More than a Mere Formality

Editor Donald Zirilli has some questions on formal and informal verse for the current Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize winner, Rose Kelleher. Her winning book, Bundle O'Tinder, is now available from Waywiser Press or most places books are sold these days.

Do you write formal poems or do formal poems write you?

Iím in the driverís seat. The form is in the passenger seat, pointing at things and saying, ďOoh, look, a pheasant! Isnít that pleasant? Letís follow it!Ē Sometimes Iíll ignore him and just keep driving. Other times Iíll take a quick detour and then work my way back to the main road. Or Iíll intend to take a quick detour, but find the new route more scenic than the one Iíd planned, and go that way instead. And sometimes Iíll end up in the middle of a cornfield with no idea where the hell I am.

Actually, the idea that we have to let the poem do the driving is a pet peeve of mine. I think itís pretentious twaddle. I mean, whatís the point of writing if I donít get to go where I want? If I want to explore Manhattan and I keep ending up in a cornfield, Iím not going to feel satisfied. Or to put it another way, inline skating isnít much fun until you start to get good at it; then comes the pleasure of moving the way you want. Thatís control. And itís not ďanalĒ or ďrigid,Ē itís freeing.

Asperger's Muse

Once again he's chanting in
a metronomic monotone
the numbers that he's memorized
without a pause for inhalation,
back and forth, a reassuring
rhythm. He has sung his favorite
song so often I should know it:
that's as much as I remember.
He, however, keeps on going,
eyes averted, elbows held
as if by magnets to his ribs.
He does it when he's nervous. If
you try to interrupt him, that
will only make him sing it louder.
Seeking spoken sanctuary
in the perfect circle's key,
he draws a closed perimeter
around himself; and though I cannot
understand the tongue he speaks,
I know he sings a hymn to something
steady, central, infinite.

first published in Anon

I was pleased to see eight digits per line as a complement to the meter. Did you consider counting ď7Ē as two syllables, or counting ď.Ē for that matter? At first, I thought I was being very clever to think of that, but now I think such an oral strategy would not appeal to the mind conveyed in this poem. Mathematically, each digit has equal weight, and the decimal point is something entirely different. How would you read this to an audience?

My brother used to recite those numbers quickly and rhythmically, choo-choo train style:

THREE point one four one five nine two
SIX five three five eight nine seven nine
THREE two three eight four six two six...

Not sure what to call that meter. Itís not trochaic. I don't think it's dipodic, either. Quadrapodic?

The Rectangle and Doréís Engraving sit snugly across from each other in your book. Both are in blank verse, but the former is more regular than the latter. I find that to be entirely appropriate, considering the tone of each piece, but was it a conscious decision? How did you make that ďdecision,Ē conscious or otherwise, for each poem? In other words, at what point did form enter into the writing process, both the decision to use the form and smaller decisions about how to use the form?

I must confess, a lot of this stuff I donít do consciously. Most of the time, I think, these differences have more to do with my ear, or my mood, or what stage of writerly development I was in at the time, than with any particular cleverness on my part. There was a year or so when almost everything I wrote was in het-met. Was het-met thematically necessary to every poem I wrote during that period? Heck no. It just felt good. Other times a line or two will suggest itself as a starting point, and the form of the whole poem stems from that -- the tail wagging the dog, some might say.

In my defense, though, I sometimes suspect that a lot of the justifications you see for poetic decisions are just a bunch of BS people came up with after the fact. Especially if the poet is famous: we assume he used an initial trochee in Line 3 because it was brilliantly apt and meaningful, and not just because it sounded good. Then, too, happy accidents happen: you draft something and you suddenly realize the form fits the sense, so you stick with it. But really, I think ďbecause it sounded goodĒ is a perfectly valid answer.

Your poem Guadalupe is in trochaic tetrameter. For me, that meter will always evoke Longfellowís Hiawatha, a classic (notorious?) example of a poetís attempt to empathize with a ďnativeĒ population. Did you make that connection when you used this meter?

That would have been brilliant of me, wouldnít it? The fact that the word ďGuadalupeĒ is trochaic was probably the actual trigger. Also, I was in prayer/chant mode, and that meter just sort of suggested itself.

Trochaic tetrameter gets a bad rap. I was going to say it's because of "Hiawatha," but that's giving Longfellow a bad rap. Have you ever actually read Hiawatha? Longfellow did a lot of research. In other poems, like Evangeline, and The Jewish Cemetery at Newport, he showed a genuine interest in, and empathy for, a group to which he did not belong -- while at the same time, naturally, sounding like himself. Good for him.

Getting back to my point, though, trochaic tetrameter is my earís favorite meter. Iíd write in it more often if I could. Itís a strong, beautiful meter, but it's also hard to use in English, at least for me. Some Old Irish poetry looks like it was written in trochaic tet, but that would have been easier for them because more of their words were trochaic. Also, tetrameter in general is pretty tight, and well suited for lilting, sound-centric poems. When Iím trying to get at something thatís at all complex, though, I often find I need more elbow room. For a better poet that wouldnít be an obstacle.

