Free Like Form: Thinking about Human Freedom and Poetic Form

I have already admitted that I am not much of a poet, and I have even less right to be thinking about poetry criticism. But allow me to transgress my obvious limits for in a moment and attempt a thought experiment about time and human freedom.

The Form

In a lecture entitled, “Villanelle, Sestina,” by Cambridge scholar, Dr. Fiona Green, she thinks about the interplay between form and content. She chooses two kinds of structure that appear quite restrictive. The sestina is surprisingly precise, a 39-line poem that repeats certain words in an exact pattern. The villanelle is no less rigid in form, investing itself in peculiar repetition of entire lines. I share some examples of each at the end of this post, but it was Dr. Green’s use of a villanelle by William Empson that showed me, for the first time, the great potential this seemingly uncompromising form allows.

It is the pain, it is the pain endures.
Your chemic beauty burned my muscles through.
Poise of my hands reminded me of yours.

What later purge from this deep toxin cures?
What kindness now could the old salve renew?
It is the pain, it is the pain endures.

The infection slept (custom or changes inures)
And when pain’s secondary phase was due
Poise of my hands reminded me of yours.

How safe I felt, whom memory assures,
Rich that your grace safely by heart I knew.
It is the pain, it is the pain endures.

My stare drank deep beauty that still allures.
My heart pumps yet the poison draught of you.
Poise of my hands reminded me of yours.

You are still kind whom the same shape immures.
Kind and beyond adieu. We miss our cue.
It is the pain, it is the pain endures.
Poise of my hands reminded me of yours.

by William Empson

The reader can clearly see the pattern. A villanelle is a 19-line poem of 5 tercets (3-line verses) and a quatrain to close the poem. The ABA rhyme in the 5 tercets is obvious, but note that the 1st and 3rd lines are repeated as the closing line of alternating tercets. They are then each repeated to finish the quatrain. Intriguingly, there are only two rhyming sounds in this poem: words that rhyme with “through” (due, knew, you, cue) and words that rhyme with endures and yours (cures, inures, allures, immures). Quite evidently, in a villanelle as in a sestina, the form is determined.

The Form and the Poet

But does this capture the entire story? Dr. Green suggests not. She argues that to suggest that a poet “uses” a particular form to write a poem is an inadequate way of imagining the process. Which comes first: the form or the content? “It gets harder and harder,” she says, “to distinguish between what it’s about and what it does, between what it says and how it works, between form and content—if ‘content’ is even the right word.” Then Green uses a simple word picture:

“it simply doesn’t work to think of the villanelle as a container on the outside, and the subject matter … carried on the inside.”

Green continues to quote poet Paul Muldoon:

“People think that in a sestina, everything is pre-determined because you have the end words already. But it’s the opposite: nothing is determined. I had no idea what would happen when I wrote that poem. It’s not painting by numbers, it’s stepping out into the dark.”

As a fiction writer, I am fascinated by this claim. In a less integrated way my writing is as much about discovery as it is about execution, and form must always ring authentically with content.

Now, I hope the real poets and critics will see that in my wading into poetic waters, I’ve tethered myself to stronger swimmers. Essentially, Green is arguing that it is as true to say that the poetic form “uses” the poet as it is to say the opposite. While this co-relational idea is worthy of a blog on its own, allow me to co-opt the thesis as a thought experiment for another question entirely.

The Quandary

Humans are, I’m afraid to say, locked in a kind of philosophical quandary—the question of human freedom. For today, let us look at the question of God and time and human free will, and I’ll make the problem my own.

The best words I can use to describe the God I know include phrases like all powerful, all loving, and all knowing. In an Einsteinian sense of space-time that I have not yet grasped, God, if there is one, created “space-time” as other than God’s-self, so God is best understood to be outside of time. I, however, am very much in time, tumbling forward in life at 60 minutes an hour.

