Poetic Form: It's What's for Dinner
(published in Multiformalisms: Postmodern Poetics of Form, eds., Finch and Schultz, 2008), written 2002
I decide to cook something. I check what’s in the house. I open the frig and start pulling things out of it, laying them on the table. Not all ingredient-candidates make it into the dish. Some will return to whence they came, to be referred to on another occasion. I change my mind while working. As if on a walk I came upon something unexpected, causing me to change my path.
I chop the swiss chard stems, the leaves, and some garlic. I chop some ginger into tiny little fragments. I sauté these guys in a little safflower oil.
There is one solitary very bright red tomato here. I chop it up and leave it on the wooden board for later, when the greens are cooked, for color. I'm planning to sprinkle it raw on top of the cooked chard.
Along comes another cook and sees the chopped tomato and assumes that I want it for a salad. He volunteers to wash the lettuce and so I change my plans for the tomato. Why not? It’s easy. Both ideas are equally good. The chopped tomato in the salad is a well-known form, while the chopped tomato on top of the cooked greens is rarer and more of an invention. But who is to say which form is superior? The important thing is harmony in the house.
Because I prefer inventing dishes, rather than following recipes, I think of myself as an originating artist rather than an interpretive one. A composer, rather than a performer.
The recipe is the poetic form, the sonnet, the sestina, the shell, the wall. Poetic form is my body, my bones, my DNA. Poetic form is a playground. I can play inside it and need not worry about oncoming traffic.
One form I played with recently is seen in the poem "Four Plus One K." Four lines followed by a single word beginning with the letter k. Here are the first three strophes and their annotations:
The mechanism of deepening of memory becomes clear in the present moment, where life is available.
The kitchen as playground.
Bungee mark water stain
When we purchased the online version of Britannica, we experienced a budgeting ecstasy.
A bungee is a long and strong rubberband capable of holding up a human being. A bungee mark water stain is the stain caused by the enormous splash resulting from the unplanned impact of the jumper.
Marmosets never keep any money you give them—they always return it.
Kiwis are great. The fruit, the bird, the people, the clean air, the blue skies, the benefit of the doubt.
There are 29 of these. After they were published in the literary journal Conjunctions #35, edited by Bradford Morrow, I added certain "annotations," which are in fact new poems derived and drawn from the existing ones. New thoughts and continuation of the previous thought, but in a new form, a new poem referring to an existing one, playing a new role.
The next form I dreamed up was clearly inspired by "Four Plus One K," as it consists of three lines followed by a single word, only this time in an alphabetical progression, rather than repeating the same initial letter. Here are the C, D, and E strophes of "Ginkgo Knuckle Nubia:"
Desecrated rabbit groan
Sloppy little bulldog puppy
The sloppy little bulldog puppy needs no explanation.
Penguin hubbub Jesus worship
Daddy-long legs cemetery
Penguin hubbub Jesus worship is the actual hubbub heard among penguins who have congregated in order to worship Jesus.
A daddy-long legs cemetery is usually a matchbox of some sort.
Poodle viceroy salad dressing
Mummified cadenza friction
Poodle viceroy salad dressing refers to a poodle who not only made it to viceroyhood, but who has since developed a taste for salad dressing.
By C, D, and E strophes I'm of course referring to the ones ending with Cerebellum, Dodo, and Erotica. The complete poem goes through the entire alphabet. The annotations came into being much the same way as in "Four Plus One K."
There were deviations here, rule breakings there, and at the end I allowed the structure to collapse and completely fall apart. The last strophe looks like this:
We’re all in this together.
Another poem, "Considerations," deals with a rhyming, quasi-limerrick, sometimes clerihew form. From the 27 strophes, here are three consecutive ones:
Rosa took a ride on a bulldozer
Deep inside the city of Mendoza
She was reading a book
That she got from a cook
Who recommended she familiarize herself a little bit at least with Spinoza
After reading page one of The Ethics , she immediately understood that all substance was one, including herself, whose intelligibility was not derivative from that of the cook.
