|A good book for|
learning about the
|A must-have for|
anyone who wants
to write in form.
|A great starter for|
There are pitfalls to writing in form, of course. Many forms involve the use of rhyme, and you can get lazy and do a lot of trues and blues, fires and desires. That’s not the form’s fault, however, that’s you. Don’t reach for the easiest or most predictable rhymes. Experiment with assonance, or off-rhymes. Rhyme true and moon and oops. First and flask. Also, don’t contort your syntax to make a rhyme. If you would normally say “I rue the day we met,” don’t write “The day we met I rue” just so you can later rhyme it with “yet now I find myself saying I do.” Don’t sound like Yoda.
The most dangerous pitfall of all is complacency. You’re writing in form, following all the rules, maybe even innovating a little. It may look like a poem, but it may not be a good poem. Don’t forget the content! A great rhyme scheme and a musical meter can be deceptive to the ear. You’re so happy Dr. Seussing yourself all over the place you don’t realize you’re writing clichés, or abstractions, or just sheer nonsense. A good formal poem is one in which the form complements the content, not carries it.
So—which form should you try?
As many as possible! Here are a few of my favorites, as well as some ideas on which to try given the skill you want to develop. Note that all are linked to poets.org, where you can read about the form and see examples.
Haiku & Tanka
You may be familiar with the haiku, the seventeen-syllable poem in which condensed natural imagery conveys a short, condensed message. The traditional form for haiku calls for three lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables. A similar form is the tanka. Try either of these if you tend to be long-winded or wordy in your poetry. The joy of these super-tight forms is that they force you to excise every possible extraneous word and idea from your poetry. It’s kind of like packing for a weekend trip where you can only take a carry-on bag. Really forces you to pare down your wardrobe to the absolute best. The emphasis on imagery is also a lifesaver if you tend to overexplain your poems. You know who you are. You have a great symbol, but you can’t help but tell us what it means. There’s no room for explanations in 17 syllables. It helps you learn to trust your symbolism. A good exercise I give my students sometimes is to take a famous story—like Romeo and Juliet, and rewrite it as a haiku or tanka, but without losing its essence. If you like Twitter, these may be the forms for you.
Oh how we love them. Let’s not count the ways. Somewhat like the haiku and tanka, this fourteen-line poem can help you to pare your words down to the most essential. It’s not an overnight bag; it’s more like those wheeled suitcases flight attendants use. You have more room to expand, but not so much that you feel okay with taking the “darker” pair of jeans you know you don’t really need. Moreover, although there are many different kinds of sonnets (Shakespearean, Petrarchan, etc.), most involve the concept of a volta, or a thematic turn, between the octave (first eight lines) and the sestet (last six lines). This convention, along with the limited space of fourteen lines, can help you end a poem gracefully. If you’re having trouble ending a poem, try turning it into a sonnet.
The Pantoum & Villanelle
If you have an idea and don’t know where to take it, or if you have only one or two great lines or just one stanza, try a pantoum or villanelle. These forms are based on repetition, and can be quite challenging. The pantoum, in particular, is tough to write. Two lines from each stanza are repeated in the next stanza, so that each four-line stanza has only two new lines. It’s sort of like a braid, and the challenge lies in keeping it going, in taking the repeated lines in a new direction. Most modern pantoums do not meticulously repeat the lines word for word, but tweak the repeated line a little to keep it fresh. Let’s use Duhamel again! Here are the two opening stanzas to her “Lawless Pantoum”:
Men are legally allowed to have sex with animals,
as long as the animals are female.
Having sexual relations with a male animal
is taboo and punishable by death.
As long as the fish are female
saleswomen in tropical fish stores are allowed to go topless.
Adultery is punishable by death
as long as the betrayed woman uses her bare hands to kill her husband.
Notice how in the first line of the second stanza, which is originally the second line of the first stanza, she changes “animals” to “fish,” and only keeps the phrase “punishable by death” in the next repeated line. Not only do these small changes help her syntactically, but also the small variation serves to drive the poem on into absurdity. The poem explores the fantastic, bizarre world of sexual taboos, and, with each repetition/new juxtaposition, goes further into hilarity. It’s a great marriage of content and form.
The villanelle is slightly less repetitive, but still challenging. The first and third lines of the opening tercet (or three-line stanza) repeat, alternating, as the last line of the following four tercets, and come together at the end of a closing quatrain (four-line stanza). To make matters even more interesting, the traditional form calls for rhyming as well.
The trick to a good villanelle—as to any repeating form—is to make sure that every time a line is repeated, we see it in a new way. It’s a great exercise in versatility. Any repeating form will help you stretch your use of language. I forget where, but somewhere I read that Sylvia Plath used to write villanelles obsessively, as exercises. It shows in all her poems, formal as well as free verse. There is never an “extra” word, image, or idea in a Sylvia Plath poem. Every line is tight, and every word and image fresh and surprising.
If you like the idea of writing in form but you don’t want to rhyme, a sestina offers a great alternative. Instead of rhyming, a sestina repeats six end words in a particular pattern. The challenge of the sestina is to find a way to land on the scheduled word in a fresh, interesting way each time. To do this, poets often use the repeated word in a new way or as a different part of speech. A successful sestina begins with choosing the right six words (duh). They should not only be thematic cornerstones, but interesting words, good verbs or nouns like slice and rock. You can slice a pizza (verb) or eat a slice of pizza (noun). You can find a rock, go to a rock concert, or rock out to a rockin’ good song. If you pick a dud like is or great, the sestina won’t be very good. A good way to approach choosing the words is to freewrite for a little while. See where the topic leads you, and then pick words not that you repeat, but rather that stand out as particularly apt or striking. Those are the words that will take you somewhere new and exciting when you shape them into a sestina.
The Prose Poem
These freak me out. A prose poem blurs the boundary between prose and poetry. There’s only one “rule”: no lines. How is it a poem if it has no lines? That’s the big question, isn’t it? It’s a great question, and attempting to write one of these will force you to reconsider how you define poetry. If you rely on lineation too much to “poeticize” your writing, you need to experiment with the prose poem.
One final word: Put the poem first. Now that we’re free to write in form if we want to, or write in free verse if we want to, there’s no reason for you to mangle a poem to fit into a form, or vice versa. If the attempt to write in form is inhibiting your poem rather than electrifying it, change it or abandon it. No one is going to shoot you if you add a fifteenth line to your sonnet. It’s your sonnet. Call it a baker’s sonnet. Dedicate it to Sean Penn. Writing in form is all about versatility, about stretching and bending. Poets are word acrobats. There may be a form you come to think of as your favorite, but trying different ones will keep you agile.