From the Mad Mind
of Anthony Watkins
Of Form and Meaning
Or Why Do I Collect Buffalo Nickels
I have no idea how many of our readers are of an academic bent. I am sure there are enough that to discuss form and meaning in poetry is not completely foreign, and maybe most of our readers have a better grasp of the concepts than I do. No matter, it’s my column, so I will plough through.
As many of you know, I have been writing poetry since I was five. I did this primarily as an excuse to not have to obey ANY rules of the English language. As I began to learn the rules of spelling, punctuation, capitalization and general grammar, I loved that I could get a 100% free pass on all of this by say, “it’s poetry.” And oddly, most people believed that little kid on Mona Lisa Drive in Montgomery, Alabama.
After more than 50 years, I sometimes forget, and think I actually know how to write poetry, that I have some sort of insight. At first, I held to a few conventions, like 4 lines, with at least two of them rhyming, I tried to figure out meter, but eventually gave it up as I could not “hear” it and could not for the life of me understand why it mattered. Then I gave up rhyming as I didn’t like having to compromise what I meant to say.
Then, about 5-6 years ago, I don’t even remember, I joined a class on Coursera at the University of Pennsylvania taught by Professor Al Filreis. The course was and is Modern and Contemporary American Poetry, or ModPo.
This class not only changed my outlook on poetry, but on my life, in total. I have repeated it every year since the first. I have yet to complete the course work, in fact, I doubt I ever will. As you might imagine, I recommend the course for EVERYONE, even for people who have little interest in poetry. The reason being the professor and the 30,000+ community of online students who are exploring a rearrangement of the order of all things. All things, as in the universe, not just the universe of poetry.
ModPo is a very subversive class, and may have the very real possibility to change the world. One of the subversive ideas that is often discussed is a statement by the professor that form dictates meaning. Not that meaning dictates form, like a 4-line rhyme for a short sweet love poem and a long skinny poem for a political rant, but that the form itself, changes the meaning of a poem. I don’t think Al invented this concept, but he is the one who introduced it to me. From a poetic standpoint, there is much to be gained from taking ModPo, at least once, but I have always been more interested in a socio-political philosophy of life, and so that is what I most see at work here.
There is always the question of sparseness, versus lushness, both in imagery as well as word count. Then there is the question of enjambment, or the running on of a line into the next line, instead of a more conventional stopping at the end of a line, as in:
Not a Common House Cat
I chased the blue jay halfway down
the street before I realized
I was not a house cat
and stopped to clean my paws
while trying to look totally disinterested
in squirrels in general,
and that squirrel, in particular.
as opposed to say:
I chased the blue
jay halfway down the street before
I realized I was not a house
cat and stopped to clean
my paws while trying to look totally
disinterested in squirrels in
general, and that
squirrel, in particular
putting aside whether this is a good poem, or even a poem, at all, does the form change its meaning? Does it change MY meaning as the poet? Does it change the meaning YOU get as a reader?
On Not Being a Common House Cat
I chased the blue jay
down the street halfway
before I realized I was not
a house cat and got
to cleaning my paws
I tried a disinterested look,
as if nothing about squirrels
that squirrel, or squirrels
in general, required care to be took,
whatever the cause.
And then there is the matter, which might even be of a deeper core: are any of the above even poems? Are they good poems? Is one better than the others?
I happen to like the first one, though I have never written a poem from the perspective of someone who might or might not be a cat. Almost Schrodinger-esque, eh? In my mind, I still struggle with the idea that form not only changes the meaning, but also, at least in some way, GIVES meaning.
And then, back to the universe, if it is true in poetry, how true is it in life? Does it matter the form things are in? Of course, if you melt a brand-new Mercedes into a puddle of steal, glass and plastic, it becomes less desirable. If you stir the best spaghetti into a blend, so that it looks like SpaghettiOs, surely it loses a bit of its delight.
And now to the Buffalo Nickels, well, actually, that will have to wait as we are approaching 1000 words and the nickels will surely stretch another 1000. I will get to them, someday, I promise, in the meantime, I would love some feedback on your feelings about form, in both poetry and life, in general, and please note, if you ever see me sitting calmly on the sidewalk licking my fur or cleaning my paws, please walk on by and act like you don’t even know me. Some of us have issues….
Oh, ModPo is underway now, it is free and it is accessible as a community all year round, and you can find it here:
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