module 3

Module 3: Traditional Design/Dealing with Tradition


In this module you will:

  • understand some common resistances to poetic form and tradition and identify your resistances to (any) poetic tradition
  • be able to identify the remixing others have done with form and envision how you might update forms for your own use
  • articulate the ways in which your theme/subject demands particular forms and responses to specific traditions
  • generate writing toward your theme



  • Using the architectural analogy again, once we move past the building blocks or materials to look at the shape or forms of the things we build, we see a series of design choices, patterns, which hold cultural value based on the ways those patterns give a nod to the past and/or point toward the future.
  • Marilyn Nelson: “Our I say this feeling like a woman wearing an ivory necklace and a mink coat at a national convention of People for Ethical Treatment of Animals. I know, I know: The tradition is the oppressor. The tradition doesn’t include me because I’m black and a woman. If we had a time machine that could whisk us backwards, where in the world, and to what time, would the black woman choose to go? Our history has been excruciating, from enduring genital mutilation to being forced to give birth to a brutal master’s pale new slaves. The history that created the traditional canon has systematically excluded blacks and women, and a whole lot of other groups, from just about every other hierarchy of honor. All those dead white guys in the tradition: when they were alive, their people were the masters, my people were the slaves. How can I read Blake without an awareness of the black-white symbolism by which eighteenth-century Europe justified the hurt it was putting on African and American people? I knew, even as an undergraduate, that my professor was rationalizing when he explained away my question about Blake’s little black boy who says: “I am black, but 0! my soul is white.” His reply—“Oh, no, Marilyn, Blake wasn’t an unconscious racist. Great poets rise above the limitations of their times”—was cowpoop. Like everyone else, poets live first in time, heirs to the racist, sexist, ageist, homophobic, war-mongering, meat-eating, environment-destroying, whale-slaughtering, ivory-coveting, seal-pup-bashing, glorious long-gone and just-yesterday past.”
  • Catherine Wagner: “Form is political and manifests ideology—I believe this. But any form’s politics are contingent and contextual. In certain contexts, a given pattern need not be seen as totalizing, and traditionally patterned forms can carry radical intent, just as the ballad form did for the Romantic poets. I’m not claiming that recent avant-gardes such as the Language poets weren’t aware that the politics of a given form are contingent on its context—but in the aftermath of the Language poets, a rigidifying of style did firmly associate a particular style (or anti-style) with oppositional politics. Arguing against fixed assumptions about the politics of form, the Moscow Conceptualist poet Lev Rubinstein insists that “[t]he problematic of the avant-garde is not resolved on the level of text . . . Literally one and the same text can be either [avant-garde or not] depending on the motives of its creation, on the context of its cultural existence, and, in the end, on its author’s intent.” Rubinstein reminds me that my whole life is a political action and that my poems have meaning in the context of my life and world. Seeing form contextually—understanding, for instance, that, as some have pointed out, “indeterminacy” is our era’s dominant style and can no longer be seen as radical—may encourage more poets to experiment with measure.”
  • Jadyn DeWald: “as counterpoint to this compressed mass a longing consists of prose poems with justified margins. I justify the margins because a jagged right margin looks like a lineated poem, and I don’t want to confuse readers: Are these prose poems, or are they lineated poems with very long lines? The poems remain, however, extremely formal. In addition to the form discussed in the previous question (a chosen word repeated in every sentence of a poem), there are quite a few prose poems in a hybrid form: a chain of unpunctuated, non-lineated haiku whose “lines”—five- or seven-syllable phrases—repeat in the pattern of a pantoum, thus: ‘inside him for years a river of her brown hair floating round organs as he walks silent a river of her brown hair under sulfur lamps as he walks silent his shadow reaches backward under sulfur lamps clutching a moment his shadow reaches backward . . .’ Inspired by the repetition of Steve Reich compositions, I try to make the rhythm of these poems mechanical and hypnotic.”


During class we discussed the prep materials for the first hour, wrote (prompt below) for the second hour, and workshopped the third hour.


Write a rhythmic imitation of John Milton’s sonnet. You can ignore end rhymes, but try to follow the phrasing, stresses, and caesuras in the poem. Please don’t get discouraged if you only make it through a line or so in the 45 minutes we have. It will likely take you some time to think about the phrasing and overall rhythmic movement before you even begin, and even still it will be slow-going. Be patient.


 Here’s a stanza by Vikram Seth

Last night, when from that pitted roadway
I wandered as I dreamt,
The trees were bent, hostile, entangled,
Weeds massed, and grass unkempt,
The house locked, and the only key inside,
So ingress was denied.

Modeled on Yeats’s “The Wild Swans at Coole”

But now they drift on the still water,

Mysterious, beautiful;

Among what rushes will they build,

By what lake’s edge or pool

Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day

To find they have flown away?