Speculative Poetry in Form
edited by Lester Smith
Poetic Formalism, Crunch vs. Fluff
Recently, my friend and fellow Alliterate Monte Cook was part of a game-convention panel about “crunch versus fluff.” “Crunch” is the numbers and mechanics part of game design, “fluff” the mood and setting side. Chess would be a game with lots of “crunch”; World of Darkness roleplaying is more on the “fluff” side, I’d say. Personally, I prefer an intentional balance of both: Chess is about as abstract a game as I’m willing to play; and as much as I like White Wolf’s setting, the game mechanics just feel unfinished.
I’m of a similar mind about poetry. Structure alone can kill a poem. Wasn’t that Keats’ point about the Georgian-period poets, of whom he wrote, “They sway'd about upon a rocking horse / And thought it Pegasus”? But lack of structure can also kill a poem. All too often, free verse, like modern art, just seems lazy and unfinished.
Some years ago, during my own full-time game career, I put together a jigsaw puzzle of a Frank Frazetta painting, Dark Kingdom, for my office. It was quite a learning experience. The image as a whole looks so clear; but when broken into pieces, the lines begin to disappear, and boundaries between one color and the next blur to the point of indistinctiveness
I can’t help but think of that painting whenever I read A. E. Stallings’ “Jigsaw Puzzle.” (My Frazetta puzzle even had a missing piece near one corner, which I had to cleverly disguise with a well-chosen color for the mounting board before framing it and hanging it on my wall.) “Jigsaw Puzzle” chokes me up on every reading. The simple formalistic language, rhythm, and rhyme lull me into tranquility, but with a subtle tension in the words “dizzy” and “absences” and “random.” Then comes stanza four with “fractured world” and that painfully truncated line, “it fell apart.” The sophisticated art behind the simple structure becomes evident.
I’ll leave you to read the rest yourself, if you haven’t already.
Lately I’ve been thinking “Jigsaw Puzzle” is as much about poetry itself as about anything. We poets try to assemble our thoughts and images into some coherent whole, but we’re piecing together a picture larger than we can perceive until it’s finished. As things click into place, however, they grow ever clearer. Eventually we transcend the mess and depict something never seen before
For me, the jigsaw borders are pretty much essential. They build a frame around the rest. They declare, “This is a piece of art, whole and intentional.” So too with poetic forms. Anyone can scribble outside the lines. Drawing something meaningful inside them, something transcendent, that requires talent and attention. Put more simply, formalism keeps us honest
Given that opinion, I was thrilled to be asked to edit this issue of Eye to the Telescope. And equally thrilled at the number and quality of submissions received.