Thoroughly Alive

We must hunger after the beautiful and the good...


What good is form?

College thoughts and my usual bent toward words have set me in a world of poetry lately. I consider myself an amateur in knowledge of the genre, though an expert by way of the love I bear it. I've read poetry since a child, poring over old collections or dusty old volumes I picked up at book sales.  I've even memorized a good few, inspired by the Anne of Green Gables characters who could spout reams of poetry at the least provocation. But lately I've gone a little deeper. To start with, I'm reading Beowulf, the oldest surviving poem in the English language. I started by reading Seamus Heaney's introduction to his particular translation, and was awed by the structure with which Anglo Saxon poetry is written. The careful selection of words, the bendable, but definite form required for epic poetry, it is an art to which I had given little thought. I've also been reading Shakespeare aloud (with an English accent, mind you!), attentive to the cadence of iambic pentameter, the way the words not only mean something on their own, but combine in rhythm to create a deeper song.

What is the use of form? In our free verse, free love, do-what-you-want world, the idea of restricting our thoughts to any stricture of form or cadence can seem like a curbing of self. Or is it, instead, an enrichment? A restraint that gives more power to the words we choose, a careful pruning of what is unnecessary, so that the full weight of an idea may shimmer in the form of a single poem? I found this quote from Tobias Wolff's novel Old School, to help in my ruminations:

I lost my nearest friend in the one they call the Great War. So did Achilles lose his friend in war, and Homer did no injustice to his grief by writing about it in dactylic hexameters... But about my friend, I wrote a poem for him. I still write poems for him. Would you honor your own friends by putting words down anyhow, just as them came to you - with no thought for the sound they make, the meaning of their sound, the sound of their meaning? Would that give a true account of the loss?... I am thinking of Achilles grief, he said. That famous, terrible grief. Let me tell you boys something. Such grief can only be told in form. Maybe it only really exists in form. Form is everything, without it you've got nothing but a stub-toed cry, sincere maybe, for what its worth, but with no depth or carry. No echo. You may have a grievance, but you do not have grief, and grievances are for petitions, not poetry.

I'm just beginning to really consider it all. What do you think?

(And if you haven't already, and want lots of poetry to think about, like me, sign up at Davey's Daily Poetry, as I've mentioned before.)