Formed From Form

by Matt Gano, The Center School & Ingraham High School

The formalists may argue that spoken word poetry is merely free verse with no structure, and that stylistically it is inferior to more traditional forms but what happens when you hybridize the passion of spoken word with the technicalities of a form poem?  

One of the major ideas that I promote to my students is that a spoken word poem should work in both realms: logical and translatable on the page and accessible and engaging from the stage.  This is the standard we work towards and within that a certain “form” poem has popped its little head right in the middle of our lessons.

The Sestina, with its repetition and 39-line structure lends itself perfectly to the realm of spoken word.  Proposing a complicated form like this to a class of teenage writers most certainly brings out the groans.  I get it though, when I was in school I actively avoided writing in form for fear that it would put my writing in a box, limit my voice, and detract from the flow and (attempts at) originality in my work. However, by taking the structure of the sestina and allowing for a little creative license, my students and I have found that the high form of the 12th century Troubadours can still throw it down.

When teaching sestina I like to show some current examples of how poets use this form but still implement their own style and voice.  My favorite poem to show off is “Santayana The Muralist” by John Murrillo. Murrillo does a great job of re-incarnating his six repeated words all the way through the poem.  He is careful to assign different meaning each time they resurface while also allowing for subtle changes. This creates an awesome example of how to bend the rules.  

Our lesson starts with a brainstorm about a time in which we met someone or witnessed a powerful event that has left a lasting impression.  I have each student make a list of words that correlate with the event.  I encourage them to list as many words as possible that come to mind, (nouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives etc.).  It is from this list that we whittle down to the six words that will be used in our “lexical repetition” as they call it.  When writing the poem I give them permission to take some creative license with their repeated words to enhance variance.  We talk about bending the rules like allowing some of their six words to change as long as they hold similar sounds.  For example, the word “festival” might transform into “fester” or “festivities” or even “pheasant.”  

I have been continuously impressed with the poems that have taken shape from this lesson. I think there is something really empowering about giving a young writer strict parameters then telling them they have license to color outside the lines as long as their intention is clear. We have had some great examples of “spoken word” sestinas and powerful performances from these workshops.  

Here are two great examples from 1st semester Poetry 1 at The Center School.  One stays close to the form, the other is a cool example of using the form but at the same time rebelling against it entirely:  

“Golden Boy” by KS

You should not reap what you do not sow,
else you find yourself encased in iron
cuffs which will sit heavier on your wrists than any crown
you’ve ever worn. You cannot cast them down as a gauntlet
and take that sorrowful oath
to defend others with your sword.

However, you haven’t the strend to lift that sword;
Nor to play the coin you owe
to those that hold you to your oath,
your fealty, which to you, bends like cheap iron
forged by a thin, gaunt
man, while the true masters craft crowns.

A crown
that you haven’t the right to wear when you cannot even strike down a swordsman
as he strips you of you pride in gallant
swings. You do not win fights with the elegance with which women sew,
their own weapons naught but needles; no cast in irons,
but in simple stainless steel, cloth with string more binding than oaths.

You are responsible for your own stunted growth
with that blind devotion to thoughts known to be renown
thoughts that you cannot achieve while cast in iron.
Where is your sword
now? Are those sins you’ve sown
enough to cause you sleepless nights where your dreams have been haunted

It is you, who the ghosts of your past hunt
All for your broken oath
and the wrongful lords you’ve let to overthrow,
infecting our citadel like rust infects old crowns
and rotting ways like thousand year old swords
even when forged in the finest of iron.

You wish to dress yourself ironclad
defenses made to look like gold; gold buckle gold clasp, and even gauntlets
made of gold, gold inlaid with studded silver for your sword
As if the worth of your armor could distract from both
your sullied virtue and that crown
that you wear were made up of such a heavenly glow

that fools would forget that iron is not the gold worthy of buying oaths,
that you cannot throw down a gauntlet in hopes of picking up a crown
and that your sword is of little use for when the seeds are ripe and ready to sow.

“The Art of Learning to Fly” by SA

There’s a secret in flying,
inhaling the absence of oxygen like stories.
Haven’t you ever wondered why it’s so hazy out of the window of an airplane? it’s
because trapped
up there, in between world and space, there is history,
thick clouds of ancestory, the memory of a grandfather,
and the clouds make shapes like headstones.
To pass the time, you’ll need strength.

It looks like a woman, softened and bowing with age, but its name is stength.
White hair flying
and stooped with the weight of a broken back and a headstone
tied to her conscience like the weight of lost generation, stories
of the family that came from her grandfather’s
land that he left for America to build bridges and indelible history.

I dream in green sometimes because it is my history.
A past of thick accents and Catholocism that gives me the strength
of past grandfathers
with arms of steel, pints flying
through air stale with stories
and tales, though ones that always seem to end under headstones.

We talked about headstones
my grandma and I, about history
stories
and pure strength
that depending on how you see it, either rots away beneath them or flies
up into the ageless blue of the sky. A believer my Grandfather.

My grandfather.
We buried him on a Wednesday in the cold, but sill he had no headstone.
My grandma felt sad that he had lived with recognition but lay marked with none,
clipping his flying
white-winged history
scratching out a check for that kind of thing takes a different kind of strength.

We always tell stories.

So many they seem to fill up every level of the skyscraper we keep them in,
story after story, but if you look close, the same face peers out of every window,
my grandfather.
My grandma,
eight aunts
nine uncles
34 cousins
my family, held close by his blue-eyed strength.
I stood up front near the casket after the funeral,
brushing shoulders with my grandma, both of us
rigid like marble headstones,
accepting hugs and pity, listening to people tell
of the times my grandfather gave them a business
loan when no one else held enough trust, bailed them out of jail
or a rough spot, put them through rehad so they could support
their family again. I tucked these echoes of kindness
in the empty gaps between my ribs
so I could be a little closer to his history,
to dying, to flying.

I listen to the stories in my head at night, sometimes, think of the lonely
Lost Nation, Iowa cemetery that my grandpa
once used to cut through on his way to school,
and now conceals his body and displays his headstone
I think about how I walk into a room smell my grandpa’s
cologne and know he’s there for me, that he’ll always be a part of my history,
and will give me strength to live my life
one day look up into the wild expansive blue sky
and shake the dusty darkness out of my own set of wings to fly.

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