The Music of What Happens to be You: Response to Szirtes


After reading this article I was forced to focus on the relationship between poetry and music. These sister arts have both formed my identity as an artist and so as Szirtes asserts that this critique of form I find it hard to argue against him. I do find that the ability to recognize different forms (even the classical), utilize them, and enjoy them invites depth to poetry.

In my own poetry, though often not focused on forms in the way that I’m counting lines and meter, I do focus on pacing, rhythm, shape, and collecting sounds. I think forms such as prose poetry and free verse do utilize a break from classical form as a form of its own. In the same way experimental jazz breaks away from jazz and yet there is an inherent form. I bet you could probably make up an experimental jazz song in your head, or guess what it would sound like, because though experimental it does have a form. Perhaps experimental jazz or poetry inspires a feeling you find familiar just by thinking about the parameters set by the phrase “experimental.”

Furthermore, though he is quite fond of rhyme and meter, I don’t believe that Szirtes is trying to argue that one should only write in tight patterns and stanzas. Quite contrarily I think he is inviting you to rethink form, redefining for yourself and recognizing that your poetry takes on its own form that explore new depths.

When trying to create my poetry, I often think of it extremely songlike (much like Szirtes, “the music of what happens”) writing itself between scribbles, collected phrases, and memories. In this way, my own voice creates patterns (often leaning toward the conversational) and habits that enter my writing. I think of my personal form as deceptive; though it is conversational my lines aren’t always “saying” everything they mean. Much like myself, they are pouring out words while asking one to dig deeper than the surface and give them meaning.

Form as Movement

In my poetry, I usually focus on form at the level of the line, especially while writing and first revising. I focus on the line level first (after coming up with a basic focus for the content that I want to somehow communicate), because it helps me think in clear and defined images, and the line allows me to focus on how those images that I’m stacking up in a stanza intertwine and carry the content of the language I’m putting down across the space of the line break. I use line lengths to control both the amount of imagery and information that the reader comes upon at a given time, and to control the speed, the breath, with which the poem unfolds.

I use stanza breaks and stanzas themselves as forms of movement between tones or ideas, breaks for deep breath, or breaks for space and resonance (allowing an echo). I’ve always loved the idea of the stanza as a room (thanks Italy), though sometimes it can be a hoarder’s room or a crowded one room house–it’s a helpful metaphor for working through how I want each movement of the poem to feel, and whether that feeling lines up with what I’m trying to say.

I’ve thought about form on the level of meter, to the extent of trying to speed up or slow down poem by changing syllable stresses in the line, but I haven’t gotten to the level of picking a form to extend and enforce a particular poem that needs that particular form. I feel as though that’s the next step, the big step, toward controlling movement and pacing in the poem–putting it in a particular form that has been handed down, a sonnet, or terza rima, when appropriate, in order to really put my language under pressure, make it jump through hoops and perform the feats that will get across the ideas, problems, and particular descriptions I’m looking to communicate.

Sketching Structure and Form: The Bridge Between Content

Although slightly different when it comes to poetry, form exists across all artistic disciplines. Form is structure, history, and ultimately, foundation for artistic expression.

While form works more obviously in the aforementioned ways, form is also (and perhaps most importantly) freedom for both the writer and the reader.

If a poet recognizes that the content of their poem will consider some cyclic aspect of nature or life, perhaps they will opt for a villanelle as form. In the same way, a sculptor may use ice if they want their piece to reflect on the temporality of their subject. In this way, form informs content and has an inseparable bond with the latter.

Imagine an artist throws their material of choice on a table. That’s a first draft of form, a preliminary decision, now there are limitations as to what they can do, but also options. Wood cannot become clay, much like a sonnet cannot become a sestina (or can it?). This wood can be a chair, a table, or a frame, and the poem works fairly similarly, but with even more flexibility. For the reader’s sake, form offers familiarity and accessibility.

In my poetry, I start by drawing sketches. Gathering words, forming a shape, looking for form with lines, shadow, texture (comparable to line breaks, metaphor, repetition). Then I do it again and again, slowly painting over the phrases that continue to stick out and nurturing the words that hold the core of my poem’s purpose. When the poem starts to take shape, I decide on form and refine my poem within the parameters of the form and if everything goes right, I get out my best pen and high quality paper and I write towards my poem’s final form.

Szirtes, form, and patterns

Generally, I don’t go for standard forms in my poetry. Verse, meter, and stanzas aren’t my thing. Instead, I tend towards making something I personally find visually appealing by playing with white space, while adhering to my own personal standards. George Szirtes says that “Verse is not decoration: it is structural. It is a forming principle and works at depth…Does the female mind, if we can isolate such a thing, abhor patterns?”

