This argument 1-2

Poets who write in open forms usually insist on the form growing out of the writing process, i.e. the poems follow what the words and phrase suggest during the composition process, rather than being fitted into any pre-existing plan. Some do employ vestiges of traditional devices — rhyme, metre, alliteration — but most regard them as a hindrance to sincerity or creativity. Many open form types exist, and good poets have often mastered several over the same period, even mixing them in the one poem. Distinctions can be overdone, but it may be helpful to have a broad taxonomy.

Argument One: Form is Imprisoning

Poets writing in open forms argue that their approaches make for greater freedom to find the appropriate expression, and that the words are not regimented into set meanings. The spiritual forefather often quoted is Coleridge, whose Biographia Literaria (1817) distinguished between “form as proceeding” and “shape as superinduced”. In following the first, the so-called “organic form”, the poet shapes the poem as its meaning suggests, whereas something of “super-induced” form is either the death or imprisonment of the poem. {1}

David Perkins makes the same point. “The ‘organic form,’ shaping itself ‘as it develops itself from within,’ comes into existence, Coleridge said, like a naturally growing thing. The poet, in other words, proceeds in the same way as nature; nature works in and through the creative act of the poet. The possibility of this presupposes ‘a bond between nature . . and the soul of man.'” {2}

But Coleridge never saw metre as an impediment to expression, quite the opposite, and his small experiments in Christobel were essentially a return to Anglo-Saxon forms, to stress verse where accents and not syllables were counted. “Meter, for him, is the chief vehicle for achieving the aim of poetry, which is pleasure; it quickens passions; it demands technical skill and knowledge of other and older languages. . . Meter draws its power from both the disciplined will and the body’s rhythmical energy; it spans the intersection of mind and body and reconciles head and heart, specifically the heart-beat. . . . Metrical poetry rouses the whole soul to activity; it moves at different speeds, it swerves, pauses, and surges forward, quickening the senses and heartbeat. Chapter 18 of the Biographia Literaria insinuates that verse deliberately heightens this physical energy. Despite an opening remark about meter holding “in check the workings of passion” (2.64), Coleridge is more interested in the opposite impulse, the “increased excitement” (2.65), the “vivacity” (2.66), “the continued excitement of surprize” (2.66). Poetry, “accompanied by the natural language of excitement,” is “formed into meter artificially, by a voluntary act, with the design and for the purpose of blending delight with emotion, so the traces of present volition should throughout the metrical language be proportionally discernible” (2.64-65)” {3}

Moreover, until we get to Postmodernism, where where words interact with each other more than the outside world, poems offered some viewpoint on society and ourselves. “Elizabeth Bishop shared their skepticism. With the Lowell who in 1957 told William Carlos Williams, “it’s great to have no hurdle of rhyme and scansion between yourself and what you want to say most forcibly,” Bishop could not agree, because she understood that all forms of poetry, as linguistic confections, offer one or another screen through which the world is experienced.” {4}

In fact, poets writing in strict (i.e. closed) forms often find the requirements anything but restricting. Their minds are more sharply focused by the technical difficulties, and the resulting poem is more concentrated and powerful. The formal requirements act as midwife to the poem, the unyielding demands conjuring up the words as some Ouija board.

Argument Two: Immediacy of Composition

Most open forms are written in free verse, claimed to better preserve the immediacy of composition. The poet is not continually looking for a word with specific properties but can follow the natural flow of his or her creation. The result? “The notion that free verse is a more natural form of expression, and therefore easier to write than fixed verse is, I think, a fallacy. The difficulty in composition which free verse presents is that it does not force the poet to contemplate his thought with an intensity which brings out its fullest possibilities. . . The danger of too much freedom is that poetry may easily become the mere jotting down of very casual thoughts in haphazard rhythm.” {5}

But perhaps that haphazardness is a positive virtue. David Perkins again: “The mind of the poet is not, Duncan explains, ‘to be diverted by what it wanted to say but to attend to what [is] happening in the poem.'” {6}

For Robert Duncan, a poem grew out of its making. We set in motion certain attitudes, expectations and compositional devices, and the resulting article inevitably reflects them. A poem written in tight rhyming couplets, for example, will not be the same article as one written in some conversational style. Not only will it not look the same, but it will not be ‘saying the same thing’, having interrogated experience differently. Moreover — the argument generally continues — an interrogation conducted in a everyday language will result in a more genuine poem, since it will operate on readers in ways that are most natural and real to them.

Perhaps so, but there are some assumptions worth looking at:

1. We understand the world through the language in which we describe it.

This is the Whorfian theory of linguistics, which seems only partly true. Some radical theory goes further, of course, and asserts that language is the only reality. The difficulties are that view are truly enormous, however: in deconstruction and analytical philosophy.

The matter is further complicated by perception, reading and speech being distinct abilities, somewhat variously associated in the brain. The assertion seems not only simplistic, therefore, but distinctly unlikely, given current research findings, {7} though language may be necessary for thought. {8}

2. The poetry-writing process largely takes control of our thoughts, or should do so.

Though Yeats experimented with automatic writing, and the Surrealists claimed that the unconscious was the high road to understanding, practically all poets reshape their creations. They periodically step back and ask themselves: What am I trying to say here? Have I got it right? Perhaps what distinguishes the various methods of writing is how often the poet makes these checks, and with what aim.

3. Everyday language is the most powerful.

The claim has often formed the platform of new poetry movements, but is rarely carried through. In general, the language of contemporary poetry is anything but natural, being an mixture of various social registers and fractured syntax. Even the word choice of Ginsberg or William Carlos Williams is guided by aesthetic matters, however disguised. Diction is a complicated matter.

4. The more immediate or instinctive is the more genuine, as it bypasses the stultifying conventions of the socially acceptable, the repressions of the superego, and/or the inherent perversions of language.

The view is a Romantic one, underlying much of nineteenth-century philosophy, and some political excesses in the twentieth.

Inner processes are important, and poetry is often written initially in some half-conscious reverie, inspiration at best. But that reverie does not come wholly from the unconscious, which is a trivializing myth, however marketed by the psychoanalyst schools of Freud and Lacan.