If form is poetry’s marmite, I come down on the side of love. One of the many things I’m drawn to in the salty arc (ark?) of its influence is the way it invites poets to take part in a conversation that’s been happening for centuries all over the world in many tongues. Form embodies, and evolves out of, tradition and the breaking of tradition, the place where ideas and practice come together. Form asks for discipline, commitment, and in return offers a route to liberation and delight. Form takes you to places you wouldn’t otherwise go (and may wish you hadn’t).
Initially, I felt anxious at the unproven mathematical structure of the 8-2-1, lifted literally off the shelf. Its strictures all measured by the vertical (8 lines followed by 2 lines followed by 1 line), I was concerned what might happen to its horizontal patterning (rhythm or metre) – especially across an extended, collaborative sequence. I wondered how we could make it more than just a puzzle to solve. I spent a good length of time arguing with myself (the fiercest critic), but, staying open to the challenge, eventually this innovative form helped me write a poem I’d been struggling to resolve.
Earlier versions of my oblique musing on the collective experience of place, touching on issues of fracture, belonging and impermanence, had no formal glue to bind them together. The lines’ extreme openness created an effect that was untethered, more tentative and abstract than I intended.
The 8-2-1 protocols provided me with a sturdy vessel in which to sail the poem’s ambitious concepts. Testing it, I found no leaks. It not only held the ideas in the poem but was also able to embody them – building strength from evanescence, beauty from vulnerability. Enlivened by pulse and breath, form extends the creative possibilities of tension and allows paradoxes to co-exist; this can help us by some sympathetic magic bear the contradictions in our own lives.
One last metaphor: form is a dance. It might look effortless, light as air, but many hours are spent practising the moves, step by step, syllable by syllable, trying and failing, falling and flying. If nothing else, the 8-2-1 is a new choreography for the North, hard-working, risk-taking, may it travel far and ply its own rhythm.