Poetics Jeanette Oestermyer

Poetics Jeanette Oestermyer

Will Metrics in Poetry be Reborn?
Try Creating a Personal Nonce Form

The twentieth century saw the inception of free verse as we know it (verse without meter). Yet, the idea that somewhere suspended in space is the perfect shape or form that will fit a particular subject matter. Then, the poet will be a hunter or scientist seeking the hidden form that will reveal a specific truth. As forms that have been used before would not be suitable, and meter, or (heaven forbid) rhyme would be a fake imposition by the poet on unrestricted truth.

So, enter the ‘nonce’ form, defined as a poetic form created for a specific poem, which may become widely used if it catches on and becomes a tool for other poets. Should one of these strange experimental forms gain popularity, it might be given a suitable name of its own and live on. Some of us have probably written a nonce form without realizing it. Some poets use a ‘nonce stanza’ in an otherwise known form. Will we, in the twenty-first century, return to a more metric poetry? I am not speaking of ‘nursery-rhyme’-type poetry, or poetry with a strict boring cadence, but an experimental metric scheme, probably called a nonce.

Poetry has developed on the one hand by using existing patterns, and on the other hand by adapting existing patterns into new patterns. One form that comes to mind is the sestina, a form that is traditionally unrhymed. The form also has a specified set of lines, and the end words of lines in the first stanza are used throughout but are arranged in a strict pattern. Within the last few years, the rhymed sestina has made its debut, and it is a true challenge to write. Some other forms such as the ode, which was originally rhymed, has come to be written in free verse also.

A poet who loves language will often experiment and create a form for a single idea that does not fit into any of the traditional forms. Finding your own form that does justice to your unique ideas and/or words can be quite satisfying. It can enhance the true meaning of your work.

Many readers consider formal metrics a foreboding issue and are hesitant to enter into its precincts. Yet, all poets whose work continues to attract readers, even those who write mainly in free verse, have a deep understanding of the rhythmical qualities of language. The study of meter and form, for its own sake, cannot make anyone into a poet, particularly when that study is mechanical and incompetent.

An insistence that poets conform to supposed rules of poetic composition can be as harmful to poetry as a determination to write with no pattern or purpose whatever. However, a spirit of rhythmic and structural examination might help our poetry flow more exquisitely.

Poet Peter Davison has published several collections of his poems. One such book, Pretending to Be Asleep, was the recipient of the 1972 National Institute of Arts and Letters Award. More recently, Davison has gathered a collection called “Breathing Room,” a cycle of lyric poems in a tone of burnished meditation unlike anything that has come before.

Among the many artful qualities found in the book—its diverse incidents and keen wit—is the deft nonce form that nearly all the poems conform to: twenty-five lines cast in seven tercets and a closing quatrain. These lines are set in a flexible pattern reminiscent of the late poems of William Carlos Williams, although with a wistful medley all their own. One might think this form would be rather constraining, but in this event the effect is quite the opposite. The poems in “Breathing Room” do not sound forced—the analogy is predominant—as natural as breathing. Imagine a form that in its flexible alertness asks to be likened to “the lightfoot/lope of a rapt fox/a red and ragged vixen/absorbed in her intentions/catlike or rather foxlike/in concentration.” These lines present fox and poet entirely in their element, and sustaining a kindred passion of purpose.

Davison begins and ends his book with the following quatrain, as if to relate the tangible action of respiration:

We attain fulfillment only if we carry
the breath of the world
without surrender
or escape.

So, will poets write with more experimentation as regards meter, and consider the nonce form? As I said earlier, your nonce may become a form that will live forever.