Poetry has become something of an enigma in our culture. While it feels like a dying art, it simultaneously lives on. While many people have lost interest in reading or writing it, poetry still seems to hold a sacred space in our hearts. From those who defend the practice of poetry, I hear a lot of blame placed on an overcrowding of the market with bland or outright bad poetry. I hear a lot about poor teachers who exhort their students that there is no wrong way to do poetry, a fact that is true, but often abused. I think a lot of people feel like they want to try their hand at poetry at least once in their life. Those that like the experience often want to continue writing, but the task feels daunting when confronted with the complex forms and structures outside of free verse poetry.
Many people see the plethora of poetic forms as a roadblock, a ball and chain on creativity and free expression. But nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is, we are drawn to a good beat, a flowing rhythm, or a clever rhyme scheme. Just look at the modern music market, with lyrics to many songs that sound like poems when read instead of sung. A lot of them follow the same pattern, based on style, and people love it. Working with fixed forms is challenging, but the benefits are worth the effort. It can make a poem come alive, make the emotions you try to express jump off the page. In this post, I will walk through some basic examples of how to begin playing with structure and form, and show some examples of easy(er) to use fixed forms.
Reasons to Experiment with Fixed Forms
- Using free verse is all well and good, but just because you don’t have to structure a poem in a particular way does not mean that you shouldn’t give it a structure of some kind. Play around with the lines and stanzas. What makes your poem look good? What layout emphasizes the major points and emotions of the poem? These are the two most important questions to ask when playing with structure.
- Messing with meter and rhythm can be difficult. Believe me, I know. I consider myself a poet and I still struggle with it. The easiest thing I can recommend is to pay attention to your syllable count. Look things up if you have to, just make a pattern out of the syllables first without worrying about stresses or iambs or anything like that. Then, and this is the most important part of crafting any poem, read it out loud. If there are any portions that sound weird or you stumble over consistently, then try to re-work it until you find something that does work with the syllable count. You don’t even have to know why something works or doesn’t work, as long as it sounds good you’ll be fine.
- If you’re feeling ambitious, try one of the fixed forms. One of the biggest mistakes I see aspiring poets make is to be intimidated by fixed forms because all they can think of is the Sonnet. There’s a reason the Sonnet is the golden standard in English poetry, it’s really hard to master, that’s why Shakespeare was considered a genius poet. There are much easier, though still challenging, poetic forms that don’t rely on meter or rhyme schemes. Repetition is a good place to start.
A Few Forms to Try
Try the Ghazal style on for size: Stanzas made of two lines each, and the end of every second line is the same word.
Next time don’t bother Nothing gets past me, dear I know what happens in my own house Or did you think otherwise, dear I don’t want to deal with this again But I will if I have to, dear
Okay, so it’s not my best work. I just slapped it down as an example, sue me. But you get the idea. You can add as many two-line stanzas as you want, so it works well for almost any size.
If you want to try something a little more ambitious, a Sestina is an interesting workout to craft. They’re made up of six stanzas with six lines each and an end stanza of three lines, so poems written in this form are big. The most interesting part is that the word at the end of every line gets reused throughout the poem in this pattern:
ABCDEF FAEBDC CFDABE ECBFAD DEACFB BDFECA Then, in the last half-stanza, the pattern can either take the form of ACE or ECA.
Notice that the word at the end of every last line in a stanza is used at the end of the first line in the next stanza.
If you feel like your rhyming is okay but you’re still unsure about meter, I would recommend one of my favorite forms, the Villanelle, which uses rhymes and repetition. It’s made up of five three-line stanzas and one four-line stanza at the end. All the first and last lines rhyme with each other throughout the whole poem, and the second lines all rhyme with each other too, like this:
A1 b A2 a b A1 a b A2 a b A1 a b A2 A b A1 A2
Now, here’s where the repetition comes in, all the A1 lines are exactly the same, they get repeated. Same with all the A2 lines. The effect is rather impressive when you put the work in.
If you want a bigger challenge with rhyme and repetition, try a pantoum. This can get tricky, but there’s no harm in trying and coming up with something ridiculous, as evidenced by my poem about how to write a pantoum in the form of a pantoum
How to Write a Pantoum 1A It starts and ends with an opening rhyme 2B Then you move onto the next part 3A Lines 2 & 4 will be lines 1 & 3 next time 4B The Pantoum makes repetition an art 2B Then you move onto the next part 5C By doing the same thing again 4B The Pantoum makes repetition an art 6C The structure is really quite plain 5C By doing the same thing again 7D The Pantoum maintains a beat 6C The structure is really quite plain 8D The rhythm is easy and neat 7D The Pantoum maintains a beat 9A It goes as long as the author has time 8D The rhythm is easy and neat A1 It starts and ends with an opening rhyme
There are many other styles and forms to play with. Look up a list and try a few. Try to stick to the form as closely as possible, because an unspoken truth of poetry is the more challenging it is to write, the more impressive the results can be. Push yourself, but find the style that works best for you