An essay by Jane Burn
“Choosing the form for a poem is a process built from endless negotiations”
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On Choosing Form and the Evolution of the Poem ‘T r a n s l a t I o n / A c t s’
Choosing the form for a poem is a process built from endless negotiations between
intention / subject matter / the required comfort or discomfort of self within
the content / length / voice / instinct for the poem’s euphony (or lack of) /
the organic, previously unknown dictates of the poem itself.
Nothing can be built (if it is intended to last) without foundation and scaffold, upon which the “grafting process”1 of a poem can begin. It is true that I use a multitude of styles / forms across my work. I could as easily stick to one style as I could pull of my head and replace it with a different one.
Poetry, to me, is much too various for that. I will always fail to restrict my work to closely related forms (as our beloved Emily Dickinson does). Poetry is the tide—it empties miles of sand only to drown it again, many times a day. My quest is always to go
“…somehow beyond the limits of established rhetorical codes…”Rosenberg/Saltzman, 2006, p.8
Poetry is weather—sun, storm, deluge, breeze, snow, hurricane, drought.
Rage makes my pen a cold blade or a typhoon. Love must be corralled within sonnets / villanelles / etc., or it must explode across the page. The nib is blunt or keen. Emotions will always be a work in progress with me. I have no fear of letting these eternal dialogues I have with myself appear in my writing, as ‘structural expressionism’ does within architecture (in a nutshell, allowing all the pipes, bolts and fixings to hang right out for everyone to see).
If these dialogues wish to come to the forefront of / are necessary to a poem, then I do not prevent them from appearing. Poetry is hybridity—hybridity is me.
More and more, as my need for self-expression gains momentum, I am going as far as inventing forms of my own, like the ‘Occular Map’ (an example of which is Three Interpretations, published in an earlier issue of Poetry Wales – Winter 2021 57.2).
I have long been ruminating upon notions of confluence and disconnection. Of intersections and the fascinating, undisclosed, mysterious, uncertain areas they create. Of the work that can be produced in these convergent / divergent spaces. I believe that both life and writing exist, in my case, almost wholly within these places. There are no sensible straight lines. There are curves, unfamiliar side streets, cul-de-sacs in which “[t]he Truth must dazzle gradually”2, must come to us in myriad, unpredictable ways. We must remain open to poetry’s fluctuation / serendipity.
Many of us are old friends with this much repeated quote, ever haunting the back of my mind at any time of writing:
“Tell all the Truth but tell it slant –”Dickinson 1129, 2016, p.506
I sense the many opportunities arisen within that quote, as well as the permissions it offers me—permission to come at poetry from all angles, at any time, using any means necessary. It is a call to arms for us dwellers of these liminal spaces (small wonder then, that white space as liminal space is often deployed throughout my work. It is about accepting / celebrating my own voice / my own existence— it is about tilting into my work at the correct / necessary angle, in the same way one must pitch a leaning spindle into a rocking chair’s seat. I believe it is a way of representing my desire to be heard / desire to be hid, reclusivity / outreaching, poetry / “[p]ossibility.”3
The mining of these unorthodox veins furnishes my work with curious jewels, with precious, previously untapped fuel.
The key, in the end, is attentiveness to each poem’s needs as you write them.
“…thinking you have set the bounds…you shall as soon discover something outside your bounds which they should evidently contain.”Herbert/Hollis/Douglas, 6th ed., 2015, p.113
We ‘speak’ a poem as it ‘speaks’ back to us. It is essential to tune in to your poem’s needs. Is it fighting for breath within the strictures of its current form? Have you stifled it? Is it lost at sea, floundering / vanishing / drowning in too much space? Does its density / ventilation represent its voice?
The more you know yourself as a poet, the more you can rely on this intuition. I keep in mind that there is no such thing to me (though there might be to you, and that’s just fine) as One Size Fits ALL. When I know I have a form right, it settles, surely and relievedly down, like a bird on a batch of eggs. You have to (apologies for the mixed metaphors) allow the poem to find its furrow—the pen (as plough) suddenly hits surely down and off you go, the page (as field) completely and effectively turned over.
