On Form: Susan Wheeler

The List

1. Saying a particular poem is "formless" is as nuts as saying it isn't "political": form and politics obtain as soon as there are words. IMHO

2. Using a highly patterned form can up the tension level even if the poem isn't sagging.

3. Formal devices—repetition, rhyme, regular meters—serve to double time back on itself, to create the illusion of spontaneity, as opposed to techniques in narrative, which frequently aim to create the illusion of more time.

4. You got mascara. Use it.

5. Obvious formal choices give readers who aren't interested in content something to look at.

6. Strict forms—like the terza rima, the casbairdne, or the syllabic double acrostic quasida—can be an asset to our hysterias, masking fear and chaos for the time it takes us to obsess a result in place.

7. It's half the score in Olympian judging. Ah, but that other half...

8. Disruptions of expectations for formal conventions—no nouns, say, or concretist composition, or upending grammar—can cast into doubt the hegemonic practice of flush-left, full-phrase, punctuated poems. If you want to.

9. Making up new forms can while the hours. For example, this line occurred to me: "Lazarus went by himself to the mall. / All. . .", occasioning a form in which the last word of one line rhymes with the first of the next.

10. Writing against form—a sonnet bestiary, say, or an elegy in the sputter of amphisbaenic, or backward, rhyme—can feel transgressive without risking limb.

11. Fussiness, cleverness, or adverse polish, results. But sometimes distance is what's called for.

12. The pants should be just tight enough. The thing with pants, though, is that when you take off your pants your body doesn't go with them.

The Argument

He said he "grypt her gorge with so great paine, that soone to loose her wicked bands did her constraine. Nuns fret not at their convent's narrow room; the one Spirit's plastic stress sweeps through the dull dense world, compelling there all new successions to the forms they wear."1

She said that "men will boast of knowledge, which he took from Eve's fair hand, as from a learnèd book. Then let our flames still light and shine, and no false fear control, when full-gushed waters, alive, strike on the fountain's bowl."2

In this antitheton, the last word is hers.


The Lyric (A Descort)

You might say that. Here's to form,
That pinion'd, adamantine, surfeited barrier we wield,
Or carrier employ

As the great green faerie stomps its prey—

If you obey its call you enhance your haul—
Why do you fuss on it so, and you! who took apples for joy!



1  Edmund Spencer, The Faerie Queene, I.19; William Wordsworth, "Nuns Fret Not at Their Convert's Narrow Room"; Percy Bysshe Shelley, "Adonais" 43.

2  Aemilia Lanyer, "Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum," Eve's Apology; Katherine Philips, "To My Excellent Lucasia, on Our Friendship"; Louise Bogan, "Roman Fountain."

-Originally published in Crossroads, Fall 1999




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