The Paradox of Free Will

or how I learned to stop worrying and love the form

Brian Kirk

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At school we were fed the standard poems; metre was beaten out with the aid of a wooden rule in martial time as we waited in expectation of the rhyme that would occur at regular intervals. It was safe and reassuring in a way, but it wasn’t real. No one we knew ever spoke like that, or was ever likely to. We were young and wild, but some of us maintained a love for literature despite the best efforts of our teachers. We were sure that we knew better, as the young always are. We talked up the greatness of the moderns, and the older poets we enjoyed privately – Donne, Herbert, Keats and Shelley – they became a guilty pleasure. We read them in the privacy of our rooms, but saved Ginsberg and Bukowski for the bus or train.

When I was young I had the temerity to write poetry whatever way it came to me. It wasn’t good, but it was mine. As a nineteen year old I even had the nerve to stand on stage and read my poems at small gigs around town supporting noisy post punk bands. When I went back to college in my early twenties to study literature I immersed myself in reading poetry regularly again, but the price of doing that was the development of a fear of writing poetry. Over the years I had often yearned to write poems again, but I always resisted the temptation; told myself that I was a prose writer and should stick to stories and novels. But I remained curious, particularly about new poetry. Eventually I got to know some poets and opened my mind to the idea of writing verse again. This was maybe seven or eight years ago. It soon became apparent that contemporary poetry was as varied as any other art form. There were free verse poets, spoken word and performance poets, poets working in traditional forms, and others mixing it, sometimes creating new forms of their own. So I began to read a lot and I tried to keep an open mind. I was looking for a way back in I suppose.

I attended readings from time to time and I was always a little dismayed to hear poets talk about the freedom that comes with structure. I judged it glib, and probably untrue. It smacked of the bondage enthusiast who rattles on euphorically about the profound sense of freedom experienced in being restrained during love-making, an emotional argument used to rationalise the user’s predilection for the kinky.

Freedom was everything, I always thought. Philosophers have pondered the subject of Free Will over the years and while most saw it as a given, it was always limited by certain constraints, whether they be moral, physical, social or economic. We are born free in our democracy and yet there is so much we cannot do. What sort of freedom is that? If you are religious you are immediately constrained by the tenets of your faith’s moral code. Even if you have no moral compass you are still not completely at liberty. If you decide to kill someone, for example, while you may manage to execute the deed, you will be deprived of your own freedom as a result.

As human beings we should be accustomed to the idea of freedom being a provisional state and not an unqualified condition. But as writers we have a tendency to see anything that constrains our freedom to express ourselves as contrary to our artistic calling. Modernism in art and literature is defined by a conscious break with tradition, a breaking down of old forms, and a striving to create something new above all else. Writers like Joyce, Pound and Eliot reflected the perceived failure of Victorian rationality and its associated structures and traditions, and embraced in their styles a fractured, non-linear approach.

So where does that leave us in the post-modern world? In the beginning the world of art was a formless void, but over time structures were developed, ways for creating art that ultimately became a tradition. It was these traditions that modernism was attempting to usurp. The ultimate product of sustained modernism would appear to be a kind of artistic anarchy, but this is not the case as all new art feeds to some extent off what came before it, whether it be through homage or rebellious reaction. The defining element of modernism is its newness; however, every new art work, be it visual or literary, feeds into the canon and becomes part of a new tradition – the establishment – which again must be usurped in the name of modernity.

There appears to be a circularity at work here. The novelist when he starts out with a blank page has limitless possibilities. Once he starts writing he is making a series of decisions about the story he is telling. Each decision he makes leads to another decision and, with each decision he makes, his options get smaller and smaller. There is a necessary diminution inherent in the act of creation. The writer, as he creates, is all the time lessening alternatives in terms of plot line or character delineation – the boy cannot be fat and thin at the same time. Faced with so much freedom at the outset of an enterprise the size of a novel, as the first draft nears completion, the writer finds he has created a kind of strait-jacket for himself as he attempts to finish the work. In the redrafting new ideas can only be accommodated by cutting out large chunks of work. Insertions and accretions to the text become microscopic and require the steadiest of hands so as not to disturb the narrative flow of the whole.

