Monday, July 12, 2010

Thinking about Form Part I

I'm at an artist's residency in the south of France (La Muse, which is quite lovely and a great place for writing. Although I've been writing poetry here, I found myself today thinking about form in both poetry and prose. Maybe it's because I'm in another country where the forms of politesse, of eating, of culture and just plain living are so different--

Because it's so hot during the day here, for example, it makes sense to take a long nap in the afternoon and eat late at night when it cools down, something I'd never do in America. In the Languedoc, where I am, duck fat is all the rage, and you can buy confit du canard (duck confit) everywhere, which is basically duck cooked and preserved in its own fat. It's delicious, but it's something you'd rarely find in the U.S. where we are so concerned about the role of fat in our diet. Instead of buying bottled water we walk through the village to the local spring where we fill up our bottles. Just that change in the structure of the day--a walk to a spring instead of a drive to a store where you purchase a bottle of water, I've found, influences the shape of the rest of the day.

So what does this have to do with the shape of poetry and prose narratives (and here I'm thinking specifically of the essay)? I guess the structural changes my days have taken while I'm here have made me think more intensely about structure in general. I have found myself impatient with the way poems in America, for example, are so dominated by left justification, how timid our poems are, in general, in terms of movement on the page. Of course there are exceptions, but 95% of the poems you will find in almost any American literary journal will be left-margin justified. Where we might be bold in voice, in imagery, in subject matter, we still seem to be subservient to that left-margin justification. Why can't we sweep poems across the page, using space as a tool the way we use line breaks and stanza breaks? Why must we always come back to the left-hand margin? No matter how wild or fragmented the subject of the poem, that return to the left-hand margin begins to feel to me like a giving up, a surrender, an announcement of a lack of spatial imagination.

Of course there are poets like the French Apollinaire, e.e. cummings, and more recently Mary Oliver and Brenda Hillman who have made interesting poetic investigations with spatial arrangement of words on the page, but they are the exception rather than the rule.

How can one write, for example, about the BP oil disaster in the Gulf using traditional line breaks and spacing, returning always to the left-hand margin? It makes no sense. A poem addressing that disaster needs to move like the oil has in the Gulf all over the page, devouring it, knowing no limits, maybe even falling off the page.

I'll share some thoughts on form in the essay in my next post.