Answers on a Postcard: Informed Poetry
By Lytton SmithAugust 20, 2013
Adventures in Form by Tom Chivers
IN THE BOROUGH of Greenwich, Southeast London, where the meridian time line slices the globe, rippling time zones east and west, an eccentric coffee shop called the MVMNT Café has sprung up next to the Docklands Light Railway. Scaffolding on the roof of the café thrusts rainbow-colored signs into the air, splicing the skyline with loud and vibrant text that you can see as you head towards Greenwich Market, the Royal Observatory, and the landlocked Cutty Sark.
A pop-up structure that debuted just before the London Olympics, MVMNT Café almost seems an excuse to blaze words into the sky: THIS, IS, EYE, CONTACT — words sounding in loud fluorescents, eager neons. The structure is made primarily from panels of recycled shipping containers and looks like it might have been put together in one night by a group of somnambulant builders. It straddles our sense of the fixed and fleeting.
It’s fitting, then, that the words that reside atop the MVMNT café (doubling its height) come from the Twitter account of Lemn Sissay, Britain’s “official Olympic poet.” What is more fleeting than a morning tweet? Sissay’s tweet, written about a month before the start of the games, reads:
This is the House. This is the Path. This is the Gate. This is the Opening. This is the Morning. This is the Person Passing. This is Eye Conact.
“This is the Person Passing”: as you walk along one side of the café, reading, the shifting referent of the deictic “this” makes the sentence a dynamic assertion, perpetually changing for the various passersby passing by. Stopping by the café for a morning Americano, I become the referent. I’m approaching and leaving language, seeing it from new angles.
Indeed, to get to MVMNT Café from the railway station, along Waller Way, you walk beside another Lemn Sissay poem, “Shipping Good,” painted in bold black type on the wooden hoardings surrounding the former Greenwich Industrial Estate (derelict land the Movement Project and MVMNT Café aims to reclaim for local use). One quatrain to a hoarding, Sissay’s poem unfurls along seven panels.
It’s the word “towards,” that catches me whenever I walk past — through? — Sissay’s poem: “as she charges towards / the meridian line / leaps sheperds gate / & dives into time.” Formally, we’re in classic ballad meter, two beats to the line, but the way Sissay’s rhythm arranges those beats creates off-balance lines that impel us forward. Top-heavy, the rhythm teeters us over the end of one line, urges us to get to what’s next. This sense of propulsion is heightened by the fact that we must continue to walk forward in order to read the poem. It fosters an awareness of our bodies moving towards a destination, time-diving.
Poem as movement, the leverage by which moment becomes momentum, unstilled.
The words’ meanings, and their form, work together to propel the reader forward. Sissay’s poem, and his tweet atop the MVMNT Café (a temporary structure), both communicate a belief that words aren’t fixed to a place, certainly not to a page. The experience of Poems on the Underground, or Poetry in Motion, is, ironically, to be sedentary, reading words set in their frames. Sissay’s own Landmark poems, found in numerous locations through the UK, are all about putting the motion back into poetry.
Putting the motion back into poetry — if you ask me, it’s always been there. It’s not for nothing that poems have feet, or that to register a poem’s beats is to use a metaphor from the body, the blood moving from the heart to wherever. Perhaps it’s pushing a point to suggest that moveable type, Whitman setting his own letters for pressing Leaves of Grass, connotes motion more than does perfect binding, the modern technology by which the poetry book becomes perfectly ubiquitous. Still, our reluctance to see poetry as kinetic is today everywhere evident. In the UK, we tend to siphon off performance poetry, place it somewhere away from page-bound poetry, as if one involves movement and the other silent reading.
Tom Chivers’s recent anthology Adventures in Form: A Compendium of Poetic Forms, Rules & Constraints (Penned in the Margins, 2012) promises a corrective to the assumption that poetic form is a fixed thing, an inherited corset. For Chivers and the poets he curates, “form can be employed as a framework for innovation.” Form — which for Chivers includes not just the “sustained organisation of visual and aural elements” but also something more nebulous, the “guiding principle” spurring the poem — propels the poet towards new ideas, unlikely solutions. I’m reminded, reading Chivers’s introduction, of R.P Blackmur’s definition of poetry as “language so twisted and posed in a form that it not only expresses the matter at hand but adds to the stock of available reality.” Form isn’t statuesque; it’s expressive, propulsive, additional.
Ira Lightman’s “Wordoku” might not have been quite what Blackmur had in mind back in 1935, but it’s an excellent demonstration of the formal possibilities Adventures in Form discovers within and demands from British poetry. As the title implies, “Wordoku” consists of nine squares of nine squares, some populated by words and some blank; no word can be repeated across a line.
