KR BlogBlogEthicsLiteratureWriting

Formal Innovation and Stephen Kampa’s “Another Way of Breaking the Pen-tameter”

When I read a new essay like Stephen Kampa’s “Another Way of Breaking the Pen-tameter,” which directly engages with a number of the directions I’ve explored here at the Kenyon Review blog, I’m tempted to revise history and edit past posts to include a link to those new insights and expansions, but it may be more interesting, and it’s certainly more chronologically honest, to put Kampa’s new thinking center stage here in a new post. As I’ve quoted from Robert Frost here in the past:

A poem is best read in the light of all the other poems ever written . . . Progress is not the aim, but circulation. The thing is to get among the poems where they hold each other apart in their places as the stars do.

The same could be said of essays on poetryand perhaps even of blog posts on poetry.

Kampa’s essay appears in Literary Matters 9:3, the current issue of the online journal of the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers. He begins with Joshua Mehigan’s poem “Fire Safety” from his recent book Accepting the Disaster, asking the following question:

Is the poem a sonnet because it sounds and scans like a sonnet, is it a poem in short-lined free-versed couplets because it looks like one, or is it something else altogether?

I referenced Joshua Mehigan’s work in my first blog post for the Kenyon Review (“Technical Difficulty,” April 3, 2015), as I had heard him read just a few weeks before at The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University, where he was generous enough to visit my undergraduate poetry class, in which we were reading Accepting the Disaster. That class was focused on “sound” and poetry, which of course meant plenty of focus on both traditions and innovations in poetic form. While Mehigan’s work is very much engaged with traditions of form, Kampa seems drawn to the same innovations that have drawn me to Mehigan’s poetry (and that make it so fun to teach). His use of form feels like a conversation between the collective and the idiosyncratic personal. His long poem “The Orange Bottle” is an example of a contemporary ballad that I return to again and again in my teaching, and in my thinking here, in the context of both creative writing pedagogy (“Teach This (Part III),” June 29, 2015) and contemporary poetic form (“Ballads of Bottles and Blades,” September 26, 2016).

Kampa continues with another example of Mehigan’s innovative sonnets, “Fanatics,” which “ends with the kind of echo verse perhaps most famously associated with George Herbert.” I spent time with echo verse in “Echoes and Mirrors: Innovation in Conversation: Part III” (February 1, 2017), but (sadly, I now realize) failed to mention Mehigan’s “Fanatics” in that context.

Kampa’s essay focuses on what he calls “disguised form,” distinguishing this formal mode from both “buried formal principles” and poems in which the poem’s “formal nature is so rare as to be hard to identify.” In explaining what he’s not talking about, Kampa’s examples and explications of these second two modes are worth the price of admission. While some might find the depth and breadth of Kampa’s prosodic lexicon daunting (or even off-putting, for those most vigorously detached from “formal” poetry), his return to Pound’s call in “Canto 81” (“To break the pentameter, that was the first heave”) attempts to speak across the formal/free verse continuum in interesting ways.

Having just written a series of “Innovation in Conversation” posts here, I appreciated finding another voice in that conversation, if indirectly. I recommend Kampa’s essay to those interested in what it means to innovate within tradition, what it means to experiment within form.