Adventures in Form, ed. Tom Chivers
reviewed by Hannah Rosefield
‘I hear ghostly Academics in Limbo screeching about form,’ wrote Allen Ginsberg in his notes to the 1959 audio recording of Howl. Lest we doubt that this is a bad thing, he follows up with ‘A word on the Academies: poetry has been attacked by an ignorant & frightened bunch of bores who don’t understand how it’s made… [and] wouldn’t know Poetry if it came up and buggered them in broad daylight.’
Ginsberg is not alone: many readers and writers of the past hundred years have regarded poetic form as the preserve of academics whose obsession with counting iambs and spotting spondees acts as a barrier to understanding. Adventures in Form: A Compendium of Poetic Forms, Rules and Constraints, beautifully produced by independent publishing house Penned in the Margins, is determined to prove form’s naysayers wrong. Featuring established (and establishment) names such as Ruth Padel and Paul Muldoon, as well as younger, lesser-known poets, it is a splendid demonstration of how the prioritization of form can provide a freedom absent from free verse.
The anthology is divided into fifteen sections of varying length and range. ‘Traditional Revised’ eases the reader in with a series of semi-familiar forms: rejigged sestinas, villanelles and, predominantly, sonnets – though most of these last move so far from identifiable sonnet forms that one wonders whether form can still be said to be their guiding principle. Of particular note are Colette Bryce’s wistful “Once”, a ‘skinny villanelle’ pondering the limits of reuse, and Sophie Mayer’s “A Volta for the Sonnet as a Drag Queen”, which reimagines the sonnet as a drag artist in ‘Lamé, lurex, tits/ aglitter’.
Elsewhere modernity, not tradition, is the prevailing spirit. The section ‘Txts, Tweets and Status Updates’ explores the areas of social media where poetry and mundanity overlap, while Iain Sinclair collects newspaper headlines in “Signs & Shivers” and Sam Riviere enacts the current arts cuts on his own writing in his “Austerities” sequence.
Adventures in Form could not exist without Oulipo, the French experimentalist group founded in 1960, whose members write according to random and elaborate constraints. One such Oulipian form is n+7, in which the writer replaces every noun in an original text with the seventh noun after it in the dictionary. In Ross Sutherland’s Oulipo-inspired reworking of Little Red Riding Hood, n+7 becomes n+23 and the fairy tale’s heroine becomes The Liverish Red-Blooded Riffraff Hoo-Ha. More vividly than any other, Sutherland’s poem dramatizes the collision of the familiar and the strange that is one of literature’s primary functions, as Tom Chivers notes in his introduction.
Penned in the Margins is a ‘live literature producer’ as well as a publishing house, and many of the poems in Adventures in Form demand to be read aloud, their heavy use of sound clusters creating an aural storm which reminds us that poetry exists in time as well as on the page. In Patience Agbabi’s contribution, “From Africa Singing”, she asks ‘How many/ poets think “little song” when they think “sonnet”?’ Adventures in Form offers an encouraging answer to this question: above all, it is an exploration of the ways in which form makes poetry sing.
Hannah Rosefield is a writer residing in London. We highly recommend you read her piece Galanthus over at The Junket.
Penned in the Margins is an independent publishing house and live literature producer, generating some of the most innovative poetry publications around.
Their next event is on Thursday 19th April launching The Bells of Hope, a new collection by Roddy Lumsden.