Friday, April 9, 2010

Fiddling with Form

As I'm reading the poetry collections in my own library this month, the ones acquired in the last year especially, I am also teaching poetry in my Literature-Based Research class. Today as we discussed fixed form in contrast to free verse, I talked about the challenge not only of using the framework established by a fixed form such as a sonnet or sestina, but of creating something clever, original, or even beautiful in the process. After all, isn't that what drew Renaissance poets to the sonnet?

Two poets have achieved just such a feat with quite original constraints in the past year. First, Fred Chappel succeeded in his book Shadow Box to create a poem within each poem. At readings, his wife sometimes reads the inner poem as he reads the outer lines, reminding me of the power of poetry out loud.

In a quite different turn, Mike Smith's book Multiverse uses anagram in a most original way. The first section, entitled "A Bestiary," uses the same exact letters--no more, no fewer--to create each poem. His titles range from "Ape" to "Zebra" and all in between. The section section "Anagram of America" rearranges the letters of poems by famous poets to create something new, often in response to the original. He creates anagrams of Auden's "The Unknown Citizen," Bishop's "Filling Station," and Whitman's "O Captain, My Captain."

I cannot comprehend the tediousness of Smith's accomplishment, but I can certainly admire it--and I can enjoy the results, since he has succeeded in creating something new, endowed with meaning and message. He and Chappel make villanelles and sestinas look like a piece of cake.

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