Victoria Lee Khatoon
GO GENTLE: ENGAGING POETIC FORMS TO ACCESS WHAT CANNOT BE CONTAINED, IN CONVERSATION WITH DYLAN THOMAS' "DO NOT GO GENTLE INTO THAT GOOD NIGHT"
Part 1 - Getting Into Form*
Late last year, in bed reading a Writer’s Digest magazine just picked up, a quarter at the library, I find a section, a poetry prompt, a something-century form called the Paradelle (“Poetic Form: Paradelle” by Robert Lee Brewer, Oct. 25, 2010). A simple-enough form, might be worth a try. Reach my right arm over the edge of the bed, grasp any notebook with a blank page, any pen I can stand, and begin. Write one line and repeat.
I can write a poem if it’s like a game, a puzzle.
Easy-peasy. Write another line and repeat.
Do I care if a stranger reads this?
A ridiculous form! Stepping back, I see bluesy-ness in the repetition.
The article instructs, take each word in the original lines above, combine the words, any order, to make two more lines. I re-write the two original lines, reach under bed again for scissors, cut each line into individual words on the blanket across me, arrange the words into two last lines of the stanza.
It’s a puzzle, a “Do This” poem.
I write the rest, two more stanzas, the same way. For the fourth and final stanza, take all the original lines and arrange into six lines, any length.
Writing, an adventure. I’ll try anything once—in writing, anyway. Does writing offer me a certain sense of adventure that oft proves too much in “real life”? Is writing a place I can jump off a cliff figuratively without jumping off a cliff literally? As I edit, I’m not sure why I wrote that. I have no suicidal tendencies, only creative ones.
I look at the article. It turns out, the Paradelle’s actually not an official form, but a sort of joke, a form made up by the poet Billy Collins. The Paradelle is a form that makes fun of other forms, apparently, like the sestina and the villanelle.
So I finish the Paradelle and another and another. Is the Paradelle my gateway drug, or form, rather, to other poetry forms? Next, I get high on Sestinas, each stanza with all the same last words but in varying orders. I try a Pantoum—not for me. In Robert Hass’ A Little Book on Form: An Exploration into the Formal Imagination of Poetry, Hass refers to the Sestina and the Pantoum as “gaming forms.” I realize how much games have guided me. Why else did I join an Improv Troupe, fall into theater, choreography games, dance improv, art, writing? Isn’t it all about the prompt, the game? Give me a game and I will play. I can write a poem if it’s like a game, a puzzle.
I can also hear an old voice in my head, You think it’s all fun and games, don’t you? Some critical adult voice, trying to turn my head toward a kind of seriousness, I was clearly not built for. And yet, aren’t the games I play, the serious ones as well?
But anyway, next I warm up by reading some villanelles, including Dylan Thomas’s vaguely-familiar “Do not go gentle into that good night,” then it’s time to try my own villanelle.
What shall I write about?
Is anything pressing? I take a moment, scan my mind like a woman with a divining rod feeling for water underground. Hm. The water in this case is simmering. Bam! The Stanford assault case has just happened. I, like so many others, are so affected by it, the violence, plus the violence of denial and minimization, plus the incredibly light sentence for the brutality.
I do not want to write about that.
How can I stay informed when I cannot do it? How can I express my outrage when I have only read or heard it in part.
In my years, I have heard too much. I’ve become a woman who must chose carefully what she lets in.
But I’m not the kind of person who can turn my back easily on things, on wrongs. To engage or not to engage, is that the question?
Or is there a door #3?
Nike says, Just do it.
The villanelle’s a six stanza form. The first five stanzas being three lines long, while the sixth stanza is four lines long. In the first stanza, you write the first line, the second line does not rhyme with the first, the third line rhymes with the first line. (ABA).
For the remaining stanzas, the first lines all rhyme with the first line of the first stanza, the second lines all rhyme with the second line in the first stanza and the last (the third) lines alternate between the exact first and third lines of the first stanza. The last stanza ends with third line of the first stanza exactly. The affect, in brief, being a lot of repetition with possibilities for twists of meaning.
Looking at the page of instructions, I begin writing my first villanelle. How can I write a less trigger-y poem about a highly trigger-y subject? How can I write something true to where I am,
I write to get the bad things out my mind.
Simple conversational language. "I write to get the bad things out my mind." Out of my mind, out through my mind, I cannot hold these things.
I expose myself in a way by talking about myself in comparison to someone who can engage without being as harmed by their engagement, someone a bit tougher, more typical. To this person I say, "I know you take on more than I can take." In this statement, I name in contrast what I normally hide. I disclose a sensitivity perhaps universal, although my sensitivity can be intense, can lean towards sensory overload, fight/flight anxiety. But am I also trying to subtly stake a place for people who get floored by what is flooring?
And maybe this is part of the "fresh things I can find," realizing I and people like me need a place in this society, a place for those who process a little differently than the rugged "norm."
Writing on, I riff off Dylan Thomas, in conversation with Thomas, I borrow some of his starting words as prompts once a middle phrase, trying to take my lines in a “fresh” direction. At times, as I write, I hear Dylan’s "Rage, rage" echo under the words I set down. A rage I cannot quite reach.
Into that not good night, do not go
I write to get the bad things out my mind.
*Part 2 of Khatoon's essay will appear in the September 2017 issue of Wordgathering.