TEXT Review  

Good Form

review by Ronn Morris



An Exaltation of Forms: Contemporary Poets Celebrate the Diversity of Their Art
Annie Finch and Kathrine Varnes (eds)
University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 2002
ISBN 0-472-06725-7
442pp. Pb RRP US$24.95


An Exaltation of Forms necessarily contains the work of established poets - Lewis Turco, Maxine Chernoff, Maxine Kumin, John Hollander, Paul Hoover and Charles Bernstein are some of the contributors. While this work features many elder statesmen and women of American verse, it is also an earnest endeavour to cover the dynamic variety of American poetry as cultural production in the present tense. The collection, particularly, in its last two sections, engages a reader in key deliberations upon the province of verse. Finch and Varnes's brief is broad and inclusively demotic. One of the virtues of this collection is that it provides a smorgasbord for the practitioner arising as it does from a teaching practice in which the writing of poetry is valorised in writing courses.

An Exaltation of Forms is a collection of 51 essays divided into four sections on (I) Meters, (II) Stanzas, (III) what Finch and Varnes term the Received Forms and (IV) on their notions of Principles for Formal Experimentation. These essays are written by poets, often, but not always, by poets who teach (or have taught) within American university writing programs and include examples of the matter under discussion. The individual essayists themselves reflect the diversity of modern American poetry and LANGUAGE poets, New Formalists, and Traditionalists are among them

The editors begin their work with a detailed introduction to the collection's contents and also include a few pages of 'the basic terms of prosody used in this book'. They cover terms that provide the beginnings of a viable working vocabulary for describing meter. The first dozen contributions consider meter in detail, augmenting this brief introduction. I'd argue that because of the weight given in the first two sections to meter and stanza there is a bias in this collection towards the more traditional forms - the other chapter headings include: Iambic, Anapestics, Trochaic and Dactylic meter and there are excursions to Hendecasyllabics, and Quantitative meters and the gloriously named 'Maverick Meters'. That misnomer, Free Verse, has its own chapter of essay and examples, as do English language verse's bread and butter - the accentual and syllabic measures.

The first two sections are quite literally definitive work. Their strength is in their provision of a working lexicon through which to read and write. These nuts and bolts (more precisely, these types of definitions and examples) are with the obvious exception of Pat Mora's essay in the stanzas section, 'The Décima: A Poetic Journey from Spain to New Mexico', readily sourced elsewhere. I refer the interested reader beyond an Exaltation of Forms to James MacAuley's classic (and sadly out of print) Versification, Paul Fussell's Poetic Meter and Poetic Form, Lewis Turco's challenging The New Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics, John Hollander's playful Rhyme's Reason and Alfred Corn's eminently readable The Poem's Heartbeat. (It is noteworthy that Hollander and Turco both contribute to Finch and Varnes's collection and Corn is mentioned in the acknowledgments.)

One of the most useful brief accounts of rhythm, meter and form is to be found in your local library, if it's not already on your bookshelf. It's John Leonard's final chapter in his Seven Centuries of Poetry in English. Also The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics is an exhaustive resource. Mary Kinzie's A Poet's Guide to Poetry proves invaluable in other ways - of all these books, the Kinzie is one I return to most often as it's heartening as well as authoritative.

Of course, the problem with reading guides on meter to understand verse is similar to that of reading a dictionary to grasp the meaning of words in an unfamiliar tongue. Marele Day demonstrates the problem in her How to Write Crime when she cites that wonderful Monty Python sketch on how to play a flute with words to the effect: it's a simple process really, you blow in one end and move your fingers over the holes and make music that melts the stars. If only! The cure to sounding out the mystery of cadence is found partly in the sounding of examples, which, fortunately An Exaltation of Forms has in abundance.

Australia's unofficial Poet Laureate, Les Murray, defines crafting verse as 'learning to play the instrument' that is the individual poet's voice and so reminds a reader that the poet is always a student of poetry and, more precisely, of their own poetry. Perhaps even more than meter itself, the idea of meter is the most basic unit in verse - even if poets choose to disregard the sense in sound, sound makes its own sense. Learning to play the instrument that is a poet's voice is learning about the tolerances and partialities of a poet's ear. Form, and the trying out of various different forms, is a viable way of unfolding the poet's capabilities as practitioner. The only way to learn to write is by writing.

The American Poet Laureate, Robert Pinsky maintains that an art is best understood through careful attention to great examples and he suggests that the best way of learning to write poetry is to read, re-write and recite examples of verse that you love. While I suspect this provides the student of poetry with a good foundation for understanding the craft, I prefer Mary Kinzie's approach to writing poetry as stated in A Poet's Guide to Poetry. She writes, 'The most effective way to think oneself through a poetic form is to try and write in it'.

