Encyclopedia of Wisconsin Forms and Formalists
Edited by Michael Kriesel
Wisconsin’s thriving poetry community is in the middle of a renaissance, as poets kiss new life into traditional forms. Conversational sonnets and dialogs in haiku between pairs of poets enliven the pages of journals statewide. New forms have sprung up as well: the Threesome, which presents multiple views of a single event, and the Wisconsin justified prose poem, which captures the mood of a place the way haiku and watercolor do.
Genre poems have gained in popularity as well, at the same time, with poets often combining a specific form and a specific theme or tone. Wisconsin justified poems have a noir feel. Madison poet F.J. Bergmann’s science fiction poems serve as pithy vehicles for social comment. My own free verse swarms with zombies and Spiderman, Popeye and Bat Boy. I’ve also written a series of occult-themed abecedariums. At a recent writing conference, Milwaukee publisher/poet Charles Nevsimal handed me his latest chapbook, Misadventures of the Paisley Cowboy. Another new pairing is haiku and vampires (vaiku?), in a recent Popcorn Press anthology, Vampyr Verse. The publisher, Lester Smith, lives in Elkhorn, WI, and also serves as the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets President.
Why the interest in forms and genre poems? Mostly, because it’s fun. And for the challenge. It also helps you write better free verse, according to prominent Wisconsin poet Karl Elder and current state Poet Laureate Marilyn L. Taylor.
Forms and genre poems are spreading through the Internet, through the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets, and via Verse Wisconsin—the state’s major poetry forum. Our poetry scene’s reaching critical mass, as the number of poets doing new things and forming connections continues to snowball. We’re inspiring each other.
[A number of Wisconsin poets contributed sample poems and statements about their interest in particular forms to this article. These forms appear alphabetically below.]
All the Buzz About Luv
All the still heart pleads for is one quick throb
containing hope. Confess to, Yes. We need
eternal hope's promise in days of poof
gone crazy. Open your mind and say, Ah.
I'll toss you a soulful singing blue-J
king of paradise that'll make you feel
more at ease. Hear its wings flap to the ton
of liberty you've always had. And stop
quivering. It's just the light of Vermeer
sliding inside. The sun is the true tint
under my lips and yours. Not love, but luv.
We are now close, my dear. Nothing can fix
yesterday, so lean back. Savor this buzz.
Alpha-box poems feature 13 lines, and all letters of the alphabet can be found in the first letter of each line and the last. The letters are not in random order, but appear in a pattern. Each of my poems from this series has a different alpha pattern. I started playing around with this form in April of 2007 because I was inspired by Karl Elder’s Mead: Twenty-six Abecedariums. The poem above features ten syllables per line, just like Elder’s abecedariums. One has been published in Toward the Light and one in Mezzo Cammin.
With desiccated words like “thus” and “spake,”
her tongue has been interred. She cannot speak
the living word she needs to draw the spike
from her dry heart, remove the ashen spoke
that brought her here, and left her here, to spook
the neighbors. Her affinity for capes,
her red eyes, the ungodly hours she keeps
in study, the dry wit with she copes
when former friends approach to say she coops
herself. Within, she haunts far peaks
where heads of former lovers stand on pikes
to guard her, till at last she squats and pokes
a finger in the earth, regards the scape
from this lone vantage, the horizon’s scope,
and kneels, and with bare hands begins to scoop.
—Lester Smith, published in Vampyr Verse
Have you ever really thought about “fee, fie, foe, fum”? I mean, why that specific order, instead of “foe, fee, fum, fie,” or “fum, fie, fee, foe”?
The answer involves alphabetical order, of course. Then again, that doesn’t really answer anything. Why do we say, “A, E, I, O, U” instead of some other arrangement?
It has to do with human verbalization. Say, “A,” and the sound is high and back in your mouth. Say, “E,” and you move slightly forward; by the time you reach “U,” you’re at the front of the mouth, with the sound coming from low in the throat. It’s a natural progression. The same is true with the short vowel sounds; try it and see.
Now consider that English has numerous one-syllable words that differ only in their vowel sound. Many can fill a full set: “say, see, sigh, sew, sue,” for instance, or “rail, reel, rile, roll, rule.” Using that second example, you can even invert the consonants for a another full set: “layer, leer, liar, lower, lure.” Play around with the consonants a bit further, and related words like “rare, rear, roar,” and “roll” come to mind.