From this perspective, God can see my future, what I will do tomorrow morning when I wake up and am faced with the question of whether I will make coffee. Since God can see what I will choose, and because an all-knowing God cannot be wrong, we must ask whether I am really free to choose. If God has foreseen that I will make coffee, it is certain that I will make coffee. If that event is foredetermined, then in what sense am I free to choose it? Can I choose orange juice if I happen to feel like I don’t need coffee? If I do, it either means that God was wrong, or that God knew all along that I would change my mind.

Traditional Ways Through

There are a number of ways through this problem. I think Thomas Aquinas captures it best when he says that God is eternally present, so God is never foreknowing, thus not foredetermining. In the sense that what I am doing now is both free and necessary, God knows what we are doing now. As C.S. Lewis puts it in The Screwtape Letters:

“God doesn’t foresee the humans making their free contributions in a future, but sees them doing so in His unbounded now. And obviously to watch a man doing something is not to make him do it” (Letter XXVII).

screwtape sig c.s. lewisThe simplest way to play out the implication of this idea is to ask the question, “are we free to have done what is done and can’t be changed?” We chose freely, and although that is a past event to us, it is not past to an ever-present God.

I think there are other ways through this question (like Open Theism), and it may be true that we simply don’t understand time. But grant the tension for a moment. It isn’t hard to see the tension between our free will and a determined future that is laid out ahead of us in God’s mind.

Freedom Like Form

I wonder if Dr. Green’s form-content tension offers us an analogy to think about the problem. It is easy to imagine how difficult it would be to write toward a predetermined word (in the case of a sestina) or to shape a thought toward the bounded repetition of whole lines (as in a villenelle). But, if we are to believe the poet, the predetermined structure is actually freeing. Though Green did not include the entire passage, Muldoon goes on to say,

“I’m interested in raising the stakes: in how one can step into the dark. A sestina allows you to raise them in a spectacular form” (Interview with Paul Muldoon by Ruth Padel, published in The Independent, October 2002).

This known-unknown tension is very much, in my mind, like life. While we often think of God as Author and Poet, in this analogy we are the poets, our choices make up the content, and God’s knowledge is the form. The pre-determined is not a limitation to free will.

Perhaps this thought experiment fails, or perhaps we should stick with the greats—Aquinas or Ockham or Lewis. In any case, Muldoon is right about our approach. We step into the dark. The future may be predetermined and our free will is an illusion. Perhaps we do live in a paint-by-numbers universe. Even then, that doesn’t change how we live. We live free, like the poet, and the future “allows” rather than “restricts” in the yes and no of now and then.

Examples of the Form

The following is an example of a villanelle (“Honestly”) and a sestina (“Meditation: Chopin in the Snow”). Higgins’ villanelle demonstrates the surprising nature of the form as the first and third lines combine in the closing quatrain. The question is turned around, as what the model implies in her eyes is evidently lies. The unspoken word that rhymes with rain and stain, if we can imagine it, is “drain”—the dissipation of more than body and yet is bodily in form. The hint of light does not come from the eyes, but the sunrise. Yet the light does not pierce through rain, smoke, or the pre-dawn shades of blue and gray. The night remains throughout the day.

I heard the poet’s sestina “Meditation” in a public reading once, and two things drew me in. First, Higgins plays with the idea of brokenness, changing the repeated word’s form as she encounters the hard, immoveable images of architecture. And then there is the path in the winter wood. Nature is not unmoving like the cathedral, yet not broken like the body. Winter is bent over but not turned in. I’m not sure what to do with Snow Cathedral by Giuliano Maurithe winter, which begins in weeping willows and ends in intricate architecture. Second, as Higgins read her “Meditation,” the repeated words are almost imperceptible. They do not land heavily on the ear, which, as Dr. Green judges, is key to a good sestina and is intricately connected to the content of the poem. In this way, Higgins’ sestina demonstrates Green’s form-content co-relation well, as the content poem also seems to bring light to the form.

“Honestly,” a villanelle by Sørina Higgins
to S.M.B.