Pinsky's advice encourages appreciation but also emulation. Murray's perspective on the craft of poetry as a way of learning to play the instrument of our individual capabilities is my preferred model. For the teacher of poetry writing, questions of what poetry is move necessarily beyond interrogations of taste and become elemental. Whereas, most literature conforms to Roland Barthes's definition of that which is taught, poetry writing, when taught, is taught through a process of exchange - namely, through the poetry workshop in which all participants facilitate learning. In short, reading literature is at University a received form of learning, where canon-formation (even post post-modernism) plays a key element in literature and cultural studies courses. By contrast, the poetry workshop allows a more fluid exchange of reading/writing perspectives - that includes reference to the historical record but necessarily privileges students' writing.

The strength of Finch and Varnes's work comes to the fore in the collection's third and fourth sections. The discussion of Stanza forms in Section II takes a reader beyond the individual measures to a discussion of what the stanza does and how the stanza works to house discrete parts of poems. The Stanza forms include Heroic Couplet, Sapphics, and Terza Rima among others. The third section, on Received Forms underlines the cultural diversity of American verse with its essays on Hip-Hop, The Blues, and Rap. These essays are not grouped together, and indeed, there's little rhyme or reason to the placement of these small chapters with the essay on the Ghazal followed by one on Haiku, the essay on Haiku followed by Hip-Hop and the essay on Hip-Hop followed by one on Japanese-Style Linked poems. I'd prefer like to be followed by like, so, for example, Haiku followed by the Japanese-Style Linked poems. Folk Ballad, received French and Italian forms including the sonnet, the villanelle and Rondeaux and Roundels are found in this section.

The last section, Principles for Formal Experimentation, is the most ludic. This is the place where the notion of the poem as a form of significant expression battles it out with Archibald McLeish's Ars Poetica: a poem does not have to mean but be and all in favour of the arbitrary win. The chief fault with all these essays, but particularly the essays in this section - lies in their very brevity. I want more, particularly from Charles Bernstein in his 'Nude Formalism: A Sampler', and from Aldon Lynn Nielson with his 'Oulipian Poetry'. These particular essays are reminiscent of those by Borges in which entire other principalities and potentialities of verse are evoked only to be lost before they are fully fathomed. O brave new world that has such poetries in it!

And so to conclude: An Exaltation of Forms is a fine resource for the practitioner. It could be meatier but meatier essays would have, in all probability, meant fewer essays. The examples used by poets when discussing the more conventional forms are often the examples used in discussions of form found elsewhere. For instance, I was disappointed that Turco's discussion of the Sestina used the same examples he had put forward in his New Book of Forms. I was both a tad saddened and pleased to see the usual suspects: Theodore Roethke's 'The Waking', Dylan Thomas's 'Do Not Go Gentle…', and Elizabeth Bishop's examples of Villanelles mentioned by Maxine Kumin in her chapter on that form as exemplars of the form. I have yet to read a villanelle to beat Bishop's 'One Art', and I would like to.

Attempting a range of forms adds to an appreciation of poetry and will broaden and vary a poet's technique. Leaning to play the instrument that is your poetic voice is learning to sound its notes and learning also to see where your ear takes you. Playing with form is playing a part in the grandest on-going experiment wrought by poets; it places you within that privileged continuum of those who brave the demands of form. To succeed, of course, is another exhilarating thing altogether. What can I say, start with Haiku and Limericks, and proceed with verve? This American book, rightly titled An Exaltation of Form, will give you as good a start as any, and better than most.


A select list of works cited:
T.V.F. Brogan and Alex Preminger (eds), The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1993.
Alfred Corn, The Poem's Heartbeat: A Manual of Prosody, Story Line Press: Ashland, 1998.
Paul Fussell, Poetic Meter and Poetic Form, Random House: New York, 1979 edn.
John Hollander, Rhyme's Reason: A Guide to English Verse, Yale University Press: New Haven, 1989 edn.
Mary Kinzie, A Poet's Guide to Poetry, University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1999.
John Leonard, Seven Centuries of Poetry in English, OUP: Melbourne, 1991 edn.
Les Murray, A Working Forest: Selected Prose, Duffy & Snellgrove: Pots Point, 1997.
Robert Pinsky, The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide, Farrar, Straus and Giroux: New York, 1998.
Lewis Turco, The New Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics, University Press of New England: Hanover, 1986.


Ronn Morris has lectured in short fiction writing at the University of Melbourne, and Swinburne University and coordinated the Monash University Writing Program. She also lectured in Poetry Writing as part of the RMIT Professional Writing Program and has been numbered among the judges of the Victorian Premier's Prize for Poetry. She is currently writin, Cold Water Coast, a collection of poetry.


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Vol 9 No 1 April 2005
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Tess Brady