An alphabetic morph rhyme poem bases stanzas on such sets, using each “rhyme” as the end word for a line. Ideally, the first stanza of five lines should contain a perfect collection of end words, like “gnat, net, knit, knot, nut.” This vowel progression sets the listener’s ear for what to expect from the poem. Subsequent stanzas may be shorter if inversions of the consonants don’t create a full five-word set (as in “tan, ten, tin, ton,” in which that final word makes a short “u” sound and there is no “t-n” word with a short “o.”) The only other “rule” is that the final line of the poem should return to the “U” sound, to satisfactorily signal the end.
The morph rhyme poem structure can be great for humor, especially if the lines are short (iambic tetrameter, for instance). More serious subjects can be treated with longer lines, especially if enjambment is used to soften the impact of the matched words. A perfect morph rhyme sonnet would consist of a five-line stanza setting the initial end words, a second five-line stanza with consonants inverted, and four final lines using related word forms catch as catch can (though always with a “U” in the last, remember).
The above example of an imperfect morph rhyme sonnet, appeared in the Vampyr Verse poetry collection published by Popcorn Press.
Over the Rainbow
Aeons of apes get stomach aches because
black-and-white sight can’t see ripeness. The sky
changes gradually. Primate eyes coax
dull gray into light blue. First to see how
Eden’s apples blushed like flesh, ape-girl Eve
fed all of us from God’s green grove. Can you
guess who saw the first pale rainbow? A rust-
honey monkey named Dorothy. Ancients,
in their mosaics, lacked purple. They were
just unable to see it. An opaque
kaleidoscope with gaps, our vision’s map
lags behind birds, bees, fish, rats. Half the zoo
moves through an ultraviolet realm un-
known except by UV lens or a storm
on the way: lime clouds, blood grass, gray hail. Hell
posing for its pink-lit portrait. A crack
quivers in the window. A dazed bluejay
reverts to gray. Colors bleed from my eyes,
stick to my cheeks like rainbow syrup. Bosch
triptych landscape minus sinners. A gong
undulates. Stars shift across a red gulf.
Evolution revokes rainbows from some
white males, 8% of them color blind.
Xanthic, now, the Golden Age. Myopic,
yawning, I water the lawn, the rhubarb.
Oz fades. My hose’s rainbow dims, goes gray.
—Michael Kriesel (previously published in North American Review)
Inspired by Karl Elder’s Abecedariums, I tried one. Soon I was hooked. From Sept. 2006 to April 2007 I wrote 34 of them. Then Wisconsin poet Anjie Kokan suggested I try Double Abecedariums—where the last letter of every line follows a pattern as well. TONS harder, since we memorize words by their first letters, not their last. There aren’t any special reverse dictionaries, either. Luckily, after my first few frustrating efforts, I found a website (www.onelook.com) that lists words by their last letters. I built my own custom reverse dictionary, one page at a time, with a hole punch and a 3-ring binder.
I wrote 39 Doubles from April 2007 to July 2008. The form was a good vehicle for my esoteric / occult-themed material. Of those 70+ poems, I’ve kept 10 singles and 10 doubles for my book manuscript. In time, I re-wrote the best portions of another 50 into free verse poems. Four of the abecedariums that survived the winnowing process have been published in North American Review, one each of the last four years, as finalists in their annual Hearst competition. “Over The Rainbow” is one of these.
Most days I worked 2-4 hours, mornings. I’d previously tried my hand at a few short forms: haiku, Wisconsin justified poems, and a form of my own devising, the Threesome. I also had a few sonnets to my credit. Before that, I’d only written free verse from age 16 to 40. Short lyrics and narratives, long skinny Bukowski-ish stuff. Not only were the Abecedariums a challenge as forms, but I’d never written poems that long before. They forced me to develop my ideas more fully, since I had to fill 26 lines of ten syllables.
The form encourages you to make wider than normal conceptual / associative leaps between images, ideas, objects. Writing Abecedariums helped my free verse grow, making it more liable to draw fresh, surprising connections.
I used a frame when writing these, writing the letters starting (and ending, if a double) each line down the side of a few pieces of paper. Then I’d string my narrative / concept into the format. I never started “cold” but always had a suitable length of material to shape into the form. The surprises start when trying to fit / shape an idea into the form. Be willing to follow sudden turns suggested by a forced word choice. There’ll be plenty.