Lightman’s poem engages because it doesn’t rest or rely on the innovation of its form. The clauses/sentences it gives us to complete — emergent from words like people, thought, rules, were, nothing — offer a commentary on the poem’s formal gesture without being caught in a feedback loop, unable to comment outside it. What is this fascination with rules, the breaking of them, that we as a people have, “Wordoku” asks? Does one obey the poem’s command and complete it, or resist the imposition and let the blanks sound?
There is, in other words, assembly and interaction involved when reading form. At times, interaction leads to the construction of the poem itself, as it does here in “Wordoku,” as well as in Nathan Penlington’s poem “Unpredictive,” which requires the reader to enter numbers into a cell phone predictive text system (a technology becoming obsolete as smartphones roll out).
A degree of interactivity, though, applies to forms more familiar than these. Indeed, perhaps what’s most striking about Adventures in Form is its concern with what’s inherited, rather than its attempt to create a break. Divided into 15 sections, such as “Translations and Versions,” “Code is Poetry,” and “Univocalist,” this anthology charges its poets with putting a monkey in the wrench of the established forms, with taking formal “hand-me-down templates” and altering them so that they become “modified, deconstructed and rebuilt in new and exciting ways.” Chivers sets out his stall “tempt[ed] to imagine the monkish scribes at home in the Twittersphere,” and his anthology is marked by a zest for lineage rather than the desire to destroy as, say, the Futurists or Flarfists have done. That the opening section is called “Traditional Revised” indicates the departure point for formal innovation within British poetry: the “relationship between tradition and experimentation” guides even the most deviant of forms. Fatigued by sestinas? Kirsten Irving offers a shortened form, the tritina, half the length and with half the repeated words. Ruth Padel fuses together two sonnets, with an extra line as bonding agent, to mimic the double-helix of the DNA molecule, “‘A ladder,’ the master whispered, ‘of nucleic acid.’”
Innovations in form have always challenged and changed the ways we as readers engage with poetry; formal innovation is, in that sense, not the sole property of modernists, postmodernists, post-postmodernists, and outsider artists. It’s because I believe the poet is always working with the shape of her ideas, as well as the ideas that are taking shape, that I believe Chaucer’s “House of Fame” is not unfinished but cleverly broken off, that I see Shakespeare’s sonnets as re-shaping the private/public codes of Renaissance poetic reading (challenging the form of the sonnet, and the use of meter, in so doing), and that I read Wordsworth’s blank verse not just as Shakespearean inheritance but as formal revolution. Wilfred Owen came to much the same conclusion: setting out at first to write poems that read like some lesser Romantic, he learned the hardest way that a wrecked world in which humans have their limbs blown off needs wrecked language, dissonant quarter-rhymes, minor keys. (That Owen died in the First World War and Siegfried Sassoon lived has, it’s been argued, forever changed the experimental trajectories of British poetry; Sassoon’s ironic ballads were far more subtle — some would say tamer — in their interventions in poetic tradition. Thus, Sassoon gave rise to the regularity of a John Betjeman rather than the syncopations of a John Yau or a John Ashbery.)
Adventures in Form is a necessary anthology because it allows contemporary readers of British poetry to recognize that there is far more to its form than current discourse allows (check almost any review of British poetry in the major newspapers and literary magazines, and you’ll find a shorthand mention of forms used by the poet, a box that must be checked by reviewer and writer alike). Prowess, then, is too often given credit in reviews of British poetry, even though the legacy of British poetry is so often marked by formal innovation — as anyone who has read much Thomas Hardy will recognize. Adventures in Form releases its writers and readers from the mastery of set techniques in order to allow for a consideration of how form gives rise to an idea. For example, Chrissy Williams’s “this is love” takes that hackneyed poetic subject and returns it as a series of hyperlinks on the page, leading us to websites purportedly definitive of romance:
The shift from the ubiquitous British cuppa, to the constraints and expectations of beauty that are bound up in the second line, and thence to the problematic ethics of the nursing home in line three (and there are still 11 to come, the barest hint of a sonnet) is key to the poem’s sleight of hand. Seeming to give us sentimentality at one moment, the poem then offers restriction, control, threat. All the while, it underscores its own limitations as poem on the page, as evidenced by line 9:
The link (at least at time of writing) takes us to a YouTube video of PJ Harvey’s “This is Love,” revealing that these website addresses are suggestive placeholders whose full semantic range we can’t access without our internet-ready devices.