Who made this structure, you might ask. Of course the answer is that the author did. Because without structure there is nothing – even if that structure involves negation, the non-drama of Beckett, the seemingly pointless repetitions and confusions of Kafka.

So there I was trying to write poems again after a hiatus of many years and the blank page was taunting me. I made an act of faith and put words on the page with no particular method in the hope that it might sing a little. And as I did I realised that I was putting form on the void. Every new line I created, all of the white page that glowed around the black type of the words, gave the lie to my freedom of will. Each word I chose, line by line became an ordering and coalescence of my ideas and feelings as they were thought and felt. I was constrained from the first mark I made on the page whether I liked it or not.

Of course I did not see it that way at the time. Each attempt at a poem was a new battleground. I did not consciously bring to the next attempt what I had learned at the last. But over time I saw that certain approaches worked for me. At first it was shorter line lengths with normal prose punctuation used throughout. I began to notice when I flirted with cliché and moved to eliminate it rapidly; I tried to immerse myself in the moment of the poem, hoping that image and metaphor, rhythm and sound would fall into place. A lot of the time they didn’t, and what I was left with was a kind of hybrid animal that was neither fish nor flesh. I learned to revise, again and again; to take the good out and keep it and build something new out of it. I realised slowly that what I was trying to build was a structure. I was creating my own tradition; I was reinventing the wheel.

From time to time I have attended workshops or classes with experienced writers and poets and each time there was one factor common to all. We were set an exercise for the next class which set out clearly defined boundaries in order to give us a sense of focus and in order to make us apply certain methods or approaches in our writing. What this taught me was that the spur to creativity is not in pure freedom, but in the restriction by the imposition of form.

About three years ago I started re-reading the poems we read in school all over again. I think I was secretly afraid of metre and form back in my school days and not much helped by teachers who did not love literature. Now with my open palm I beat the rhythm out on the table top; ti-tum, ti-tum, ti-tum, ti-tum, ti-tum – the iambic pentameter of Shakespeare’s sonnets.

            “When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes

            I all alone beweep my outcast state...”

                                                                Shakespeare, Sonnet No.29

I started to examine rhyming poems in detail, reading them aloud, hearing how the rhymes kissed and turned the poem around and in on itself creating further layers beyond the mere sense of the words.

            “Dear is the memory of our wedded lives,

            And dear the last embraces of our wives

            And their warm tears: but all hath suffer’d change;

            For surely now our household hearths are cold:

            Our sons inherit us: our looks are strange...”

                                                                   Tennyson, Choric Song of the Lotos-Eaters

I wrote a sonnet; then another. I wrote a villanelle. All of them were bad of course, but I was learning something new.

I re-read Dylan Thomas, Yeats and Eliot. I saw, for the first time I think, how Eliot used the formal and the free to such effect in The Waste Land, how Thomas created his own forms when he wrote A Refusal To Mourn.

After a while I learned that writing a formal poem was no different to writing any other poem; after the initial heat of composition each benefited from being left to sit and stew. And after a sufficient period of time there is no poem-in-progress that does not benefit from more and more revision. Sometimes the formal sonnet or villanelle gave way and created its own new and freer form. At other times the poem gave nothing more and was put away out of sight for good. But there were other times again, when I persevered within the form and the poem took on a new and subtler sense that I had not envisioned at the outset. This is what the poet and the artist strives for; the magic of creation, the moment of transcendence that arrives unannounced and leaves before you can know anything about it. There is a sense that the poem arrived by itself and you had very little to do with it at all.

The more difficult the form, the more peculiar and astounding the results obtained by twisting the language and rhythm to fit the metre. Sestina are particularly difficult for the poet; when they sing they have an essence far beyond the words and sense that make them up, but when the fail they fail spectacularly! No poet should ever show a failed sestina to anyone.

I often wonder what the function of poetry is. When I think about it, I try to ask the question differently; why does poetry exist, what does it do that other forms of art can’t do? I think that when it succeeds a poem can look, sound and feel beautiful while at the same time, in its concision and brevity, it can speak to us intellectually and emotionally with the forceful immediacy of a shout or a burst of song. It can be clever or loving or satirical or moving, or it can be all these things at once. And the impetus to create begins, paradoxically, with the limitation of choice, the incremental negation of Free Will, and out of this constraint our poor words – these base materials – are transmuted into gold.