More recommended trochaic tetrameter from Rose:

Counting-out rhyme by Edna St. Vincent Millay
Triple-witch boogie by William Shakespeare

Gingernut, as far as I can tell, is free verse, but I still see an iambic flow that phases in and out (perhaps most English can be described that way). I find the rhythm is quite effective in this poem, for all its ďfreeness.Ē Did you impose meter as needed, or did you just do what sounded right? Did you, perhaps, force yourself not to scan the lines as you composed them? At what point did you decide *not* to use form for this poem?

Jeez, youíre determined to expose me for the bumbler I really am, arenít you? I consciously tried to write ďGingernutĒ in free verse; not for artistic reasons, but because I was playing a game with some friends where we post poems anonymously and try to guess who wrote what. Free verse was supposed to be my camouflage, but I ended up gravitating to iambics out of habit. That sounds awful, I know. But I like the poem anyway.

As a sufferer myself, I have to ask if you have free verse anxiety. When writing free verse, do you wonder what makes it a poem? Do you feel like a self-deluded prose writer? Do you feel like you are pretending to write a poem? Can you tell Iím projecting?

Mostly when I write free verse I just think, “God, I suck at writing free verse.” It’s not that I doubt the validity of free verse itself. I don’t believe you do, either; I think you’re pulling my leg. Read Stephen Crane’s “In the desert” and tell me that’s not poetry; I dare you. Or Angela France’s “Landed.” Or Neruda’s lemons, or Roethke’s roots, or -- oh, come on, do I really need to do this?†

I use meter and rhyme, not because I think theyíre important for some intellectual, theoretical reason, but because they help the ink flow, and because, well, I like them. Theyíre no more ďnecessaryĒ than any other part of the overall effect, like diction or tone or alliteration or metaphor. Think of the many genes that combine to make up a unique person; change one gene, and itís not the same person. Everything contributes to the end result. What matters is whether the result is any good.

That said, of course I have personal preferences. For some reason Iíve never warmed to prose poetry. And I tend not to like very prosy poems, those that use few poetic devices. Or formal poems that set the bar low in terms of content -- but of course I have to say that, being a formalist. The truth is, thatís just bad poetry. Thereís plenty of bad free verse out there, too, and poetry that straddles the line between formal and free and sucks either way.

It occurs to me that anything I can say about formal verse has probably already been said by A. E. Stallings, only better, in her essay Crooked Roads Without Improvement: Some Thoughts on Formal Verse. If you haven’t read it, do. It should be required reading for anyone interested in -- or hostile to -- form.

What did you learn about your poetry when you tried to fit it into sections?

Well, just putting a manuscript together was pretty disturbing. Most published poets seem to have a shtick of some kind, so when you flip through the book, all the pages look pretty much the same. I feel like mine looks more like an anthology. Thatís probably because itís my first book, and the poems span about six years.

Theme-wise, I noticed I think about genes and evolution more than youíd think, considering I was never any good at science. Iím also, apparently, obsessed with spiritual conflict, class, violence, male beauty, sexuality and its roots in early experience, and the sea. Good lord, that sounds awful.

I also noticed that while I keep coming back to certain themes, I hardly ever write about my present, everyday life. My life is pretty boring these days. I like to console myself with something I read in The Picture of Dorian Gray:

Basil, my dear boy, puts everything that is charming in him into his work. The consequence is that he has nothing left for life but his prejudices, his principles, and his common sense. The only artists I have ever known who are personally delightful are bad artists. Good artists exist simply in what they make, and consequently are perfectly uninteresting in what they are. A great poet, a really great poet, is the most unpoetical of all creatures. But inferior poets are absolutely fascinating. The worse their rhymes are, the more picturesque they look. The mere fact of having published a book of second-rate sonnets makes a man quite irresistible. He lives the poetry that he cannot write. The others write the poetry that they dare not realize.

You have two series in the book, At Sea and Noted Sadomasochists. In each case, did you set out to write a series or did you simply notice that certain poems were connected?

I didnít originally set out to write a series in either case, but I didnít just hook together the poems after the fact, either. Both times I started out with one poem that I felt was finished. I didnít want to expand the poem into a longer piece (I donít do long poems, Iím too ADD or something), but I also hadnít gotten the topic out of my system yet and had to come back to it.

Noted Sadomasochists started out as Percy Grainger. Then I read C. S. Lewisís Surprised By Joy, and that gave me the idea for the series.

At Sea started as one or two separate poems based on memories I had of running away from home as a kid. That is, I wanted to draw insights from those memories, not just record them. I think Sea Monster was the first, then Pirate. I kept feeling like I had more to say about that. I still do.