Theodoros Chiotis pushes even further. Nodding to John Cage, Chiotis’s “Mechanolalia Algorithm: Interstitial Repetition” is written in the programming languages Python and Perl, and “influenced by the Oulipian idea of multiple sonnets.” Chiotis’s poem participates in an ongoing argument that programming code is a legitimate language replete with grammar, syntax, and poetic possibility, as well as an argument that poetry functions as a kind of code (an argument deriving in part from Russian Formalism). As Chiotis puts it, “Writing has always been the affair of machines.”
More specifically, however, Chiotis’s poem plays with the imperative and apostrophic traditions of poetry:
print ‘\n’ + choice(beginning) + ‘.\n’ +
choice([‘We’, ‘They’]) + ‘ ‘ + choice(verb) + ‘ ‘ + choice([‘us.’, ‘them.’]) + ‘\n’ + choice(end) + ‘.’
The poem gestures to an experience we’ve not quite shared, yet one that we are not entirely distant from; it’s not what J.S. Mill had in mind when he opined that “eloquence is heard, poetry is overheard,” but it plays intriguingly with that notion of poetic presence, poetic absence.
From one vantage, then, the traditions of British poetry are being revised to the extent that they seem wholly changed. The new plenty of new forms to be found here that invite both attempt and rivalling, including the “Motivist,” designed by Michael Egan to offer a poetic call-and-response, and the “Yvette Carte-Blanche” form, composed by Tim Wells as an homage to the BBC sitcom ’Allo ’Allo!. (Which other sitcom characters might beget a poetic form, one wonders? Answers on a postcard.)
In other places, the forms might not be entirely new, but the poems that result from them have the fresh, arresting quality of language adding to available reality. Consider George Szirtes’s “cracked verse” poem “Working towards the edge.” Here’s the first stanza:
The spinal column rolled up fits in the cranial box.
The edges of vision folded meet at the point of a pin.
The sea in the skull divides, forming two hemispheres.
The names of those we remember are listed in two colons.
Order must be maintained though hardly worth two pins.
Good things must come in twos, the third becomes an edge.
Faint echoes here of the sestina, as well as of the tradition of lineating Anglo-Saxon verse with a visual caesura, yet Szirtes’s poem innovates in its unsettling of each line-sentence’s isolation: shouldn’t that “column” from line one really end line four? The poem realizes a concept of the edge that is terrifically different from the one outlined by William Carlos Williams in Spring & All (1923). For Szirtes’s poem, the complete quality of a line as statement is undermined by semantic and sonic repetitions across lines.
The formal adventures afoot in these poems, then, constitute an exploration of the ways form and content are in conversation within contemporary British poetry, an encouragement that we read poetry with an awareness of how it’s shaped as well as what it’s saying. Chivers contends that “[the line break] is one of the things most people, I bet, will mention if asked to define a poem.” I’ll take him up on that bet (we need a Family Feud survey here) and contend that form remains low on the list of things that people actively notice about poetry today. Perhaps, though, Adventures in Form might help change that; to paraphrase Williams, a poem is made of lines just as surely as a painting is made of paint.
It’s fair to say that British poetry has entered a moment, not entirely of its own volition, where comparison with American poetry is unavoidable. The now-famous 2007 special issue of Chicago Review on British poetry (53:1) might be taken as a starting point for this moment, though Don Paterson and Charles Simic’s New British Poetry (Graywolf) and Mark Ford and Steve Clark’s Something We Have That They Don’t: British and American Poetic Relations Since 1925 (University of Iowa Press), both published in 2004, helped create the conditions for the Chicago Review reappraisal. More recently, Transom has dedicated its fifth issue, “Neither Now Nor England,” to showcasing 11 British poets, many of whom will be unfamiliar to American readers. That The Best British Poetry looks eerily like The Best American Poetry, which inspired it, can’t help but further the comparison.
Cast in this light, Adventures in Form can begin to seem worryingly old-fashioned, disappointingly behind the times. Some of the contributors acknowledge their debt to Flarf, but the US poetic debate has moved on, if not away, from aleatory uses of the internet: poems composed from spam emails, as Hannah Silva offers here, risk retracing rather than adventuring. Giles Goodland’s charming homage “Words for Stanley Unwin” (“unwindsurf / UnWindsor / unwindshield,” etc.) suggests British poetry’s propensity for play, yet there’s nothing here remotely like the broken words of Peter Inman or Susan Howe. Does the “Directions, Instructions, and Policy Documents” section have anything that quite rivals the Patriot Act poems initiated (and mastered) by Geoffrey G. O’Brien and Timothy Donnelly? Can erasures really seem adventuresome now that Radi Os is approaching its 30th anniversary? Can the “univocalist” approach resonate 12 years after Christian Bök’s Eunoia (Coach House Press)? Bök is now writing poems in DNA, rather than about DNA. Imagining an equivalent anthology of North American adventures in form, the mind boggles at all the ways in which the page could become obsolete.
