Called to Order
One often views form in poems as giving a cohesive body to the mind, order to what might otherwise be inchoate. Sometimes the formal choices so clearly give a complementary shape to the ideas of the poem (Ammons's "Corson's Inlet," an obvious model with its fractal lines mirroring the natural line of the shore; Robert Hayden's "Those Winter Sundays," the fourteen lines of which emulate the rhetorical turns of a traditional sonnet) that the harmony of mind and body are patent.
But formal choices can just as easily create structural ironies (Housman's use of iambic tetrameter—a mostly comic-sounding measure—for "To An Athlete Dying Young," or, in a melding of the sacred and profane, the Blind Boys of Alabama's singing "Amazing Grace" to the tune of "House of the Rising Sun") that exploit the tensions they create. In these examples, elements of the structure actually complicate and shift meanings.
Modernism has lately been discussed in terms of its reliance upon collage, fragment, disjunctive syntax, and other formal elements that reflect the anxieties and difficulties of the postindustrial age. But looking at poems of the era as "a heap of broken images" is an incomplete appreciation of their ruptures and estrangements. We are also being invited to see how "it coheres all right." The blessed rage for order underpins even the most formidable compositions. Just to think of them as composed is to understand the intrinsic organization of all poems, including those whose patterns we might not readily assimilate.
Contemporary poets borrow freely from the challenging, sometimes frustrating practices of the moderns as well as incorporating what many modernists might have found suspect: received, or even imposed, forms. The results can be richly complicated. And why not? We live in a world where people die every day from complications—art should not simply explain the world; sometimes, it must show us how unexplainable it is.
In Hardscrabble (University of Georgia, 2008), Kevin McFadden exercises some rather rigorous constraints to shape his poems. A marvelous example is "It's Smut," a sonnet in which each line is an anagram of Potter Stewart's famous definition of obscenity:
Sweet. Thin. I know, i.e., I
knew. Twenties. I—oh I—I
stew. I hint ewe. I oink-
oink: "Hi, sweetie." Twin
Teens II. Wowie. Kith ‘n
Kin. To wet his wienie,
teenie with no kiwis,
we (I-we) tie hot skin in.
I knot, we tie. I win, she
whinnies, to wit. I eke:
"I won't." I seethe, I wink.
Two swine. I eek? I hint,
sweetie, I know I hint.
I know it when I see it.
K's are tough letters to play, as anyone who plays Scrabble (hard Scrabble) will attest. And I personally find I to be the least useful vowel, though it doesn't seem to bother others near as much. Although the possibilities for each line are fairly finite, McFadden nonetheless invents. Moreover, each line twinkles with wry wit, sexual puns, and just enough hints at narrative to suggest the seductive play of consenting adults. Their intercourse is cerebral, certainly. But it is also an animal passion, donning the guise of horse, sheep, and pig—and an incestuous fantasy, played out in films titled Twin Teens II and Kith 'n Kin. I needn't even touch upon the wienie …
McFadden's governing structure in "It's Smut" necessitates lines that are virtually the same in length, at least insofar as the number of letters is concerned. On this verbal version of Procrustes's bed, each thought must be fitted to the line in an often brutal fashion: "‘I won't.' I seethe, I wink." The amount of room in which to maneuver is so small that the definition "I know it when I see it" seems much more exact in its poetic version than it ever was in legalese.
Caroline Knox is another poet who brings an often-insistent kind of schema to her work, like a gardener training a pea vine to twist around a stake and therefore increase its ability to yield fruit. In "Canzone Delle Preposizioni" (Quaker Guns, Wave Books, 2008), Knox draws from a small list of prepositions with which to end each line:
I had agreed over
coffee one day to farm out
lots of books people were giving over
to the library book sale over
at the high school. Under
the agreement, volunteers took books over
to the Underwoods' over
spring break. I was up
for this, and signed up.
I drove, up
the Cross Road, and turned up …
Up, over, under, of, and out propel the poem forward, inviting objects to populate the lyric, as if the plenitude of the speaker's life is inexhaustible. Around every corner is a new delight. And yet, at the same time, the repetition of these five springboard words shows how finite is the physical space of being. The old admonition to "never end a sentence with a preposition" only adds to our nervous delight in the tale of the fate of the discarded books. After all, sooner or later we must come to an end and, when we do, that hanging of will reify the incompleteness.
The alphabet is a sequencing guide that I find curious: we are all fairly in agreement as to its order, though I for one have never understood just why A comes first nor why it is followed by B, etc. I therefore class it as a kind of set arrangement whose underlying logic appears arbitrary. Perhaps that's why abecedarian poems feel to me like a mixture of random and predetermined components.
In All-Night Lingo Tango (University of Pittsburg, 2009), Barbara Hamby constructs a sonnet cycle that rotates the letters of the alphabet through a governing pattern that places each letter in sequence at alternating beginnings and ends of lines, depending on which letter starts the poem off. I know that sounds a bit elaborate—easier to show you, in "Xerox My Heart, Three-Headed Dog."
Xerox my heart, three-headed dog, and send a facsimile copy,
zip code 60606, to Mr. Doesn't-Give-a-Fig-bout-a-
Bloody-Thing. How to describe him—Talmudic, pandemic,
demonic, or all of the demented above? Oh, what did I see,
for God's sake, in him? Was it the totalitarian nickel-squeezing,
his Nazi exercise program for everyone but himself? I must say I
just adored his picking through egg rolls looking for shrimp and pork,
loved his plan for me to go to law school so I could support him.
In these poems of Hamby's, each character of the alphabet is a part of the loom's warp, and the shuttle of her writing carries a marvelous admixture of threads. From the poem's initial cross through its parody of John Donne, its allusion to Cerberus, its conflation of Chicago and Hell, its slight nod to Adam—"Xerox My Heart" becomes a stratagem that threatens to entangle the speaker, but Hamby maneuvers quickly from one point to the next, weaving a precise if somewhat extravagant tale of "all of the demented above."
Design, with all its implications of order, science, or even fate, may seem terribly out of fashion. Marianne Moore is perhaps best known among young poets as a maverick collagist whose writing practice included the kinds of literary borrowings now commonplace. In that way, she was a forerunner of the contemporary practice of "mining" texts for their language in order to reassemble it as something new, an amalgam of recontextualizations. But she also was profoundly moved by design; she loved the paper nautilus and the intricate stitching on baseballs. Moore once bristled when her work was described as syllabic. Then added, "I like to see symmetry on the page, I confess."