Two years ago, I joined the Poetry Society of Texas. If you ask my friend Rasheed, I joined it for the contests. That’s how they get you hooked. Later, when lockdowns lifted, I joined the local affiliate group: Poets Northwest. Ask anyone who knows me: I’m not much of a “joiner” but now I’m regularly meeting with people. In person. First Toastmasters, now this.
Last month at PNW, we wrote poems demonstrating alliteration. I knocked one out, sleep deprived, and attended the meeting via Zoom from the Lisbon airport while drinking free gin and tonics in the TAP Lounge. This is what happens when you write half-drunk and 110% sleep-deprived:
Alliteration in the Algarve (Reflections on the Family Reunion)
Send sultry summer sun, sea, sand, and wind
To sap strength, slowly, from my languorous limbs.
Three hours’ sleep in twenty-four;
I’d gladly take another hour, maybe more.
Soft susurration seeps as Faro wakes
With sleepless somnolence at 4:00 AM
We wait, and watch with fellow travelers
Dismayed: departures canceled, flights delayed.
Not ours! At last, we land in lovely Lisbon:
Lazing, languid, in the Premier lounge (a splurge!)
To kill six slowly passing hours, reminiscing
On experiences shared the week before.
Ideas already in the offing, know
That, joyful, we will shortly meet again
Perhaps, we’ll change the pace – melt winter’s sparkling ice
With our extended families’ warm embrace.
Terrible poem.* Great demonstration of alliteration. I did not sleep again until we reached Newark. Think of all the awful poems I could’ve written but spared you. You’re welcome.
Persona Poem & The Villanelle
This month, we focused on the persona poem, with some lively discussion about who defines the “rules” of a form; the differences between personification (or anthropomorphization) and “persona”; whether a dramatic monologue could be written in anything other than first person point of view (clearly, yes, according to Persona | Academy of American Poets); whether the “persona” had to be human or even alive; and more. I read Toxic Avatar, a poem written to an audience of one, but we’ve all met this one at some point or another.
Somehow, we ended up sharing Villanelles and the general consensus was, “That’s just not a ‘fun’ form to write.” The first time I wrote one, I was leading an online poetry workshop and felt compelled to learn the form in order to teach it. That’s what a good leader does, right? Never asks more of their followers than they’re willing to do, themselves? I’d like to say, “I won’t be asking anyone to write one of these things.” But I read Villanelle the Vote at Saturday’s meeting. It seemed appropriate, with elections coming up in the fall. And if you read that whole post, you’ll see that I will ask people to write them – as a dare. A bet. A challenge. You show me yours…
Some poetic forms work better in their original language, but don’t always translate easily to others – for example, does the traditional Haiku work well in English? There are a million of them, but are they any good by the standards of traditional Haiku, or ought they to be considered a whole new form? How about the Villanelle? My theory was that it lent itself to French, not English – but it originated in Italy, danced its way to France, and the form as we know it, with its fixed rhymes and repetitions, did not exist until the 19th century and never really caught on in France! Maybe we ought to take the form back to its roots! The Shakespearean sonnet works particularly well in English because the rhythm is that of natural, conversational speech – in English – but how would it do in Mandarin, I wonder?
Does faithful adherence to any form matter to the poet? Or only to the erudite reader who insists on analyzing it later? In the end, it either conveys the meaning and emotion that the poet intended, or it doesn’t.
New Forms & Brain-Benders
There are poetic forms that I sometimes think are not so much poetry as puzzle. As Sudoku is to math, so Twittles are to poetry. What are Twittles, you ask? Click the link! You be the judge while I explore the Twittle form, which near as I can figure, originated with Carolyn Hastings on Medium and Twitter. Yes, any of us can “invent” a new form! I was a little dismissive of the Twittle, at first. But a small voice said, “Write one, then.” And so, I did.
Poetweets and Twittles
Why this 100-character twittle-twattle form?
Why such silly, fatuous verse?
Isn’t Twitter, with its 280, a
sufficient literary curse?
Writ in haste –
Studying endless, pointless forms,
Can wordplay ever be a waste
When defying poetic norms?
I started out dismissive of Twittles, but they grew on me. They are, at their core, an exercise in packing punch. In editing a short message to its essential core. It requires making conscious word choices, trade-offs, and compromises. Because of the odd rule that they be 100 alphabetic characters (don’t count spaces, punctuation, or numbers), don’t even attempt it without using Character Count Tool – The Best Character Counter, which will give you character count in all sorts of ways, in addition to your readability score.
If you want to hone your editing skills, go over to Twitter and practice composing meaningful, grammatically-correct tweets that are exactly 280 characters, including spaces and punctuation. If you make a habit of it, I think your writing and editing skills will improve.
The short answer to, “Who makes the rules of formal verse?” is “The poet does.” I think of any form as a hat-rack or a coat-tree; something fairly standard from which to hang the words so they don’t get all mussed and wrinkly. But who’s to say that a hat-rack can’t be a coat-tree, or vice versa? Who’s to say that you should only hang hats or coats from it? Only the reader can say whether a poem is “good” or not, and one hundred readers will never agree.
* In the end, whether readers judge a poem to be “good” or not is really none of the poet’s business. Our job is to play with words, excite brain cells, and pluck heartstrings.