The Way of Form and the Way of Nature
The natural world unfolds in cycles that we recognize by the periodic appearances of forms. Every month there is a full moon. Every day there is a sunrise.
The seasons are marked by cyclical appearances. It is the appearance of these seasonal markers that speaks to us that the season is changing. In late winter the quince bloom. In early spring the plums blossom and birds begin to build their nests. In autumn, the fur of animals becomes thicker and in some cases changes color.
Formal verse follows this way of nature. We recognize a particular form because each time it appears there are certain markers that tell us that the poem is in a particular form. We know a flower is a tulip because tulips replicate certain formal features each time they appear. We know a tree is an oak because each oak replicates, or instantiates, certain features that cue us into recognizing that this tree is an oak even if we have not seen that particular tree before.
In a similar way, we know a poem is a sonnet because it has certain markers, or features, that let us know that the poem is a sonnet. We know that a poem is a tanka because it has a certain syllabic shape. We know a poem is a triolet or villanelle because of the refrains that mark those forms.
This kind of repetition is following the way of nature. Each full moon shares certain features with other full moons, but each full moon also has its own unique displays: some are brighter and some are dimmer; some are obscured by clouds and some appear in a cloudless sky. In a similar way, formal poetry replicates the features of a form yet, at the same time, displays unique aspects that previous instantiations of the form did not have.
Cyclical appearances emerge due to causation; they are dependent appearances. Plum blossoms appear as the days are getting longer and somewhat warmer. The plum responds to these changing conditions by blossoming. As the days get shorter and colder, animals respond by their fur growing thicker and many birds respond by migrating to warmer regions.
The forms of poetry depend on human beings for their regular appearance. The crucial causal dependency of poetic forms is human interest. If human beings are interested in a form then some of them will take pen to paper, or keyboard to computer, and compose in that form. Like natural phenomena appearing when causal conditions are conducive to their appearance, poetic forms also appear when causal conditions are conducive to their appearance.
Interest in specific poetic forms seems to ebb and flow. There are periods, for example, when English poetry was heavily focused on the sonnet, and other periods when the sonnet was not so central to poetic creativity. The sestina has a similar ebb and flow, with periods of complete lack of interest in this form followed by energetic involvement in its possibilities. This ebb and flow of interest replicates the ebb and flow of natural phenomena. Just as there are seasons of flowering there are also seasons of a particular form.
From this perspective, poetic forms are not so much human creations as they are creations of nature wherein nature uses human beings as a causal basis for their appearance. Poetic forms are human creations in the sense that human beings are a necessary condition for the forms to appear (along with many other causes and conditions). But in another sense poetic forms are nature, or the cosmos, or the network of causal relations and dependencies, or the web of existence, or creation, using human beings so that certain types of forms will be materially embodied and be present in creation. Creation uses soil, rain, sunlight, etc., so that certain flowers will appear at certain times. Creation uses human beings, along with those aspects which human beings depend upon, so that certain poetic forms will appear.
When composing in a poetic form there is often the experience of an expanded sense of sharing and presence. At first this feeling is a sense of connectedness with other poets who also write in the form, with other people who appreciate the form, a sense of contact with an extended human community. But this sensation of plugging into something larger, something beyond individual expression, has other dimensions, which are more subtle and, at the same time, more persistent. If the poet pays attention to this sensation of an expanded presence what opens up is a shared sense of the way of nature and creation itself. Formal poetry leads us to an understanding of the way of creation; but not through an intellectual understanding of the way of nature. Rather this understanding of the way of nature is learned through participation that way. Through composing a formal poem the poet enters into the same manner of creation that creation uses when the moon becomes full, when leaves turn color in the fall, when the tide ebbs, and when the sun rises in the morning.