Saturday, July 26, 2014

`It's No Good Just Writing It Down'

“I like to say that form is not about having control, but giving up control, allowing other forces into the poem.  Absolute liberty is paralyzing for me.” 

The latter sentence, I suppose, has political applications, but A.E. Stallings in her interview with the Tupelo Quarterly is delivering the coup de grâce to vers libre. “Other forces” means meter and rhyme, the happy disciplines that distinguish poetry from prose, though not necessarily good poetry from bad. “Absolute liberty” is a state sought after by adolescents of all ages. Adults understand that no such state exists. Like art, life is a compromise with reality. Formlessness means surrender, the coward’s way out, and anarchy is tiresome. The speaker in one of Stallings’ poems, “Prelude” (Hapax, 2006) tries to account for the powerful emotions art elicits in her. In the final stanza she concludes: 

“No, no. It is something else. It is something raw
That suddenly falls
Upon me at the start, like loss of awe—
The vertigo of possibility—
The pictures I don't see,
The open strings, the perfect intervals.” 

Asked what poets she reads when “in a rut,” Stallings answers: “Housman (not necessarily when in a rut, but when feeling down) and Larkin, to a lesser extent Heaney, Dickinson, Bishop, the Oxford Anthology of English Verse.” No surprises there, all respectable choices. Nice of her to acknowledge her envy when reading poems by an American contemporary, Joshua Mehigan. And best of all: “Larkin’s greater poems strike me as having almost an unapproachable perfection.” Mehigan too has declared his admiration for Larkin, a “formalist” – meaningless term – for whom form is a way to organize emotion and reproduce it in others. Larkin says: 

“I read poems, and I think, Yes, that’s quite a nice idea, but why can’t he make a poem of it? Make it memorable? It’s no good just writing it down! At any level that matters, form and content are indivisible. What I meant by content is the experience the poem preserves, what it passes on. I must have been seeing too many poems that were simply agglomerations of words when I said that.”

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