Indeed, to compare Adventures in Form to Cole Swensen and David St. John’s American Hybrid (Norton, 2009) might reveal some of the shortcomings of the ways in which British poetry appears on the page halfway through the second decade of the 21st century. The two anthologies have similar aims, yet Adventures in Form appears more limited in range. Roddy Lumsden’s “Floral Mottoes,” a poem “inspired by the time-slice” (in which 35 cameras capture multiple angles of an event, mixing and blending the resulting images) excites in offering a poem that spirals around a blank hub — and in doing so, reveals that almost none of the other formal adventures collected here experiment with white space, diverge from horizontal lineation, or even drift from the left margin.
One could, then, lament again the narrowness of British poetry, wish for the fireworks and cockahoop that inform even quite (quiet) mainstream American poets. Yet there’s a more sophisticated argument at play within Adventures in Form, and it has to do with Chivers’s interest in “how the form of a piece of writing might be influenced or even determined by the means of its production and/or dissemination, as well as by individual creativity and literary fashion.” Chivers, and the poets he gathers here, understand form to be fundamentally social, and, what’s more, mobile, not settled into a rut. As the introduction elegantly points out, a sonnet’s volta has a “dynamic” quality (it comes from the same Latin route as the Volvo automobile: volvere, to turn or to roll: the volta shifts us but also keeps us moving forward, and Shakespeare monkeyed around with it, as he did with the English language, inventing, among other words, “bubble”).
If we linger on the fact that, at first glance, these poems don’t look as adventurous or experimental as their counterparts across the mid-Atlantic ridge — there’s nothing here to compete with the marvels of Zong! by M. NourbeSe Philip (Wesleyan, 2011) — then we miss the sly, slippery engagement between form and content these poets are staging. What Hannah Silva constructs (in part) from spam in “Hello my friend” allows her to note:
There are many sources from which I glean news
in the space above my thoughts I leave ‘ no subject’.
There are hundreds of people who are following
my brief statements and their replies are always urgent.
To register only the form used, or the method of composition, is to value precisely the wrong thing; the poems in Adventures in Form time and again ask us to consider how form and method allow for, or interfere with, our understanding of the world around us. It’s in that sense, I think, that Chivers writes of a “biodiversity” of contemporary poetry; as an editor, he starts from the assumption that British poetry is a type of language jostling among all the other ways language is used today. Alongside dictionary definitions of form, he offers definitions poets have provided via Facebook. The bioverse these poets exist within won’t allow poetry to be set apart from other linguistic spheres — including social media. Silva’s writing back to spam because — well, why wouldn’t she? Why take poetry away from spaces like Twitter, Facebook, Prism, and so on? You’ve just walked right past Lemn Sissay’s poem, and it’s your fault if you missed it.
Form, then, here means “method” as much as “shape”; it refers to the process of formation, rather than to the resultant structure. Claire Trévien’s “Erosion” happily models this for us, an attempt to construct geological process on the page:
Veil pulled over the gravel, the beer
is grave tonight as coasters are
ground by vagrant hands.
Sour grains hop a sad rhythm
on stout rims. Your grim
mouth swigs ghosts.
Perhaps one might complain that this little tributary is attenuated — where might the grand scale of erosion next take us? — yet its power derives from its condensed trickle of letters, winnowing. Formally, we begin with “gravel” and, through a process of attrition, losing a letter a line, end with only the g, unravelled. If Oni Buchanan’s “Mandrake Vehicles,” animated by Betsy Stone and published by Conduit back in 2006, offers a more extensive percolation of letters, Trévien’s own attritional poetic is more directly in contact with its source, creating meaning from the way a poem takes shape on the page.
Indeed, Adventures in Form is arguably more transformative an anthology than American Hybrid in that it shows the ways in which poets are rearranging the cogs and gears of poetic structure (which calls to mind Barrett Watten’s “Introduction to the Letter T”). So often the poems in Adventures in Form reward rereading because they engage that dynamic Creeley identified: form as an extension of content, each in conversation with the other, even if only because they are trying to convert and divert one another.
