A Question of Form

Jeff Alessandrelli


When was the last time you think Steve Roggenbuck wrote a poem in form—in trochaic meter or iambic pentameter or syllabics? Or Mira Gonzalez wrote a sestina, a villanelle, a pantoum? (Also, in place of those two writers feel free to insert your own fav alt lit superstar.) Do you think either of them ever has? And does it matter if so—or if not? I don’t ask to be inflammatory or combative; I’m just curious, for real. Reading through Edward Hirsch’s new book A Poet’s Glossary I’m simply reminded of the fact that so much of poetry is—or was—structured rigorous math to a certain extent; counting feet, parsing iambs, figuring out exact end words and rhyme patterns, etc., etc. And it’s this mathematic quality that increasingly seems to be a vestige of the past, especially for poets under, say, 40. (Or at least the vast majority of the ones I read.) I still hold to the view that writing is writing and not something else, but “free verse” poetry nowadays isn’t, of course, merely/only displayed on the physical page, and it’s this extension that has opened up a lot of shit in a lot of ways. Most of it for the better. Tumblr junk/YouTube junk /Twitter-Hashtag junk/Conceptual junk/Flarf junk/junk I’m missing or don’t know about. Internet World Wide Web poetry junk—for the most part, none of that is included in Hirsch’s book. A Poet’s Glossary isn’t concerned with it.

What Hirsch’s book/anthologic glossary is concerned with, then, is what has to be the most diligent compendium of common and archaic poetic “stuff” ever assembled. For example, did you know that débat was “a popular literary genre of the twelfth and thirteen centuries,” one that “dramatizes a quarrel or debate between two opposing perspectives?” Or that the viator is a poetic form invented by the Canadian poet Robin Skelton, one that “consists of any stanzaic poem in which the first line of the first stanza becomes the second line of the second stanza and so on until the poem ends with the line with which it began. The first line travels through the poem.”

I did not know about the débat genre or the viator form. Nor did I know that the síra was an “indigenous Arabic genre of folk epic,” one having “no equal equivalent in European literatures;” or that the nirat is a “Thai genre in which a poet describes his separation (the word nirat means “separation”) from a loved one or a beloved place.” And it’s not just me either—no one really knows about this stuff, or at least not all of it. With the exception, I guess, of Edward Hirsch and the assistants that helped him compile this book.

Letter after letter, page after page, the effect of reading about all this historical and poetical “stuff” is overwhelming. Overwhelming in the sense that the cultural, spiritual and societal reach of the art form I 93% love is, in a word, heavy. Poetry might not matter but living people do and, as Hirsch makes clear, a lot of living people understand themselves only through language, speech. And even if they hate poetry, poetry is a big part of all of it and all of this. (Wally Stevens: “It’s life that we are trying to get at in poetry.” “Money is a kind of poetry.” “The theory of poetry is the theory of life.”) The heft of that which is poetic goes back—literally—to the beginning of human civilization. And all glibness aside, A Poet’s Glossary does an exceptional job of tracking and elucidating the breadth and depth of the poetic art form across epochs and cultures, dominant styles and flash in the pan fads. It’s an amazing book that, beginning with abecedarian on pg. 1 and ending with zeugma on pg. 707, is impossible to read all the way through. And I mean that in the good isn’t it fun to get lost kinda way.

Hand in hand with its heaviness, A Poet’s Glossary also makes me question what and why I do. Like most poets reading this, 99% of what I write is in free verse. It’s all, a la O’Hara, “on [my] nerve,” and doesn’t much take into account form or meter; not even line and stanza length some of the time. Why not? Mostly because A) that shit is hard to think about, let alone write; and B) seems archaic in a certain sense. Poetic limits and strictures have their place, of course. But in today’s type it on your smart phone tonight and post it on your blog tomorrow culture, spending a month or 3 months or 6 months on a single poem—or even small group of poems—seems somehow silly, stupid. Would you rather be read as an artist or studied as a craftsman? For me at least, it’s an easy choice.

But I guess what I’m also trying to say is that reading through Hirsch’s book forced me to consider the (probable) truth that I’m not that great a poet, nor are a lot of the great (contemporary) poets I love. To be a negatron about it, we’re one trick ponies that can do a lot without nets (Robert Frost: “Writing free verse is like playing tennis without a net”), but would be 98% fucked if said net was included. A Poet’s Glossary has thus inspired me to be “better,” but also made me realize that poetry “back in the day” was so much harder of an art form to master or even adeptly write/practice. And I don’t think Hirsch’s book is going to make a whole lot of people go back to writing in received poetic forms, but if that did occur it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. Challenge yourself is an old, overused phrase. It’s also a legitimately eye-opening one.

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