I take issue with this.

First off, this question depends on a biologically determinate falsehood, assuming that a “female” mind is routed differently than a “male” brain. It is followed by rattling off a list of traditionally feminine interests (“What of all those quilts, flower schemes, and fancy dances?”) as if to demonstrate that traditional female interests correlate to patterns only in non-literary fashions. The thing is, every single person has a different thought process. There is no single “female mind,” nor is there a “male mind” or a “non-binary mind” for people who don’t conform to the gender binary. Assuming that all women must like flower schemes and abhor writing in sonnets or verse is ridiculous.

Second, people often follow their own rules in writing forms a la free-verse. Depending on my subject matter, my form varies through several patterns I usually ascribe to. Often, if I think my speaker has an inner thought, I’ll indent the line(s) saying that thought, almost like an aside. Line breaks tend to be very important to consider. In last semester’s class, Lytton implored us to consider what we were favoring when breaking lines: the line or the sentence. My line breaks tend to focus either on a double meaning or breaking when a line sounds good based on syllables or word choices. While they may not be readily apparent to readers, these are definite patterns in the writing process.  These are both structural and for decoration.

There are other things in form I tend to use not because of pattern because they both look good and add to how the poem is read. Personally I like using “staircase text,” where the words follow each other down a line break, as it speeds up the poem. Through white space, I also tend to group words that fit together but are separated by different lines. It tends to give people the association and sometimes a different image than just the one stated in text.

So, long story short, I usually use form in my poetry, but more internal form than a classical form.

Szirtes and The Community of Form

When I write poems, form is not at the forefront of my process. The form of my poems is generated by intuition, almost as a side effect. My poetry feels deeply personal and isolated, giving me a sense of ownership that is probably exaggerated. M y poems have no allegiance to common form, though they use the same words, and echo ideas expressed in other poems Szirtes might call this practice, “anarchist,” but it there is something less defiant that marks it: my poems feel alone. For this reason, I was struck by Szirtes’s reference to the community as an attraction of form.

Language is an attempt to distill words from the “mass of inchoate impressions, desires, and anxieties,” that Szirtes identifies as defining the human experience. The common use of form seems to be a rallying point for poets writing about different material, from different backgrounds, and with different intentions. Szirtes writes of all sonnets, “They are not alone in the world.” Often, my poetry does feel lonely, specific to me and hopefully accessible to some ungrounded other. After reading Szirtes I felt some pity for my own poems, wallflowers as the formal poems move through their networked world. Just as those who have mastered a language are able to communicate their complex, specific thoughts to others who know that language well, form provides an opportunity for deeper understanding. Those poems that are written in the same form owe some portion of their creation to consideration for that specific form. This provides them common ground with others in their form. Szirtes gives me reason me to let my poems join the conversation.

Exercise 0: What Happened Next

In my worries I am plummeting down steps,

Industrial, medieval, breezy welcome


Stairs like little landings where a foot could catch

Railings made as bumpers

Bouncing light off the walls


Accident abound

Winds draw near


The door to the bottom

Has no floor


Space is troublesome

Those who fall, tend to sleep


Reality becomes clarity

Bells ring at the top

Celebration to return

The climb shall be a beast

“A Quoi Bon Dire?” by Charlotte Mew

Charlotte Mew

A Quoi Bon Dire?

Seventeen years ago you said
Something that sounded like Good-bye;
And everybody thinks that you are dead,
But I.

So I, as I grow stiff and cold
To this and that say Good-bye too;
And everybody sees that I am old
But you.

And one fine morning in a sunny lane
Some boy and girl will meet and kiss and swear
That nobody can love their way again
While over there
You will have smiled, I shall have tossed your hair.

The title of this poem is in French, and the best translation I could come up with (by way of a French speaking friend) is “What’s the good of saying?” After reading the poem in it’s entirety, I feel as though the title is especially relevant to my interpretation of it’s content.

The speaker is lamenting the loss of someone – I hesitate to comment on the relationship because after reading it through several times, I still can’t decide whether it’s a lover or a friend or a family member. During my first read, I thought for sure that the “you” was some guy she was in love with who died tragically while they were still young. That’s an easy enough interpretation – poets have been writing about their dead lovers since poetry was invented. However, I did a little snooping on the internet about Charlotte Mew and found out that she lived a pretty tragic life. Three of her siblings died when she was still a child, another two were committed to psychiatric hospitals and stayed there for the entire lives, and her last remaining sister, Anne, whom she seemed inseparable from, died from cancer later on in life. Following Anne’s death, she committed herself to a nursing home for treatment from delusions, but ended up committing suicide there within a year.

