Why Write in Form? - When we think of mastery we think of...

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When we think of mastery, we think of practice, and when we think of practice, we often think of repetition. Violinists spend much of their early years running scales before their fingers automatically and thoughtlessly assume their proper positions on the fretboard. Ceramicists must learn to wedge clay and center the clay on the wheel before they can successfully make pots. Outside art and music, basketball players put in countless hours perfecting their lay-ups, ballet dancers’ toes bleed inside their pointe shoes, and swimmers crisscross the length of a pool countless times hoping to shave milliseconds off their time.Although repetition is necessary, practice isn’t just repetition. When we practice, we do two things: we isolate a technique for study, and we engage with difficulty. In art and in sport, we acquire muscle memory by putting our bodies through movements over and over, repeatedly challenging our skills andabilities and refining our technique. If making a bank shot in pool was easy, we’d all be pool sharks.In poetry, one of the best ways to practice technique is to write in traditional forms. But for many writers—and I’ve been guilty ofthis as well—this notion can elicit not just avoidance but also outright opposition. It’s easy enough to look at the current literary landscape and say there’s no point to practicing these old forms. Most journals don’t seem interested in publishing formal poetry, and though there are some fantastic poets working in form today, they are in the minority. Even when there is a resurgence of interest in form (such as New Formalism), it’sseen as an outlier, even reactionary. Perhaps some of this opposition stems from a common misconception. Unlike other arts—and perhaps even other forms of writing—readers and writers alike often associate poetry with feeling, not technique. Part of this may stem from a
misunderstanding of William Wordsworth’s famous definition of poetry, in which he begins, “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings. …” His wording encourages a reading in which poetry simply occurs and does so uncontrollably. If this is the part of the quotation that sticks with you, it’s no surprise thatyou might associate poetry more with emotional intensity and less with the how of its conveyance. But in the second half of that quotation, Wordsworth tempers his original statement: “... it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” Those unexpected and powerful feelings are actually being observed at a calming distance from that emotion.More important, Wordsworth’s statement doesn’t acknowledge the structure that serves as a scaffolding for those feelings, a framework that makes a poem more than just cathartic release. It doesn’t acknowledge form. Why would it? For Wordsworth and his contemporaries 200 years ago, form was assumed. If a poem didn’t rhyme, readers could be sure it employed some sort of metrical scheme.

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