Last night, discussing structure and writing with my elder son, I said I couldn’t write w/ too much structure. That writing is — for me — a discovery process. Structure, I told him, can actually kill my ideas.
Later, as I lay in bed half-asleep, I thought about poetry. And realised that what I said was only true of prose (at least for me). I write most easily (and possibly best) when I have the structure of a form. Sonnet, haiku, tanka, lune ~ each draws forth the content to fill the form’s formal structure. They act like scaffolding for my creative process.
Kind of like using the right tools to crack lobster… Sure you can use your hands. But a claw cracker and tiny fork make it soooo much easier.
The more I thought about it, the more I realised: structure is a kind of mindfulness. It’s almost meditative. Certainly it’s contemplative. If I have to fit the inchoate feelings/ images/ thoughts within to a skeletal framework, it’s almost like magic — following the breath to calm. A kind of practice…
I think creativity often responds beautifully to structure. But what seems like structure to one person may be torture to another (my son’s process sounded antithetical to my own), and our own methods may well not even feel like ‘structure,’ they’re so deeply internalised.
Once, at a workshop, I heard the Pulitzer prize-winning poet Henry Taylor talking about his struggle to stay a ‘working poet’ while he fought brain cancer. Taylor said he did clerihews — a form invented at the turn of the 19th century. They were all he could manage, he said. But they did the trick: helping him keep poetically nimble.
When my days are full of scullery duties, or enrapt with my grandson, and poetry seems (even for me) almost too much, I turn to haiku. Haiku are my practice, the way clerihews were Taylor’s. And it’s because of both forms’ structure that they work as practices. The form allows the mind to work on the content, not wondering about things like line breaks. At least, not so much.
Holding Trinidad Gildersleeve,
I’m inclined to disbelieve
That paradise requires death.
It’s in my arms, and drawing breath.