Week Three: Form

This week I want you to think about the container you’re putting your poems in. What does that mean? I mean its shape on the page, how many lines it has, whether it follows a set rhythm or rhyme pattern — that is, the poem’s form.

When people talk about form in poetry, they are often referring to traditional forms that poets have been using for ages — sonnets, sestinas, villanelles, and so on — but every poem has a form, even if it’s written in free verse.

Poets have strong feelings about form. Robert Frost famously snarked that “writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.” The poet Charles Wright is said to have answered that quote by claiming that writing in free verse is more like walking a tightrope with nothing to catch you if you fall. Some poets think that following traditional patterns of rhyme and meter provides the challenge that makes art dazzling; others see this as using a safety net. What do you think?

Look at the poems you’ve been writing in the last couple weeks. What do they look like? Do you tend to write long lines or short lines? Do you start each line at the left margin, or do you break lines across the page? Do you ever use spaces within lines to create a different kind of pause? Look at the ways Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Robin Blaser, Marianne Moore, Brenda Hillman, and Kamau Brathwaite use linebreaks, indents, and internal spaces to achieve different effects.

Do you like how your poems look? Do they “look like poems” to you? What does that mean?

Experiment with form this week. Try writing the same poem in more than one form. For example, take one of the poems you’ve already written, and see what happens if you try to write the “same poem” as a sonnet, or change the length of the lines, either from long to short, or from short to long?

What does this feel like? How do these changes to the shape of the container change the poem itself? Where does the poem stop and the form begin?

Spend some time looking at the poems in your Inspiration Book and pay attention to the forms of these poems. If they all look pretty similar, try to find some poems in the anthology that look very different from the ones you’ve been reading.

So if you’ve mostly copied down Shakespeare’s sonnets, then maybe spend some time with Jerome Rothenberg’s “A Glass Tube Ecstasy” or Hoa Nguyen’s “My Idea of the Circus Is My Idea of the Circus Otherwise Known As: My Mother Was a Celebrated Stunt Motorcyclist, Vietnam, 1958 to 1962.” Even if you don’t find one you love, find one you think is interesting. Maybe even one that makes you mad! (Frustration can be interesting.) Copy it down and see how it feels to make those different poetic moves with your own hand.


Writing Ideas


A list poem is exactly what it sounds like — a poem made out of a list of things. List poems can be fun and yet they can also be deceptive — they look effortless, but the best ones have hidden stories within them. For example, look at Suzanne Buffam’s “Dream Jobs” — on the surface it’s a funny list of impossible jobs that the speaker would love to have, but look more closely and you might start to see anxieties about aging and unfulfilled potential (“Ingenue Emeritus”) and a hint of feeling powerless (“Editorial Dictator in Residence”). The Japanese writer Sei Shonagon (who inspired Suzanne Buffam’s poem “Dream Jobs” and the whole book it appears in, A Pillow Book) made many wonderful lists with titles like, “Infuriating Things”, “Things That Make the Heart Beat Faster”, “Elegant Things”, “Things That Cannot Be Compared”, and “Nothing Can Be Worse”. She was writing 1,000 years ago, and yet her lists bring her lost world of the Heian court into sharp focus. Choose one of these titles (or create your own in the same spirit, like “Things That Make School Tolerable” or “Things I Found on the Street”) and write a list poem to explain your world to people who might read your poem in 1,000 years.


There are several traditional sonnet forms — the Petrarchan sonnet, the Spenserian sonnet, the Shakespearean sonnet, etc. — but I’m also interested in looking at ways poets have referenced the form while ignoring (or changing) the rules. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias” doesn’t follow any of the existing sonnet forms of his day, and Ted Berrigan pushed the envelope further when he published his book The Sonnets, which was full of poems that challenged the boundaries of the form. Even Suzanne Buffam’s list poem “Dream Jobs” references the sonnet by the sheer fact that it is 14 lines long. Read three sonnets: one by Shakespeare, one by Shelley, and one by George Elliott Clarke, and then write a 14-line poem following any pattern that you choose. But even if you don’t use rhyme as part of your poem’s structure, make the last two lines a rhyming couplet. You can use a slant rhyme if you want, which is when you use words that contain the same vowel sound, but end with different consonants. An example of this is the last two lines of Ted Berrigan’s “Hall of Mirrors” (though not itself a sonnet): “Now it’s yours & now it’s yours & mine. / We’ll have another look, another time.”


From the Library

  • I highly recommend checking out The Pillow Book of Sei Shonogon. The author’s personality — dry, observant, snobby — comes through clearly, even a millennium after her death. Also, pick up at least one book on poetic forms and look at the different examples. On my own shelves I have: Poetry Handbook by Babette Deutsch; Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry & Poetics; The Teachers and Writers Handbook of Poetic Forms Edited by Ron Padgett; and The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms by Mark Strand and Eavan Boland. There are lots of other handbooks and guides out there — see what you can find.
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