The form encourages fast-moving poems. Read the dictionary and compile lists of words for future use. Words starting with j, k and q are hard. Words ending in j or q are really hard. Like in a sestina, creative fudging is allowed, and actually smiled upon. Use “oblique” for a line ending in q. Sounds can be used in place of letters, like “mage” for a line ending with j. “Bee” can be used for a b ending line, or “cue” or “queue” for a line that ends in q. Hyphenation of words at normal breaking points is allowed. One or two per poem is great and adds variety.
Dodge hodge-podge. It’s easy to end up doing a disjointed laundry list that does little more than hit all the alphabetic bases.
All the abecedariums I’ve seen published, with the exception of Karl Elder's, have random numbers of syllables per line, including some excellent ones by Matthea Harvey in her book Modern Life.
To last year’s nest among the withered woodbine leaves
in bleak November the female cardinal returns alone.
The woman in this mirror is not me
who peers with disbelief. Who is this crone?
Receding shorelines yield to endless roiling seas;
eroding dunes give up their store of shell and bone.
The youth in this photograph is not the man who once loved me,
not he whose ashes lie beneath this spruce and graven stone.
Oh, ghazal master, oh, Shahid! Teach this ignorant me
to find the words, to speak all Autumn’s sadness in one poem!
—Barb Cranford (Previously published in Free Verse)
The ghazal is a Persian verse form that goes back to the seventh century. The Persian Hafiz (1325-1389), the German Goethe, and the Spanish Lorca were poets we associate with the form. More recently William Stafford, Adrienne Rich, James Harrison and the bilingual Kasimiri, Agha Shahid Ali (1949-2001), composed ghazals in English.
A ghazal has an undertone of love, longing and loss. Classically, mysticism permeated it as well, and it could be read on more than one level, the highest having to do with reunion with the Infinite.
Ghazals are composed of from five to twelve long-lined couplets, each one seemingly unconnected to the others, reflecting the nonlinear logic of the Middle East. Each verse must be a complete thought able to stand alone.
Repetition plays a part in the ghazal. The same word or phrase may appear in all the verses, or each verse may end with the same word or name. The poet’s name, or the being he is honoring, may appear in the last verse, or even in every verse.
Rhyme or near-rhyme is often used but is not necessary. A common rhyme scheme is aa ba ca da ea (or aa).
Today any subject may inhabit a ghazal. They still are not easy to write, but being freed from sequential logic is liberating; images can proliferate; one lets one’s fancy wander. For me working to a longer than usual line is challenging.
“Ghazal for Autumn” has a simple rhyme scheme that helps tie the verses together. The grief of the cardinal, the sadness of a long marriage ending in death, the losses of age—something of all these echoes in any autumn. In closing I try to pay homage to the poet Agha Shahid Ali.
As one who has experienced first-hand Japanese culture for twenty-some months in succession, I’m not sure I or any Westerner is blessed with the perspective necessary in order to be able to write genuine haiku. In fact, following my stay—courtesy of Uncle Sam—I used to write rejection letters as the editor of Seems which rather arrogantly expressed my doubt. Then one day it hit me: while I might not be able to capture the true spirit of haiku, who’s to say a poet on this side of the Pacific can’t write poems containing 17 syllables? I suppose you might call my pitiful epiphany a turning point in my career in that I’ve since composed scores of 17 syllable poems (yes, in three lines of five and seven and five syllables)—almost all bearing a title, which is a no-no to a master practitioner of haiku, of course. On the other hand, I wonder if it’s reasonable to think that a Japanese poet could make what I make in English. My good fortune at having had over the years a couple dozen native speakers of Japanese in my poetry writing courses (Lakeland has a 2-year associate of arts degree program in Tokyo from which native speakers of Japanese often transfer to Wisconsin to complete a bachelor’s degree) reinforces my doubt—not that those students can’t write in English (many have been remarkable); it’s just that the idioms that surface in their poems lend the work the indelible mark of the rising sun. Ask a Japanese student what the rooster says or what the pig says or what the cow says, for example, and, upon hearing a response, you’re liable to conclude for the moment that—rather than different continents—you were reared on different planets.
Edsel sales then none.
What a playground I found, fooling around with USPS abbreviations, the result of which became The Geocryptogrammatist’s Pocket Compendium of the United States—MI an example of the equipment (in this case a kind of teeter-totter, like others of my brand of haiku had morphed into: fulcrum in the form of the colon flanked by two sides) which (I was startled in the act of realization), is also the abbreviation of myocardial infarction, the first word of the term—as luck would have it—a five-syllable pun: My ol’ car deal, as well as the symbol in Roman numerals of 1,001. I was doubly sure in the act of composition that I had something in hand when I perceived the sight rime: the letter l and the numeral 1, leading me nearly ineluctably to round-off the piece with none—one fortuitously imbedded within. I dare say there were and are more delicious discoveries in the remaining 49 abbreviations.
