Like many of us during lockdown, I looked to literature to try and make sense of the uncertainty around me. I attempted Camus’s The Plague, his famous story about a sea-side Algerian town beset by a mysterious disease. There was Bleak House by Dickens, a social commentary on the ills of Victorian Britain where the streets of London are overwhelmed by “crust upon crust” of muddy excrement. But I couldn’t finish anything. Somehow I couldn’t inhabit the surfaces and atmospheres of these imaginary worlds.
Lockdown caught me in a moment of vulnerability: favouring Netflix, staying in my dressing gown, and with no demarcation between days. My mind was elsewhere, unsure about how long it would last. We were constrained by both real and imaginary parameters: one household, one region, one “bubble”, simultaneously resigned to, and in denial of, what was to come.
I couldn’t write either. I needed something grounded, something fixed. I needed something to connect me to the recognisable. It made me think about the importance of form. Of Dante feeling locked in the beautiful chains by the terza rima—a form of rhyming verse where each tercet (three-line stanza) has an interlocking rhyme scheme. The effect of its chain-rhyme, according to Poetry Foundation, “is both open-ended and conclusive, like moving through a series of interpenetrating rooms or going down a set of winding stairs: you are always travelling forward while looking back.” Lockdown was a feeling of stasis. We were somehow moving forward while also being fixed in time. It felt like a fractured present, a period where nothing and everything happens at once.
In such moments, form becomes an aesthetic container we rely upon to comprehend uncertainty. Formal constraints force us to think in different ways, while connecting us with all that has come before, bringing centuries-old settings and ways of thinking into conversation with the present. This is why poets should attempt all kinds of form and constraints. Experimenting with form forces us to consider the different possibilities of language, possibilities we didn’t even know existed.
Sam Duckor-Jones’s poem “Allemande in G by J.S. Bach” illustrates how form is a construct to make meaning and purpose in the void. The poem, from Duckor-Jones’s new book Party Legend, explores the musical properties of language by mimicking Bach’s famous Allemande in Suite No. 1. The allemande, of course, was a baroque dance. Bach composed many cello suites as “dances”, some of which are now considered to be among the greatest compositions in music.
The sheet music for Bach's Allemande in G arranges the notes of the opening bar as: B GDB AGF# GDEF# GABC. Some of these notes appear as chords, some as whole notes and eighth notes. Some are slurred and some are singular. There are dynamic cues such as loud or quiet. There are also pacing cues for when to slow down or speed up. Duckor-Jones, then, takes a firmly established musical form, the allemande—with all its strict and precise conventions—and transposes these elements into poetry. However, the nonsensical diction brings our attention to the chaos of everyday life, with Bach’s opening bar reading:
Bring! giantdoggybags ... ! Advance gammy franknesses
Such an arrangement creates a unique sense of rhythm and movement for the words on the page. Phrases are repeated and rewritten as we meander through the bizarre monologue of the speaker’s mind:
Bread Doughy grainy decadent bread Good and fresh /
Here Duckor-Jones is able to use a formal structure to challenge the limits of language. The allemande, with all its constraints, gives meaning to the speaker’s unstructured and incoherent rambling. We wouldn’t understand them without it. Yet, rather than serving as a restricting force, the allemande provides a springboard for creation: it gives Duckor-Jones a foundation to experiment with the nonsensical, where sound and imagery can be favoured over sense and logic. The poem ends memorably at bars 16-17, the mid-point of Bach’s allemande:
Glancedismissivelybackwards…at golden fools earning
The final stanza emphasises the cyclical and repetitive nature of music. His speaker ruminates to make sense of the world, repeating their thoughts to themselves, much like the diligent cellist practises their craft over and over. Transposed as an allemande, though, these seemingly meaningless ramblings transport us into a kind of sensory experience. One where life’s uncertainty can be enjoyed in all its playful possibilities, even when our thoughts or feelings are impossible to articulate.
Having failed to achieve his childhood dream of playing for the Black Caps, Tim Grgec now has delusions of becoming a great writer. His first book of poetry, All Tito's Children, is out now with VUP.