That Formal Feeling


by A.E. Stallings
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 137 pp., $24.00
Milos Bicanski/John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
A.E. Stallings, Athens, Greece, 2011

The late American poet Bill Knott, who used to teach a class on poetic forms at Emerson College in Boston, knew an exercise, or perhaps you could call it a trick, by which you could turn any poem into a sonnet. Choose a poem (your own or someone else’s) of about one hundred words, then locate all the rhyming words and write them in a column. You’ll find that any unrhymed poem (take “Leaving the Atocha Station,” by John Ashbery) is likely to contain some rhymes (bats/rats, scarecrow/window) and slant rhymes (prayer/hair, amnesiac/enthusiastic). Next, try to arrange the pairs into the rhyme scheme of either a Petrarchan or an Elizabethan sonnet, and rewrite and reorder the lines accordingly, using synonyms as necessary to fill in the missing rhymes. Finally, nudge the syllabics, so that the lines are about ten syllables each—extra points if you can make the feet iambic. You’ve created a sonnet, or something like it.

For the student of poetry, this bit of magic is doubly instructive. It both illustrates the mutability of drafts and demystifies the craft of form; a writer needn’t think in rhyme and meter in order to produce a formal poem. If you make a habit of writing in form, however, you may begin to think in form. In How Music Works (2012), David Byrne explains that pop songs are typically three to five minutes long because that’s how much music fit on one side of a 78. It still feels like the right length for a pop song. Shakespeare probably started to think in 140-syllable bursts, the way a photographer I heard about began to think in Instagram captions—his mind automatically described the world in chunks of text of about 2,200 characters. This is habit via repetition; doing something over and over again changes your brain. That’s why Knott instructed his students to stick to one form for a while. Otherwise, he’d scold, “you’re not learning anything.”

In her fourth collection, Like, A.E. Stallings, an American poet, classicist, and translator who lives in Greece, demonstrates facility with poetic forms of all types. Like includes examples of the villanelle, the epigram, the sestina, ottava rima, and, of course, the sonnet, of which there are several, some taking more liberties than others. Even the table of contents is arranged alphabetically, to suggest an abecedarian of titles—a bonus poem. This display of range will feel to some readers like virtuosic versatility; to Knottier readers the frequent costume changes might look jumpy or noncommittal.

Stallings may be so immersed in form that her thoughts arrive already dressed in it—or maybe they arrive formless, but she so enjoys the game of arranging those thoughts into patterns of meter and rhyme that almost any occasion will do. She moves freely between the mythic…

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