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Ricochetti Concretevol came up with the idea to start a conversation where he would share his expertise: Concrete Questions Conversation. His real purpose was to attempt to claim the prize for worst poster when the contest rolls around next year, but he wound up starting a fascinating thread. It’s also a fascinating idea for a conversation. We have so much expertise gathered on Ricochet from a wide variety of fields of endeavor. So, I thought it would be fun for those who can to share their expertise.
Like many Ricochetti, I have several areas of expertise. But most of them are shared by several other people on Ricochet. For instance, we have many published authors here, so questions on the general topic of writing could be answered by many here as Aaron proved in his Fictional Advice for Fictional Authors conversation. Corporate governance might be another expertise that is easy to find on Ricochet. Many lawyers deal with the topic. Many of our members have surely also been on boards of commercial, non-profit, or governmental corporations. While they may not have abstracted the experiences in quite the way I have, if a question were put out on the subject, there might be a dozen or more answers available immediately. Some of my other areas of consulting expertise might be scarcer on the ground at Ricochet, but how many people are likely to have questions involving process management or data modeling? Of the things I know that there is a remote chance that people may have some curiosity about, the only thing left would be poetry. This includes poetic structures, meter, rhyme, rhythm, the prosody of many nations, and all those things we are supposed to believe disappeared in a free verse post-modernist world. If you have questions about how to write a better poem, how to approach a form, how to do anything regarding poetry, share the questions here and I shall try to answer them comprehensibly.
Now, Concretevol had questions from another member to start things out. I will start with a few questions from my FAQ sheet on one of my Websites.
Q. How does somebody create a new poetic form?
A. As poets, sometimes we conform to someone else’s standard, as when we write a sonnet. Other times we invent a new structure for a given situation and poem. If we codify the rules of the new form, find a name for it, reuse it, and share the form definition with other formalists who use it, it becomes a new form. If we only use the form once, don’t write down the rules, or if no other poets get excited by it, the form is just a nonce form, meaning used once.
In my own work, I’ve found at least four ways to create new poetry forms:
- Make something up for a specific poetic occasion. Form follows function, and sometimes I find I’ve created a form that is reusable when writing a specific poem.
- Vary on a theme:. As an example, when I first started using form, I couldn’t scan a poem to save my life — no rhythm — so had great difficulty with accentual-syllabic forms, such as the English sonnet. Given this, I created my own form of sonnet, the sardine, that is purely syllabic by definition. Of course, I didn’t have to do that given that the French also produce purely syllabic Petrarchan sonnets, but it seemed a great idea at the time. This brings up another point.
- Play to your handicaps and strengths. If there is something about a form that you can’t do or don’t like, consider changing the form rules for your own use. In developing the sardine, I actually used two existing forms. First was the Petrarchan sonnet; second was the redondilla, a purely syllabic Spanish quatrain with envelope rhyme scheme (abba). Based on this mixing, I came up with a fourteen line form that was syllabic, but was also tougher to rhyme than other sonnets. I’m much better at rhyming than a lot of people. (That isn’t to say that I don’t put out some real klinkers in my light verse.) So, the sonondilla’s predominant rhyme scheme is abbaabbaccddcc, which is even more difficult than the Petrarchan sonnet to do well.
- Analyze present forms for gaps. While writing a book on poetic forms that is still in progress, I came across an interesting fact about the ballade family. There is the ballade and the ballade supreme, a slightly longer variation. There are also the double ballade and double ballade supreme. Lastly, there is a double refrain ballade, but no double refrain ballade supreme. Well, being a poet with an engineer’s soul, or vice versa, I thought it best to fill the gap. Now I have a definition for the double refrain ballade supreme: a 35 line isosyllabic form divided into three ten line verses and a five-line envoy. Each line is usually eight or ten syllables long. It has two refrains. The rhyming and repeating structure are thus: ababbCcdcD ababbCcdcD ababbCcdcD cCdcD.
Knowing what elements define the different existing structures helps to understand how to create new ones.
Q. When you sit down in front of a blank page/screen and decide to write a villanelle, as an example, how do you approach it. I would assume, the theme comes first. Then what? Do you write down the rhyme scheme, find the first line and go from there?
A. Each form is different. For instance, with a Villanelle, it’s best to start with the couplet, the two refrains. They appear throughout separately and together and have to function as a final couplet.
The same is true of the Triolet, which also has a couplet. It’s scheme is ABaAabAB, so the first line (A) is a refrain that appears alone once, and with the repeton (B) twice. I start with that couplet.
A Sonnet I usually start with an idea and the turn of thought or pivot. I find it easier to develop the whole if I have the pivot in mind from the start.
A Sestina is a difficult form where you need to find six very flexible words as the repetitive end words. That is often the first step.
A Tyburn is similar, requiring one to find the first four words/phrases that will work together. The hardest part is finding a rhyme that will allow the structure.
I guess summing it up, I would say that you find the most difficult part to make work, and tackle that as your starting point. Once you have that down, the rest flows relatively easily.
