Innovative Forms & Meanings

Adventures in Form: A Compendium of Poetic Forms, Rules & Constraints, 
ed. Tom Chivers  (198pp, 9.99, Penned In The Margins)

Adventures In Form is an interesting collection of writing rules/exercises, with exemplar poems for each device, for those interested in poetic rules, processes, constraints and other devices for writing poems. It will appeal particularly to those with an interest in running workshops in the innovative and OuLiPo side of things, rather than the traditional villanelle side of things, although Chivers is trying to break boundaries here and includes 'skinny villanelles' as well as 'bastardised sonnets' in an attempt to keep the debate open and wide - he aims to show that our understanding of sonneteering, for example, can still include traditional lyric love sonnets as well as The Reality Street Book of Sonnets with all its demonstrable experimentation in the form. There's a smart, short introduction from Chivers, setting out his own personal taste for form as 'the deliberate and sustained organisation of visual and aural elements' in a poem, or for form as a poem's 'guiding principle', rather than form as conceived of in the more traditional 'set-form' sense, making this more of a 'personal selection' of playful approaches to text, rather than the fuller 'compendium of poetic forms' it declares itself to be. But then Chivers has his own tastes and predilections, which are of course very welcome.

The representative poems are mostly from emerging poets, supported by some more well-known ones like George Szirtes, Paul Muldoon and Ruth Padel. Some of the poems, like Tamar Yoseloff's sequence of sonnets adapted from signage, are good poems on their own, not just good rules/constraints. Roddy Lumsden's 'Sevenlings' can similarly employ an innovation in form as well as conveying something mysterious and troubling, just as George Szirtes 'cracked verse' form is perfect for his spinal/cranial debate in liturgical call-and-response mode.

This is, of course, one of the big problems with writing in this mode: there is a huge difference between apprehending and deploying an innovative
technique and, on the other hand, having something interesting to say. When the celebrated OuLiPo member Georges Perec wrote his novel La Disparition without using a single letter e (an example of the 'lipogram') he was, of course, doing more than deploying a technique (and lipograms, despite their avant garde feel, have been around for many hundreds of yearsn). The letter e, pronounced eux, stand for 'them'. Perec was from a family European Jews - his father was killed in fighting and his mother killed at Auschwitz - so when he decided to write a novel without a single e (without 'them'), he was asking one of the major political and humanitarian questions of the 20th Century:  what happens when you remove 'them' from the picture? What sense can anything make at all? Is there, to question Adorno, writing after Auschwitz? Conversely, when he wrote The Exeter Text: Jewels, Secrets, Sex using only the vowel e, he was asking the opposite question: what sense can be made of a life in which we are only surrounded by 'them'? In all his works, innovative forms and meaning are fused to ask deeply profound questions about the nature of humanity and literature.

The other big problem is the arbitrariness of many of the devices here - what do we really get from knowing there are a possible 87 billion permutations of writing the words of haiku onto sheep and letting them rearrange themselves randomly across a field, other than fun and play (good things in themselves) that offers? Is it really just a conceptual art joke, to be able to call it a 'haik-ewe' and nod towards Raymond Queneau's 1961 combinatorial innovation Cent Mille Milliards de Poemes
? In Adventures In Form you won't find profundity on the Perec level, or innovation like Queneau's, although you will find echoes of them, making many of these poems more suited to the performance comedy side of contemporary poetry. We do need this sense of play, of course, just as we need innovative works like Perec's. Accordingly, there are some more standard OuLiPo exercises in this book (N+7, anagrams etc) and other more recent innovations in form such as the 'tritina' (3 end-word versions of the sestina's 6 end-words), txt poems, Wordoku's and other visual poems. It is, as Chivers says, all really about a welcome 'love of language and wordplay'.

     Andy Brown 2012