I was talking with Dan last night and this morning and we were discussing what makes a poem work - or more specifically - what makes a "formal poem" work and I had the following epiphany.
It's not enough that the rhyme and meter kick us in the ass, the thought conveyed must also jump-start our brains and stop. our. hearts. at the same time.
All the mechanics in the poetry-world mean nothing without a thought behind it. It's something, god forgive me for saying so, but it's something many of the "New Formalists" don't always seem to grasp. It doesn't matter how many double-dactyls you can use or how clever your metrical substitutions, it's not enough if your iambic pentameter or your occasionally and casually introduced spondee is perfection personified, what matters is that you are able to use your metrical skills as a physical (and secondary) enhancement of your all-important cerebral ability.
A competent poem can say nothing brilliantly, but it'll be forgotten shortly after it's read - while the more memorable poem, the one which sticks in your head and haunts your soul, is the equally competent one which says something brilliantly.
Most poets today can master one or the other - but not both. The various free-versers (for lack of a better word) can sometimes conceive the most interesting thought and/or idea, but they cannot skillfully design the vehicle capable of transporting it to the final destination. The Formalists, (for lack of a better word) on the other hand, can design the most impeccable-appearing vehicles but they often appear incapable of filling the interior space with anything even remotely relevant or interesting.
The following poems and poets are proof-positive, though, that some poets are capable of doing both - and at least one editor, Kate Benedict, has an uncanny eye for recognizing it:
Prologue by Michael Cantor
It took me several reads to even realize there's not a word of true rhyme, internal or otherwise, in this absolutely stunning and metrically perfect poem - that's how perfect the metrics are and how strong the message. (There is, however, a brilliant use of sound in the ending words, stone, storm, bones and moon which may be what carries the melody so well.) The stand-alone ending line scares the crap out of me. It becomes an unforgettable line - which, in turn, makes the entire poem unforgettable.
In camera by Julie Carter
What can I say? The final image of a small, sometimes awkward little girl as a distant lone purple flower with arms just takes my breath away. The alliteration present in this poem is woven so skillfully that you barely see it happening - but Lord, can you feel it. Free verse DOES work. Here's proof.
Poor Dolores by Rose Poto.
Poor Dolores, indeed!! The imagery in this poem is both satisfying and striking - it hits you right between the eyes and almost blinds you. The rhyme is sparing but it's judiciously placed for maximum effect, the detailing exquisite, the last two lines, well, they're to die-for. We've all known Dolores - a few of us have been her, many more of us have been the girls crying in the stall. And that, my friends, is what makes this poem in particular stand out. A poem in which you recognize yourself is one of the greatest poems of all.
The Agnostic's Villanelle by Marilyn Taylor.
This poem was the catalyst for this post. When I first read this one, I was stunned enough to read it twice and then read it a third time - only out loud to Dan. It sparked a long conversation about what the poem meant or didn't mean. A discussion intriguing enough that I ended up enlisting Marilyn's help in "decoding" the poem. The concept here is simple enough - why would a god, any god, strike Milton blind and Beethoven deaf? Where is the mercy? What was the reasoning? Dan believes it happened for the same reason that Babel was destroyed - those that seek to attain perfection are bound to fail - but by God's design or by their own presumptiveness? Were Milton and Beethoven so stricken because God does not allow anyone to reach his own dizzying heights and they, perhaps, were getting dangerously close to perfection? Was it divine irony - or was it just that "simple twist of fate" that Bob Dylan speaks of? Regardless, this is one of the most thought provoking poems I've read in a long time. The form, the meter, the rhyme - it's well handled and finely executed - but the question it asks is what takes a complicated and difficult exercise in form and transforms it from the merely mechanical into the truly memorable.
If you think you've not got the time to peruse the entire Spring issue of Umbrella, peruse these four. I guarentee you'll want to read the rest.
One last thing - a word of warning to the editors and publishers of all online and print publications.
The bar has just been raised.