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This article is taken from PN Review 151, Volume 29 Number 5, May - June 2003.

Form and Function N.S. Thompson
I. Form and Imagination

A reviewer in these pages recently had this to say about the decline in informal verse:

  • that it no longer serves the metaphysic;

  • that focus on the difficult task of technique takes all a poet's creative energy, leaving little left over for the imagination;

  • that technical facility actually drains the subject of emotional power and complexity.


If not entirely new, these points are well put and merit elaboration and debate, not solely in the light of American New Formalist polemics on rhyme and metre, but more fundamentally with regard to the question of form and what function it may still have for poetry. This also calls into question how we view poetry's function today. Certainly, the experience of history would support the use of form, and many modern practitioners such as Douglas Dunn, Seamus Heaney and Tony Harrison here, and Anthony Hecht, Derek Walcott and Richard Wilbur in the United States have used it very effectively. Indeed, it is debatable whether one can pronounce confidently on the decline of form. Last year, in these same pages, I reviewed James Fenton's An Introduction to English Poetry, which provides an admirable primer in the basics of rhyme and metre, albeit saying virtually nothing about why (or even how) the techniques of formal verse should be used. Presumably both author and publisher thought there would be a market for such a book, or it would not have been written. ...


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