Diversity, Constraint, and the Resurgence of Poetic Form
Occasionally I share on Poetry Witchery a previously published essay or post. This essay first appeared in American Poetry Review, January 2020
To begin with a definition: A poem is a text structured (not merely decorated, but structured — which means constrained) by the repetition of any language element(s).
Because any repeating language element can structure/constrain a poem, the continuum of poetic constraint is extensive, stretching from operations that a reader will find completely imperceptible to overwhelmingly obvious ones. When we think of poetic constraint, we usually think first of discernible language operations. Depending on our aesthetic bent, we might think of an Oulipo poem by Harry Mathews, a poem using a nonce procedure by Joan Retallack, or a poem such as Harryette Mullen’s “Dim Lady,” which constrains itself to sentences that hew to those in Shakespeare’s sonnet 130:
My honeybunch’s peepers are nothing like neon. Today’s special at Red Lobster is redder than her kisser. If Liquid Paper is white, her racks are institutional beige. If her mop were Slinkys, dishwater Slinkys would grow on her noggin. I have seen tablecloths in Shakey’s Pizza Parlors, red and white, but no such picnic colors do I see in her mug. And in some minty-fresh mouthwashes there is more sweetness than in the garlic breeze my main squeeze wheezes. I love to hear her rap, yet I’m aware that Muzak has a hipper beat. I don’t know any Marilyn Monroes. My ball and chain is plain from head to toe. And yet, by gosh, my scrumptious Twinkie has as much sex appeal for me as any lanky model or platinum movie idol who’s hyped beyond belief.
(Harryette Mullen, from Sleeping With the Dictionary)
At the fully obvious end of the constraint continuum, we find poems structured by numerous overlapping and highly perceptible constraints, such as those of an ancient, oral-based Celtic form called the Rionnard Tri-nard which has these rules:
● The poem has four hexasyllabic lines ending in disyllabic words.
● Line 2 rhymes with line 4.
● Line 3 consonates with both of them.
● There are two cross-rhymes [in which the end of one line rhymes with the beginning of the other line] in the second couplet, but none in the first.
● There is alliteration in each line.
● The last syllable of line 1 alliterates with the first accented syllable of line 2.
● The poem ends with the same first syllable, line, or word with which it begins.
Years ago, I was asked to compose a Rionnard Tri-nard — the first ever written in English — to demonstrate the form for Lewis Turco’s Book of Odd and Invented Forms. It soon became clear that the only way to focus enough to write such a challenging form would be to isolate myself. Luckily I had a short hiking trip scheduled with my daughter on the Appalachian Trail. I kept the poem in my back pocket and brought nothing else to think about. Still, that little poem was extremely challenging; the four lines took three and a half days to write.
Even after a lifetime devoted to poetic form, the exigencies of composing a Rionnard Tri-nard yielded revelations, clarifications, and electrifying surprises. For one thing, although formalism is often regarded nowadays as a sterile, academic, left-brained approach to poetry, the form had so many different rules, some of which narrowly missed precluding others, that logical, left-brain thinking was useless. If I had ever suspected that the main purpose of formal constraint is to stop a poet from thinking, forcing the intuitive self to produce the poem, this experience confirmed it. It also confirmed my suspicion that form is essentially pre-literary; although an early instinct was to use paper and pen to keep track of the restrictions, it soon became clear that the Rionnard Tri-nard is not a good form for paper. It was most helpful simply to gaze at the earth or the trees, or to meditate on the poem in the darkness of the tent.
Wandering in and out of the edges of the form, I began to wonder about the poets who had invented it: Celtic bards — and the still higher-ranking poets, the “filid” and “ollam” — like those described in poet Patricia Monaghan’s essays on Celtic culture. Monaghan claims that the Celts respected poets even more than priests; poets were the only people allowed to wear a certain rainbow-colored robe, the only ones allowed to criticize a king. Wrestling with these teeny four lines gave a sense of the searing mental focus and power these bards would have developed in the course of memorizing hundred of meters and other poetic labors (one can’t say “literary” labors, because letters had nothing to do with it; the form was developed by the poets — women as well as men, by the way — of an oral tradition long before written poetry).
The skills of crafting language in repeating forms were not only used by the Celts, of course; it seems clear that the same kinds of oral compositional technologies were used across the globe before the invention of writing. Think, for example, of the techniques of the griots of the Mandinka culture in West Africa, the Anglo-Saxon skalds, and the Norse volurs; the payada tradition in Latin America and the ghana of Malta; the Homeric epics, the Vedas in India, and the rhyming structure of the Qur’an in Arabic. All must have used the same basic tools of repetition with variation; rhythm and meter; oral formulae that can fit needed ideas into certain positions in a metrical line; memorization; and a long apprenticeship. All must have required similar skills: metrical fluency, verbal ingenuity, spontaneity grounded deeply in tradition, and above all a deep devotion to the patient, basically physical labor of working and reworking the physical reality of language, the temporal, sensual, body-centered materials of the poet’s craft.
This brings us to an interesting question. These techniques of poetry developed before writing, and it is clear that the major motivation was to make it possible to memorize poems; meter and form are ideal memory aids, essential in an oral culture. But then what is their use today? What good are such body-centered poetic skills in a contemporary W.E.I.R.D. (Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich,
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