Jejudo, South Korea
I'm in a debate right now at another site but I thought I'd give my opening to see if anybody was interested in this topic.
The proposition: "Traditional formal styles are old fashioned and have no place in modern poetry"
I am charged with defending this proposition.
Make it new!
If the greatest of all pleasures is surprise, the only other pleasure nearly so great is to give surprise.
Ahhh, the villanelle, the triolet, the dizain -- the names by themselves have a certain romantic feel to them, do they not? They sound so poetic (and so French)and we know they're hard to do. Certainly, this is where great poetry must lie. We can sit at an outdoor cafe and marvel at the sheer craftsmanship of those noble souls who write DIFFICULT poetry. We can marvel while drinking our double expressos and admire the attention to form -- the rigid, unthinking capsule that suffocates whatever originality the poet may have had in the first place.
Oh yeah, and then there's the sonnet. Shakespeare wrote in sonnets and if it was good enough for Shakespeare, it has got to be good enough for the rest of us. Right?
Don't get me wrong. I think they worked in the past and as exercises for someone who wishes to improve, I see no problem in employing them. But, for poetry today they are exo-skeletons, hollow shells, that should be buried along with 'thee', 'thou' and 'methinks'.
With a proper and respectful funeral of course.
I'll give three reasons for this assessment:
First, they've already been done. The sonnet doesn't work anymore precisely because Shakepeare wrote sonnets and everytime you write one you are calling forth his shadow, you can't avoid the echo, and you can't avoid the inevitable comparison: "that's not as good as Shakespeare." Of course it's not as good as Shakespeare. He didn't invent the sonnet but he defined and created our sensibility for what a good sonnet should be.
Writers, today, should be striving to create and define their own sensibilities, not relying on something that worked in the past. Form poetry is the structural equivalent of a cliche.
Second, form poetry perpetuates class differences. I know, I know, nobody wants to talk about class anymore but if you think about it form poetry separates people in at least two ways: it separates those who have the time to master these difficult forms (ever tried to write a sestina?) and the forms themselves reflect the ideology of the upper classes. They're neat (meant both ways), they're clean, and they're self contained. What they don't do is reflect the reality that most of us live in.
Third, they don't work. If you're not familiar with a form, it is confusing and seemingly arbitrary. If you are aware of a form, you get caught up in comparing that poem to its ideal -- like scrutinizing a child's picture to its color by numbers script.
A friend of mine a while back posted a Petrachan sonnet at another site. One commentor argued that the rhyme scheme was awkward. My friend explained what he was doing and the commentor immediately apologized for not realizing this. Nowhere was there a discussion of the value of a poem as a poem, nobody was saying this works or didn't work on a personal level -- a sense of surprise if you follow Baudelaire. It was either incomprehensible or form for form's sake. Nothing more.
In other words, it was never read for itself.
I don't believe I'm alone in this opinion. Professional poets today are taking these forms and pushing and pulling them all out of recognition. Why? Because they consciously or intuitively know that these forms are no longer useful for good poetry.
Look at Elizabeth Bishop's sonnet:
Caught -- the bubble
in the spirit level,
a creature divided;
and the compass needle
wobbling and wavering,
Freed -- the broken
and the rainbow-bird
from the narrow bevel
of the empty mirror,
it feels like, gay!
Is this a sonnet? It has fourteen lines and an inverted octet and sestet but what does this say about the traditional form itself?
I think it says its time is over.