“Even in vain, care—
do a kind deed. Never in vain
did one care or die”—
a dare in a koan vein. I arrive
in drained and kindred accord—
door near, creed ajar
and I never revive a one.
Do a kind deed—odd nerve
reckoned in a driven voice:
I did care. I do care. I do.
—Mark Zimmermann (Previously in The Vocabula Review, an online journal)
Lipograms deliberately exclude one or more letters of the alphabet. I hope to put the lipogram on the map of English language poetry. Impersonations is my 70-poem manuscript of lipogrammatic work (more than a dozen have been published so far). The poems in it are first-person narratives spoken by the historical or literary figure or character whose name gives a poem its title, narrator/subject, and the basis for determining the lipogrammatic constraint itself, i.e., only letters appearing in a figure’s name may be used in a poem. “Grigory Rasputin,” for example, uses only a-g-i-n-o-p-r-s-t-u-y; “Moby Dick” uses only b-c-d-i-k-m-o-y, and so forth.
A common question about lipograms is: Why in the world would anyone ever want to write this way? It’s a good question.
As a writer, working within the boundaries of this constraint offers me a kind of freedom wherein my relationship to the English language is greatly altered; I am forced to change the way I usually think and write. For one thing, I cannot start with words. There is only a group of letters from the title subject’s name. And because I rarely use a name with more than twelve different letters in it (I want to use less than half the alphabet), huge swaths of the language are automatically out of bounds. In the case of writing sonnets, quatrains, couplets and sestinas within a lipogrammatic constraint, the change is further intensified. When things work out, I end up with something I can use.
Because I have spent nearly half my adult life living in places where English is not the first language, I have become familiar with situations where, especially during my first years in Japan, much of what I said, wrote, or tried to understand in everyday life was subject to severe constraints. With time and language study those constraints eased, but the severity of the initial experiences— incomprehension, de facto silence, illiteracy—remains vivid. (Sometimes this makes for rather fond memories as I was also free from all the external blah and buzz of the daily routine: ads, gossip, trivia etc.) Anyway, not long after leaving Japan I began to think: Why not try something analogous to those experiences through writing in my native language? The time was right so I decided to make an attempt to work with (and through) the opportunities and obstacles posed by the lipogram.
Early on, however, I figured out that I didn’t want to write lipograms solely for the sake of exploring the form itself. In making each poem I’ve tried to fuse content to form/constraint in a manner that conveys something intrinsic to each individual subject’s life. This lends the manuscript as a whole thematic, stylistic and narrative unity channeled through a wide variety of voices, or at least I hope it does.
In a sense, one that I don’t pretend to completely understand, writing these poems also provided numerous moments when I felt as if the language derived from the letters of a person’s name was a portal of sorts to that person’s inner life—a portal that, while distinct from that inner life, is personal, intimate, and open to those who would like to explore, through poetry, how a person’s name can yield language that reflects on their individual identity and life and, by extension, ours.
A number of book-length lipogrammatic writings exist. Best-known among them are, not surprisingly, two novels that exclude the most common letter of the alphabet, e: Ernest Vincent Wright's Gadsby (1939) and La Disparition (1969) by Georges Perec, the latter translated from French into the English A Void by Gilbert Adair (a thanklessly insane and wonderful task, if you ask me). More recent is the novel Ella Minnow Pea (2001) by Mark Dunn and the univocal prose poem sequence by Christian Bok, Eunoia (2001). Walter Abish's Alphabetical Africa (1974) is another classic of this odd form.
A Paradelle for Donald Rumsfeld
Another car bomb goes off in Iraq.
Another car bomb goes off in Iraq.
Don Rumsfeld shakes his head and smiles: stuff happens.
Don Rumsfeld shakes his head and smiles: stuff happens.
Another Rumsfeld goes off in Iraq.
Don car bomb shakes his head and smiles: stuff happens.
George Bush is busy with strategery.
George Bush is busy with strategery.
The last preemptive strike was no success.
The last preemptive strike was no success.
The last George Bush is busy, no success
with strategery. Was preemptive strike
the only option in the face of 9/11?
The only option in the face of 9/11
an unnecessary war? Chaos? Thousands dead?