Q. How does form influence creation?
A. Art is never done in freedom. All art, all creation, is done under constraints. There are several types of constraint in art: monetary, temporal, intentional, and artificial among them.
An architect will produce a different office building with a fifteen million dollar budget than with a one million dollar budget. If a sculptor gets a commission for a work, he may use different materials based on the cost of materials versus the amount of the commission. Maybe the sculpture will be marble instead of steel because of the cost of materials and price to work it. A painter who cannot afford a huge canvas may be able to afford a packet of smaller ones, so he’ll paint six miniatures rather than a wall-spanning canvas. Those are monetary constraints. Unless you are taking poetic commissions, you are unlikely to run into this type of constraint. Poetry usually takes time rather than money to produce. For a poet, a monetary constraint might come with enough cash to get his book an ISBN.
A temporal constraint deals with time. Does the building have to be finished before October when the snow flies in Minnesota? Does the sculpture have to be done by April 16th for the degree show? Does the painting have to be done by tomorrow for a gallery opening? These are examples of temporal constraints. Again, unless you are taking commissions or publishing, time constraints are seldom a factor. You might have to put out a poem for your wife’s birthday or write her one for your anniversary, but usually this isn’t a factor for poets.
The other two constraints are the ones we deal with every day.
Intentional constraints deal with purpose. If the architect is building an apartment house rather than an office building, it changes the specific applications of the building code. It changes the plumbing capacity needed. It changes the parking lot to space ratio. It changes many other factors. If the sculptor is building a work based on a commission from the city fathers, it will probably be more sedate than something created for a student degree show. If the painter is doing a portrait of a lady, it will be different than an urban mural of sea mammals on the wall of an opera house. Intention is reflected in the why. For a poet, writer or speechifier, one set of intentional constraints is the communication goals. Are we trying to inform, persuade, query, entertain, or some combination? A limerick is entertaining, but seldom meets the other three goals. A haiku is informative. It is good for painting an image in a few words, but would be terrible for persuasion. This brings us to the next set of constraints.
Artificial constraints are those imposed by the environment, tools, and materials. A brick building has different qualities than a glass and steel construction, as well as different strengths and weaknesses. A sculptor using steel works differently than one using stone. Different tools are used for the different media. One is cut and chipped away; the other heated, bent, and welded. A painter with a 4″ x 6″ canvas and oils is going to produce a different landscape than an artist with a 3′ x 4′ canvas and acrylic paints. For a poet, form is the set of artificial constraints. Ideally, form follows function. In other words, the intentional constraints are imposed first, which directs the artist to the form. An architect doesn’t look at a pile of bricks that he has laying around and think: “Gee, I can build something. I wonder what I should build?” Most of them have a commission or plan in their hands before they consider what materials will be used. With a poet, ideally one knows what one is trying to accomplish, and one can pick the form that best meets that potential.
The truth is that there is interplay. If the best form to achieve the goals and subject of the poem is a ballade, but the poet has never heard of a ballade, he may use a villanelle instead. Maybe the poet is required to write a Shakespearean sonnet for a class, so he determines his purpose for the poem based on that constraint.
Getting then to the meat of the issue, form influences creation through the interplay of intent with the strengths and weaknesses inherent in the form. A diamante is not a narrative form. It is created out of sixteen discrete words that do not interact grammatically. Instead, there are two base words, antonyms, which the other words describe or relate to. The only way that the diamante conveys a story is through the choice of a title and the direction downward from one polar opposite to the other. A ballad is meant to tell a story. A haiku is meant to convey an image, perhaps a metaphor comparing a natural event with a human one. Haiku is not meant to tell tales in the same way as the ballad. You can’t do with seventeen syllables what you can with hundreds of words.
Earlier I discussed finding the starting point of the poem. For each form it is different based on the hardest part of creating that form. For the haiku, it is in coming up with a fresh natural metaphor to describe something. After that, finding the words that convey that image in seventeen syllables is relatively easy. In writing a villanelle, creating the two refrains, which act both independently and as a couplet, is the most important factor in creating a successful villanelle. Of course, choosing the two rhymes is important, too. If you choose a rhyme ending that is hard to bring six or eight words on the topic to bear, things can get ugly. For instance, in my The Life and Times of Leaf the Red, the last word in the middle line of the first tercet is “travel.” I wound up with difficult going on the rhyme, following with: unravel, gravel, gavel, unravels, and gravel. It’s a good thing it is a bit of light verse, or I’d have to rewrite that with a new rhyme. Basically, you have to determine what the most important or difficult part of the form is and start there. This is another way that form interacts with the creative process.
So, those are a few questions to get things started. Let’s see if poetic form is as interesting a subject as concrete, or whether Concretevol just picked the wrong subject to be an expert in if he wanted to be the worst poster of the year. (And if you haven’t, I do urge you to check out Concretevol’s thread. It’s very interesting.)