Sunday, May 20, 2007

The green man cometh

Over the last year or more, I've grown more and more preoccupied with form. I started thinking about poems more as visual objects, or word sculptures, I suppose. The poems became less writing 'about' something and more an act of trying to figure out what that utterance or phrase or musical incantation was--and having no clear idea until something 'took shape.' I feel little impulse anymore to write a poem on a topic or subject, or even to write a poem that generates from an event or actuality. Although the poem's shape-taking may, indeed, root itself in some sort of actuality or past event.

It was interesting how the poems took shape and that determined content. Or, perhaps, content was generated by hammering the poem into some sort of form. I think a lot now of Roethke's line in "I Knew a Woman": "the shapes a bright container can contain." I don't know how long this sort of impulse can last. Content, or what I think I've called in the past, "philosophy" (as though the two were equivalent when they're not) has long been at odds in my process and work.

Although it seems this impulse has lasted a long time for me--although it's only been lately that I've been able to make it work, to understand it. But I can remember 20 years ago being fascinated with the end of Yeats' "Among School Children": I don't have the patience right now to go to my book shelf, but something like "O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer, are you the leaf, the blossom, or the bole? . . . O words (?) set to music, O brightening glance, how can we know the dancer from the dance?" And also Yeats' "Byzantium"--not just the golden bird, but the act of making the bird, and the contrast of "mire and blood" with the metal working.

This is the issue, then, this tension between form and content--which comes first? A chicken or the egg question. When I read these poems by Yeats, what strikes me is his impassioned questioning of how form and content fit together--or even what form is and what content is.

And, lately, I often feel some sense of trepidation sitting down to write just because I feel as though I keep working blind--not just the silly question of 'what is this poem about (i.e., what does it mean), but 'what will this utterance be?' And that's a frightening question.

Looking back over the last couple of years of my work, I see more and more a preoccupation with invented form--putting the poem into some sort of shape that feels necessary, more necessary than its content. As the drafts move along, form drives the content, and content shifts with the needs of the form. But over the last six to nine months in particular, I see this odd emergence of actual formalism. And formalism by accident. Poems that rhyme, although the form/shape they take may not be traditional, with rhymes at the end. I recently completed a poem that is in reasonably graceful iambic pentameter, which I did not impose upon the poem, it was organic, and the rhymes are mostly there or internal. But the shape/form of the poem is different--i.e., not formalist. The poem's content eventually needed an attention to the phrase, so the lines alternate long and short, but if you scan them, a caesura (heavy) always falls exactly where a traditional iambic pentameter poem would break.

And I recently completed a draft of a poem that stayed in handwritten form for months that I discovered, when I typed it up on the computer, was in a near-perfect iambic tetrameter. The rhymes were plentiful, but were mostly internal, so that acts as counterpoint to the meter, which I liked. It creates a series of tensions, expectations that are continually held out, taken back, re-offered to the reader. So, at any rate, I revised the poem to be in iambic tetrameter, in quatrains. The number 4 is the number of earthly stability in Renaissance numerology anyway, so this fit with the poem's content and themes. And the poem was about the instability of doubt confronting the stability of faith. The poem's other patterns were the cycling and recycling of words and serious puns (i.e., as in Donne).

It shouldn't come as some huge surprise that this is happening to me--I studied Renaissance literature very seriously for the better part of a decade--the language I'm using now, too, is heavily influenced by Renaissance 'dialect'.

Am off these coming weeks to consider two poets whose work differs tremendously in terms of aesthetics and issues of expression, but, I think, two poets whose voices can be oddly similar, whose themes can be similar, whose aims may be similar. Perhaps I am wrong about this, but only reading will tell. I'm going to read Tony Hoagland's new book and his first book, and look at Mark Jarman's To the Green Man. I know little about the history of the green man, but he's an incredible folk figure--not just the green knight of Gawain fame, but also an image of the devil--but now I can never remember where I read that, whether it was in a bit of Chaucer, or somewhere else--the green man stands liminal at the forest's edge, dangerous, threatening, satanic, but not exactly.

I think this is what I meant to say about Robinson Jeffers and Allen Ginsberg as well--but I didn't have time to really annotate that. Very different aesthetics, but similar things at work under the hood, in the poems' energies and hearts.

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