On Poetry… Form

So back to Glyn Maxwell On Poetry (it’s been a while I know, but all sorts of other things have got in the way like seven books of Game of Thrones). He begins this chapter by saying “You master form, you master time.” Yes time again, that enduring preoccupation, and then two pages later: “You master form, you don’t master time.” Yes, also true.

This chapter is about the left margin, the centre-aligned poem, the length of line, indent and repetition (which is never repetition, each separate same word has different meaning in a poem; say “Never, never, never, never never” and see. There needs to be some way of affixing the poem in the whiteness and often the left margin is it — the “fixed string’ for the music (page 56).

Indent, line and stanza breaks, are a form of punctuation — but white ones and not black ones, and warns Maxwell, messing with them, is tinkering on the edge of an abyss.

In this chapter Maxwell thinks a bit about the change of poem form over the centuries. Located at he is on the island in which the history of the literature he’s considering was generated (and not across the waters in some postcolonial space where history jumps and lurches) he can review at what point a form appeared and was meaningful. He shoots out the challenge to consider whether our present commitment to free verse is still justified:

“I see these days, in young aspiring poets, a phenomenal complacency regarding form, a prejudice that allows them to arrive at adulthood having been convinced somehow that rhyme and metre and pattern are things of the past” (page 59).

He goes on to consider Eliot and Pound and their revolt against “stale late-Victorian formalism” which involved new forms of writing but then asks of us living post-industry, post-world wars, post mass-culture, post the migration to the cities, if we are not “somewhere else in the story”, ie extending the life of a form which should be allowed to have it moment in history.

“Telling any kind of truth, making work that’s rough, unforgettable, lovely… will demand new forms of verse from poets. Sonnets and strict iambic pentameter won’t do the job they used to. The sound of verse evolves…” (page 69).

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