Ben Shahn on Poetic Form

Perhaps my young friend would never under any circumstances have become a good poet. Perhaps he should have had the drive and persistence to master those forms which have defeated him–I myself think he should. But I wonder whether it was ever made clear to him that all poetic forms have derived from practice; that in the very act of writing poetry he was, however crudely, beginning to create form. I wonder whether it was pointed out to him that form is an instrument, not a tyrant; that whatever measures, rhythms, rhymes or groupings of sounds best suited his own expressive purpose could be turned to form–possibly just his own personal form, but form; and that it too might in time take its place in the awesome hierarchy of poetic devices.

***

But teaching itself is so largely a verbal, a classifying, process that the merely intuitive kinds of knowing, the sensing of things which escape classification, the self-identification with great moods and movements in life and art and letters may be lost or obliterated by academic routine. They are not to be taught but rather absorbed through a way of life in which intensively developed arts play an easy and familiar part. For it is just such inexact knowing that is implicit in the arts.

***

It is this kind of knowing also–the perceptive and intuitive–that is the very essence of an advanced culture. The dactyl and the spondee, the heroic couplet, the strophe and the antistrophe may be valuable and useful forms to the poet; but the meaning of the poem and its intention greatly transcend any such mechanics.

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