Slate, on Monday of this week, posted Robert Pinsky’s essay “In Praise of Difficult Poetry,” which, though enjoyable, would have had more heft to it if the poems he quoted were, in fact, examples of the kind of difficulty my musician and engineer friends complain of on encountering, say, Anne Carson, or, god help them, any L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet. Of course, his task would then have been impossible. And on Tuesday appeared Alfred Corn’s “In-Flight Couplets Composed During a Bomb Alert,” which ends with the wonderfully earned lines
Words fade to black if not made memories of.
Love, if it means to live, is spoken love.
A pretty good week—but the best thing I've seen recently about poetry from Slate is a link in last week's scathing review of the TV show Thank God You’re Here. I haven”t seen the show, but I’m glad it provided the occasion for me to read this article on how to be a better improviser.
The first rule, it seems, is “ACCEPT INFORMATION: YES AND”
When you get a piece of information from another actor, first, accept it as fact and second, add a little bit more information to it. If somebody tells you that you're wearing a hula skirt, tell them that yes they are, and that they made it right here at Club Med. Keep doing this long enough, and you'll have a scene full of fascinating facts, objects and relationships. Fail to do this and everyone will hate you, even your parents.
It’s what happens in writing formal verse (though more quickly than most poets manage!): each line invites, with meter and sometimes with rhyme, a response from the following lines. And the following lines, if the poem is to live, must offer that response. They must accept the givens and add to them. The other cardinal rules from the article are ADD HISTORY, ASK “IF THIS IS TRUE, WHAT ELSE IS TRUE?” and DON’T DENY, and all of them apply to making a good formal poem, as do most of the lesser dicta presented.
That’s why formal poetry, as constrained as it is by meter, rhyme, or stanzaic form, is so much more various than free verse, which puts so few restrictions on the poet’s momentary perceptions, thoughts, and whims. Contrary to the popular notion, it is free verse which is the passive container into which a poet pours content, while each sonnet or ballade is a sustained improvisation with language, convention, and history as partners. It is the formal poet who says “Yes, and …,” to the world.