Learning the form(s)

I’m extremely pleased that five of my poems appear in the latest edition of Mezzo Cammin, a web journal devoted to formal poetry by women, edited by Kim Bridgford and beautifully designed by Anna M. Evans, both of whom are excellent poets–of formal verse–themselves.

My poetry often varies as to style; I am not a dedicated formalist, but I feel that writers learn a great deal from experimenting with many styles. Learning to write a sonnet, for example, requires considerable effort and ideally results in the production of many lousy sonnets. Many, many lousy sonnets. Until, one day, the motivation, language, imagery, and form coalesce into a good sonnet. The challenge derives in part from the frame and form the sonnet uses; other challenges arise with sestinas, rondelets, villanelles, haiku, sapphics, and (yes) free verse. Practice does not always make perfect in the case of poetry, but practice helps. One learns the form and its specifics, reads zillions of examples by the best poets, endeavors to write to suit the form, and finds that the resulting effort…fails. Miserably. And then one tries again.

The practice can be meditative, or it can be a kind of discipline. It’s certainly liable to be frustrating at times. I am reminded of my tai chi class, in which I am also tasked with learning a form and practicing its specifics until, after long study, I am not absolutely terrible at the movements. I learn a few more moves, integrate them into the series I have memorized for a couple of years now, and try to get my balance and position down and some grace and flow going. I might add–these are not personal strengths of mine. So it’s difficult.

In addition, my tai chi master teaches us qigong movements, and suggests that we experiment on our own time to invent sequences that work for us. But this is not the same as getting all jazzy and experimental with tai chi; no–in class, and when practicing the form, we students are expected to follow the moves as taught and as closely as we are physically able to do.

Does this mean that when writing in form, I maintain a strict formalist approach to poems?

Um, no–as can be seen in the five “nonce form” pieces in this issue of Mezzo Cammin. Sometimes I start with a standard and jazz it up. This is true for many poets writing today and in the past, because sometimes what we want to express carries an unconventional edge to it, and sometimes the ideas or emotions we want to convey (often mixed emotions or ambiguous ideas that require the reader’s engagement to decide) cannot be shoehorned into the strictest details of the formal framework.

The first of the poems in this issue of the journal is perhaps the most unusual for me–I was definitely experimenting. The allusion is biblical (the parallel verses Matthew 2:18 and Jeremiah 31:15) and the experience is second-hand, and I find the situation deeply sorrowful. Loss of a child–it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed with compassion and unable to know what to do for the mother. In this case, I felt I’d try to convey the ancient sadness in a contemporary setting, a retail shop, probably in some suburban mall. So I am mashing together the old with the new; an experimental set up for the poem just seemed necessary.

I would not do that in tai chi class.

Learning forms for poems–new forms, ancient forms, classic forms, forms from other languages and cultures–keeps a writer freshly informed with the world and engaged with the process of expression through words, rhythm, sound, and imagery. It helps a writer see the perspective of art, the framework, and to see beyond those things as well. Forays into styles, genres, and arts that one has not tried one’s hand at previously present vivid and useful learning experiences. Even if the result is a hundred lousy sonnets or some mediocre watercolors or the worst short story ever written. We learn from mistakes; they are our most relevant teachers.

coffee spoonsHere, a collage attempt–a collaboration between my then-teenaged daughter and me. Call it an effort to practice a different form (visual art). What is in the frame? The presentation of a line from a famous poem. Let’s see if you can figure it out. [Hint: those oblong dark spots are actually coffee beans.]


Tai chi [crane pose]

A memory of my undergraduate days: I was wrestling with indecisiveness, both academic and personal, and consulted a professor who sometimes acted as a sounding board for me. What should I do? Here was one option, here another, no way to decide how best to proceed. I felt mired in uncertainties.

She listened compassionately to my dithering and then replied by telling me about a Buddhist saying: “When leaning left, lean left. When leaning right, lean right. When wobbling, wobble.”

I felt relieved. All my life, I had been criticized for my indecisiveness; here was a person who allowed me to accept it as another way of being. There was also the implication that I would not be wobbly forever. Eventually I would bear enough in one direction to proceed. Meanwhile, I was granted a kind of grace–a moment of compassion for my wobbly state of being–and all I need do was to wobble mindfully.

[Admission: I have never been able to confirm that this actually is a Buddhist saying, or for that matter a Taoist or Confucian saying, and I think perhaps she invented it.]


Yin-YangI recovered the memory above while trying a move in my rather new practice of tai chi.

One may infer that I am less than steady on my feet, particularly when required to stand on one foot, as necessary for “crane” stance in the tai chi form I am learning. So, I try to be mindful of breathing while attempting crane. And I wobble, but I try to wobble slowly and mindfully.

I am, however, fairly good at leaning. Standing on both feet while placing my body’s weight on one leg comes naturally to me, whereas the groundedness of the horse stance takes more concentration.

“When leaning, lean.” I can do that.


Once again, as per my last post, establishing that middle way–though it is not easy, and it is not hard–doesn’t come naturally, especially when I feel spread a bit thin in other areas of my daily life.

Therefore: “When wobbling, wobble.”


From KHHuber’s blog, here’s a lovely photo of (egret? crane? white heron?) steadily elegant on one leg:

kmhubersblog.wordpress.com Photo KM Huber

If only…