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 2 - Form and Its Uses
What does form do? What can form do? And specifically, what can certain poetry forms do for someone, such as I, who's drawn toward an enjoyment and engagement, and is also sensitive in ways–to violence, intensity–that can, at times, limit engagement. My thoughts are subjective but many may be universal. I ask your patience as I slowly uncover my thoughts on what form can do and how I've experienced form through the writing of the poem following.
Into that not good night, do not go
I write to get the bad things out my mind.
1. Form–enjoyable in and of itself.
Not to everyone, certainly, and not each form.
I gravitate toward certain forms, as one who likes, and perhaps needs, fun, easy, enjoyable, playful, provocatively challenging engagement, games.
My paradelles [the poetry form I explored in the first part] were fun, yet in my villanelle , "Into that not good night, do not go," as I trusted what I felt compelled to engage in the moment, I brought forth a decidedly un-fun topic [the Stanford sexual assaults of Emily Doe] along with my truths and observations on the court case.
And yet, isn't form the trick that tells the truth?
2. Poetic forms, like games, or like impairments, impose limitations. Out of limitation can come innovation, solutions.
While I tend towards over-explanation or wordiness in writing poetry, the limitations of the villanelle–only three lines in five of six stanzas, plus mandatory repeated lines–forces the writer, me, to be more succinct.
Yet sometimes limitations can seem too limiting, such as, in the 2nd stanza, 1st line, the line "Though wise men turn the page and read it all" should actually, if sticking strictly to the rules of the form, rhyme with "mind" or "find," but here I made a choice to break form. The line as written worked well for me and I couldn't find a line that rhymed and worked as well. Also, I felt that none but the most pedantic would catch a break in the form or see problem with that. Breaking rules can be healthy in art, especially when done with purpose and not harming anyone.
Additionally, in my experience, when anxious or experiencing sensory overload, I often become overly concerned with rules and what others think of me, in a way that I do not when calm or more at ease. In working with poetry forms, I want to know the forms yet not be overly slavish towards the rules. I want to remain flexible in poetry as in life, in a way that counteracts a certain rigidity I'm prone to when tense.
So in this case, my innovation or rather, solution, was to break form in a slight way, to model a flexibility that makes both my writing and my life more pleasurable, to trust my word choice even if it's "wrong" according to the rules of form.
3. Form, an interruption.
When trying my hand at the poetry form of villanelle, I found that the mandatory repetitions the villanelle required, interrupted my flow. For example, in the second stanza, starting
Though wise men turn the page and read it all,
I begin to set up my difference in comparison to those fully able to engage with extremity in the news. Here, in with this set up, I would ordinarily flow naturally into explaining how I am different, how I, in contrast, cannot "turn the page and read it all." Or to explain how or why I'm unlike those who "seldom seem to break," but the form interrupted my flow, forcing me to put in the line,
I write to get the bad things out my mind.
4. Form, a voice. Form, a silencer.
Form can make you say what you didn't know you wanted to say, such as in the first half of this essay where I explore the form of Paradelle which in a game-like way required me to rearrange certain words. I ended up with, "It's a puzzle, a "Do This" poem./ If a game, if I care, can I write like a stranger reads?" lines I never would have written, but lines that gave me a "new" voice that somehow, in this case, strangely felt right.
Or form can make you not say what you didn't know you wanted to not say. [Apologies for the double negatives; it seemed the best way to say it!]
In my villanelle, I was forced through the form's interruption to not explain myself, but to put in the line, "I write to get the bad things out my mind." My first reaction upon writing/inserting this mandatory line, in lieu of explaining myself, was relief. "Hey, it's out of my hands!" I thought, somewhat giddily. I don't have to disclose or give details? Yay!
5. Form, for ease. Form, for access.
As someone prone to tightening, tension, or overload (sensorily or mentally), to play with and engage in poetic form, provides an enjoyable and necessary levity, a break in tension that allows me access to engagement.
Also, rather ironically, form itself can be fun even if what you are writing isn't. At all. Such as with my villanelle whose violent topic/subject is the polar opposite of "fun."
6. Form, a distance that can enable access.
In grappling with the harsh realities of the subject matter of sexual assault and "slap-on-the-wrist" sentencing, I find myself engaging with Emily Dickinson's famous, "Tell all the Truth but tell it slant." .
While some writers dive right into explicit subject matter, I've found working in form and accepting – as well as struggling with – my limits of engagement, to be ways that I can more truly engage.
Form can paradoxically provide a needed distance that may allow a writer or reader to get closer to the subject. Distancing moves are a way to "tell it," not head-on, but "slant." A few ways I've found form can provide distance while paradoxically enabling engagement or emotional access, I elaborate below.
7. Form, a container for emotion (anger, outrage, sadness, compassion, etc.).Form, a politeness. Form, an understatement.
I look up articles, making sure I've gotten details right. The perpetrator faced a maximum sentence of fourteen years in state prison for the three sexual assaults for which he was accused. The sentence given by the judge: 6 months. Time served: 3 months. ("Here is the Powerful Letter the Stanford Victim Read Aloud to Her Attacker," Buzzfeed News 6.3.16). Besides anger, in the article above, Emily Doe, the victim/survivor of the attacks says she was disappointed with the "gentle" sentence. There's that word "gentle" again. Outrageously, "gentle" given the crimes and lack of doubt, as the perpetrator was caught while committing the assaults. And disappointed? She was not alone.
