The Writing, Reading and Critique of Formal and Free Verse Poetry by Donald Zirilli

The Writing, Reading and Critique of Formal and Free Verse Poetry
by Donald Zirilli

My cat is afraid. One can understand why a body would have the quality of fear, but the quality is only useful for real and avoidable dangers. My cat will hurtle himself down a steep, hard flight of stairs because a paper rustled.

Something is wrong here. Something has become disconnected… and the disconnection causes us to imagine what should be, fear as a reasonable response, fear as part of the machine, intended to protect the machine. Conversely, we imagine how else our cat’s mind diverges from its body. We imagine the ghost in the machine.

My cat, approaching because he wants to be touched, departing because he is afraid of my arm, begins circling in a washing machine of indecision, but it’s not really indecision, it’s hyperdecision, some process that has gotten beyond the control of the body.

Think of it, fear and desire, think how useful those qualities could be to a machine that needs to preserve itself. Create desire for what the machine needs. Create fear of what will harm the machine. But then how easily those qualities can spin out of control…

And something NEW spins out, the ghost in the machine, the soul. The intelligence. One wonders, is the subconscious what spins out of the machine, or is it the machine-mind? Is our body the Eden we’ve been tossed out of? (Is our subconscious the seraphim guarding the gates?)

Note that we’re not only talking about the glorious human brain here. This is happening on the cat-level, not to mention the moth fluttering uselessly on a lampshade.


My friend complains to me that nobody is publishing his brilliant, original poetry. It angers me to hear this, not because his poetry isn’t brilliant, but because it is brilliant. Of course no one is publishing it! What an insult to brilliant, original poetry if a catty, insecure editor were to publish it alongside his buddies’ poems!

Such brilliant, original poetry doesn’t deserve the whimpering, whining poet who appears before me. Such brilliant, original poetry posits a brilliant, original poet. Someone suicidal, perhaps. Or anti-Semitic. But not someone seeking the approval of interns!

Poetry, like fear, is an escaped process of a perfect machine.

Now think how much more my own poetry disappoints me, since I don’t get to see the poet at all except in the most internal, scattered, embarrassing way. Yeats doesn’t have the advantage of thinking of Yeats when he reads a Yeats poem, or when he writes it.


My cat is sick. Sickness is the imperfection of the body, the body veering off its course. My cat slinks away from me and coughs pitiably underneath a chair. Nobody is sitting on the chair. So is it still a chair? Is it still a cat? Just think of those claws, those teeth… surely this cat is not being what it is… but then, look at my claws. They’re not claws anymore. They’ve adapted to the precision of human hands. You see? What is changes. When you stop being what is, you eventually become something else.

I’m fat. I’m what is plus 50 pounds. My left knee isn’t what it could be, by which I mean it’s not being what it is.

What is a poem? When Whitman wrote his long lines, that’s what a poem was: lines. And a line was metered. Whitman’s lines weren’t being what they were, which was metered. Eliot and Pound also felt the throb of meter in their free verse. That’s what they were free of!

What is your poem free of? What is the poem you’re not writing, hanging ghost-like over the poem you are? From what course do you diverge? Formalism is a road we drove off a long time ago. The very fact that we call it Formalism and not poetry makes my point.

Writing a sonnet today is problematic. It’s like Paganism. If you’re a Christian, you’re part of an unbroken tradition that goes back over 1500 years. But if you’re a Pagan, you’ve dug up something long buried, or more accurately you’ve drawn a picture of what you imagine you would dig up if a woodchuck could chuck wood… some Roman religion, stolen from the Greeks, interacting with European and Asian tribes in the countrysides of many countries, translated and interpreted by starry-eyed 19th and 20th century intellectuals… all of which the Pagan picks and chooses from, calling his religion ancient because he has seen something ancient and he wants it.

Don’t be a Formalist. Be a poet. Don’t be a Confessionalist. Be a poet. Don’t be Postmodern. Be a poet. The poem is the job you have to do. History is your Home Depot. It arrays before you a multitude of meters, stacks of techniques. The handyman is cursed who falls in love with Aisle Five and shops only there.

Do you hear what I’m saying? In the Cosmos of poetry, you must have no religion.


Writing a poem is an existential struggle. Parts will appear, clearly designed to do things a certain way. You will assemble them, but at the same time you will slip the ghost into the machine.

Anything else is just an exercise. If you write a sonnet because the sonnet is the supreme form of expression, then you’ve already lost. If you write in free verse because you think free verse is a genre and not a dangerous paradox, then you’ve already lost.

Most of us, in most of our poems, are lost. We’re either building machines without ghosts, or breaking our beautiful machines beyond repair.

Surrealist techniques excite me, not because they access the dread subconscious, but because they fight against the terrible templates that hang over every form of expression we have. The genius of the Surrealist skew, the Surrealist randomization, is not in the chaos it creates, but rather inhabits the eyes of the observing artist, who sees the new thing there, who dares to breathe life into it, whether it is an entirely new species, or a cat with a new disease, a new way of not being what it is.


I have another friend who’s not a Formalist. He’s a 19th century French poet drunk on absinthe. He drinks Formalism greenly. Form appears in his struggle with who he is and how he is not who he is. He allows himself to be a fool. He allows himself failure and other darknesses, because this is the business of poetry: an existential masquerade, a ferocious game. To be a poet you must play, and you must play all in while you are playing.

The sonnet worth reading is the sonnet that is not being a sonnet. The poem worth reading is the poem that is not being a poem.

You can’t judge a formal poem by counting its syllables. You can’t judge any poem by judging its writing. Poetry is writing that is not being writing. If you dare to venture into the shaky business of critique, then your first order of shaky business is finding where the poetry is. And I’ll tell you where to look: poetry is where poetry’s not. It’s in the gaps and sluices of expectation and meaning itself. The poem that is being a poem is not a poem. Move on to the poem whose fear or desire has sent it two centimeters to the left of itself. Then stick your red pencil into those two centimeters and pry it open. Put your lips to it and whisper. That is the proper disposition of a critic.

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