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Formally Yours

Lesléa Newman

Spalding MFA Faculty, Writing for Children & Young Adults

I am, much to my surprise, a formal poet.

This doesn’t mean I write poetry while wearing a sparkling evening gown and six inch heels (though I am not adverse to the idea). It means many of my poems are written in rigid forms with prescribed structures such as the pantoum, villanelle, terza rima, sonnet, sestina, cinquain, haiku, rondeau and triolet (just saying those words aloud makes this poet’s heart swoon with delight). And the poems that aren’t written this way, still make use of the attributes of formal poetry such as rhyme, rhythm, repetition, meter, and uniformity of stanza length.

When I look back at almost half a century of writing poetry, my gravitation toward the formal shouldn’t surprise me. The very first poem I ever wrote, at age twelve, hinted at what was to come:

(Untitled) I want my homeMade of a poem With couplets for chairsAnd rhyme schemes for stairs Paintings of metaphorSimiles on the floor And free verse all over the walls!

This poem uses a very common strucutre of rhymed couplets for the first three stanzas. The final stanza breaks the pattern by consisting of one solitary line. (Actually in the notebook I wrote the poem in, the last line is scrawled in a messay way all over the page, visually emphasizing the difference between it and the previous three stanzas).

In my first semester of college, I wrote a short terza rima about the oppressive nature of writing in form. The irony of doing such a thing, at the time escaped me. Now it makes me chuckle: ON WRITING listening for the accents, counting every wordon my toes, a crazy accountant, ishould be balancing checkbooks. it’s absurd to write poetry like this. to denyfeelings behind bars and honor this cagethe poet inside me is likely to die my pen should run wildly across the pageslicing toes from my feet, blindly enraged

Again the contradiction of shunning upper case letters (influenced by e.e. cummings, no doubt) while writing a formal poem eluded me when I was a fledgling poet, struggling to find my way.

As I continued my poetic education, I fell in love with the Beat poets, as I, too, was quite rebellious against any and all authority figures. I became so enamored with the work of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Philip Whalen, Gary Snyder, and Ted Berrigan, that I decided to hitch hike out to Boulder, Colorado to study at Naropa Institute’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, where Allen Ginsberg was teaching. Allen (or “Ginzy” as he liked to be called) took me under his wing and I became his apprentice. I don’t remember being taught anything about formal poetry. The focus was on free verse, particularly long lines such as the ones that Allen used to begin his famous and infamous poem, “Howl”I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by       madness, starving hysterical naked,dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn       looking for an angry fix…..

Another teacher of mine, Ted Berrigan, did write sonnets and encouraged us to do so as well. He very loosely defined the form as any 14-line poem however, and I didn’t learn until much later about the elements of a sonnet including rhyme scheme, meter, the all-important turn, etc. until much later in my career.

So what did steer me toward formal poetry?

After I graduated from Naropa—with nary a formal poem in my thesis—I continued studying poetry on my own. I also became very involved in the women’s movement and devoured as much feminist poetry as I could (along with newly discovered foods such as tempeh and bean sprout sandwiches). Most of the poetry I had studied thus far was written by men. It was time to see what women had to say. Off I went to the feminist bookstore (oh how I miss feminist bookstores!) where I came across a poetry book by Honor Moore called Memoir. And in this book was a poem called “First Time, 1950” which absolutely blew my mind. In the poem, the narrator recalls being a five-year-old girl forced to perform a sexual act on her male babysitter. The poem is almost unbearable to read. The key word here is “almost” because what makes the poem bearable is the form in which it is written. The poem is a sestina. A sestina is composed of six six-line stanzas with the end words of each line in the first stanza recurring as the end words of all the other lines in a prescribed pattern. The poem ends with a three-line stanza; each of these lines contains two of the end words.

I didn’t know anything about sestinas the first time I read “First Time, 1950.” I didn’t even know that the poem was a sestina. All I knew was that this poem haunted me in a way no other poem had ever done before. Though its subject was horrifying, its language was mesmerizing. Moore’s sestina affected me in such a deep way, I can still recall lines from it twenty-five years after I first read it. There was something about the expectation of the end words coupled with the surprising and innovative ways in which they were used, that gave the poem an exquisite tension. I read the poem over and over, thinking, “This is how I want to write.”

And thus a formal poet was born.

How do I love formal poetry? Let me count the ways:

I love fitting words into 10 syllable lines (alternating stressed and unstressed syllables) while writing a sonnet;

I love making lists of words in order to find the perfect rhyme;

I love getting caught up in the momentum of a list poem as if I am riding a galloping runaway horse;

I love discovering a double entendre brought about by a line break, especially while writing a pantoum;

I love putting down that last period at the end of the poem knowing I got it right.

What I love most about writing formal poetry is that it allows me to tame messy emotions on the page. Feelings are messy; forms are neat. Corraling unwieldy emotions and making them conform to a prescribed pattern doesn’t feel constricting or oppressive. In fact, it feels very freeing. I don’t have to worry about the shape of the poem. That’s all taken care of. All I have to worry about is the content.

I find writing formal poetry especially helpful when writing about emotionally wrenching situations. An early book of mine, Still Life with Buddy (a book-length themed collection about a young lesbian whose best friend, Buddy, is a gay man living with AIDS) contains a sestina, a pantoum, a haiku, and a list poem. A later book, October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard (a novel-in-verse about the impact of a young gay man’s murder upon the world) contains these forms as well as an alphabet poem, an acrostic, several concrete poems, and two villanelles. And my newest book of poetry, I Carry My Mother is completely written in form.

When my mother was dying from not one, but two fatal diseases—bladder cancer and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)—I returned to my childhood home to care for her. And every night after I tucked her into the hospital bed we had set up in the living room, I crept upstairs to my room—the same room in which I had filled several black-and-white composition notebooks with angst-ridden teenage poetry—and picked up my pen. Every night for a month, I challenged myself and comforted myself by writing a triolet. A triolet is an 8-line French form that uses both repetition and rhyme. It was the perfect container into which to pour my heart and soul, my anguish and my grief:My mother’s doctor tells me, here’s the dealShe has six months to live, a year at mostHis words lodge in my gut, a heavy mealMy mother’s doctor tells me, here’s the dealI’m very sorry I know how you feelBut keep your chin up, don’t give up the ghostMy mother’s doctor tells me, here’s the dealShe’s got six months to live, a year at most

While my world was falling apart, my poetry was holding me together. And that’s why I write and continue to write in form.

“The Deal” © copyright 2015 Lesléa Newman from I Carry My Mother (Headmistress Press, Sequim, WA). Used by permission of the author.


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