On the benefit of constraints

Poetic forms have a particular advantage. Using the restrictions imposed by a sonnet (14 lines, using a particular rhyming scheme if you like) or a sestina (6 stanzas of six lines + 1 of three with a set pattern to the end words in each line) can make a good poem better.

It makes me think of Gerard Manly Hopkins’ poem, Windhover, about a falcon (or perhaps a kestrel), where he says: “AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!” There are many ways of interpreting this, but the one I remember from school is that it referred to the falcon as a trained hunting bird, under the control of a falconer. The ‘chevalier’ also represented Hopkins’ Christ – made lovelier by his sacrifice. Hopkins himself, as a Jesuit priest, was under the control of his religion, which, while repressing him in some ways, perhaps gave him freedom in others.  (For the record, I am suspicious of organised religion and think it has a lot to answer for, but that’s another story).

This is only one interpretation of the poem (and it’s just my recollection of it), but the point remains. By using the constraints of a poetic form, we can bring an extra dimension to poetry. And it’s fun, like working out a crossword puzzle. The challenge is for the form to fit the poem and not to try to force words into fitting the form. It works best when you can read a poem through, enjoy it, and only then notice that it’s a sonnet or has a set number of syllables to each line or that there is some subtle rhyming scheme at work.

Another way of looking at it, is discipline – the forces of order and control vs the forces of wildness. If you can get both into some sort of balance, it’s better than one or the other – to write, you need both wild inspiration and the discipline of sitting down and capturing it on paper/ flashdisk.

More on poetic forms here: poetic forms

The masters and mistresses of constraints are perhaps the Oulipo poets (“Ouvroir de littérature potentielle”), who use mathematical formulae in poetry or extreme constraints such as Georges Perec’s novel, La disparition, written without using the letter “e”. The wonderful Christian Bök, a Canadian poet who was here for the last Writers & Readers Festival in Wellington, uses some amazing constraints – his book Eunoia comprises five poem sequences, each using only one of the vowels. And speaking of discipline – the book took seven years to write.

Do try this at home.

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