While I know some people will argue that researching a writer’s background is not always the best idea before reading their work, I find it hard to separate the two. You could certainly read this poem and interpret it without knowing about Mew’s life; however, after reading the poem once, and then reading up about her life, I found my perception of the poem to be changed entirely. First off, she was surrounded by death for almost the entirety of her life. The “you” in this poem who everybody thinks is dead but her could be anyone. I can’t limit my interpretation to a lover, as I did upon my first read. Yes, she does say in the final stanza “And one fine morning in a sunny lane/ Some boy and girl will meet and kiss and swear / That nobody can love their way again” However, I don’t think those lines are enough to prove that she is 100% talking about a lover. I think that the image itself is more a symbol of human connection, and the ways in which our relationships are fleeting despite the promises we make.

There’s a sense of hopelessness that stains the poem; the “you” is dead, and she’s convinced that they are still alive. Worse yet, she’s growing older and watching the world change without the person she is mourning for with her. Going back to my original translation of the title, she seems to have given up . She watches people from the sidelines, and remains removed from real human interactions. She prefers to stay in a fantasy world where the dead are still alive. “What’s the point”, is the idea that I gathered from this poem. She has already experienced the greatest human connection of her life, and knows in her heart that the decay has set in beyond repair.

Szirtes & Form

Upon reading Szirtes, I was startled to realize that form doesn’t even cross my mind when I write a poem. I think I can mostly owe this to the fact that I rarely ever sit down and write a poem all at once. A poem is composed over several sessions in my writing process. I’ve always seen form as a limiting factor, however Szirtes proves that it can be quite the opposite. Form is all about establishing a pattern and then being able to break it. This is what brings forth the “reassurance, progress, and delight” of the poem that we all strive to find when we compose our poetry (Szirtes). Pattern is meant to be broken.

Going forward, I think this can be extremely applicable to my poetry. Much of my poetry focuses on a repeating phrase and this can get monotonous at times. Instead of falling in that trap, it can be rewarding to establish that repeating pattern and then surprise the reader with a change or break of that pattern. That especially helps to strengthen unexpected content and subverting expectations. It’s also important to remember that form exists to reflect content. The form should add meaning to the words. That being said, form is definitely something that I want to be more conscious of when writing.

On Form: In Response to Szirtes

Without form, there would be no frame for the image. Form is the perspective in which a poem can be viewed and interpreted. For example, as George Szirtes mentions in his article “Formal Wear: notes on Rhyme, Meter, Stanza & Pattern,” rhyme can be used to provide a lighthearted air. Length of a line can contribute to the pace of the poem, the diction can affect the tone, and density of a stanza can weigh down or lighten its effect.

To be honest, I have never intentionally focused on the form while I write. Rather, my attentions are usually given primarily to the content and diction of a poem. I have always considered my work as adhering to the standards of free-verse poetry, out of insecurity of any other kind of form. But Szirtes makes a good point that free-verse poetry is “never ‘free’ to those who use it well.” Considering all of these pillars of form (rhyme, meter, pattern, etc.) tend to infuse themselves into the work anyway. Because, as Szirtes states, it is “community.” As we are versed in poets and writing styles of previous eras, we are influenced and, subsequently, so is our work. He argues, though, that poems do not “wear uniforms but they are aware of each other’s presence.” There should be a relationship between works through form, but the important thing is to bring “fresh life” to the form with the content of one’s own poem. This allows poets to have discussions through their poetry with poets of the past, Szirtes refers to as “ghosts.” I would be honored to have Dickinson or Frost haunt my house for a little while.

Form, Szirtes, and The Artistic Pursuit

To front-load my argument and answer the question, “how does form matter to my poetry” as quickly and bluntly as possible, allow me to not only quote Szirtes, but do something wholly unnatural for me and agree with Robert Frost.
Szirtes writes, “Frost’s notion is not about effects as such. For him it is about naturalness, the assurance that no damned quack-doctor of pretty phrases is going to put one over on him.” Pretty purple phrases might sound nice, but the lingering question of what work does it do haunts anyone with a background of poetic criticism. I believe it was David Foster Wallace quoting an old professor when he said, “Good Art’s job is to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” There is great verity in such a platitudinous construct. There are ugly assumptions buried in those twelve words, but they are side-lined by the fact that an artist toiling under the guise of a rescue worker will be inherently more successful that one pursuing cash.

On the page, the formal elements not only reflect the content, but refract it in a way. If it’s axiomatic that form is an extension of content, then everything from how the words fall on the page to where the accents and punctuation goes not only deepens the content, but it provides a means with which we might view the poem in a new, inventive way.