Meditation on Form Poems by Don McIver

As part of my first forays into becoming a slam poet, my coach required that I buy Ted Berrigan’s The Sonnets.  I don’t remember doing anything with it, but they are a great read.   I was confused.   Yes, they have 14 lines, but the rhyme scheme was not regular or, in some cases, existent.  I have an English degree, a literature focus, so I’ve read a lot of sonnets:   Spenserian, Shakespearian, Petrarchan, so I know that a sonnet, technically, adheres to a certain rhythmic structure and a defined rhyme scheme.   So to say that Berrigan was writing formed verse is rather generous.   Is it really that simple?  Is a sonnet, modern or otherwise, just 14 lines?

Another coach I worked with still persists in arguing that when we hold the Haiku Championship or any other type of Haiku competition what most of the poets are reading are technically Senryu.  And yes, in one respect he’s right.   Haiku is also a Japanese form of 17 mora (translated in English as syllables) but it usually involves some sort of turn and reference to the seasons.   So the distinction is in subject matter?  Or are people actually creating a new form, a sort of “American Haiku?”

I recently placed 3rd in a villanelle contest in a local newspaper.   I’ve not written a lot of villanelle, so being unfamiliar with the form, I copied Dylan Thomas’ Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night and sort of built my poem around it.  I didn’t bother with the rhythmic pattern and later learned that he’d slightly modified the rather restrictive rhyme scheme as well, causing mine to be slightly off too.  In the end, the contest judges acknowledged that a lot of people had problems with the form and they finally ditched that as a strict requirement of the contest.  So what’s the purpose of writing in form if people can’t be bothered to adhere to it?

I’ll concede that Shakespeare and Berrigan and Thomas probably could’ve produced art by adhering to the rules of their form.   And I’ll note the old cliche, “You have to know the rules before you can break them,” but I’m not entirely convinced that adhering to form is necessarily an admirable thing.  Now after over 20 years of reading poetry, I much prefer modern poetry.   While I still enjoy some of those form writers, I find myself saying, “Boy sure wish you’d just come out and say what you want to say.”

But I’m not convinced that form is bad, but maybe we’ve just outgrown those forms?  And, perhaps we need to rethink what actually constitutes form?

We have to follow some degree of grammatical/syntactic structure so doing so does not mean we are writing form.   If I use a noun as a noun or a verb as a verb, I am not writing form, I’m communicating; I’m writing.

What are the new forms?

Slam Poem: Its a poem that can be read in under 3 minutes (or 4 minutes if you are doing a slam IWPS style).   I would also argue that the form slam poem also suggests that its actually been read at a slam, thus if I write, but never read it at a slam, its not a slam poem; its just a poem.   The form of slam poem means that its been slammed.   But, Don, wouldn’t that mean that my 6 minute poem that I read, and lost with, at the last slam is a slam poem?  No…if you are purposefully flaunting the rules you are not adhering to the form.

Twitter Poem: A twitter post has no more than 140 characters (including spaces).  Now there are all sorts of characterizations that help people maximize the 140 characters.   For example, my Twitter poem, “Misguided Stars” looks like this:

What a hangover?/ Even the constellations/ look really bright.

That’s it.   60 characters.   No hard returns, just using the citing convention of the “/” to show the line breaks.   The first incarnation of that poem is actually a haiku, an American Haiku, but I adapted it to fit the form of a Twitter poem.   Does that mean that every Twitter post is a poem?  No.   What makes it a Twitter poem then?  I do.  I pronounce it as a poem and since I’ve got a poetic license (thanks Jack McCarthy) anything I call a poem is a poem.

FB Status Poem: This is really just a longer variation of the Twitter Poem.  It has 420 characters instead of 140.

Recipe Poem: Yep, I’m calling any well written recipe a form poem.   We all know what a recipe looks like?   A list of the measurements and ingredients, then how to put them together to create the item.   The catch in this one is Recipe Poem isn’t about making food.   I’m gonna write one of these.

So are the new forms just poetic adaptations of different types of writing?  Sort of.   I mean how is a Prose Poem different than a paragraph?   There is a difference.

Any more?  Let me think on this get back to you.