Craft of Poetry Home

I hope it is clear to you that form is at the center of our course topic. So I won't spend your time and mine here by outlining various forms of poetry since that's what we are doing from week to week.

I consulted John Lennard's The Poetry Handbook: A Guide to Reading Poetry for Pleasure and Practical Criticism (Oxford University Press, 1996) to see how he handles this topic. (Other topics he discusses in separate chapters include metre, layout, punctuation, lineation, rhyme, diction, syntax, history, biography, and gender). I found that Lennard lays out various forms -- blank verse, couplets, tercets, etc. -- just as we are doing over this entire semester. So that's not much help here.

[Just as an aside, while I find Lennard's book brilliant, it is not as useful to American students of poetry because the British use poetic terms a bit differently. For example, what we call consonance they call alliteration. What we call alliteration does not have a separate term among the British. A period is a full stop. Quotation marks are called inverted commas. An envelope rhyme (abba) is called an arch-rhyme. Etc. Remember that fact when you look at British books on prosody -- a fancy word for the study of poetic forms.]
Okay, so let me begin again by first defining form. In poetry, this refers to shape or structure without regard (necessarily) to content.

It's important to understand that all poems have form. Even a free-verse poem has form -- it's just that it invents its own form as it goes. This is why contemporary scholars of poetry have begun to use "open form" instead of "free verse," to acknowledge that free verse also has form.

By extension, then, poems in inherited forms and meters have come to be called "closed forms" -- a term I don't particularly like. Just as "free verse" implies formlessness too much, "closed forms" suggests that inherited forms and meters are somehow hermetic, unchanging and unchangeable. Nothing could be less true.

During the 1980s, a group of poets -- including Molly Peacock, Brad Leithauser, Dana Gioia, Marilyn Hacker, among others -- were banding together (or being branded together) as so-called New Formalists. What they were (and are) up to is redefining formal verse, updating it for our times.

The odd thing that happened was that free-verse poets, who were of course in the majority at that time, began to label the New Formalists as Reaganites, as ultraconservatives, as if somehow the choice to use forms indicated political party affiliation. At the same time, the New Formalists felt themselves to be avant garde, and that writing in forms was the hip new thing.

Thankfully, this controversy has pretty much faded, and poets now have carte blanche to choose free verse or formal verse, open form or closed forms.

Here's an example of a free-verse poem, "Eating Poetry" by Mark Strand:

Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.

The librarian does not believe what she sees.
Her eyes are sad
and she walks with her hands in her dress.

The poems are gone.
The light is dim. 
The dogs are on the basement stairs and coming up.

Their eyeballs roll,
their blond legs burn like brush. 
The poor librarian begins to stamp her feet and weep.

She does not understand.
When I get on my knees and lick her hand,
she screams.

I am a new man.
I snarl at her and bark.
I romp with joy in the bookish dark.
Notice that this is in tercets but there is no preset meter; also external rhymes occur only rarely. But notice how endstopped the lines are; in fact, there is a comma or a period after each line except one. So we can see that it is mainly syntax (sentence structure, if you don't know that term) which governs Strand's lineation. Even the single line without ending punctuation is not enjambed since it's also a full sentence by itself.

What we might notice though is that the lines come in widely varying lengths. One might say that Strand balances variant line lengths against the predictability of tercets to advance the central opposition between the speaker's spontaneous effervescence and the librarian's repressive fussiness. So the form invented for this poem aids us in the understanding of content, conflict, and narrative.

Now here's an example of a poem in an inherited form, "Just Like a 6 Month Old Child" by my former student Amy Kunst (she wrote it in a beginning poetry class):

Grandma is 91 today.
She has a toothless smile
That makes me look away.
She wears a pink gingham dress.

She has a toothless smile
Just like a 6 month old child.
She wears her pink gingham dress
Covered with a clear plastic bib.

Just like a 6 month old child
She sits in a special chair
Covered with a clear plastic bib
Waiting for someone to feed her.

She sits in a special chair.
I look at her and want to cry
As she waits for me to feed her.
I am the only volunteer.

I look at her and want to cry.
I listen to her grown children whisper,
"Thank God, Susan volunteered."
She holds her head up high.

As I listen to her grown children whisper,
I feel like screaming, "She's not deaf!"
She holds her head up high
As I begin to feed her.

I feel like whispering to her (she's not deaf),
"Remember when you fed them?"
As I begin to feed her
She squeezes my hand and smiles.

"Remember when you fed them?"
Now they look away.
She squeezes my hand and smiles.
My grandma is 91 today.
This is a pantoum. Our website treatment of quatrains refers to pantoums. Just to remind you, the second and fourth lines in each stanza return as the first and third lines of the next stanza. At the end of the poem, the first and third lines of the opening stanza (which have not yet been repeated) recycle in reverse order in the final stanza. So that the poem comes full circle, with the last line the same as the first line. If that was confusing, compare my description with Kunst's poem. Or look again at the write-up on pantoums in the quatrains section.

What we want to do here is to see how the form (and a difficult one it is) affects what Kunst says. Kunst has told me that she had no idea where the poem was headed and allowed the line repetitions to be in charge.

Notice how the speaker of the poem moves from being disgusted at her grandmother's age to realizing that there is nothing to feel that way about, while simultaneously condemning her parents and aunts and uncles for continuing to be disgusted. The opening line seems somewhat regretful that Grandma is so old, while the closing line (see the addition of "My") conveys the speaker's new pride in her grandmother.

It's quite a brilliant poem with lots of wit and charm, especially in the ways it subtly alters the lines as they return sometimes. And I hope it's inspiring to you that this was written in an introductory poetry-writing course.

What I hope this example delineates for you is the practical aspect of form for the poet. When you are working with an inherited form, you can become so involved in fulfilling the "rules" of that form that your subconscious is more readily able to "cough up" things that you didn't know you wanted to say but which the poem wants to say.

The result is surprise both for the poet and the reader -- discovery and newness. Learn to abandon yourself to form and see where it takes your poems.

The aspect of form we have not yet discussed is tradition -- that certain forms have become historically connected to given attitudes or types of poetry. But that discussion is for the next treatment. So 'nuff for now.

-- Vince Gotera

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Last Updated 8/29/01