I have long been of two minds – or more―about the relationship of form and content. Which comes first? Which, in a poem, becomes primary? They’re linked, but how?
I’ve found an explanation worth sharing from Paul Horgan and a stunning example of how they can work in satisfying tension from Ellen Bryant Voigt.
Paul Horgan, in Approaches to Writing (rev. 1988) connects form and content organically, saying that the initial impulse (idea) can only become a finished work
if as early as possible it begins to find, in the writer’s imagination, the precisely appropriate from for its fulfillment.
Once that is glimpsed, even incompletely, the subject, the idea, is safe . . .
In other words, the planned form gives the idea (content) staying power in the writer’s mind.
In Kyrie Ellen Bryant Voigt took an unusual subject for poetry, the influenza epidemic of 1918-1919, and combined it with a tight form: a series of sonnets and near sonnets. The structure is able to carry the confusion, fear, anxiety of the time, as well as a variety of characters and crises, and to keep them in a frame; the contrast increases their power. I think it must have helped greatly in the composition process as well. Here is my favorite of the sonnets:
To be brought from the bright schoolyard into the house:
to stand by her bed like an animal stunned in the pen:
against the grid of the quilt, her hand seems
stitched to the cuff of its sleeve―although he wants
most urgently the hand to stroke his head,
although he thinks he could kneel down
that it would need to travel only inches
to brush like a breath his flushed cheek,
he doesn’t stir; all his resolve,
all his resources go to watching her,
her mouth, her hair a pillow of blackened ferns―
he means to match her stillness bone for bone.
Nearby he hears the younger children cry,
and his aunts, like careless thieves, out in the kitchen.
Though there are no end rhymes, this follows the sonnet form of four quatrains of increasing intensity and a final couplet which wraps up the poem in what goes on outside of the boy: all of it painful for the him. We never learn the boy’s name, but he will appear in other pieces, trying to cope with the changes after his mother’s death. This is powerful work.