Foolie, fooly, amber glue
When does Apu follow through
Who is who and who is who
Gruesome threesome true-blue cuckoo
Do I write this poem or do you
A poem is written first by the writer and then by the reader.
The time has come to face the music
No mechanic need to panic
Tell the story of jiggery-pokery
Fully deductible and organic
Nunneries that still use salt cellars are stuck in the middle ages.
Annotations again, but no single-word lines trailing the stanzas.
The poem "A Week in Maine" is completely free-form, which isn't to say that it's free of form. As soon as you have as much as a letter on a piece of paper you have the form of the letter itself and its placement on the page. The last line reads:
In my conversations with Lyn Hejinian, in the preface to my book The Dik-dik's Solitude, in which Henjinian interviews me, we had the following exchange regarding poetic form:
[Anne Tardos] . . . You asked a pertinent question earlier that I failed to answer, about the quatrain form. The repetition in "Ami Minden" created a form for me, a form within which I could move, much the same way the form of the quatrain in Four Plus One K helped that poem along. Same goes for the limerick-like form of Considerations. Form, then, helps me develop the poem. Form frees me, as a clean desk would. Back to the idea of the tabula rasa we spoke of earlier, the mind empty of the self. When I’m completely free to do anything I please—i.e., following no form at all—I’m the least free, because I have to worry about everything. But when I confine myself to a form, many worries and responsibilities fall by the wayside; burdens are lifted and imagination is liberated. This is all very simple, basic, primitive talk, but that’s how I see the process—and in retrospect only. I realize, of course, that there are other art makers who thrive within a certain kind of chaos and still others who are untouched by order or disorder and propel their poems by their philosophical and analytical observations, free of form as I understand it, obvious structures like quatrains or series of dactyls.
Making decisions has something to do with this, but I can also very easily inhibit myself by becoming self-conscious, as in, "Now I’m writing a multilingual poem." If I thought that, I couldn’t write a word. So it’s important for me to have no intention at the time of creation. One more thing about form: it’s not always something I decide on, as in, "Let me try some quatrains now"; rather, it’s often something that I "hear" as I write, by following an internal musical rhythm, which then turns out to have a recognizable structure on paper. It’s as if writing were a form of musical notation. I recently read that musicians’ brains are wired differently, allowing them to "hear" the music in their heads as they think it. If this is true, then I’m definitely a musician. In fact, I’m plagued by tunes I don’t want to hear—but that’s another story.
I am interested in what you say about form and freedom and how they are related to play (the important, investigative playing that toddlers undertake). The terms I have used are "field of intention" and "improvisation," and though you say specifically and emphatically that you do not work with intentions, what I am calling the field of intention of a work is not unlike what you establish formally. One begins with something and then sets about making something happen from there. The important point is that the creating of the work is not an attempt to represent, however beautifully, something one already knows. It’s either about getting to someplace that one doesn’t know anything about or, perhaps even better, to creating such a place and leaving it unknown. Children do both. And so does your recent poem beginning "Shightenberby gravitas." That poem strikes me as the result of "putting together objects out of curiosity." Certainly the individual words and phrases are very object-like; and the reader, like the writer, gets to participate in the fun by figuring out the possible sound and sense of them. . . .
This would be a good place to insert the poem we discussed:
Goober ginger wistenbarber
Ginny ganga zubenmeter
Kiss me Wendy bumper veil
Selfamigo face flamingo
Senten garvel shivering
Flexi fondo Melissande
Jumpy gumbo epigraph
Viva cactus Velcro dexter
Humdrum fenugreek basking shark
Fandidia jumping Joe
Vexing kneecap bloody
Buster Keaton piggyback
Money-mouse Moby Dick
Pixel granite kickerley
I finish the dish and place it on the table. Let's eat. When asked "what do you call this dish?" I usually give it a feminine name, such as Amanda or Theresa. We're eating my creation and the day ends with a contented groan as we stretch our bodies and relax into the pleasures of being.