Every Thursday, Ooligan Press invites a poet whose work is included in Alive at the Center, our forthcoming anthology of poetry from Pacific Northwest writers, to blog for us. This week, we are pleased to feature Julie Larios, a poet from Seattle, WA. Please enjoy her post!

Form in Poetry: How Not to See it as Storm-Lashed Suffering or Whale-Boned Lingerie

One of the most complicated things to talk about with my poetry students has always been the usefulness of formal restrictions in bringing out playful and exciting poetry. Formal restrictions—ouch; the words bring up shades of medieval torture (or high school English)—right? An image of Jean Valjean in the latest Les Miserables springs to mind.

When students anticipate misery, I encounter resistance. And why not? Few people like misery. Other students look more like I’m asking them to put on a corset, like this.

People don’t sign up for creative writing classes so they can endure pain, suffering, torture, whale-boned lingerie, blinding storms or life-threatening effort (well, fiction writers might sign up for that.)  “Thirty lashes with a cat-o’nine-tails!” is what poetry students hear me say when I assign double abecedarians, sestinas, pantoums or sonnets. Even double dactyls, quick and funny, make them scowl.  The dramatic loop they’ve got going is a scene from the Broadway version of Hair—uninhibited self-expression, form-free and exuberant.

Okay, I actually do like exuberance. And I’m exaggerating. While I’ve had a few students who think poetry just spills out on the page as pure emotion, most of my students don’t pout and are not permanently resistant to form—they’ve just never been asked to do anything with it. They haven’t learned the terminology, they don’t know how to scan a poem to see how it was built, and (most of all) they don’t believe me when I say that formal restrictions can be—counter-intuitively—liberating. They can make us more playful, can bring out our wit and can even bring out our true selves, to our own amazement.

When we pay close attention to formal demands like meter, rhyme and structure, other demands (mostly confessional in nature) slip down the priority list, and we find ourselves exploring a landscape that never would have presented itself had not the restrictions made it available to us.  Freed temporarily from the weight of self-absorption and confession, the poet sings.

But convincing beginning poets of this is hard.  By the time I see students at the undergraduate or graduate level, they’ve spent a lot of time with that bad boy, the hard-drinking and sexy Free Verse, and usually somewhere along the line they’ve heard that poetry is just about giving yourself permission to be a rebel and drive off a cliff.

Of course, the character James Dean plays doesn’t actually end up driving off the cliff—he jumps out of the car just in time. And you have to admit the actor looks sexy in that red jacket and with that pained expression on his face, sexier than he does in other scenes where he puts on a tie. But formal poetry isn’t James Dean in a tie—it’s James Dean the actor who read the script, learned his lines, studied how to move, experimented, and practiced looking sexy. It’s James Dean the craftsman.

If I sound dismissive of free verse, I need to back up. That’s not how I feel about well-crafted free verse. But we’ve all read a lot of emotional prose that’s been broken into lines and called poetry, haven’t we?  Emotion behind a poem doesn’t legitimize inattention to what makes poetry memorable and meaningful—the blending of image, sense and sound—does it?  Certainly, I read good free verse which pays attention to those three things. When I do, I’m almost as thrilled by it as I am by a good sonnet. Almost.

And to be fair, I’ve read formal poetry that tries but fails to take advantage of what the restrictions of form can do, so I’m not an absolutist. But I do wish more poets started out with the equivalent of music lessons, willing to screech and clang as they try to master iambs, trochees, dactyls and anapests. I’d love them to see how the need to make a rhyme at the end of a line can be liberating, a near-rhyme can tease, a rhyme hidden inside a line can be buried treasure.

Full confession now:  I spent a few years in my own creative life being satisfied with cleverness, producing well-rhymed and well-metered little puff-pieces that I called poems. It was like owning a dog to be paraded out at a dog show, rather than loving a dog that’s a mutt—good form can’t substitute for heart.  Restrictions can get a poem going, but during revision we need to remember that a good poem comes from someplace authentic. If that inner hippie in the sunshine really needs to dance, then part of the effort must be to make the dance as good as it can be, not to suppress the dance, right?

Metaphors about dogs and hippies aside, I danced one night in 1969 on stage at the end of the London production of Hair, and I know how exhilarating the permission to let go can be.

But the musicians in the orchestra pit were formally trained. They read what key the music was in, they read the songwriter’s notes on the page, indicating a “moderately bright” interpretation, and they understood what “moderately bright” meant. They knew about stresses, about glissandos, about how to match the tonal register of the drama onstage. Choreographers helped the professional dancers move well. Conductors, directors, make-up artists, costume designers and lyricists—all of them were trained in their craft. All of them did the foundational work it took to be the best they could be. Even Hair—with its message of free-wheeling abandon—needs its formal restrictions. The message is exuberance, yes, but the delivery mode is knowledge of craft and knowledge of form.

One final dance reference before I end: Gene Kelly doesn’t just get exuberant with a mop and a push broom in this sequence.

He learned basic steps, learned the traditions and made them his own. He’s a technician, a craftsman, and an artist. So I guess what I’m asking is this: Why let ourselves off the hook as poets?

I encourage beginning poets to play with formal traditions, the way kids play on the playground with games that have rules and with jump-rope songs that have traditional rhythms and rhymes.

Start small and grow, that’s always a good plan. Learn to scan poetry for its stresses and its rhyme schemes.  Read The New Book of Forms by Lewis Turco and give as many of those forms a try as you can. Re-introduce sound elements into the way you express the authentic feelings you have.  If you haven’t already, introduce sense to sound, sound to image, image to sense—it will make you dizzy and delight you;  the friendships that grow between the four of you—image, sense, sound, poet—will make your poems memorable. You’ll end up surprising yourself by playing with forms. If Robert Frost is to be believed—and he is—then surprise for the writer equals surprise for the reader. A good goal.

Julie Larios teaches on the faculty of the Vermont College of Fine Arts in their Writing for Children MFA program. She has published four books of poetry for children: On the Stairs, Have You Ever Done That? (both Front Street), Yellow Elephant (named a Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Book), and Imaginary Menagerie (both Harcourt). She is the winner of a Pushcart Prize, has been twice included in the annual Best American Poetry series for her adult poetry, and was granted a fellowship by the Washington State Arts Commission/Artist Trust. She was also the librettist for a pocket opera (music by Dag Gabrielson) performed by members of the New York City Opera for their 2011 Vox Series.

Julie’s poems, “Double Abcedarian: Please Give Me” and “Husband, Wife”will be featured in the complete Alive at the Center anthology as well as the Seattle edition. Both books will be available April 1, 2013.

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