In 1966 Earle Birney, a Canadian poet, argued that “The writing of a poem is the search for its precise form, a series of decisions about ‘shape’.” He then took time to explain the kinds of decisions he made when writing David,
….was it to be drama or non-drama? An easy answer, my subject was visually too grandiose, and humanly too restricted, to be natural on a stage. Non-dramatic, then.
Second, poetry or prose? More difficult to decide. The difference is not simply a visual matter of choosing between a solid right margin and paragraph breaks versus an irregular right margin and line breaks – even if most readers seem willing to believe anything broken up is verse and anything solid is “only” prose. No, if I have my writing set in verse lines, I’m signalling to my readers that I’m about to use any of a number of techniques he doesn’t normally expect to find in English prose that indeed many prose writers consciously avoid.
While David is a masterwork well worth the time spent in the study, it is Birney’s comments about form that are of immediate interest. Birney’s argument explains and informs my intuitive reaction to two short books that I’ve recently read: Howard Akler’s Men of Action and Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From. These two books are quite different in what they attempt to achieve and indeed what they do achieve. They are similar, however, in the fact that their publishers have taken pains to feature the writing style as spare and intimate
Men of Action is presented as an essay which addresses “the complicated texture of consciousness” as the author documents his reactions to and memories of the gradual onset of his father’s illness and death. Akler frequently references film, one of the arts that his father retreated to throughout his life. It is fitting, then to mention that Men of Action brings to scenes from Magnolia or aspects or aspects of Seize the Day.
The End We Start From, on the other hand is a kind of sketched novella. It fits within the genre of post-apocalyptic genre literature. Some extraordinary and serious disaster has befallen the society presented in the story – which is considerably focused on motherhood. Metaphor abounds. The book seems to be a kind of echo of films such as Children of Men or The Road.
Both books are extraordinarily brief and, as noted by their publishers, spare in their writing style. Spare should not suggest that they do not require attention. Both of these books are intricate and layered. But neither books achieves the type of narrative commitment attained by short books such as Conrad’s Heart of Darkness or Camus’ The Outsider (alternately, The Stranger).
Which brings me to a question of form, and particularly Birney’s comments about decisions about form. Neither Hunter nor Akler appears to be trying to write a novella like Heart of Darkness, The Outsider, Metamorphosis or a host of others that might come to mind. So my comparison is not, in a sense, reasonable. Akler and Hunter each decided to go with a different form for their short work. These are not novellas. Either story could have been a novella, and given their writing skills, probably a very good one. But neither did. I don’t know if that is because the publishing industry doesn’t like novellas right now or if there were other reasons that novella is not the form they selected. It doesn’t really matter. The novella form was not selected.
Neither did either of these writers choose to present their stories as long poems. Yet, both of these works are rather more poetic than prosaic in their content and language. I am not suggesting, as the Birney observation I’ve referenced might contend, that these books are poetry masked as prose by the lack of line breaks. No, these books are not long poems. They are not Birney’s David. They are not Rime of the Ancient Mariner. They are not Byron’s Don Juan. Like the novella, the long poem is not currently popular and not the selected form.
Instead, both of these books seem to be akin to intimate journal or blog entries rendered in print form. They each show significant evidence of having been honed and crafted within each entry. The language used is considered, particular. These books appear to be representative of a kind of form.
I wonder, however, whether the form is appropriate to a printed book. I wonder whether the choice to print these entries is wise. Because, as a book, I am inevitably drawn to the weaknesses of the writing. I am inevitably drawn to conclude that these texts are incomplete. That they seem only to be the notes or sketches of a more completely rendered long poem or novella. What may have been compelling when read from a distracted and distracting screen does not translate well to a book with printed pages. Indeed, what is strong and even admirable in Hunter’s or Akler’s writing might have become masterful if further choices had been made in a print version of the work. The spare and intimate language might have been rendered into excellent poetry or, alternately, further considered and drawn into an important novella.
While examining someone else’s work is entertaining and informative, eventually I have to look at my own work and make choices. Birney suggest that “one comes down eventually to the only surety; one’s knowledge of one’s own craft. My experiences are all I have to be certain about.”
In my own poetry, I am well-able to identify poor choices in form. In the article posted for my poem, Secretariat, I take the opportunity to present not only the poem, but also sketched notes regarding my thoughts and writing process. This additional information can be expanded or further explained as I feel necessary or advantageous. The issue addressed by the poem, exploitation, might have been addressed in different forms. An essay, a play, a novel, a history. But the form I wanted to work with was a poem. Why? Well let’s consider another comment from Birney’s essay on form. In a section headed The Meaning of a Poem, he writes
This is a phrase used by persons who assume a poem has only one meaning and they ought to know it. The meaning of “David” is what I put into it plus anything else you get out of it. In my poem, the meaning is almost always more than what is apparently there, and operates on various levels. It also varies according to the reader’s basic language abilities and sensitivities, his acquaintance with other literature and with the background of the poem.
And so that is an apt place to finish these thoughts on form. The internet has expanded the options and opportunities to explore form. Only the individual can craft their words to a form that seems right. I did not write an essay or a novella on exploitation. I wrote a poem.
- Eric Adriaans’ Poetry Showcase
- Martin Heidegger’s The Thinker As Poet
- Poetry Isn’t Elsewhere
References and Citations
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- Original draft: August 3, 2018