This case elicited outrage from all over. This is a sentence? Perpetrators getting "misdemeanor" sentences for violent felonies? Who is in collusion? Who's defending whom? The world erupts. Eighteen outraged state legislators, male and female, bipartisan, no less, come together to read Emily Doe's letter in the legislature ("House Members Unite to Read Rape Victim's Letter," NY Times, June 16, 2016.). And of course, the outrage is not just in response to one victim/survivor.
Anyway, something about this villanelle form and being in conversation with Dylan Thomas' more formal language, brought out both a formality as I wrote and an associated understatedness to my lines, an understatedness that sometimes hurt in the degree to which I understated. The "not good" in my title, "Into that not good night, do not go" is a huge understatement in reference to the night of the crimes/assaults on Emily Doe.
Dylan Thomas' poem addresses men and their feelings towards the end of their lives and looking back on their lives. I chose parts of Thomas' lines to begin my lines, changing them to address a very different subject. Riffing off Thomas' lines "Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight/and learned too late they grieved it on its way," I wrote, "Wild men get caught but rarely do get kind/And learn too late their job is not to take." I make a colossal understatement here, using the light term "to take" to refer to major violent felony assaults that carry a 14-year maximum sentence. Understatements that can carry strong emotion in the contrast to the situations to which they refer.In the line, "Wild men get caught but rarely do get kind," I again find myself speaking in a super polite way, contrasting getting "caught" with the rare possibilities of a perpetrator getting "kind," let alone getting a fair sentence, especially in a culture that does not value or protect victims/survivors of crime, and a culture with a "penal" system that has few if any repercussions for a white male college athlete, even one who is actually caught in the act of violent assaults.
In A Little Book on Form: An Exploration Into the Formal Imagination of Poetry, Robert Hass, declares a quality of the villanelle to be "formal hauntedness." While Hass does not elaborate, I can feel the hauntedness in my own villanelle, something creepy or intense that comes from formality, politeness and understatement. Perhaps some of this "formal hauntedness" also comes from the playful rhythm and rhyme that could be said to contrast the dead seriousness of subject, not to mention the incredible lightness of sentencing that seems to have no rhyme or reason.
8. When Things are Bad
Shortly after the 2017 U.S presidential inauguration and huge national and international marches to Resist, a paper on my desk peeks out describing yet another poetry form I'd apparently looked up a few months back. "What is a Triolet anyway?" I ask myself.
A Triolet, an eight-line form, starts with two lines, the third line rhymes with the first, the fourth line is exactly the same as the first, the fifth line also rhymes with the first, the sixth line rhymes with the second, and lines seven and eight are exactly the same as lines one and two.
Responding to the inauguration, I write a series of four triolets, the fourth of which, below, directly addresses form. My triolet again speaks somewhat understatedly, politely, as well a bit abstractly to the inauguration, and mirrors the impulse behind "Into that not good night, do not go," which is an exploration of how form can create a place to more safely both explore and contain the "bad," the overwhelming, or what can inevitably be, for some, "too much."
Form follows desperation
When things are bad, I need a form
"When things are bad, I need a form to contain what cannot be contained." A paradox. How can I contain what cannot be contained–these emotions, this out-of-control unstable leadership, the never-ending cycles and cultures of violence and on and on? Poetry and the formality of form can be a place to speak understatedly but with power.
"And yet we must and must not be restrained" is another paradox I wrote to speak in part to activism–this being an especially critical time to get or stay active. And yet we must be restrained enough to engage effectively, and, while I try to avoid clichés, I'll add, now more than ever. And yet we must not be so restrained that we don't get involved, that we don't take some risk in terms of getting involved, defending and fighting for our and others' rights, equality, healthcare, environment and so much more. And yes, when things are bad, I do need a form to contain what cannot be contained.
* * *
I conclude with two pieces on subjects I feel it is important to address. The first, on my relationship to disability and disclosure. The second, on why I've recently chosen to use a pseudonym. Both pieces proved too hard and sprawling for me to write in prose, as the pieces wanted a more poetic form.
Disclosure of Disability is Fraught or How I come out depends
If you were my future employer:
Why I Pseudonym It
I've been out, out online, it doesn't get easier.
*Part 1 of Khatoon's essay, "Getting Into Form" appeared in the June 2017 issue of Wordgathering.
** Also see Daniel Victor's 12/19/16 NY Times article, "Judge in Stanford Sexual Assault Case Cleared of Misconduct" in which Victor writes in reference to the light-sentencing judge, Aaron Persky, "Would-be jurors in other trials have refused to work with him, prosecutors had him removed from another sexual assault case, and an online petition calling for his impeachment had reached 1.3 million signatures as of Monday." Veronica Rocha's 6/26/17 LA Times article carried the headline, "Judge in Stanford Swimmer Sexual Assault Case Faces Recall Campaign."