49 Writers: Frank Soos | Inhabiting the Form

 One of the things I often tell writers
regardless of whether
they are poets,
fiction or nonfiction writers is that we must inhabit
our form, live within
it to understand what we can and can’t do.
Here’s a little example:
I was in graduate school, one of my professors (my favorite
professor, Ben Kimpel, a wonderful
teacher they named a building after when he died) walked into our classroom
and looked at the quotation on the blackboard, “The proper study of man is man.” He shook his head and said, “That’s
why nobody writes fixed form poetry anymore.” The line is from Alexander
Pope’s “Essay on Man” written
in heroic couplets in the eighteenth century. The poem is a bit of a slog, I have to admit,
but you’re encouraged to take a look. More importantly, you might wonder,
wrong with that line anyway?
Do you see the problem?
It’s missing
a syllable. It should scan in iambic pentameter as, “The proper study of mankind
is man.” The guy who’d made that mistake was our department’s eighteenth century
specialist. And it’s not that he should
have known the quote from memory so much as his ear should have told him he’d dropped
a beat.
That’s what inhabiting a form can mean. You are attuned to your form (in this case a very specific
form with very specific requirements) so that a mistake
like this would be glaring.
Here are a couple of variations on the same lines of a poem by Sir Thomas
Wyatt, courtier
and clever politician. He helped Henry VIII wiggle out of his marriage
to Catherine of Aragon so he might marry Anne Boleyn.
He also was tossed in the Tower of London for a while because Henry suspected
him of having an affair with Anne, and maybe he did.

We have these different versions because when Wyatt’s
were including
in a sixteenth
century anthology, Tottel’s Miscellany. Tottel took the
of Wyatt
others and regularized the lines into iambic

Wyatt’s version: “It was no dream: I lay brode waking.” 
Tottel’s version: “It was no dream:
for I lay brode waking.”

Wyatt’s version: “Into a strange fashion of forsaking.” 
“Into a bitter fashion of forsaking.”

You may be wondering
at this point, how much can this matter? Well, it can
matter as much as a form allows
meaning to matter through its thoughtful use. At the time Wyatt wrote, the iambic line was being popularized (or you might say invented)
as the go-to line in English
poetry. Marlowe and Shakespeare would follow bringing iambic pentameter

into full bloom. (You can google an article on line by Peter Groves that chronicles the long march of poetic form from Chaucer to Shakespeare if you really
want to full skinny
on this question). Once you hear the
line, you can
the difference in Wyatt’s imperfect lines and the more sing-songy lines Tottel gets by purifying
the iambic pentameter. And you can see that Tottel plows over some of Wyatt’s nuance
in the process.
It’s hard to guess how much Wyatt cared
meter of a
line, but
if we look at the two versions of the poem, we can see that the looser
version is more subtle. The poet complains
in more baffled terms
Wyatt’s version rather than the sour terms of the Tottel
version. Smart reader, sound out the words of this pre-Elizabethan English as you go. Or if you
to wimp out, you can find a modern
language version
in just
about any anthology
of English poetry.

Wyatt’s version:
They fle from me / that sometyme
did me seke with naked fote stalking
in my chambre.
I have sene theim gentill
tame and meke that nowe are wyld and do not remember  that
sometyme they put theimself
in daunger to take bred at my hand & nowe they raunge besely seking
with a continuell change Thancked be fortune it hath ben otherwise twenty tymes better but ons in speciall
in thyn arraye after a pleasaunt
when her lose gowne from her shoulders did fall and she me caught in her armes long & small therewithall swetely did me kysse
and softely said dere hert how like you this It was no dreme I lay brode waking.
but all is torned thorough
my gentilnes into a straunge
fasshion of forsaking
and I have leve to goo of her goodenes and she also to vse new
but syns that I so kyndely ame serued,
I would fain knowe what she hath deserued.
Tottels Version:
They flee from me, that somtime did me seke With naked fote stalkyng
within my chamber.

Once haue I seen them gentle, tame, and meke, That now are wild, and do not once remember
That sometyme
they haue put them selues in danger,
To take bread at my hand, and now they range, Busily sekyng in continuall change.
Thanked be fortune, it hath bene otherwise Twenty tymes better:
but once especiall, In thinne aray, after a pleasant gyse,
When her loose gowne did from her shoulders
fall, And she me caught in her armes long and small, And therwithall, so swetely did me kysse,
And softly sayd: deare hart, how like you this? It was no dreame:
for I lay broade awakyng.
But all is turnde
now through my gentlenesse. Into a bitter fashion of forsakyng:
And I haue leaue to
go of her goodnesse, And she also to vse newfanglenesse.
But, sins that I vnkyndly
so am serued:
How like you this, what hath she now deserued?
Isn’t Wyatt’s version the sexiest poem
about getting dumped you’ve ever read?
By the time we get to Shakespeare and the sonnet writers who followed,
the form has been set. The game is on, fourteen
lines, ten syllables per line, iamb the dominant foot—but not offered
in lock step, marching lines of iambs.
Writers would write with that syllable count
in their heads almost subconsciously.
Maybe more importantly,
their audience would be on that same wavelength, too. If you were and they were, then writing an iambic line complete
with the possible
substitutions (mostly
spondees and trochees—there are also some more subtle substitutions, too), your reader would be right with you. And if you
were to add
a syllable or drop one, your readers’
or listeners’ ears would go up—they
would hear it. And that alteration would have the kind of power a line break, whether enjambed or punctuated, would have on a
But as Dr. Kimpel pointed out years
ago, that’s not the world we live in.
There are good sonnet
writers out there right now, Marilyn
Hacker and Mark Jarman come to mind. But whether the subtlety of the form works
for us readers is another question. If we can’t hear the line, we can’t hear the richness of the variations.
All forms, even that messy form I like so much, the essay, require just what a sonnet does, that the writer
inhabit the form, that the writer allow himself to grow and wander
within the limits of the form. The sonnet is a tightly
constructed form and maybe too constrictive for most but it’s worth considering what hitting
walls of a form can do for a
thinking. Condense it? Focus it? Give it something to keep
subject in bounds?
All useful things
for a writer to
regardless of what his
or her chosen genre may be

Frank Soos taught English and creative writing at UAF from 1986-2004 and is serving as the 2014-2016 Alaska State Writer Laureate. His most recent title is Unpleasantries: Considerations of Difficult Questions (University of Washington Press, 2016). Other publications include Double Moon: Constructions and Conversations with Margo Klass (Boreal Books, 2009) and Under Northern Lights: Writers and Artists on the Alaskan Landscape, co-edited with Kes Woodward (University of Washington Press, 2000), among others.  

This post was originally published online by the Fairbanks Arts Association (FAA) and appears here with permission from FAA and the author. 

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