My poem ‘T r a n s l a t i o n / A c t s’ arose from research I have been conducting, considering where I might fit into the cycle of translation. I had began with research upon original language to target language translation, but the more I tried to pin down what translation meant specifically to me,
the more my thinking about translation expanded.
This expansion is further reinforced by the use of text distribution—the aligning of each line left to right. This physical rendering of absolute fullness equates to the poem’s expansion of my mind at the time of writing.
I have spent my whole life decoding interactions with other people—each one must undergo a translation process as they are filtered through my mind. What about life?
Isn’t life itself a series of translations in its entirety? Each time I thought about one stage of life, it conjured up another before it. I was fascinated by these discoveries,
these new seeds of translation that kept appearing amongst the cracks.
As my research continued, the opportunities for creativity / passion / exploration and the strength of the conceit became undeniable. What appeared on the page became a more than a list. It became a ceremony of naming.
A poem I never expected to write became a poem I had only subconsciously acknowledged that I needed to write. It came from the exact moment when research I was doing and thoughts I was having suddenly crossed paths. X marked the spot where the poem was to well up from—something akin to striking crude oil.
“[X provided].the psychic space in which the overwhelming might be held.”Rosenberg/Saltzman, 2006, p.272
The use of slashes / and square brackets [ ] in the poem are entirely crucial. It enabled me to both ‘flip’ in and out of alternates and emphasise the potential indefiniteness of each scenario.
The slashes have helped me to develop my way of ‘double / triple talking’ — in my experience, there never seems to be one simple answer to anything. As day has night / in has out, the existence of one thing must mean the existence of its opposite, or series of opposites—a switch, a twist, a turn. A parallel universe, even,
“[offering] some kind of permanence of comprehension, offering the possibility of belated encounter…in the overwhelming and unavoidably repeated instance of occurrence.”Rosenberg/Saltzman, 2006, p.275
None can say with utter certainty that every fertilised egg will result in a baby—not every night will offer restful sleep. It is about the tackling of damaging assumptions. I am asking the reader to stop in their tracks and consider, as I have, every unwritten word / thought / past / present / future claiming occupancy / seeking representation there.
Between each pair of square brackets, the presence of trauma, hope and choice can be read and offered a safe, flexible space in which to exist. For example,
“Sperm and egg translate [sometimes] to flesh…”
carries within it our right to terminate a pregnancy, autonomy over our own bodies, the utter, devastating grief of a womb’s loss, the equal vaildity of having a child or remaining childless. With these uses of punctuation, I create yet more space for the existence of something personal to them that the reader may wish to place there.
Spaces which facilitate the
“…construction of the imagined time in which the mind might make sense, or not, of [events]”Rosenberg/Saltzman, 2006, p.273
It is about counteracting the absolute. In life, there is none. There is no generalisation, no assumption, no pigeon-holing, no decree or final answering in this poem. There is only a fine balancing, an attempt to be as inclusive / sensitive / aware as possible, and an offer to enter it with me and exist there, in whichever way seems appropriate for you. What I can say, with all certainty, is that this poem would not be this poem in any other shape or form.
- Herbert/Hollis/Crane, 6th ed., 2015, p.48
- Dickinson 1129, 2016, p.507
- Dickinson 657, 2016, p.327 / Vendler, 2010, p.222
Dickinson, Emily. The Complete Poems. Faber and Faber, 2016.
Herbert, W.N. & Hollis, Matthew (Edited by). STRONG WORDS modern poets on modern poetry (6th Edition). Crane, Hart. General Aims and Theories / Douglas, Keith. Poetry is like a man. Bloodaxe, 2015.
Rosenberg, Eric & Saltman, Lisa (edited by). Trauma and Visuality in Modernity. Dartmouth College Press / University Press of New England, Hanover & London, 2006.
Vendler, Helen. DICKINSON Selected Poems and Commentaries. The Bellknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, England, 2010.