An unnecessary war. Chaos. Thousands dead.
The face of chaos, the only dead option:
thousands in an unnecessary 9/11 war.
Was (is?) George Bush the only option?
Off in busy Iraq, the dead thousands
face Don Rumsfeld. Chaos smiles and shakes
his stuff. An unnecessary last car bomb
of preemptive strategery goes with another strike.
No success happens in the 9/11 war.
—Ron Wallace (originally appeared on-line at WhyweareinIraq.com)
"The paradelle is one of the more demanding French fixed forms, first appearing in the langue d’oc love poetry of the eleventh century. It is a poem of four six-line stanzas in which the first and second lines, as well as the third and fourth lines of the first three stanzas must be identical. The fifth and sixth lines, which traditionally resolve these stanzas, must use all the words from the preceding lines and only those words. Similarly, the final stanza must use every word from all the preceding stanzas and only those words." Or so wrote Billy Collins in a tongue in cheek footnote to his poem, “Paradelle for Susan,” from his 1998 book, Picnic Lightning. Actually, Collins’ paradelle was the first appearance of the form anywhere, a parody of the rigid requirements of traditional formal verse. One reviewer, mistaking the form for an actual historical one, criticized the poem for its infelicitous inadequacy. But readers in on the joke took up the challenge and paradelles began to appear from poets around the country. Eventually these were collected in the anthology, The Paradelle, edited by Theresa M. Welford.
I’ve spent a ridiculous amount of time working in this ridiculous form and have produced a passel of them, some of which I actually like. It’s a form for all those who are enamored of crossword puzzles; word games; and, well, poetry.
The Giant’s Lunch Pail
Think of the prose poem as a box, perhaps the lunch box Dad brought home from work.
It’s a pirate chest out of an attic cluttered with old leather carcasses. The lid creaks on heavy hinges, a sound that maroons you in the back corner of a daydream. Inside, a tiny limestone cave where bloodstains catch in wadded waxed paper. Trails etched on thermos corks wind deeper into the cave. A faint sound of water splashes rocks. Light quivers. Mysterious smells—where else are you but inside a treasure trove? Nests of moss with furry skitterings. Rotting planks, flat rocks where snakes wait to startle you and stop your heart with their shivering. Will you find your way out? The paper scraps offer tantalizing clues. Their faded lines jumble into ancient charts guarded by toads you open and crumple again. They sound like the voices of whispering grandparents.
—David Steingass, published in Verse Wisconsin Online #102 (Spring 2010)
It was maybe six years ago when I started to have drafts of poems that were harder and harder to put into lines. I wanted lineated poems, but nothing I tried formally was working. So I looked around and said to myself, well, a lot of people are writing something like prose poems… and I started to play around with the new form. Just naturally, the sentences occurred. It fell into place.
But I thought it wasn’t enough to write a paragraph—anything is a paragraph. So I started really investigating prose poetry, reading a lot. The more I read, the more I played around. And a couple of other wonderful things happened. First, I got the idea of trying to work with a real long line that was still a line, like Sherwood Anderson, or the real long Walt Whitman lines. Lines that wrap around, but are still lines. Out of those long, long lines came the book length poem of mine, Great Plains. I had been working on that for twenty years, and I just couldn’t get the lines right until I started reading prose poems. That book never would have happened if I hadn’t started to work with prose poems.
Originally for me in all this there was that kind of play-off, a trade off back and forth: in a weird way, I learned a lot about line breaks and lineated poems from working with prose. Really exciting. Then this also started to border on flash fiction. I started to find out about that at the same time. It seems to me the real difference between flash fiction and prose poems is that a piece of flash fiction almost has to include narrative, whereas prose poems focus primarily on imagery. A prose poem retains its lyric possibilities, its craziness, all the wildness of poetry, and flash fiction is much more geared to narrative. A story gets told in flash fiction. In prose poems maybe not. The more of these that get written, the more fiction and poems are starting to blend. Why worry about genre? It gets really exciting when it gets blurry. In a weird way, it has a lot to do with us, with contemporary living, where we are. So many things are blended, so many things are cross-over. I really like this idea of flash fiction, long prose poems, I just think they have a lot to do with where we are in 2010. Who we are. And so often prose poems are among the best of what writers are writing now.
I swing into you,
a surprise attack of fist.
Skin connecting skin.
I chip her tooth
I break you open
for breaking me wide open.
from your back
I eat it
Do you feel me wind through you?
