Forms of Surprise

Posted on Wed, Dec 2 2015 9:00 am by Claire Wahmanholm

“I always want to be surprised. I think that’s what I want from poetry, more than anything, is to be surprised.”
(from “Poetry, Sorrow, and Surprise: A Conversation with Alice Fulton”)

Confession: I am a novelty junkie. Whatever a poem’s other merits may be, I get impatient if surprise isn’t one of them. After all, the world is full of poems—why should I read something I’ve seen before? There isn’t enough time for that. So when I first came across the above quote from Alice Fulton a couple of months ago, it was one of those air-punching yes! yes! moments. We are always gratified when the poets we admire agree with us (even when they don’t know they’re doing so). It tells us that we are right to like what we like. I felt like I could go to parties and say “oh yes well what Alice Fulton and I want more than anything is to be surprised.” And it would be true.

I’ve found that the poems of mine that have met with the most success are those that were experiments, that felt risky and alien. And it’s easy to get addicted to that lurch of strangeness—the same sort of feeling you get when scientists report that the universe is actually much larger than previously imagined. Still, we’ve all fallen into ruts where we recognize that the last five poems we’ve written have been essentially the same poem on five different pages. And while we may be pleased with our imagery in these poems, or with a particularly snappy line, we know we haven’t surprised ourselves. And if we’re not surprised, our readers won’t be. Frost wasn’t wrong when he said “no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”

So how do we stay surprised? Unsurprisingly, the act of reading and the act of writing are inseparable—reading surprising poetry makes it easier to write it. Every time you are surprised by a poem, you inherit the ability to surprise in turn. Every semester, my poetry students hit a point where they’re writing solid, well-crafted poems, but the poems are not particularly interesting. They’ve figured out what their strengths and interests are, and they use them to write the same poem over and over again. When this happens, I like to bring in Aase Berg (something like “In the Guinea Pig Cave” or “In the Horrifying Land of Clay”). The students exhibit a fairly consistent Kubler-Ross-esque progression of reactions that almost always starts with denial/disbelief/bemusement (“she’s pulling our leg”) before moving on to anger (“this is disgusting and I hate it”). Not all students reach the excitement stage (“this is bizarre and I love it”), but the ones who do get on board, who are willing to throw themselves in the way of risk and surprise, end up shaking themselves out of their rut and progressing much more quickly as writers. Put surprise in, get surprise out.

Another way into surprise is via form. This may seem unintuitive, since pattern is, by definition, the opposite of surprise. When I first starting writing, I had all sorts of prejudices about formal poetry. It was fussy, pretentious, corny, archaic, boring, and worst of all, predictable. It took an embarrassingly long time to realize that the best formal poetry is actually none of these things. In fact, form is nothing without surprise and risk and knowing how and when to break the rules. Still, if you don’t have much experience with it, writing in form can be uncomfortable and frustrating. It can feel inauthentic. But (and this is especially true if you write primarily in free verse) form forces you to make different choices than you ordinarily would, and in order to surprise yourself, you occasionally have to let go of the idea that you know best.

When it comes to our own work, we’re not necessarily the experts we think we are—or at least not experts in the way we think we are. Sometimes the best thing is to let go and put our trust in something besides ourselves. This is, in some ways, why we have workshops. It is, in some ways, why we write in form. Because it isn’t as if free verse is ever completely free, either. Even when you’re not writing explicitly formal poetry, your brain is constantly imposing rules/restrictions on you. Your imagination begins to travel along the same track and cut its groove deeper and deeper and suddenly it’s harder and harder to surprise yourself.

Rather than being restrictive, form can actually be freeing. Matthea Harvey has said some fabulous things about form: “I love when form plots out a path you couldn’t have seen before—it’s like suddenly having to maneuver through a room full of laser beams—you’re suddenly doing a dance you couldn’t have invented without those restrictions.”1 She perfectly captures the simultaneous delight and difficulty of writing in form. Yes, the lasers raise the stakes, but ultimately, it’s still fun—you’re dancing, not drudging.

But if you just can’t stomach the idea of writing a sonnet or a triolet, you can always make up your own form. A large chunk of the poems I’ve written over the past year are written in a very simple nonce form: each line must end with a pair of rhymes. The lines can be any length (Twenty words? Cool. Two words? Cool), and the rhymes can be either slant or exact (“First”/“thirst”? Cool. “Silt”/“basalt?” Also cool), but each line must end with that rhymed pair. It’s made my poems look much more dynamic on the page, and it’s changed the rhythm of my sentences (now I use more clauses). And while any form that features rhyme will force you to call on a broader range of words, the additional restriction that the rhymes have to appear right next to each other has made for some wonderfully tricky maneuvering (How do you put “rhizome” and “honeycomb” next to each other in a sentence? Better work it out.)

I doubt that I’ll use this form forever. But, as Harvey says, “I'll keep going with it as long as the results are surprising me.”2

from Wendy Vardaman’s interview of Matthea Harvey in Verse Wisconsin
from “An Interview with Matthea Harvey

Claire Wahmanholm is teaching "Well-Formed: Experimenting with Formal Poetry" and "Preparing Your Poems for Publication" this winter at the Loft. A Twin Cities native, she received her BA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, her MFA in poetry from the Johns Hopkins University, and will receive her PhD in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Utah in 2016. Her poems most recently appear in 32 PoemsThe BoilerWaxwing, and Unsplendid, and are forthcoming from HandsomeTinderbox Poetry JournalThe JournalParcelThe Kenyon Review OnlineBOAAT, Sugared Water, and Third Coast. She is also the managing editor of Quarterly West.