with us sometime. I'd love to see the performance notations for one of your poems. I understand that you might not want to over-prescribe a performance interpretation, but it would fascinating to see what you mean.

10:58 AM  

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