At times, Adventures in Form presents works that will seem, to American readers, to be conceptual in nature — “Wordoku” being one example. Yet the willingness to see a poem’s source as inseparable from its form might explain why there have been fewer sustained discussions of conceptual poetry in the UK than in the US. (In an international roundup on the Poetry Foundation blog, Harriet, last year, curated by Kenny Goldsmith, the entry from the UK was not only the shortest, but originally appeared in 1998.) Within Adventures in Form, the ostensibly conceptual — such as Valerie Laws’s “Quantum Sheep,” a series of poems composed by spray-painting a word apiece on several sheep, then letting them roam through a field to generate texts — sits alongside what are essentially minor revisions to inherited forms, such as Tim Turnbull’s “Nausea,” a self-styled “breakbeat sonnet.” The conceptual isn’t a separate stream from the more conventionally — recongizably — formal, at least as far as Adventures in Form would have it. Rather, all the poems in the collection are part of the same spectrum, because even the most “conceptual” projects operate according to some formal logic and constitute derivations of more traditional poetic forms.
Some of the most innovative derivations in the collection examine the way in which social and environmental forces can work to construct forms. Beyond Adventures in Form, this seems to be a wider trend within British poetry in general. Jamie Robles, author most recently of Hoard (Shearsman, 2013), engages in bookmaking practices as well as site-specific poetry. Tony Lopez’s “The Scattered Poem” is written — “inscribed” — along the Irwell Sculpture Trail in Northwest England. Lemn Sissay, absent from this anthology, has published works on the outer wall of a pub, on pavements, and across columnar sculptures in a London courtyard. Part of a rich tradition of site-specific poetry that crosses the Atlantic — one thinks of the Addison Street Project, the Des Moines Public Library, Rochester’s 2009 Poets’ Walk, not to mention Ian Hamilton Finlay’s poetic gardens — these contemporary British poets, whether working on the page or on the land (or both) strike me as concerned with the ways in which site shifts, the ways in which the poem, like the world, is perpetually in process.
All this suggests that a poem’s vector needs reading alongside its final shape. Where a poem comes from and heads towards matters, and so often the evidence for this lies within the poem itself. It’s a treat to know that Ian McMillan’s “Three Tragic Wilsons” revives a Victorian form created by the poet Herbert Wilson. However, the slightly groaning rhymes of these near-limericks (“mistakes/steaks”) are clue enough that the poem’s source lies in light comedy, within which it finds the tragedy of the title.
Indeed, in A Test of Poetry, Louis Zukofsky (1964) wrote that
The Sonnet Form is not a matter of 14 lines, set rhyme scheme, 10 syllables to a line […] Sonnet literally implies the form of the short tune […] the statement of a subject, its development, and resolution. Dissociated from music, the sonnet became merely the poor versification of amateurs, without emotion or sense of the relation of the parts of a composition to the whole.
His point is that the sonnet is valuable, not because it follows certain rules of composition, but rather because it allows a certain type of argument to thrive — one in which a theme undergoes a musical evolution, from statement, to development, to resolution. Form was, for Zukofsky, about what it was used to achieve.
We might, then, try to get into the habit of talking less about the form of poetry, and certainly not about Form (let alone Formalist poetry), but more about the ways a poem is in formation, and how this process informs a reader. That’s not to say the poem needs a paratext, an accompanying explanatory note (though liner notes have long been art objects in themselves, and it’s worth reading how some of these poets account for their forms). It’s just to say that we should take the time to see the poem taking shape, developing like a photograph, as we read it.
This goes all the way back to Anglo-Saxon poetry. Scholars claim that Old English verse exhibits a high degree of apo koinou, a kind of zeugma in which a poetic line or clause is as liable to refer backwards as forwards, to qualify two distinct moments in a poem. The largely solutionless Anglo-Saxon riddles are constantly preoccupied not only by material transformations in the world — landscape, weather, architecture, and so on — but by semantic shifts: “A moth ate words,” reads one, but the moth might reference a human thief rather than a vellum-eating insect, and we’re unsure whether we’re dealing with a literal bookworm or a devouring reader. We find meaning in the prolonged hesitation between possible meanings, not in knowing the answer. Just as the mathematician values the equation as much as (or more than) the solution, the poet values the emergence of words and the possibilities contained within a form, just as much as the words that finally end up on the page. It’s the adventure of language, and it’s why we need poetry, especially a poetry like that of Adventures in Form, which neither surrenders language to the other media surrounding us, nor surrenders itself wholly to the rules of such media. The adventure’s an intervention, and on the other side of the encounter, you’re headed in an alternative direction, part of a different movement altogether.
Lytton Smith is Lecturer in English and Creative Writing at Plymouth University. He is the author of a book of poems, The All-Purpose Magical Tent, and two translated novels from the Icelandic.
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