How Form and Content Work Together

In this post, GrubStreet Instructor Ben Berman discusses the importance of attending to both form and content when composing and reading poems.

 

 

The other day I asked my eight-year-old what would be the first thing that she would buy if she had her own money. I’m not sure, she said, but it definitely wouldn’t be anything made out of plastic because that’s bad for the earth, and I think I’d want something that would keep me healthy.

 

It was such a virtuous response that it reminded me of why the Romantic poets always associated childhood with purity and thought of youth as Nature’s priests – a sentiment that is perhaps best illustrated in William Blake’s illustrated poem, The Lamb.

                The Lamb

Little Lamb who made thee 

         Dost thou know who made thee 

Gave thee life & bid thee feed. 

By the stream & o'er the mead; 

Gave thee clothing of delight, 

Softest clothing wooly bright; 

Gave thee such a tender voice, 

Making all the vales rejoice! 

         Little Lamb who made thee 

         Dost thou know who made thee 

 

         Little Lamb I'll tell thee, 

         Little Lamb I'll tell thee!

He is called by thy name, 

For he calls himself a Lamb: 

He is meek & he is mild, 

He became a little child: 

I a child & thou a lamb, 

We are called by his name. 

         Little Lamb God bless thee. 

         Little Lamb God bless thee.

 

It makes sense why Blake would include this in a collection called Songs of Innocence, given that it is filled with words such as lamb, life, delight, bright, tender, rejoice, and bless – but I’m more interested, here, in looking at how Blake handles the content of the poem, reinforcing its theme of innocence through its remarkably balanced composition.

 

One way that poets create a sense of order is through music and Blake offers us an even and regular meter running throughout every line. The poem consists of two equal-sized stanzas – each made up of five rhyming couplets – and within each stanza the beginning lines repeat at the end, offering us a sense of closure. This feeling of completion is further reinforced by the structure of the poem with the first stanza posing questions and the second stanza answering them.

 

But we can’t read The Lamb, of course, without also reading The Tyger, a poem that was published as its counterpoint five-years-later in Blake’s Songs of Experience.

 

            The Tyger

Tyger Tyger, burning bright, 

In the forests of the night; 

What immortal hand or eye, 

Could frame thy fearful symmetry? 

 

In what distant deeps or skies. 

Burnt the fire of thine eyes? 

On what wings dare he aspire? 

What the hand, dare seize the fire? 

 

And what shoulder, & what art, 

Could twist the sinews of thy heart? 

And when thy heart began to beat, 

What dread hand? & what dread feet? 

 

What the hammer? what the chain, 

In what furnace was thy brain? 

What the anvil? what dread grasp, 

Dare its deadly terrors clasp! 

 

When the stars threw down their spears 

And water'd heaven with their tears: 

Did he smile his work to see? 

Did he who made the Lamb make thee? 

 

Tyger Tyger burning bright, 

In the forests of the night: 

What immortal hand or eye, 

Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

 

 

The content of this poem is much more troubling than The Lamb – offering us such words as burning, fearful, fire, dread, chain, deadly, and terrors – but I’m again interested, here, in the handling of the content and it’s important to note that the composition of this poem is also quite orderly. We again have a regular meter running throughout each and every line. The poem consists of six equal-sized stanzas – each made up of rhyming couplets – and similar to in The Lamb, Blake uses repeated lines at the beginning and conclusion of the poem.

 

But the best poems offer us a genuinely threatening sense of disorder and an equally convincing order, writes Gregory Orr. The two forces together seek some balance, reconciliation, or resolution. And unlike The Lamb, this poem does not offer us the structural balance of call and response. Instead, like an impatient child, it poses questions, then more questions, then more questions, then more questions, until it spirals into great existential doubt and asks: Did he who made the lamb make thee? And it is this combination of order and chaos that makes The Tyger so compelling. There is symmetry, but it is a fearful symmetry – like the appearance of twins in a horror film.

 

However, while it is Blake’s unanswered questions that unsettle us with great uncertainty, sometimes the answers to questions can be equally disturbing. Like when I turned to my six-year-old and asked her the same question that I’d posed to my older daughter: what would be the first thing you would buy if your had your own money.

 

A tiger, she said without hesitating. A tiger that kills people.

 

And it was not just the content of her response that troubled me, it was the way that she said it in such a sweet angelic voice without any acknowledgement of irony or mischief, as she cuddled with her lovie on the couch – a little white lamb that now looked troublingly limp in her arms.

 

Read more of Ben Berman’s posts on Writing While Parenting, here.

 

 

 

 

 

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About the Author

Ben Berman’s first book, Strange Borderlands, won the 2014 Peace Corps Award for Best Book of Poetry and was a finalist for the Massachusetts Book Awards. His second collection, Figuring in the Figure, came out last year from Able Muse Press.   And his new book, Then Again, is due out in November. He has received awards from the New England Poetry Club and fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and Somerville Arts Council. He teaches at Brookline High School and lives in the Boston area with his wife and two daughters. www.ben-berman.com

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