What have you been doing with your eyes?
Have you been washing them with acid rain?
The pain behind your irises implies

that touching needles, tells dirty lies,
and breathing smoke is not a funny game.
What have you been doing with your eyes

instead of sleeping normally? Surprise:
you’ve drunk yourself to death. When you’re awake,
the pain behind your irises implies

the nightmare doesn’t dissipate with sunrise.
Do you think poison will not strip your veins?
What have you been doing? With your eyes

wide open, pouring sludge in your insides?
Start gazing at your soul, and see the stain
the pain behind your irises implies.

Though you paint happy colors, I surmise
that blue and gray are your internal shades
The pain behind your irises implies
what you have been doing with your eyes.

“Meditation: Chopin in the Snow” a sestina by Sørina Higgins

I know what a heart feels like when it breaks.
I once knelt in a tiny chapel in the dark, under arched
stained glass, shaken with the kind of weeping
that is as red as the inside of a broken body,
gold as threads of life unraveled, shaped
like shattered windows or unfinished songs. Lovely,

and unendurable. This day is nothing like it: lovely
with a gentle kind of comfort, but the beauty breaks
my heart nevertheless. It doesn’t take much: trees arching
over the path, heavy with sparkling winter, weeping
willows dripping into their own shadows, disembodied
cries of hidden kingfishers—the sounds and shapes

of a late February run stretched out and shaped
by a river. Curling its path to lead to loveliness
unbearable, out into solitude so silent I fear to break
the softness with my double tread. Larch
and lilac, sleeping. The very whiteness makes me weep,
as does the music of my pulse: the beauty of a body

that is young—yet knows the intimations of the body’s
coming age. I would not lose my memory for my shape,
would not exchange ideas for an imaginary love,
yet wonder how the mind goes on in broken
flesh, wonder if a wounded figure feels the archetype
of what it could have been. I should not weep

on such a day for thoughts; yet I am weeping
to the music that I wear close to my body
in my very ears: a study in the colors and shapes
of poignancy. Each stricken note a single tone of beloved
melancholy. I wish I could stop the breakneck
pace of snowflakes: slow them so the gothic architecture

of each microcosm lifts its tiny architraves
and crystal naves against the silent sun and sweeps
the sky with leaded glass. I believe anybody
could pray in a cathedral made of ice or a shapely
sepulcher of frost. If that is so, more lovely
still the vaults and domes of unbreakable

splendor where I will one day break my heart on every archway,
cast my body’s perfect shape in shadows of startling light,
laugh in the heartache of love, and weep tears that hurt no more.

Caduceus by Sorina HigginsSørina Higgins is an American poet, writer, and Inklings scholar. She has appeared as a guest blogger on A Pilgrim in Narnia, and hosts her own blog, Iambic Admonit. Her most recent book of poetry, Caduceus, includes both these poems and is available on Amazon and other online booksellers.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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18 Responses to Free Like Form: Thinking about Human Freedom and Poetic Form

  1. jubilare says:

    Mm… It is an intriguing thought-experiment. The moment, in Lit class, when I realized that poetic form paradoxically feeds creativity, making a kind of freedom with its restrictions, was mind-blowing. I feel like there is something in your thought experiment, but from my view it has less to do with the omnipotence of God and our relationship to time, and more with the moral bounds of the faith.
    My not knowing what God knows means I do not know the form of my future whatsoever. My most recent post is evidence of that. Therefore, if there is a form in time, it has no effect on my own choices, and therefore is unlike a poetic form.
    On the other hand, I know the moral bounds in which I try to operate, just as I know the poetic form of a sonnet. From the outside, those bounds look restrictive. It is not until one steps into them that one realizes that there is infinitely more freedom within the form than without. It’s not a perfect correlation, what thought-experiment is, but I like the metaphor.
    Thank you for starting my brain-motor this morning. I needed it. 😉


  2. I know the form-content correlationality isn’t new (though it grows in me). My thought is not a perfect correlation–hardly even a metaphor.
    I like how you spin it out into new areas, as a thought experiment. But I don’t think they are contradictory. I think our cultures today view “rules” as a kind of evil. Yet, these guidelines give us freedom.


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