Sunday, August 14, 2011

Thoughts on Forms

Many community blogs offer a post on form. These are most informative on a technical level, and inspire many poets, myself included, to ‘give it a go’.  Then along comes someone who goes through your piece, highlighting what went wrong and imposing improvements until confidence is shaken and the love of form poetry has been successfully crushed for another week.  
Real Toads will soon feature a form challenge, shared with us by Marian and Grace, but I hope that our approach will be slightly different.

I was very excited to read a villanelle by Elizabeth Bishop shared on Poets United, for the very reason that she defied the strict rules of the form and made it her own.  I love the moment a poet steps over the boundaries, takes what he or she needs from the form and then rewrites it to suit his or her own personality and agenda.  Poetry is a dynamic art form, it is the constant change within the genre that keeps it alive. 

Francesco Petrarch popularized the sonnet in a form that suited the Italian language, but the four or five rhymes over 14 lines proved too restrictive for the English language.  Therefore an Elizabethan version became the norm after William Shakespeare wrote 160 sonnets, using seven rhymes and a completely different division of the content.  Yet it is still called a sonnet.  Modern poets have taken the form much further by switching up the two: taking the octave from the Italian and the last quatrain and rhyming couplet from the Elizabethan, for example.

I had a similar moment of enlightenment as the one mentioned above with Bishop’s villanelle, when reading Pablo Neruda’s sonnets in translation.   He seems to favour the Italian tradition, but divides the octave into separate quatrains, and the sestet into two tercets.  What excited me the most, however, was the fact that in translation, the sonnets no longer rhyme, as perhaps they do in the original Spanish.  This innovation in the writing of 14 line form poems opened a world of possibility to me.  

Love Sonnet LXXIX
“Tie your heart at night to mine, love”
Pablo Neruda

De noche, amada, amarra tu corazon al mio
y que ellos sueno derroten las tinieblas
como un doble tambor combatiendo en el boque
contra el espeso muro de las hojas mojadas.

Nocturna travesia, brasa negra del sueno
interceptando el hilo de las uvas terrestres
con la punctualidad de un tren descabellado
que sombra y piedras frias sin cesar arrastrara.

Por eso, amor, amarrame el movimiento puro,
a la tenacidad que en tu pecho golpea
con las alas de un cisne sumergido,

para que a las preguntas estrelladas del cielo
responda nuestra sueno con una sola llave
con ula sola puerta cerrada por la sombra.


Tie your heart at night to mine, love,
and both will defeat the darkness
like twin drums beating in the forest
against the heavy fall of wet leaves.

Night crossing: black coal of dream
that cuts the thread of earthly orbs
with the punctuality of a headlong train
that pulls cold stone and shadow endlessly.

Love, because of it, tie me to a purer movement,
to the grip on life that beats in your breast,
with the wings of a submerged swan,

so that our dreams might reply
to the sky’s questioning stars
with one key, one door closed to shadow.

As poets, we should remember that a form is merely a framework for the ideas, and vocalization of creative thought.  It is not some arcane formula for perfect poetry.  In the present age, it has a place alongside free verse, but it may be torn down, twisted and remade in the poet’s own image.

What do all sonnets have in common? Fourteen lines.

What do some sonnets have in addition to the line count? A rigid rhyme scheme. An octave/sestet division, in which a dilemma is voiced and a solution/ resolution offered; or three quatrains, which develop the theme of the first through metaphoric example or elaboration, and a rhyming couplet, which provides a witty punch-line or conclusion.  They may be written in iambic pentameter.

What you might like to try:  Take what you know, what works for you and your unique style and write a sonnet.  The only rule is fearlessness.  I have provided a link below for anyone who would like to share their efforts with the Real Toads.


Kerry O'Connor said...

I have posted an experimental sonnet I wrote last year, after reading many of Neruda's Love Sonnets.

Marian said...

kerry! yes! i couldn't agree with you more.
not much of a rule follower myself, i am drawn to form poetry because for me, it allows me to stretch and push and pull and grown in wonderful ways.
but, i am always making shit up and bending rules. hee!
i didn't even recognize that Bishop poem as a villanelle, i just recognized it as very beautiful and her own, as you said.
i've posted here a sonnet i wrote a few weeks back, the first challenge grace gave me. my first and only sonnet. but stay tuned!

vivinfrance said...

My first sonnet (of quite a few) was unconventional, which is why I have posted it, in the spirit of the challenge. There are some gorgeous 14-line poems, some of them traditional, some not, in the magazine

Marian said...

oh dammit, i did not mean to post that second link there. sheesh! such problems with technology!

Philip Thrift said...

I've written several sonnets, but mostly of the Shakespeare form I think. The one above is "Spock's Sonnet".

Ostensible Truth said...

I see forms like suduko for writers lol way to spend time, if a little restrictive, though some I have liked when disregarding strict rules, of those I've tried, I don't think I've done twice, as for me, I've done the "challenge" and bored of it now ha - I will try more soon perhaps, and I do like Bishop! I'm sure I could ruin a form for this haha