Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Fear of Form

I have been advised to use this site to explore my creative process; so here goes....

I am currently working on a long narrative poem, a polyphonic piece, featuring the voices of buildings, people and ghosts. So far, the voices have come to me in different ways: some I have simply recorded and edited with the minimum of effort. For example, last week I made a Gossips' Chorus, the first stanza of which reads,

There's something wrong
with Simon Wright:
he swears at the girls
and shouts, SEA-GU-LLS.
You should hear what he says to his dog.

The entire first stanza came ready-spoken. I recorded it and then followed the same metrical pattern with each succeding stanza, and the poem was born, quickly, easily and with the usual number of fingers and toes.

Other parts have been trickier. Yesterday, I began work on a prologue, an invocation of my child self, rather like an invocation of the muses. I chose an iambic metre, in the hope that I might collect a flavour of something Classical as I went along. I didn't want to press the piece into too strict a form, such as absolute pentametre, as I've spent most of my writing life form-phobic.

The piece is progressing, but I'm finding it tough and I feel very unsure of my footing, both metaphorically and metrically. I am wondering how strictly I should stick to my iambic promise. I've already wandered off the metre a number of times and I'm not sure whether to keep what I've written.

Last night, I read the following in Eavan Boland's introduction to The Making of a Poem:
I have come upon one of the shaping formal energies: the relation of the voice to the line. That simple discovery begins to dissolve all the borrowed voices of my apprecenticeship. I begin to see how it would be to be able to work with the line by working against it, pushing the music of dailyness against the customary shapes of the centuries. Suddenly I see how these contrary forces make language plastic. And how exciting it is to find that a poetic language will liberate and not constrain.
Boland seems to be saying what I've heard elsewhere: do it enough times and it'll become natural, so that you'll feel your way through tradition and modernity, merging the borrowed and authentic voices** into one instinctive poem. I love the idea of, 'pushing the music of dailyness against the customary shapes of the centuries.' However, I am also worried that I may slog away, writing dreadful sonnets for years to come, wasting valuable time which I might otherwise have given to creating muscular free verse. All writers have only limited time to write, even those of us for whom paid work is the kind of guest who does embroidery, coughs quietly before she enters a room and goes for lots of long, solitary walks. Why spend precious hours battling with Sapphic stanzas?

I must admit, though, that wrestling with form is great fun and I'm thoroughly enjoying writing at the moment. In fact, the decision to face my fear of traditional forms has been a very valuable one and my work has certainly improved as a result. Perhaps I should stop worrying and get back to my prologue.

* The Seagulls is the sobriquet of Brighton and Hove Albion football club.
** The difference between borrowed and authentic voices seems a huge subject and one I'd like to return to in the future.

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