So, we’re a few days into POETRY MONTH, so I think it’s probably time to talk about form.
As you may have noticed, the poetry I’ve written about so far this POETRY MONTH has been predominantly free verse.
Free verse is a form of poetry as much as the (e.g.) sonnet is. And, as a form, it too is old.
The vast majority of poetry written today is free verse , as is the vast majority of poetry I’ve written (the exception is a handful of haikus).
This is because the vast majority of poetry which I have read by choice has been free verse, too.
As someone who has an undergraduate degree in English literature, reading formalised poetry is something I spent a lot of time doing during my early education, both in high school and later, then moving through an undergraduate English literature degree (and the early 21st century), one tended to get the impression (from the academy) that free verse poetry was the inevitable poetic terminus of the process of continual cultural improvement that ended only when history did, which it has, right?
This has been echoed by the experiences I’ve had since, with – aside from haikus, which seem to be surprisingly versatile (because they’re short enough to fit into a tweet, maybe?) – all experiences of reading formalised verse being deeply underwhelming, e.g. the Armitage/Duffy/Heaney kinda crowd’s blank-verse-adjacent stuff, you know what I mean.
All of the exciting, vibrant and powerful poetry I’ve encountered as an adult has – pretty much – been free verse, and though it has been the dominant poetic form for around a century, it is one in which great writing is still being produced, with deviations towards more experimental, more constrained (e.g. fucking Oulipo, the shittiest of all of the 21st century literary scenes), formal constraints essentially used as an excuse for an absence of content.
You can – it appears – convincingly pretend your content is interesting if it is constructed in an interesting way, even if it says nothing interesting, especially if you’re arrogant. I think it is no coincidence (or lack on my behalf) that all of the examples I can think of (off the top of my head) of dull, constraint-heavy poetry is/was written by white, middle class, men.
Formal constraints, in my experience as a reader, are more likely to be a crutch than a pedestal, so it was with some trepidation that I cracked open Jennifer LoveGrove’s The Tinder Sonnets several days into TriumphoftheNow.com‘s POETRY MONTH.
I should have had zero fears, though, because this is from knife | fork | book, undoubtedly one of the most consistent publishers of breathtaking poetry I have (so far) encountered.
knife | fork | book is a Toronto-based independent press, run by the poet Kirby, who is, in my opinion, one of the greatest contemporary poets. Kirby’s work explores sex, the body, ageing, creativity, community and the pursuit of fulfilling existence, and this 2021 chapbook has much in common with the tone and worldview[s] of Kirby’s writing, though in terms of form & structure, this is very different.
As you can probably guess from LoveGrove’s title, this is a collection of sonnets, and as you can also probably guess from the title, they are about contemporary dating, sex, love and all of the numerous pleasures, regrets, insecurities, excitement, joys, sorrows, horrors, pains and fun that come from those experiences. In short, the content is perfectly suited to the sonnet, the archetypal 14 line iambic pentameter poetic structure used for explorations of love and desire, most famously by Petrarch in Italy, and my fellow West Midlandser William Shakespeare.
Sorry, I paused typing to hit the treadmill, pounding out my gross sweat while watching the season 1 (and possible series) finale of Paper Girls – what a September Saturday!
Essentially, everything I said above is unjustifiable bullshit, and my presumption that the use of form and constraint is a failure of imagination evidences not only my own ignorance, but the failure of the educators I’ve encountered to emphasise the value and the wide-ranging power of form.
Maybe I have only read boring poems with strict formal structures, but this in no way means that all poems with formal structures are boring.
Jennifer LoveGrove proves that with fucking aplomb.
These are sonnets for people who think sonnets are shit.
This is sex, love, desire, body writing that feels incredibly contemporary, that offers relatable and knowable perspectives and depictions of situations and systems that exist in the current world, and it does all of this in 14 line iambic pentameter(ish – I haven’t checked this and I’m not going to) verses.
This is sharp, powerful, emotive, witty poetry full of humour, warmth, excitement and nuance.
The text features groups of three sonnets, each group focusing on a particular…
relationship? That’s the wrong word but “encounter” is too… brief?
I’m looking for a word that sits between “encounter” and “relationship”.
Flirtation? Affaire de coeur?
I don’t know what noun I’m going to use.
The text features groups of three sonnets, each group focusing on a particular [noun], with words and phrases repeated and disordered and reconfigured, to change tone, meaning and feeling.
This is rich, deep, love and sex poetry; it’s exactly the kind of thing that I love to read.
This is the kind of poetry that reminds me why I love poetry.
This is the kind of literature that literature exists to be.
Using this mediaeval-into-Renaissance structure and applying its tone, ideas and format to contemporary ideas of love is fitting, fun and explorative – as, at the end of the day (i.e. the night, when most romance happens) Petrarch & Shakespeare’s experiences of love and sex aren’t so different from ours, are they?
We have always wanted to touch, to be loved, to touch, to love.
We have always wanted to feel that the people we feel feelings about feel the same feelings about us. Right?
I was going to add in a few quotations below because the poetry here is absolutely fucking flawless, but I changed my mind as I don’t want to treat poetry as good and as cohesive as this like organ donors to be cut up and used as if they aren’t meant to be whole. Buy the fucking book.
I loved The Tinder Sonnets.
I highly fucking recommend it.
This is without a doubt the best poetry I’ve (so far) read in TriumphOfTheNow.com POETRY MONTH 2022. No offence to everyone else whose writing I’ve already looked at in the last week, as that’s on you. Write about sex more.