Let’s be real. Most of us, the majority of the time, write free verse poetry. Traditional rhyming metered poetry still has its fans, but some of those forms have almost a negative connotation in the poetry market. Many magazines even have a line in their submission guidelines about how they are selective about their rhyming poetry.
So what’s the point of talking about form?
Think of a poem as a building, and every stanza is a room (the word “stanza” even means room). A building’s structure is important for obvious reasons (namely that it doesn’t fall over) but the structural style chosen says a lot about what’s being built: its function, as well as its character. Why might someone choose a colonial style vs. an art deco style for a structure? What do each of those accomplish, both functionally and aesthetically? Those are the sorts of questions we want to be asking ourselves when we select a form for a poem.
Forms are like tools in a toolbox. Being familiar with a number of forms gives you more things to play with when you’re writing your poems. Sometimes I try on different forms when I have material I’m having trouble getting into a strong poem. Each form can contribute towards aiding or juxtaposing a poem’s content and meaning, or its mood. They can also create a certain visual or auditory experience. Repetition can create an experience in the poem, or even be used to help the reader remember something about the poem.
As you consider which forms to play with, think about what this form could accomplish, and how that could mesh well with material that you’re working with. For example, the repeated lines of pantoums makes this form great for recreating the act of storytelling, diving into memories, regret and guilt, as well as conveying a sense of obsession. Sestinas invite a sense of play with their line-end repetitions, allowing for a constant transformation of meanings through punctuation changes and using homonyms. Sonnets are largely used for expressing love and devotion, while ghazals invoke love of loss and longing.
Whatever form you use should be justified. The repetitions of a form shouldn’t be “because the form says so”, but should be transforming with each use—repetitions should propel the poem forward, not hold it back. Like prose, the poem should have a heightening, climax and resolution—this can be narratively or abstract. But the form should be creating that tension, that climax, that resolution. Another thing to consider with form is how it presents itself on the page. What does it look like?
Forms vary in their rigidity. The pantoum for example has no meter or rhyme restrictions, but is rooted in repetition. This was a realization to me as I began to work in form—not all forms require strict rules, and rhyme and meter. I began to enjoy form when I realized that rules in poetry are made to be broken, and that the form should be working for me, not me working for the form (AKA: I should be wearing the dress; the dress shouldn’t be wearing me). A great example with playing with form on a conceptual level is Pablo Neurda’s Ode to Common Things. Forms don’t have to just be played with on a technical level (e.g., using a sestina’s repetition of the word “tea” as “T”) but also on a conceptual level. Retranslate what an elegy is, what an ode is—what it is to praise and mourn. Tell a ballad about a mundane event. Try to figure out what a prose poem is. In the end, the most important thing (I’d argue) is to have fun. A form shouldn’t be a restricting harness but a shaped vessel for a poem to thrive in.
Poets may also create a form to suit their content. For example, Patricia Smith’s 34 uses 34 sections to create a voice for each victim in a nursing home flooded during Hurricane Katrina. In Conversation with my Mother, April Naoko Heck creates a form that visually marks when she or her mother is speaking, allowing the conversation to flow without bulky speech markers. If it doesn’t feel like there’s a form created yet to fit your content, then make it yourself!
If we’re talking about form, we should also mention free verse. Just because free verse is “free” doesn’t mean it doesn’t have structure. Free verse poems still need to think about how they utilize sound, line length, repetition, enjambments, internal rhyme and slant rhyme, meter, and stanza size. In fact, because there isn’t a set “rule” on what free verse poetry looks like, it means we almost need to be more attentive to these elements. The form should be an appropriate vessel for the “fluid” of the poem. We have to ask ourselves then: what should the free verse form look like for this particular poem?
Poets may also respond to or imitate work that’s meaningful to them. Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong is Ocean Vuong’s tribute to Roger Reeves and Frank O’Hara. Eugenia Leigh’s Psalm 107 is both a response to and an imitation of the biblical psalms. This might seem weird or irrelevant to address in a lesson based on form, but I would argue that imitation is a type of form. Look at Psalm 107, and how Leigh takes on a biblical form of parallel structure, using the title to draw us back to the biblical Psalm 107. Imitation of another poetic work makes us as poets have to think more deeply about what’s going on structurally and musically in the piece we are imitating.
Some Cool Forms to Try
- Terza Rima
- Prose Poem
Homework: Pick a form and try it. If you want some good books to help you navigate the world of form, I strongly recommend Strong Measures by Phillip Dacey and Poetry Dictionary by John Drury. Write one paragraph about your experience with form—was it easy/hard? Why did you pick this form? Was it to aid/juxtapose content, or not related to content?
Optional Prompt 2: Find a poem from a poet you admire and imitate the poem, or respond to it (see Ocean Vuong’s Someday I’ll love Ocean Vuong).
Kristina Marie Darling is the author of eighteen books, which include VOW, PETRARCHAN, and SCORCHED ALTAR: SELECTED POEMS AND STORIES, 2007-2014, which is forthcoming from BlazeVOX Books. Her writing has been described by literary critics as “haunting,” “mesmerizing,” and “complex.” Poet and Kenyon Review editor Zach Savich writes that her body of work is a “singularly graceful and stunningly incisive exploration of poetic insight, vision, and transformation.”