The Sociology of Form
I have been struck by the lack of celebrations in the American poetry community regarding the 100th anniversary of the Cinquain. The form first appeared in print 100 years ago in a posthumously published collection of its creator’s poetry, the poetry of Adelaide Crapsey. It is a distinct contribution to the world of formal verse and since its appearance numerous poets have found it a congenial vehicle for poetic expression. Yet, I have not heard of any sponsored celebrations of its presence. For example, I have not heard of any University conferences devoted to the form, nor have I seen anything like a Norton Anthology devoted to the Cinquain. There has been a Norton Anthology devoted to English Language Haiku, called Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years, published late last year. But nothing by Norton or any other publisher for the Cinquain.
I think it is instructive that the HIE anthology emphasizes free verse haiku. Though there are examples of syllabic haiku, the preponderance of entries take a free verse approach. In addition, the editors in their essays are clearly sympathetic to a free verse approach. Overall, the haiku anthology fits neatly into the esthetics of modernism.
This has given me an opportunity to pull together some stray thoughts I have had about what I think of as the ‘sociology of form’. Specifically, I am referring to the type of people who seem to be attracted to the syllabic forms that have recently emerged in English language poetry.
The first observation is that the appearance of syllabic forms seems to me to be very much a reflection of popular interest as opposed to the interests of the elites. I mean here that, with some exceptions, MFA programs, University English Departments, and similar institutions of the elites, are not the source of these syllabic forms.
Adelaide herself is exceptional in this regard. She was highly educated, went to Vassar and taught at Smith. She also engaged in highly analytical examinations of English prosody. If she had lived longer I suspect she would have been a significant presence in the academy.
But Adelaide is unusual in this regard. The syllabic forms that have been created in the 80’s and onward seem to emerge from what I think of as a more working class background. The rictameter was created by two cousins interested in poetry; one a fireman. The tetractys was created by a British poet who wrote a large body of work, but was not of significant fame. Both the fibonacci and the lanterne seem to have appeared in several different places at the same time, but were not created in an official or University context. In general what I have noticed is that new forms are offered by those with a significant, and long term, interest in poetry, people who write poetry, people for whom poetry is an important presence in their lives, but are not of national or international status. I am thinking of people like Etheree Armstrong Taylor and the creator of the Whitney. They often do not have MFA degrees or are otherwise accredited. They usually lack the kind of networks that help new poets break into print. It seems, from what I have observed, that they may have a local following (at the County or State level), but have not entered into the national or international scene.
From the perspective of the University and official poetry magazines, like Poetry Chicago, the emergence of these syllabic forms is marginal or overlooked completely. This is understandable. Free verse dominates MFA programs and University literature departments, with a few significant exceptions. But those exceptions are devoted to traditional metrical poetry. I am not aware of a program at the University level that emphasizes a syllabic approach, or focuses on syllabic forms in English. (Readers, please correct me if I am wrong.) On the other hand, and this is significant, syllabic forms are taught in elementary schools. For example, both the syllabic haiku and the cinquain are regularly taught to children. Sometimes these forms are taught for didactic purposes (like clarifying grammar). Sometimes they are taught in a highly simplified way because they are fun to do in the way that a game is fun to play. One consequence of this is that many people have learned about these syllabic forms in congenial settings which bodes well for the future of these forms.
What I see in the emergence of syllabic forms in English is what I refer to as a ‘yearning for form’. I think human beings enjoy creating form. I think that is why people like to garden, compose tunes and sing songs, why they find carpentry satisfying, why they like to bake bread, etc. I see the shaping of words into significant forms in the same light. I think there is a spontaneous need for form and that this need gets instantiated in poetry with the creation of form.
For over a century the elites have emphasized free verse for English language poetry. But my suspicion is that this runs against this almost biological need for form. There is something truly satisfying about composing a well crafted poem in a form that others have used. There is a feeling of connection and community when one enters such an approach. There is also a sense of overcoming a challenge. This aspect is similar to why human beings like to play games. From hockey to chess, people like to be challenged by rule bound situations to see if they can live up to the challenge. In poetry, this manifests as an acceptance of the rules for a form and then instantiating them in one’s own poetry. Part of the thrill of writing, and reading, a sonnet, for example, is simply that one has been able to absorb the parameters of the form, to internalize them, and follow them out and still, amazingly, created something that others will enjoy.
From the reader’s perspective, formal poetry creates a sense of expectation on the part of the reader which, when met, is pleasing. It is like knowing that a waltz will be have a certain time signature and then hearing that signature when listening to a new waltz. Or it is like hearing a new song that uses a traditional song structure with verses and refrain. In poetry, formal verse gives the reader an assist; the poet is taking the reader into account. And, to a certain extent, flattering the reader by assuming the reader knows aspects of the form.
This spontaneous appearance of syllabic forms in English has happened without official sponsorship. From the perspective of official poetry organizations it is something that has happened under the radar. In some instances it has happened even though official organizations have disapproved of it. Specifically, the ongoing production of syllabic haiku has happened in spite of a concerted effort on the part of official haiku organizations to undermine the approach. This indicates to me that the attractiveness of form is inherently compelling and can’t be ignored for too long. My feeling is that the emergence of syllabic forms in 20th century English poetry is an awakening to a dimension of poetry, the formal dimension of poetry, which had been dismissed and sidelined or ignored by elites. What is intriguing is that this emergence of a formal dimension is taking place in a reconfigured context. The movement of free verse had, and has, a strong ideological component to it. This manifested as a dismissal of the relevance of the past for present day poets. This created a break with the past in order to explore new ways of approaching poetry.
One of the unforeseen consequences of breaking with the past is that the formal dimension of poetry can be uncovered in approaches that were not central to traditional English poetry. One of these approaches is formal syllabic verse. Formal syllabic verse is traditional in the sense that it accepts rules and regulations, relies on counting to shape a line, and views form as a positive means of expression rather than an impingement on individuality. Formal syllabic verse is non-traditional in that it does not rely on metrics in the shaping of its forms. This difference probably seems minor to a free verse poet because free verse poets do not want to be constrained by things like counting and both traditional metrics and formal syllabic verse constrain the poet through the mechanism of counting. But I believe the difference between formal metrical verse and formal syllabic verse is audible; there is a different sonic presence and pacing between the two. And it appears that some poets who are intrigued by the possibility of form in English verse are often attracted to the sonicscape offered by a syllabic context.
Syllabic poetry is still very new to the English poetic world. But the fact that most of the interest in syllabics has emerged in a marginal, and unofficial, context says to me that it is emerging from strong roots. Already we have seen a number of attractive blossoms. The garden of English syllabic verse forms has only recently been planted and already that garden is attracting numerous visitors. In a way, it is a hidden garden. It is on the edge of the English speaking poetic world. But when you have some time, come and take a look. It is fresh and inviting and poets who visit this garden invariably find themselves enriched.