Notes on Form in Poetry

In preparing for a upcoming workshop on poetic form, it occurs to me to ask (and answer) the question: why should form matter to poets in the twenty-first century? After all, the majority of poems written in English today are written in free verse. Certainly it is important to have a grasp of form in academia, if one is studying verse written before the Second World War. Most poetry written in English, from Beowulf to Wilfred Owen, employed elements of form, and could rightly be called verse. But poets nowadays write poems which often seem to have little connection to the strictures of the past.

What, then, can poets writing today, in the vers libre form that has dominated the past sixty years of poetry, gain from studying English-language forms that moved in and out of fashion over the previous thousand years?

One answer is that the poet can gain a sense of connection to poetic lineage. Discovering that poets have been re-inventing our relationship to language for thousands of years can be deliciously humbling. Perhaps this is what Emerson meant when he said that poetry must be “as new as foam, and as old as the rock.” Even more than this important universal perspective, though, I feel that I have also gained personally as a poet through studying form.
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Poetry and the Information Age

Visual Cortex Diagram courtesy Wikipedia

Visual Cortex diagram courtesy Wikipedia

I have been questioning my preference for reading poetry on paper versus digital text for some time now, wondering what might underpin these instincts. It recently occurred to me that the difference in mental state I experience when reading a book versus surfing the web may actually have a basis in science. The advent of digital text has made a staggering amount of information available to us, and thereby altered forever how we learn. The further proliferation of digital text through the internet, and especially now with blogging and social networking, has made our ability to filter through words a survival skill. We must read faster than ever in the information age, skimming for nuggets of meaning or amusement.

Just how have we learned to read faster in the information age? Short of a research grant, an EEG machine, and plenty of literate volunteers, I have only a sample size of one, and my subjective methods of self-observation to guide me. But my theory is that we bias the visual processing centers of our brain, instead of the auditory centers, when surfing the web. This theory is supported by speed-reading courses that attempt to eliminate sub-vocalization and auditory processing to teach people to read faster. And yet, poetry has been an aural medium for centuries.

What are the implications for our poetics when readers stop listening to poetry in their head? Continue reading…