Know me as tapeworm, hunger.
her first orange
—Cathryn Cofell & Michael Kriesel
Frankly, I was surprised at how well our rengay turned out. I don’t typically write in form and I was nervous about starting up a new collaboration with an old friend; I’ve done a lot of collaborative work before but always with Karla Huston, with whom I’ve developed a real trust and a special voice. If writing with Michael went south, I didn’t want the friendship to go with it. Ironically, I think the form is what pulled us through this. The structure eliminated any questions about who wrote or revised what or the length of the poem. I liked the free fall feeling of Eat Me, including the title (not mine). When I wrote the first haiku, I had a very different expectation of where this poem would go, but Michael’s choices continued to surprise and twist me as they unfolded on my computer screen. Definitely not lines I would have chosen, but that’s what makes this form so wonderful and the end product so delightfully unexpected. This was a gift I hope to keep opening.
wanting to hate niagara falls
it’s not the tourists, gauche in their day-glo
apparel; nor ontario with its better view;
rather, the same dumb story of how gravity chews
through everything. bridal veil falls throws rainbows
away like cheap streamers, like old haloes
the angels kick around. you get the gist.
for twelve dollars, we rode the maid of the mist,
where the air is so loud and swirled it may blow
your hat off. but the boat hung in the rage like a bird.
it’s easy to yearn to be captain, the head honcho
of your heart, engines churning vainly toward land.
—no way. the man in the barrel has the word
edgewise. in a photo, i’m dopey in my blue poncho
but i’m happy!: just look how i’m holding her hand.
—B.J. Best from State Sonnets (sunnyoutside, 2009)
For a long time, I was leery of sonnets. They seemed old-fashioned and stuffy, and were shackled with technical constraints. Then I was introduced to several current writers in the form, particularly in a class about Irish poetry: Muldoon, Heaney, Kavanagh, McGuckian. Those poets first showed me what a sonnet might look like in the twenty-first century—flexible rhymes and playful, contemporary language. The first few sonnets I wrote, however, were atrocious. Slowly, I grew to understand the constraints as generative—how can I best make a poem fit in this box?—as well as the pure pleasure of a good rhyme. What appeals to me most about the sonnet, though, is its built-in rhetoric. In the Shakespearean form, the poet considers three aspects of a situation and then delivers a biting couplet at the end. In the Italian form, the poet presents an eight-line problem followed by a six-line resolution. These templates dictate the content of the poem to some extent, but they do so by allowing the poet to see beforehand where clear moves need to be made. After writing enough of them, you begin to think sonnetwise.
In 2009, I published State Sonnets (sunnyoutside), a collection of sonnets about different U.S. states. I thought the sonnet form would work well for this project, being the perfect size for a postcard-poem. “wanting to hate niagara falls” is an Italian sonnet (although I always forgo the requirement of iambic pentameter, due to impatience, incompetence, or both). The challenge in the Italian sonnet is the rhyme scheme—abbaabba cdecde—since there are only two rhyme sounds in the octave. I wrote the first two lines more or less as they appear, then realized I needed to come up with a two-syllable rhyme to match “day-glo” in three places. This, for me, is where the generative part of the form kicks in. I probably would have never considered comparing the perma-rainbows at the falls to old haloes, but I’m pleased with that simile. Likewise, although “view” is an easier word to rhyme, a free verse poem may not have led me to the idea that “gravity chews / through everything,” which I believe is also apt. (I did cheat by adding a third rhyme sound—gist/mist—into the octave, but I knew the poem needed to name the boat.) I like the problem and solution the poem sets up (first stanza: power/control of the falls and the boat; second stanza: perceived lack of power/control by the speaker), although I also cheat by breaking after the ninth line rather than the eighth. The final line even feels like it borrows a bit of Shakespearean closure and surprise—I never have compunctions about mixing or combining Shakespearean and Italian elements, or bending the rules of either form, depending on what the poem demands. Looking at this final draft, I’m pleased with how unified this poem is, although very little of that was conscious on my part. I was just trying to fill the box, and its structure kept me focused while still offering enough room to discuss the subject.
To the Mother of a Dead Marine
Your boy once touched me, yes. I knew you knew
when your wet, reddened gaze drilled into me,
groped through my clothes for signs, some residue
of him—some lusciousness of mine that he
had craved, that might have driven his desire
for things perilous, poisonous, out-of-bounds.
Could I have been the beast he rode to war?
