Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Rabinowitz Factor

Dr. Johnson asks, "What are some sources for the role of FORM in poetry? I've recently been delving into the history of the sonnet form, but I wonder if you could recommend some books or sections of books or articles on all sorts of poetic forms?"

Back in 1982 the composer Robert Rabinowitz asked me to write a brief essay on form to include with the program for a recital.  The piece included two haiku, one of which I remember:

Form a butterfly
with time and caterpillar
sole ingredients.

For years I've thought of rereading G. Spencer Brown's Laws of Form and Charles Rosen's Sonata Forms and trying to come to a deeper understanding of form.  I haven't really thought about poetic form for decades.  I do have some concrete thoughts on the sonnet, though.  Ezra Pound repeatedly said to write a sonnet a day for a year.  I found this a very useful experiment, and I can think of no better way of learning about poetic form.  I tried once for about five months and stopped.  Later I did it for a full year, so I wrote over 500 sonnets in those two periods.  I think I liked two of them.  Of course, while doing that I read a bunch of sonnets and a bunch of other writing in iambic pentameter.

For the history of the sonnet, I suggest reading the pre-Dante Italian poets in Pound's Translations and in Confucius to cummings, as well as Pound's essays on Cavalcanti and Dante.  Next, read Dante Gabriel Rossetti's translation of La Vita Nuova, Dante's early poems for Beatrice before he wrote the Commedia.  (Pound suggested reading Rossetti's translation of La Vita Nuova before the Commedia, Eliot afterwards.  Eliot feared one would get a too Pre-Rafaelite image of Dante if one started with the Rossetti.)  The old edition of The Portable Dante with the Binyon translation of the Commedia includes the Rossetti.

Pound called Dante the second greatest literary critic after Aristotle.  La Vita Nuova, in addition to including great love poems, includes Dante's own analysis of their form.

After reading lots of Cavalcanti and Dante, etc., one can move on reading the sonnets by Shakespeare, The Sonnets from the Portuguese by Elizabeth Barrett Browning and a selection of sonnets by Wyatt, Spenser, Milton, Keats, etc.

Zukofsky's wonderful A Test of Poetry doesn't talk a lot about form, but I keep rereading it and learning from it.

Pound recommends translating poems to help learn about form.

I don't feel like I've completely answered your question.  Perhaps some more books or articles will creep into my mind.  Most of the stuff on form I like pops up in the middle of pieces on various poets,  Creeley's various discussions of Zukofsky's "A" for instance.


  1. No, this was a fantastic response...especially since I have most of those sources at immediate hand. I somehow suspected they were/are the better sources, and was - I guess - phishing got see if you had some odd text I'd never heard of that was the be-all/end-all of form.

    The idea of combining G. Spencer Brown with Chas. Rosen? Seems like the fixin's for a paper that could get you 1.) a degree of some sort; 2.) in a totally altered state of consciousness that might last months; 3.) something Blake Williams would've done.


  2. Thanks for the question and the response. How would I get a degree with the paper?

    Reading Proust has made me think about literary form. I hope to finish soon, and I've heard he ties it all together by the end. It has surprised me how much he talks about Wagner's music in the novel. I wonder if the Ring Cycle functions as a model for the chryselephantine artwork, as might The Arabian Nights, which also shows up in Proust. I think Proust succeeds more than Wagner, but I've listened to a lot of Wagner the last few months to help me metaprogram Proust.

    My Finnegans Wake Club met today. I look forward to diving back into Joyce in a few weeks after I finish Proust.

    I don't know when I will make time for the Brown/Rosen experiment. Rosen's new book comes out this month.

  3. I've thought about Ken Koch's books on teaching poetry today while pondering your question, especially Sleeping on the Wing, an anthology for high school kids with some great writing exercises. It nicely complements Pound, I think. It has helped me teach about the sestina.

    Blake Williams and Bob Wilson never seemed that interested in musicology except for Solomon's book on Beethoven. Tovey has an essay on normalcy in Beethoven that I find a trippy complement to Bob's ideas on the non-existance of the "normal". Tovey shows the eccentricity of a seemingly normal early Beethoven piece and the "normalcy" of a seemingly eccentric late piece. I unsuccessfully tried to get Bob interested in this essay.

    I also enjoyed Michael McClure's Scratching the Beat Surface. A number of American poets from the 1950's have interesting, post-Poundian ideas about form.

    Writing my book helped me understand form, especially kabbalistically structuring the appendices to complement Illuminatus!

  4. Actually Bob did have an interest in musicology. I think he did a great job on the musical aspects of The Earth Will Shake.

  5. I feel as if I resemble this post. For the record I mostly read Octavio Paz and Rumi these days. Listen to a lot more jazz than ever - listen to the phrasing of the great jazz musicians, that will teach you about form.