Friday, January 29, 2010

Form more powerful than free verse?

In a post on the Rumpus called "Defending Memoir," Stephen Elliot makes the following aside:
There is only one rule in writing a memoir, but it’s an important one: You can’t intentionally lie. This one rule has the effect of form on poetry, setting up a challenge that often forces creativity and makes the work more powerful than free verse.
In context (he's defending recent memoirs against novelists who claim that memoirs are too easy), this analogy strikes me as especially odd. Isn't he basically saying that free verse is too easy? In other words, my kid could paint that? Seems like a very fuddy-duddy approach to poetry. Poems should rhyme, paintings should look like landscapes, memoirs should be true. (All memoirs lie, it's degree and intention that matter.)


  1. You're right. It is an odd analogy. Couldn't we also conclude that free verse is dishonest art, and so therefore not to be valued?

    On the other hand, it does depend on how we define "form." Do we mean form only in the sense of rules pertaining to meter and rhyme schemes, as well as all the various forms? Or, can we lump in a word like "design" as well? Or "structure"? Charles Wright comes to mind....

    I know that once I get a good design for the structure of a poem, and once I have a system for the measure of my lines, that's when I begin to understand Negative Capability, but then I wonder if prose writers would be able to identify with that experience.

    I found your blog just recently. Thanks for your posts.

  2. I think we can broaden the definition of "form" to include structure or design, but in that case, free verse in no way precludes form.

    Thank you for reading!

  3. Update: Here are Stephen Elliot's responses to me on Twitter:

    @egabbert @JoeLRobb Form is not necessarily more powerful than free verse, nor is the memoir more powerful than the novel.

    @S___Elliott That is how you phrased it. Could you clarify your position on form?

    @egabbert The point of the essay is that the novel is not better than the memoir just as free verse is not better than form. 7 minutes ago from web in reply to egabbert

    @S___Elliott my point is no genre or style is "better" - memoir can be great/powerful and so can free verse

    @egabbert Yes, that is my point as well. 3 minutes ago from web in reply to egabbert

    So apparently we are in agreement ... despite what his post actually says (that form is in fact better than free verse).

  4. Also for those not familiar with Twitter ... the ones beginning with "@egabbert" are his responses to me, the ones beginning with "@S____Elliott" are my responses to him (counterintuitive).

  5. Regarding lying in memoirs: I'm reminded of Tim O'Brien's "How to Tell a True War Story." Sometimes lying is the only way you can portray the truth.

    And it's too broad a statement to say form is more powerful than free verse. It all depends on what you are trying to say. That's like saying a sprinter is more powerful than an endurance runner... doesn't it depend on the race?

    By the way, I found your blog via Andrew Sullivan's "The Daily Dish." Are you an editor for a literary magazine? I'm only wondering because I can tell I would enjoy readying it based on your writing and tastes.

  6. Hi, Duncan,

    Yes, I edit an online poetry magazine called Absent:

    I read for Ploughshares for many years but I don't think any of my picks ever made it into the journal.