This week on First Person Plural, Tuesday is Fry-day. TGIF? I think so, and you will too after reading below!
Freedom and Form in Poetry
by Nan Fry
Ezra Pound has said that “…some poems have form as a tree has form, some as water poured into a vase.” For years, I preferred the organic form of the tree and saw symmetrical
structures as unnecessarily restricting. Why then am I teaching a workshop entitled
“Poetry Free and Formal”? I have come to realize that the terms “free” and “formal”
are not so much opposites as points on a continuum.
Several years ago, when I attended Westchester University’s Conference on Form and Narrative in Poetry, I told myself and others that I was there for the narrative only. Then I realized that I write riddles and that such poems do indeed have a form, albeit a flexible one, as they use metaphor, imagery, and sometimes paradox to present something familiar in a way that is mysterious. In this case, the form is more a model or a goal, rather than a confining structure. It gives me a direction to go in but does not limit the paths I can choose.
Form can also be liberating. Recently, in “Making It New,” a workshop I just taught at The Writer’s Center, I saw this principle in action. I’d suggested that the participants try a poem modeled on Wallace Stevens’ “Disillusionment of Ten O’clock,” a list of all the things that were not happening in the speaker’s neighborhood at night. One student came in the next week with a poem on the stock exchange—the things it cannot do. I think we were all surprised that she had written so well on something so timely yet seemingly unpoetic. As we discussed her work, she said, “Form is amazing—it gives you permission to do whatever you want.” Later, she said that she had been surprised by what she had written and that she probably couldn’t have done as well if she had approached the subject directly.
That is the delight of poetry—either free or formal—we surprise ourselves and discover our poems as we write them. As Theodore Roethke said, in his wonderful villanelle, “The Waking,” “I learn by going where I have to go.” In “Poetry Free and Formal,” we will explore ways to give our free verse shapeliness and musicality and will experiment with flexible and symmetrical forms that may suggest direction and perhaps open up new possibilities.
Nan Fry will be leading “Poetry Free and Formal” at The Writer’s Center starting September 22.
She is the author of two collections of poetry, Relearning the Dark and Say What I Am Called, a chapbook of riddles she translated from the Anglo-Saxon. She taught in the Academic Studies Department at the Corcoran College of Art + Design for over 20 years. Nan has poems forthcoming in the Delmarva Review and Spillway as well as an essay in the winter issue of Poet Lore. Her work can also be found online in the archives of the Poetry Society of America and of The Rambling Epicure.