Thursday, May 22, 2014

Form And Function

I’m thinking of completely abandoning some of my flash or micro fiction and rethinking them as poems. In the past I’ve tried to do this by dividing up work that has already been written and reconfiguring it. But this is a kind of cheating, particularly if I want to think about form and whether the form makes emotional sense when connected to words. So rethinking these stories is going to be important, because, according to my last post, the new work must somehow resonate for me in a way that it didn’t in story form.

The form needs to bring some emotion to the work and the work needs the form to be almost secondary to the meaning – yet crucial to the meaning – but in an effortless way. I’m not even sure I’m making sense here.

Let me try again: I have to live in the form before I can write the form –

Poetry forms such as villanelles, sestinas, ballads, were sung over and over again both by the person who made it up, and by singers who heard the songs and then started singing it themselves. Someone would make one up, another would hear it, memorize it and sing it somewhere else until the form, the rhythm the rules of the form, would become embedded, physically embedded, in the singer’s body. Sing something enough, you change it. Change it and it begins to become your own. And reading is not the same as singing. Which means, I guess, that I’ll need to memorize some poems – get them into my head in a permanent way, the way troubadours used to and sing them to myself. Quietly. So as not to embarrass my daughters. Sigh.

The problem, of course, is that I stink at memorizing. Always have. Well, except for my American Express Card number – I’ve got THAT down. (Also thanks to my daughters’ addictions to Etsy) (Ok, that’s a partial truth. I too am addicted to Etsy)

And the other problem is, which poem to memorize? Which form? After reading The Making of a Poem*, I’m kinda drawn to the sestina. 39 lines, though. THIRTY NINE LINES.

But I like the non-rhyming aspect of the sestina – because rhyming is hard – and if it’s not done well then the poem is a slave to the rhyme rather than the rhyme being a way of adding to the poem’s overall meaning and emotional strength. “The Raven” would not be “The Raven” without that building intensity of the rhyme scheme. It would lose that heart pounding quality. (Here’s my absolute most favorite reading of The Raven EVER – read by Christopher Walken.)

What I like about the sestina is the way words are repeated throughout the poem which gives the illusion of rhyme without actually having to look every third thing up in Webster’s Rhyming dictionary. And it also builds the intensity of meaning. Each time the words are repeated they change in meaning, building in meaning.

Which words though!? Which words??? See how these things can go? This is why I think the form needs to be embedded in the body and mind before one attempts to go writing in a poetical form.

Song writers do this. My older daughter is a singer/songwriter. But she doesn’t just make up songs, she sings other peoples songs. And while she is pretty discriminating in what she listens to, she isn’t discriminating at all in what she chooses to play and sing. Because she knows that even some of the worst songs (or the worst seeming songs) have an intricacy and rhythm that is useful to learn. (Here is her soundcloud account where she is singing Wrecking Ball by Miley Cyrus, just to prove my point. I think my daughter’s version is fantastic.)

So, in order to write, I need to memorize. I need to sing sestinas.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

According to The Making of A Poem, here is the sestina form:
1.     It is a poem of thirty-nine lines (THIRTY NINE LINES)
2.     It has six stanzas of six lines each
3.    This is followed by an envoi of three lines. (Gonna pause here for a minute and talk about the envoi. An envoi, according to The Poetry Foundation’s poetic terms is “The brief stanza that ends French poetic forms such as the ballade or sestina. It usually serves as a summation or a dedication to a particular person.” This is different from an envoy, a person sent by a government to represent that government but there are similarities I think – because the envoi at the end of the poem is the thing that sends it off – it’s the part that might get most stuck in your head because it is the last thing you hear and in this way it becomes the messenger or even the introduction. Here’s what Webster has to say about it:
a.     Definition of ENVOI:  the usually explanatory or commendatory concluding remarks to a poem, essay, or book; especially :  a short final stanza of a ballad serving as a summary or dedication. Middle English envoye, from Middle French envoi, literally, message, from Old French envei, from enveier to send on one's way, from Vulgar Latin *inviare, from Latin in- + via way
I like the way it comes from via – way, and that the envoi because it ends the poem, actually sends you on your way. It’s saying, ok, off you go, take this out into the world now. It’s yours – go on, take it!)

4.     All of these lines are unrhymed.
5.     The same six end-words must occur in every stanza but in a changing order that follows a set pattern
6.     This recurrent pattern of end words is known as  “lexical repetition”
7.     Each stanza must follow on the last by taking a reversed paring from the previous lines
8.     The first line of the second stanza must pair its end-words with the last line of the first. The second line of the second stanza must do this with the first line of the first and so on.
9.     The envoi or last three lines must gather up and deploy [another messenger word!] the six end words. *

Also, here is a very nifty blog post by Camilla Guthrie on the Poetry Foundation’s website called “Why Write Sesitnas?” in which she says what I’ve just said only better and more poetically.

* Strand, Mark and Eavan Boland. The Making of A Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000. Print.

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