Inspiring form

I was very struck by this passage from an interview with Thom Gunn, quoted by Lisa McCabe on Twitter. It’s the most complete statement I’ve seen of something that I imagine will be dimly felt by everyone who tries to write seriously in a technically challenging way. Asked what the constriction of a pre-determined form pressed him (or one) to do, Gunn answered


It presses you to explore the subject. That’s the simple answer. It presses you to explore everything: the subject itself, your reactions to it, to explore language. There’s a fascinating thing that happens with the need to find a rhyme, you sometimes have to list all the words that rhyme and create a context that will be relevant to your subject, be a necessary part of your subject, for the rhyme to occur. And you have to dig so deep into your subject, you have to dig deeper than you would ever have dreamt you would have for a technical need.


Of course this pressure is only felt by people who are serious about both the sense and the form of what they’re writing. It can be evaded by anyone who’s happy to pad their writing with words and phrases that carry little meaning but do satisfy the demands of rhyme or meter.


Among the infinite possible illustrations of the kind of intellectual and imaginative exploration that Gunn talks about, Baudelaire’s marvellous sonnet ‘Sed Non Satiata’ immediately comes to mind. I’ve always been haunted by the lines ‘Quand vers toi mes désirs partent en caravane / Tes yeux sont la citerne ou boivent mes ennuis’ (‘When my desires set off towards you in a caravan, your eyes are the cistern where my boredom / world-weariness / troubles drink(s)’. There’s a kind of explosion in my mind with the plural idea of desires made concrete by the image of a whole chain of camels plodding through the desert, their heads swaying, connected but moving separately. The image swarms with suggestions about the nature of the poet’s desire, about the tedium, oppressiveness and desolation of his life, the intensity of his yearning, but also – with the word ‘partent’ – about the hopefulness of the moment of departure. And I think the packed, rich, hopeful, despairing, exhausted but dynamic image is a fine illustration of the inspiring power of what Gunn describes as ‘the need to create a context that will be relevant to your subject, be a necessary part of your subject, for the rhyme to occur.’ In his fine book Baudelaire and the Poetics of Craft Graham Chesters tells us that by choosing to rhyme on ‘-avane’, rather than just ‘-vane’ or ‘-ane’, Baudelaire forced himself to use the only four French words that do that.


Here’s the whole poem:


Sed non satiata

Bizarre déité, brune comme les nuits,
Au parfum mélangé de musc et de havane,
Oeuvre de quelque obi, le Faust de la savane,
Sorcière au flanc d’ébène, enfant des noirs minuits,

Je préfère au constance, à l’opium, au nuits,
L’élixir de ta bouche où l’amour se pavane;
Quand vers toi mes désirs partent en caravane,
Tes yeux sont la citerne où boivent mes ennuis.

Par ces deux grands yeux noirs, soupiraux de ton âme,
Ô démon sans pitié! verse-moi moins de flamme;
Je ne suis pas le Styx pour t’embrasser neuf fois,

Hélas! et je ne puis, Mégère libertine,
Pour briser ton courage et te mettre aux abois,
Dans l’enfer de ton lit devenir Proserpine!


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