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An experiment in form: Channeling a beat poet

I brought a new poem to my writing group last week. They loved it. Said it was the best poem I’d written.  I was almost embarrassed at the accolades (notice I said “almost”).

The poem was different than the kind of poem I usually write. For one, it was longer—39 lines.  And, the lines themselves were longer than what I normally write.  Plus, it was a sestina (a poetic form of 39 lines with 6 stanzas of six lines each and a tercet of three lines at the end.  In a sestina, the end words of the first stanza are repeated in a certain order through the rest of the poem). Intriguing?  Yes. Easy to do well? Not so much.

So how did I take a difficult poetic form and turn it into my “best poem yet?” I’d written a sestina years ago but it bombed…embarrassing to even look at now. As often happens with sestinas, the end words, as they repeated through the poem, stood out like eagles in a hen house.

With my recent poem, I didn’t intend to write a sestina. In fact, I didn’t intend to write anything. I was watching a movie called Howl, the story of beat poet Allen Ginsburg and his most infamous poem the movie is named after. Howl and Other Poems, was written in 1955 as a performance piece.  Shortly after it was published, the publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti was arrested for disseminating obscene literature.  A much-publicized trial ensured but, in the end, the judge ruled that the poem was not obscene.

Howl, the movie, alternates scenes between James Franco, the actor playing Ginsburg, reading the poem at a local coffee shop, being interviewed about his life, and an animated psychedelic trip through various parts of Howl and Ginsburg’s life—art reflects art reflects life.

Howl was a different poem than Ginsburg’s normal style of tightly, edited lines. At the advice of his mentors to free his voice, he wrote the poem from his heart—he let it flow, he wrote without stopping, without editing. The result is that Part I of the poem is a single run-on sentence that is divided into line lengths only by Ginsburg’s breath.

Howl has a definite rhythm, like a drum beat, created by his repetition of the word “who.” It’s a powerful, hypnotic rhythm that gets under your skin. By the end of the movie, I felt as if I had become the beat. I was in sync with Ginsburg’s musicality. And, I wanted to write.

I wanted to write a long poem so I grabbed my old sestina and started to free write from that. I ignored the form and instead did what Ginsburg did—I wrote without editing, without thinking, I just wrote it out. I accessed that free-flowing side of myself and let the rhythm of Ginsburg’s masterpiece take over. I wrote in sync with his rhythms. I became the beat. For a little while, I became somebody else. Or better yet, I discovered a new part of myself.

I wrote on the same theme as my prior sestina attempt but expanded it, using new words—none of the existing lines or end words were kept. Not only did my writing group like the poem, but I knew I’d succeeded when not one of them (all astute, published poets) noticed it was a sestina. True success with poetic form is when the form becomes invisible.

As writers and artists we look for those moments that bring us beyond ourselves, that help us push our craft beyond its limits. We read books, attend readings, watch good movies, and keep an eye out for those things that make us want to try something new—like channeling a beat poet.

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