In our discussion so far, we’ve hardly mentioned form, at least not in the strict sense of particular patterns by which Merwin, though eschewing conventional punctuation and pressing his thumb to the syntax nozzle (it makes bright billows of spray), distinctly signals his relationship to syllable, stanza, and line. Well, our minds have been elsewhere, but I think this elsewhere is doubly significant: forty years ago, a critic might have reasonably said, “I predict that when four youngish poets in 2010 blog about Merwin, they will note his veering from Audenesque prosody, his heave to break the pentameter, to unstaple language from received rhythms.”
That line of thought might be beside the point. Merwin’s shift to a freer verse (and how he and critics thought about it) is certainly interesting historically, but, technically, he has typically remained an accentual poet who brings a sense of song (and its tradition in English and non-English poetries) to even his most meditative and narrative work. In this sense, his prosody is unradical compared to others (say, Charles Olson) who revamped verse in the mid 20th century, maybe resting closer to Creeley in its relation to innovation and tradition. And like some of those others (James Wright, Adrienne Rich) Merwin sometimes speaks in more traditional metrics at rhetorical heights, as in the iambic pentameter of “from what we cannot hold the stars are made,” which concludes one poem in The Shadow of Sirius.
The metrical context for such a line is not just its poem but the English poetic tradition. So from one view, Merwin’s “free” verse reaches toward older (and non-English) traditions of song, with an accentual line that recalls the prettiest moments in Pound stretched out; this line is compatible with expressively recognizable accentual-syllabic meter.
Still, I wonder if our not commenting explicitly on form, except in relation to theme and general tendencies (as Darcie does with regards to humor, for example) also has to do with our own historical orientation. As Jay Thompson has speculated about provocatively on the Kenyon Review blog and others have elsewhere, the sorts of hybridity that mark much contemporary poetry can make form indistinct. It can be hard to say where the parts of a hybrid come from or how they hybridize, exactly, so it seems more sensible to speak of craft that’s in service of a larger stance, one that emphasizes, say, aesthetic pluralism, borderspaces, or a poet’s interaction with period styles, styles of thought, tonal collage, and poetic communities. Such a stance is the point, as much as the patterns that it mines by.
You can see a related approach to form in the 2009 poetics statements by some first-book poets at the Poetry Society of America (one is mine). Rather than orienting toward (or rejecting and recasting) formal tradition as poets in previous decades often did, these statements largely emphasize poetry as a process of inquiry, one that, based in shifting methods, absorptive inspiration, exuberance, and “not knowing,” does not commit to a dogmatic formal approach but employs formal methods (often borrowed from other arts, such as film, or from the procedures and logic of outside systems) as needed for its investigations.* These statements have a lot more in common than their authors’ poems do.
Even in the perennial grumpiness some people enjoy having about MFA programs (addressed here, for example)–as though two years of reading and writing spares a young poet from the suffering and stimulation of the wider world, from the inescapable aspects of self and language–commentators often warn more about the consequences for student-poets’ sensibilities (for how they imagine themselves and audience and the purposes of poetry) than for their specific technique.
Of course, I’m glad poetic form no longer has essentialist associations. But if we live after the great formal debates, I wonder 1) do we need new terms for thinking about form as temperament, as stance and method, so that we can talk specifically about it (its flexibility; its consequences; its history) without unacknowledged entrenched orthodox tribal aesthetics and without bowing to populist sorts of commentary that are often technique-shy and hostile to verse’s actual functions, capacities, and motivations as tuned-in constructed language**; and 2) when I say form in 2010, do I largely mean sensibility and pose, e.g., if our poetics emphasize the fluid use of poetry to investigate psychic and topical spaces, do I form my inquiry like Law and Order: SVU or like Twin Peaks? Does my pentameter show underlying cosmological symmetries or force chaos into good manners? Does juxtaposition allow me to bypass a dogged autobiographical self or express it freshly? In contemporary poetry, it seems like specific craft matters less than the attitude it conveys.
Tell me: am I wrong about readers (me) often seeing sensibility and stance functioning as form once did? Or is it a wrong way to read? A wrong way that’s indicative of some underlying ways people approach contemporary poetry, as a sensibility that can be transmitted at a scroll through a website?
In any case, it makes me wonder:
1. Has the pose a poet strikes become our primary form in American poetry, so we read mostly to receive a pose, or a particular way of imagining, which often includes not only representing the world but suggesting what it means to be a poet speaking and imagining in it, so I don’t remember characteristic lines, rhythms, or ideas from most readings but a way of looking via language, a proposition about what it means to be a poet or have a poetic cast of mind, that isn’t autobiographical (hard to write Merwin’s autobiography from only his poems) but has a posture (easy to imagine Merwin writing in the garden or staring at a sky), a Personism of posture?
2. If sound (historically form’s fountainhead) is less primary today for formal distinction (and for many poets’ writing), and we are skeptical of assertive technical talk for reasons of populism and/or rangier enlightened aesthetic inquiry, does the voice-pose of the poet offer new coherence for images and ideas, not as it did for Confessional poets (for whom the voice conveyed the self) but“as performance“performer“
3. Do people like the poetry they like partly because it lets them imagine poets as the kinds of creatures they like to imagine poets as, whether that creature is hip (“the sky looks sky-colored / let’s fish / no, let’s flash // the traffic lights are gumballs / I am a cat that smells like / my girlfriend’s pizza habitat”), or poignantly weary and grand, or ripe with Zen, or conceptually avant, or “plain-spoken” and impatient with febrile academic“so what is transmitted is“
I’m going on. In a way that might be especially off-topic because Andy, Caryl, and Darcie all have such original, fluent, and precise relationships to form in their own books, as well as less mulish, less pedantic ideas about “terms” in their posts here. But these are thoughts I’ve been mulling, that feel under much of the recent (more measured, more straight) critical prose I’ve written. And perhaps Merwin, who doesn’t spin wisdom from epiphany but embeds epiphany in the spinning itself, so that as we turn line from line we are more aware of the motion of our heads than of a sage gleam in his eye, can lead me away from them. I promise to focus on him more closely next week, and perhaps on Halloween, and what he might costume himself as, and what he might carve in a pumpkin holding a flame that will outlast the fruit and pulp and neighborhood around it.
*I’ve just ordered Poets on Teaching , an anthology of teaching exercises and thoughts from some of my favorite poets, edited by Joshua Marie Wilkinson. I’m curious to see how these issues of sensibility come into these adventurous poets’ contributions. That is, I don’t expect to see much along the lines of “I write in meter so this is how I teach meter” but approaches that foreground–what?–inquiry? attitudes about absorptive and fluid and energetic relationships to craft? underlying aesthetic values?
**I’m optimistic that Adam Roberts’ upcoming posts at The Atlantic will address poetry with clarity and accessibility in ways that make my above thoughts seem shrill, that make clarity as thrilling as it actually is when you look at anything that actually exists and you have eyes. Outside of Whitman and O’Hara, Muriel Rukeyser’s The Life of Poetry remains my favorite antidote and affront for this purpose: “A poem does invite, it does require. What does it invite? A poem invites you to feel. More than that: it invites you to respond. And better than that: a poem invites a total response.” Maybe this post should have simply asked: how does form today invite?