Formal Help: Muldoon, Rukeyser and Hirsch

This fourth post, from a series of eight, draws from an archive of recently discovered audio recordings of America's most important modern poets, taken during Pearl London's renowned poetry seminars at the New School. The most compelling moments of these conversations were transcribed and published in Poetry in Person: Twenty-five Years of Conversation with America's Poets (Knopf), named by CSM "One of the ten best (nonfiction) books of 2010." The clips used below are all taken from the audiobook companion to Poetry in Person, offering extended, thirty to sixty minute cuts of eight of the best conversations.

In their use of rhyme, metrical regularity and other formal elements, modern poets are remarkably divided. Marilyn Hacker and Molly Peacock, often associated with the New Formalist movement of the 1980's and '90s, are known for their work in the sonnet, villanelle, and other traditional forms.  Other poets write in what Muriel Rukeyser calls "notebook jottings". Lucille Clifton, for instance, is famous for her short, unpunctuated, spare poems, avoiding capitalization, meter and rhyme as well. These stances, of course, aren't static—James Merrill's formalistic first books gave way to a sprawling, three part epic collected in The Changing Light at Sandover. From the conversations that take place in Pearl London's class, however, it's clear that all poets must confront the question of form and position themselves somewhere along the spectrum, even if their positioning changes from one poem to the next.

When the poets speak with London about form, they often use a rhetoric of assistance, with three distinct ideas of how forms "helps": it can aid the poet, it can aid the reader, and it can aid in the internal working of the poem itself.

Paul Muldoon, for instance, talks to London about how he constructed a form that served as "a little box" in which to construct "Incantada"—a poem written in honor of a friend that had recently passed away.

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Muldoon admits that this is not how he usually writes, but he still offers a notable instance of how form can assist the poet in the construction, at least in this case, of a particularly difficult poem.

Edward Hirsch, discussing form, talks about the inverse of this process, describing how his poems sometimes push through from one form into another as he writes them.  Hirsch brought "Wild Gratitude" into the class in several drafts, revealing that the poem was a single block of text until the very last version, where it was broken into the stanzas that it retained as a finished poem.

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Hirsch says that he thinks form is “a series of expectations—it’s a contract that you set up as a musical form, a series of patterns and expectations and fulfillment and thwartings and movement, and that your task is to work through the form so that the reader can follow that.” Form is oriented towards the reader, rather than the poet.

And yet, it isn't as if words are dropped like blocks into a form built to hold them, or that words are forced, at the last stage of revision, into a form that they weren't written around. The words, as Hirsch says, must "enact and push" the form, the rhythm of the poem, and, as Muriel Rukeyser adds, "a sound structure" that is something you must "fuse with the literal meaning" of words:

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I could go on with further clips—every poet included in the audiobook talks about form in some sense—and I may include a "Part Two" to this post later in the series with some other clips.  Until then, I'll direct you to this meditation on form from George Szirtes, published in Poetry.

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