Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

"Adventures in Form" by Tom Chivers (ed) (Penned in the Margins, 2012)

The subtitle is "A compendium of Poetic Forms". It's a book that might divide readers. Ostensibly I'm amongst the target audience. For me, form needn't be a hidden device whose aim is to produce content. It can have intrinsic merit and be made explicit. In diving, the formula is "degree of difficulty times performance = score" - i.e. a difficult form done badly is as good as an easy one done well, and I sometimes look upon Oulipo that way. I don't mind if the content of a piece is compromised for the sake of form, as long as the form has some merit. I like treatments that go down to the letters level, where words are broken up and reformed, or where Kabalistic patterns are induced. I like where sound/spelling shows through the words like a palimpsest. To some readers sound has an intrinsic, even visceral, effect that letter-based patterns can never replace, but I'm interested to see what "beauty" survives or emerges if you keep to the rules, when the unstability of the underlying medium is exposed, especially when language is put under pressure - it's almost as if it were a discovered (rather than invented) "truth", something buried or inherent in the form/constraint that has to be "brought out". I have an old-fashioned notion that success should be earned - that if something's easy to do, it's not worth doing. And I've a bias towards poems where the form interacts with content (common in Oulipo work).

This book usefully brings together various recent trends regarding forms, focusing on "a multitude of new and unusual forms" according the blurb - unusual maybe, but most are decades if not centuries old, and some of the new ones (e.g. Fibs) are "so what?" forms as far as I'm concerned. Years ago Stephen Burt tried to describe a then-emerging US trait - "Elliptical poets like insistent, bravura forms, forms that can shatter and recoalesce, forms with repetends ... Ellipticals caress the technical". It looks to me as if the UK's beginning to catch up. It's a selection biased towards living UK poets, with an aversion to mainstream content which limits the range. Or perhaps that focus was one of the aims of the selection process (and if display of technique/forms was an aim, the Spectator's competition entries were worth trawling). Finding such poems isn't easy - some poets are known to write them but as often they're one-offs or are written by unknown poets (or word-puzzlers), included as novelty items by mainstream magazines. My impression is that they're making a come-back and this anthology may well assist in that development.

Sonnets have often stolen the form limelight and as the editor says in his short but detailed introduction, an anthology of the new sonnet has recently come out. The sonnet doesn't feature heavily here, but many other forms do. Most poems have a footnote describing their form. The notion of "Form" is rather flexible. It follows the general tendency (partly market-driven) of treating short pieces that are in a form (e.g. a shopping list) as poems. With the renewal of micro-fiction maybe some of these pieces (e.g. p.52) could be re-classified. Some of the poems seem to be here merely because they're in the 2nd person. Sam Riviere's contributions don't belong (nor do I like them). I think some other poems are included under false pretences too. Here's the footnote to "∞ I asked of the lemon" - The form of this poem is based on the idea of a loop or continuum. It suits ontological/metaphysical subjects like getting up close with citrus fruit, or perception in general, because it is designed to be contingent, it doesn't stop anywhere, and rewrites itself over; in the same way that we impose the memory of an object onto our apprehension of it, which is then further reformulated and reordered and remade as memory to be imposed upon the forever misrecognised object, and so on. It doesn't explain what the putative form is though, or why one of the many existing forms with the same potential wasn't used.

Some procedures are of no interest to me - a million monkeys with typewriters, updated - though for historical reasons they need to be mentioned. N+7 is a procedure that can't be deduced from the product (whereas a sonnet presents itself as such). I don't see how the result can be any better than poet-controlled poems. I see no value in Fibs per se. The "Quantum Sheep" project might have amused as a paragraph in "The hitch-hiker's guide to the galaxy". The "Code is Poetry" section is short and weak. Heidi Williamson's "If Then Else" was an option, but she's mainstream. No palindromes - "The Back Seat of my Mother's Car" (Julia Copus), a line-palindrome, would have plugged the gap but it's mainstream.

I liked Steve Spence's 2 poems but they're samey - each poem has a question, a "yet" sentence, a "but" sentence. In brief - p.31 is borderline; p.33 doesn't work; p.35 is self indulgent; p.52 of no interest to me. Easy to do, no final value; p.42 no; p.58, p.59, p.66, p.68, p.78, p.86, p.88, p.92 no; p.95 and p.104 could have pushed the form a lot harder; p.105 and poems created by multiple two-way auto-translation no longer interest me; I've seen the idea of p.157 executed much more interestingly; p.159 - unpromising premise. Disappointing poem; "Wordoku" is more on the right tracks; I won't be in a rush to find anything else that Chris McCabe and Chrissy Williams write. I see little value in creating a new form then writing content that doesn't suit the form's features, or even work as a poem, so some of the poems in the final section puzzle me. I gained the impression that several poems were more of an adventure for the poet than for the reader, the poet trying some old form for the first time - with cut-ups and found-poems who knows?

Maybe I'm looking in the wrong places but I don't see enough adverse peer-criticism of such pieces, and few outsiders (excepting Glyn Maxwell) want to appear to be fuddy-duddies. In the end (but I'm an atypical reader of this sort of stuff) I look upon the book as a missed opportunity - too many experiments where achieved alternatives exist; too many forms conceding strictness seemingly for the sake of laziness more than content (constraints have relaxations which Oulipoleans sometime make rules about. Sonnets can have half-rhymes or an extra line and still be sonnets. With anagrams and palindromes there's much less wriggle room).

The selections don't seem to be based on picking the best, most representative, or even the most stimulating of each type. Some sections are dominated by one or two names. Several of the names/voices are familiar to me from Best British Poetry books and The SALT book of younger poets. I'm surprized there's not more overlap - in the former, Andrew Philip's "10 x 10" and especially Jon Stone's Mustard merit attention; in the latter Phil Brown's "Diptych" is in the form of Down and Across crossword clues. Then there's "Intelligent Album Rock" (Katy Evans-Bush) - to me a better poem than many of the cut-ups, and more of a form (it's a "terminal"). Perhaps some of these poems post-date the selection process but there's also Leontia Flynn’s "Perl Poem". Maybe that poem was too expensive to include. Oli Hazzard's 2012 book, "Between Two Windows" includes a sestina, a line-palindrome and a poem where each line's an anagram.

A list of "other poems" (including non-contemporary ones) at the end of each section would have been helpful. Without a Net: Ernest Hilbert on Optic, Graphic, Acoustic, and Other Formations in Free Verse includes some types that Chivers explicitly excludes, and contains some old poems, but the newer poems that it does include aren’t bad.

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