The battle mounted in his sleep, the rounds
of ammunition draped like unblown blossoms
round his neck? Could I have somehow flung
myself against the wall of his obsessions,
leaving spells and curses on his tongue?
Your fingers tighten, ready to engage
the delicate hair-trigger of your rage.
—Marilyn Taylor (originally in Smartish Pace, then later in Wheelhouse)
I write a great many sonnets, in part because it's my favorite form to read—short and highly concentrated, usually loaded with attitude—and my favorite to write, as well. To borrow a phrase from the wonderful contemporary formalist poet, Rhina Espaillat: "I like to dance in a box." In other words, the sonnet's 14 line limit, its metrical conventions, and its strict rhyme scheme—restrictions that make some poets go completely nuts—have the opposite effect on me. I find that when the form forces me to find the words that will fit these requirements (more or less), the result, 99.9% of the time, is a vastly better poem. The sonnet form also has the distinct advantage of taking care of the matter of closure. With an English sonnet, the ending couplet provides an enormous head start on a boffo ending—it's built right in. And in the Italian sonnet, the poet gets to fool around at the end by shuffling three rhymes, which can result in some very unexpected, satisfying pairings.
I'd be remiss if I didn't add that sonnets, in all honesty, tend to require that the poet have a very good ear for meter. It's also pretty essential that he or she know how to play with it, how to use it as a flexible grid over contemporary language— the language we actually use right now. No "alas and alack" allowed; no "thee" and "thou," and no strange syntax, like "To the forest softly I did go."
This poem is based very loosely on autobiography. I did briefly date a classmate at UW-Madison who was later killed in Viet Nam, I did meet his mother a year or two later, and it did make me very uncomfortable (although she was very gracious, not angry at all). But this idea of writing about the tense interplay between two women who loved the same dead soldier—the mother and the girlfriend—struck me as being full of dramatic possibility, and might be played out perfectly in a sonnet's 14 lines. I decided to use some of the vocabulary of war—drilled, battle, ammunition, hair-trigger, etc.—to suggest, metaphorically, the smaller war between the two women. Finally, the closing couplet came like a gift. I wanted to use "rage," and suddenly I found "engage," as well. The battle was won.
Moths Mail The House
Every light’s on I’m drinking and writing all night
tan moths cover the black windows like crooked stamps
all the windows are covered with dozens of moths
like blank stamps dozens of moths mail the house
—Michael Kriesel, from Moths Mail the House (sunnyoutside, 2009)
The Threesome is another new Wisconsin form, which I devised. Like the Wisconsin Justified Poem (see below), the Threesome is short and dramatic, capable of being rendered singly or strung together in narrative arcs. Both forms are character driven, with movement important, and both strive to reach an audience. The two forms have a lot in common.
But while the WJP is spare, the Threesome is downright minimalist. The WJP is a great vehicle for regionalism. Not so with the Threesome, which is more concerned with breaking, and re-forming, our perception of time. "Moths Mail The House" can be read both vertically and horizontally.
A Threesome consists of multiple camera shots of a moment or situation. Aside from video, other influences are haiku and crossword puzzles. Punctuation’s optional. The form’s layout encourages a minimalist style.
I don’t read my Threesomes when I give a reading. They’re more of an intellectual construct, as opposed to straight narrative, linear forms of poetry. Threesomes work best on the page, especially the more complex ones with multiple interpretations. However, some poets use multiple readers (usually three) to present a Threesome they’ve written—different voices like wind chimes sharing lines and phrases. At present Threesomes (like WJPs) are mostly a Wisconsin phenomenon, though small national journals have been receptive to the form, including 5AM and Rattle.
I like to think the recent developments of Threesomes and Wisconsin Justified Poems are the result (at least in part) of the Wisconsin poetry community’s starting to reach a kind of critical mass. In the last few years it’s snowballed in the number of poets and connections made between them, especially through the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets and Free Verse / Verse Wisconsin magazine.
I’m presently accepting submissions of Threesomes for a tentative anthology.
Submissions may be sent to me at Mkriesel (at) wausau.k12.wi.us
or Michael Kriesel, H16550 State Hwy 52, Aniwa, WI 5408-9618.
Virginia Woolf: Putting Up Words
Letters sent to Vanessa and to Clive:
Pickling thoughts, putting up words, days to save.
Her essence lingers, resounds, rings alive.
Wading through all the deaths she must survive
Mother, Stella, father, Thoby: life's grave.
Letters vented to Vanessa and Clive.
