Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Leafing through forms #NPM17 #phenology

'Tis the season of frondescence, marking hyemation where we live. We've gone from the crisp smell of falling snow to the beginning of the season of petrichor. How's that for a segue from phenology, through language, into poetic forms?

frondescence begins
frondescence begins
Photo by J. Harrington

Over the years, I've taken a handful or two of writing classes and courses at The Loft Literary Center. In several, an assignment has been to write a villanelle or a sestina or.... Although my college major was English, we didn't get into poetic forms much beyond sonnets, odes, elegies, basics like that. Of course, in those days "The Beats" helped make popular in the US eastern forms such as haiku and tanka, of interest to those not committed to life in a gray flannel suit. So, with a limited background in and not much experience with most poetic forms, I chose for one of the first poetry contests I entered a simple form, the acrostic. Unless you're willing to limit yourself to free verse or prose poems, it could be a good idea to follow the suggestion for this nineteenth day of National Poetry Month and "Read about different poetic forms." There's a delightful book, Poetry as Spiritual Practice, mentioned here before, I believe, that offers examples of and practice in about a dozen or so forms. You might want to check that out.

Botanists, bakers, neurosurgeons and naturalists, plus phenologists, each have their own special vocabulary, lexicon, language, sometimes several, tacked onto our common terminology. Writers and poets aren't much different. Fortunately, one doesn't have to become a linguist in each area of specialty to be able to write prose or poetry about a topic, but it helps, it's even essential, to be able to understand enough of a language or a form to get a sense of appropriateness of the fit between the form and the subject. One of poetry's earliest purposes was to make it easier for humans to remember things. Rhyming and repetition help with that. Different patterns (forms) then help reduce boredom triggered by the same pattern of repetition. Have you ever had a whip-poor-will outside your window in the evening? How long did it take before the repetitive calling started to get on your nerves? Does that help explain why there are a number of different poetic forms? Here's an even more helpful explanation:


Marianne Moore, 1887 - 1972

I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond
      all this fiddle.
   Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one
      discovers that there is in
   it after all, a place for the genuine.
      Hands that can grasp, eyes
      that can dilate, hair that can rise
         if it must, these things are important not because a

high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because
      they are
   useful; when they become so derivative as to become
      unintelligible, the
   same thing may be said for all of us—that we
      do not admire what
      we cannot understand. The bat,
         holding on upside down or in quest of something to

eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless
      wolf under
   a tree, the immovable critic twinkling his skin like a horse
      that feels a flea, the base-
   ball fan, the statistician—case after case
      could be cited did
      one wish it; nor is it valid
         to discriminate against “business documents and

school-books”; all these phenomena are important. One must
      make a distinction
   however: when dragged into prominence by half poets,
      the result is not poetry,
   nor till the autocrats among us can be
     “literalists of
      the imagination”—above
         insolence and triviality and can present

for inspection, imaginary gardens with real toads in them,
      shall we have
   it. In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand, in defiance
       of their opinion—
   the raw material of poetry in
      all its rawness, and
      that which is on the other hand,
         genuine, then you are interested in poetry.

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