Follow-Up to “Adapting Traditional Form”

When Christie Collins asked me to write a micro essay on craft of 500 words for her blog feature “Craft of Literary,” I decided to write about my process of adapting the Japanese form renga for my book Barrier Island Suite. In order to stay within the word limit, I kept my focus on that form, but now I thought I’d add a little on my own blog about how the form and the book developed.

The variations of the renga stanza (that I discuss in the original article) became the dominant form for the first 20 poems I wrote for Barrier Island Suite. However, whenever I tried to explain that the form was based on either renga or on tanka stanzas, people would invariably take issue. Tanka magazines, for instance, didn’t want the poems because to them, a tanka, like a haiku should be a single stanza. There didn’t seem to be a place for longer tanka-influenced poems. In the end, I stopped explaining the stanza (until now) and simply let it be. Yet I had considerable success placing the poems in mainstream literary magazines when I didn’t mention the source of the form.

On the other hand, working in this form led me to try my hand at haiku, and I’m pleased to say that I’ve finally written some that really fit the form and have been published in Valley Voices as “Tombigbee River.” There are times when adherence to existing forms ought to be valued, in other words, just as there are times when the form may be adapted, even bent out of shape until it is nearly unrecognizable to all but the poet.

Later, when I returned to Barrier Island Suite with the idea of including more of Walter Anderson’s life on shore, I realized I wanted a different form for this part of his life. The book’s title suggests a musical suite, so I also realized I wanted each section to have its own tempo the way the pieces in a suite wold. So upon returning to the project as I expanded it from a 20-poem cycle to book-length manuscript, I also returned to free verse.

Nonetheless, I knew I wanted there to be some sense of form, so I worked with different, yet regular stanza lengths: couplets, tercets, quatrains, quintets, or sestets, depending on the poem. Only in the final section did I take on longer stanzas with a more flowing form in “The Great Spirit Road,” modeled after the meandering Mississippi river, and “The Little Room,” modeled after the “Great Hymn to Aten,” since Psalm 104 (which is based on the “Hymn”) is a likely source for the murals in Anderson’s cottage.

In the end, then, the sections of the book alternate between the renga-inspired original stanza forms and more traditional Western stanzas and free verse. For me, the alternating form fits well with the different modes of life that Anderson describes in his logs.

I started the original essay thinking about form in free verse, the subject of a graduate class I was teaching in Forms of Poetry, and that is where I will end. Whether using an adapted traditional form from another culture, working with traditional European stanza forms, or writing free verse, the form of the poem and the content are always in a dynamic relationship. Form isn’t left to chance, in other words, as most of the poets we read in the class argued one way or another.

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