Love Vanessa married Clive; she's deprived.
Lytton lights her mood Bloomsbury conclave.
Her journals simmer, resound, ring alive.
Rooming with Adrian, Leonard arrives.
Reviews, the press, novels: schedules behave.
Letters sent to Vanessa and to Clive.
Madness concerns, rest ordered. Problems thrive.
Nurses, doctors, friends come in caring waves.
Her worries linger, resound. She's alive.
River Ouse flows. Great fears she can't abide.
Good-byes written. They find the last words saved:
Letters sent to Vanessa and to Clive.
Her essence lingers, resounds, rings alive.
(Note: Virginia Woolf kept extensive journals and wrote letters, including letters to her sister Vanessa and brother-in-law Clive.)
From the Academy of American Poets: "The highly structured villanelle is a nineteen-line poem with two repeating rhymes and two refrains. The form is made up of five tercets followed by a quatrain. The first and third lines of the opening tercet are repeated alternately in the last lines of the succeeding stanzas; then in the final stanza, the refrain serves as the poem's two concluding lines. Using capitals for the refrains and lowercase letters for the rhymes, the form could be expressed as: A1 b A2 / a b A1 / a b A2 / a b A1 / a b A2 / a b A1 A2."
I love reading writers' biographies, autobiographies, journals, letters. From this reading, I'm writing exceedingly short biographies in poetic form: a writer's life distilled to 19 lines, for example, with this villanelle about Virginia Woolf. What presumption. I wrote my first villanelle a few years ago in Barb Cranford's poetry workshop. Who could ever duplicate the memorable "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" by Dylan Thomas? I also admire Martha Collins' s villanelle "The Story We Know" and Elizabeth Bishops's "One Art" with the refrain, "The art of losing isn't hard to master." The challenge with this form is in selecting the first stanza since one lives with the lines throughout the poem. Failure is part of the process, or "A failed villanelle isn't hard to master."
While Wisconsin poets have been kissing new life into several traditional forms, brand-new forms have also emerged. One of them is the hard-boiled crime genre under construction by Madison-area poet John Lehman, who published a book of verse noir—Acting Lessons (Parallel Press, 2008). Filled with murky mazes and existential ambushes, the work is in a short form devised by Lehman a few years ago called the Wisconsin justified poem.
Resembling bits of newspaper column, Wisconsin justified poems are defined not only by their form, but also by a noir-ish feel and tone, exploring topics as often rural as they are “inspired” by Wisconsin winters. Their blocky construction, “gives the impression of a rigid form,” Lehman explains, “so that the language within the poem can be casual and conversational . . . more Midwest, and yes, more Wisconsin. They resemble their larger cousin, the prose poem.”
Where the prose poem and the Wisconsin justified poem begin to diverge is in the line breaks and their relationship to sentences. The breaks pull the reader around the corner, only stopping movement when the end of a line corresponds with the end of a sentence. In addition, the lines seldom end with prepositions or articles, but instead with nouns, adverbs, and verbs. As forms go, the rules are few and fluid: conversational style, noir tone, and Wisconsin topics. Keep it short and justify the text.
And, unlike the prose poem, which looks to the essay or story for inspiration, the Wisconsin justified poem draws on film noir for both style and substance. “In a way the noir films were not realistic,” observes Lehman, “but a kind of theatrical romanticizing of the forties. People enjoyed them partially because they were escapist.” That escapism sometimes bleeds into a comic surrealism, as in Lehman’s “The Nut Bread Murders”:
The Nut Bread Murders
A friend sends a loaf of nut bread that’s dense
as a kiln-dried brick. I tell my wife it reminds me
of something my first wife would bake. Is this
a mistake? No, because upon hearing it she
makes me a fluffy coffee cake with a brown-sugar
and chocolate-chip topping, and I deduce there
may be a lesson about women here (how one
can be played against another). So I call my
first wife who asks what the hell I want. Hmmm.
Later, I decide to put her in a novel I’m plotting
as a character out to poison everyone with her
goddamn nut bread while I, the hero, am saved by
a stripper named Brown Sugah. Writing comes fast.
It’s February in Wisconsin and I am going nuts.
—John Lehman, From Acting Lessons (Parallel Press, 2008)
These poems work the way haiku and watercolor do to capture the mood of a place, expressing the way our lives resonate with that of our state. Their informality is suited to the voice of a Wisconsin narrator, the mutterings of someone in a farmhouse kitchen alone, late at night listening to the wind.