A minor confession: I love form. I thought I’d only write free verse. I thought I’d be one of the bull-in-a-china-shop rule breakers of fiction. I thought I’d start each project with a slate clear of the traditions that came before. But the more I read and the more I write, the more I know that form is beautiful and useful – and it’s my secret tool for innovation.
For a long time, literary forms and their limitations were an imposition. I rebelled against rhyme. I shirked the sonnet, vilified the villanelle. I objected to outlines, too. (Who cares if they made life easier? They reminded me of schedules and routines – those despised limiters of my childhood, interrupting the long, open days of summer.) If I followed the rules, if I used traditional form, I was sure I’d be stuck, locked in some stuffy, dust-bunnied room, with outdated decor. I wanted to be a writer, unrestricted, unbound. Free to go anywhere, like the wind.
After more study and practice, I developed a grudging respect for the forms I’d mocked. I recognized that good forms have a purpose, and a tendency. The sonnet, music box-like with its rhythms and revelations, conjures an intimate experience. The villanelle lulls; lines repeat, pull, seduce. After all, even the wind wants something to blow against: leaves, channels of rock, cattails, and blades of grass. How else can it sing?
Form elevates, too, inviting precision and tautness. When making poems or stories, using form can be like stretching words to fit a frame, pulling ideas across lines until they are strong and resonant, like the skin on a drum. Form pushed my writing further. The unnecessary fell away. Muscly words that did twice and three times the work emerged. Eventually, I found my way to more subtle, yielding forms – syllabics underpinning a line of poetry, a fragment of myth whispering up from the molten core of story – hidden, intricate architectures that could help hold the work up, not hold it back.
Forms restrict, but they also invite us to play. The astonishing gift of form is surprise, our unexpected rise to the occasion as we work within the confines imposed. Inside the lines, we improvise and innovate, fiddling until something fresh arrives. Form, then, becomes a doorway to the new. A welcome paradox.
In the last few months, most of us have traded one set of limitations for another. Under stay at home orders, the days, stripped of appointments and engagements, yawned open, while the scenery stayed the same. We’ve seen (or experienced) suffering and loss, but something beautiful has happened, too. Unforgettable demonstrations of creativity have emerged from the limitations – all the sweet, wacky, clever ways that people have dreamed up to stay connected, to encourage and check on each other from a distance. Invented games. Birthday parades. Unexpected reunions. Teleconferencing-propelled collaborations, between unlikely collaborators, that resulted in brilliant performances and artistry. Stripped of airbrushing, pomp and circumstance, many of these productions have looked a little less shiny than we’re used to, but a little more comfortingly real. Maybe it reminds me of childhood: the silly, wild games, the true play of abandon and recombination built from the tools and materials at hand.
As quarantine restrictions lift, routines of normal life will return, but I hope the spirit of innovation and improvisation will persist. When the power goes out, we remember how much we love candlelit dinners, storytelling, and card games. It’s too easy to forget these simple pleasures when the lights come back on.
Here’s a favorite example of quarantine creativity: The Roots, with Jimmy Fallon and Brendon Urie, performing Queen’s Under Pressure (featuring David Bowie). It’s a great cover of a great song and a bafflingly good use of the video conferencing platform. Note, particularly, the genius use of “found-at-home” instruments by The Roots: a reminder that if we want to make music, we will find a way. Most of all, I love the joyfulness of their performance. Here’s proof that in times of stress, we still want to create things together, to delight and encourage one another. It gives me hope.
Noelle Beverly writes poetry and prose, promotes local writers in the surrounding community, and is a member of the BACCA Literary group. Photos by the author.