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Book Reviews

In Fine Form: The Canadian Book of Form Poetry

by Kate Braid and Sandy Shreve, eds.

While it positions itself as merely “providing insights into the way forms work, as well as offer[ing] ideas and inspiration to writers,” In Fine Form, the new anthology from poet-editors Kate Braid and Sandy Shreve, seems to have a more subversive purpose. Following from the preface by P.K. Page, the book serves as a call to arms, a rallying cry for an embrace of formal poetics (“part of our heritage,” according to Page) against that “upstart,” free verse.

It’s about time.

Braid and Shreve make this point compellingly in their introduction. Citing their experience in assigning formal exercises to their students, Braid and Shreve write, “Ask any parent – constraint can generate freedom.” They go on to describe a recent return to formalism in Canadian poetry, with P.K. Page’s experiments with glosas and John Thompson’s ghazals, for example, inspiring further experimentation and interplay, “a call-and-response within the Canadian poetic tradition.”

In Fine Form is broken down, naturally enough, into the forms themselves. Each chapter begins with a brief overview of the form in question. Oddly, these are arranged alphabetically (ballad, blues, couplet, etc.), rather than following a form-based schema (under such an arrangement, tercet might follow couplet). Although somewhat irritating, this is of relatively minor import.

All of the expected bases – from ballad to haiku, from ghazal to villanelle – are covered, but Braid and Shreve do not restrict themselves to established forms. In Fine Form includes chapters on incantation – described as relying “heavily on rhythmic insistence to create an intensely emotional, mesmerizing effect for magic or ritual purposes,” while being unrestricted as to stanza length, metre, or rhyme scheme – and fugue, a term drawn from choral music to describe “what may well be an emerging poetic form.” Although the taxonomic notion of creating or describing new poetic forms seems at odds with the “heritage” aspect of In Fine Form, it is fully in line with the pro-formalism cheerleading (and, as the editors also note, the included poems were simply too good to leave out).

While nowhere near as detailed or far-ranging as Robin Skelton’s posthumously published The Shapes of Our Singing (a masterful cataloguing of poetic forms from around the world that the editors cite in their introduction), In Fine Form benefits from being restricted to forms in relatively common use in this country, and to drawing examples from the breadth of Canadian poetry. Although there are a number of exemplary historical poets, the volume also gains immeasurably from the decision to put out an open call for submissions. The more than 1,000 poems the editors received allowed them to choose from among the finest new and underrepresented poets in the country.

As a result, the volume becomes not only a specimen book of poetic forms, but a compelling historical cross-section of Canadian poetry and poets. One cannot help but admire a volume in which Robert Service’s warhorse “The Cremation of Sam McGee” shares space with Victoria poet Yvonne Blomer’s delicate and powerful “Landscapes and Home/Ghazal 22.” In this historical context, experimental poets like bp Nichol and Christian Bök emerge as members of historical progression, rather than as outsiders tearing at the walls.

After reading In Fine Form, it’s not hard to imagine a paradigm shift, a cleansing wave of villanelles and glosas and sonnets sweeping the detritus of decades of lazy free verse back into the sea. Mine included.