I was talking to a young poet recently who refuses to write in forms of any kind, even as an exercise or—God help me—for fun. He (and it is a he) can write a pretty readable poem—using a long and very loose line. Which is fine. I do that more often than not.
But I also know the drawbacks of that technique—a tendency toward the prolix and an inclination to value momentum over a technical mastery that’s so well done it’s pretty much invisible.
His (we’re back to the guy again) argument against traditional forms is that meter and/or rhyme are inhibiting. He doesn’t want to have to force his ideas into an inappropriate container, since “that’s too much like shoving a boa constrictor in a milk bottle.”
Let’s take a minute to look at his simile: his ideas are the boa constrictor and the sonnet is the milk bottle? Boa constrictors strangle things, pal. Is that what you want your ideas to do?
“Well, no, and maybe that isn’t the best figure of speech.”
No kidding. But we pressed on. I suggested we take a look at the sestina form: six stanzas, six lines in each stanza. No meter, no rhyme. Just the same six words to use as end-of-line words in every stanza but in a different order. I showed him a gorgeous sestina by Elizabeth Bishop and here, for the record, is stanza #1:
September rain falls on the house.
In the failing light, the old grandmother
sits in the kitchen with the child
beside the Little Marvel Stove,
reading the jokes from the almanac,
laughing and talking to hide her tears.
Now I know one stanza doesn’t do justice to a whole poem in the same way that the engine doesn’t do justice to the entire Lexus, but—and let’s just caress this simile for a second—the first stanza of any sestina is engine-like since the key words are there, the tone is there, the main character/characters are there, and so on. In short, the first stanza propels the rest of the poem.
So he said he’d give the sestina a try and I suggested taking one of his very long and very loose (so loose as to be baggy) poems.
I don’t think what happened will surprise anyone: 1. He couldn’t do it. 2. But what he saw in the process was this: his original poem was far too relaxed and unbound, and merely working in a form that demanded restraint showed him that. The next draft of his original poem was much stronger, thanks to the sestina-exercise.
I’m not a Formalist at all, but I’ve done this exercise a hundred times: turning a poem that just wasn’t cooperating into a sonnet or a villanelle or a series-of-couplets. Why not, right? I had nothing to lose and something to gain, and that something was working with the medium in a new way.
Most of my poems are failures, anyway, but as Samuel Beckett (Mr. Sunshine) famously said, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”