Most of us as poets have a go-to form that we use when writing our poetry. I'm a free-verse kind of gal, myself. But every now and then, I get the urge to mix things up a little bit. A particular poetic form can add simple elegance or panache to your poetry, as well as give it syntactical structure. There are many poetic forms to choose from; in this post, I'll review just a few of them, as described by Robert McDowell, in his book, Poetry as Spiritual Practice.
The Haiku -
Haiku is a popular Asian poetic form, and it is typically distinguished by it's simplicity. It is also a highly structured form, consisting of exactly 17 syllables. Lines one and three contain five syllables each, line two contains seven. The Zen Buddhist poet Basho used Haiku extensively, and is now considered to be the "master" of the form. Here are a couple of examples of the Haiku structure:
Black cloudbank broken
Scatters in the night...Now see
And all our world is dew....so dear,
So fresh, so fleeting.
This poetic form is extremely well known. Most of Shakespeare's poems were sonnets. It is also a form characterized by it's brevity, thought not as much so as the Haiku. The sonnet consists of 14 lines, and relies somewhat on careful rhyme and meter. It is a good form to master for the student wishing to develop these techniques. There are variations in sonnet forms, but the two most traditional ones are the English sonnet and the Spenserian sonnet, each exemplified in the poems below.
I find no peace, and all my war is done;
I fear and hope; I burn and freeze like ice;
I fly above the wind, yet can I not arise;
And nought I have, and all the world I seize on;
That looseth nor locketh holdeth me in prison
And holdeth me not, yet can I 'scape nowise;
Nor letteth me live nor die at my device
And yet of death it giveth none occasion
Without eyen, I see; and without tongue I plain;
I desire to perish, and yet I ask health;
I love another, and thus I hate myself;
I feed me in sorrow, and laugh in all my pain;
Likewise displeaseth me both death and life;
And my delight is causer of this strife.
~Wyatt (English Sonnet)
Below is an example of the sonnet, used in a more contemporary style.
Hard Love in New Orleans
My parents were always over the top,
so it wasn't enough that they threw me out.
Before I could recover from that wallop
of rejection, a double-fisted knock-out,
they made the most of their God-given clout,
my photograph emblazoned over an obituary
in the the Picayune, and--to seal all doubt--
a gravestone with dates for the parish to see.
If I could not adhere to their rules or be
the Christian girl they had reared,
then they clearly wanted no part of me.
I was dead, the daughter who disappeared.
For thirty hard years, I've lived my demise.
The crime? Being gay without compromise.
~Scott Wiggerman (Spenserian sonnet)
The Sestina -
The Sestina is a longer, more complex version of the various poetic forms (villanelle, rondeau, rondel) used by wandering minstrels and troubadors in the twelfth century. This form can be a challenging one, because it is very structured. The formula: six stanzas of six lines each, followed by a stanza of three lines. The end words of the first stanza are repeated in every stanza that follows, including the stanza of three lines.
My mother wanted to learn some German
for my father and because her children
could already speak it a little.
She was tired of dusting the stacks of books
she couldn't read, tired of the letters
she always had to ask me to translate.
He was usually willing to translate
the cards his mother had written in German.
But sometimes there were other letters,
and when he read them to her and the children,
she had the same feeling she'd had with books
before she learned to read, when she was little.
She said it bothered her a little
that her own children would have to translate
for her, that they could pick up the same books
that were Greek to her as they were German.
She started learning it from her children
and decided to leave my father letters.
She wrote my father daily love letters
and carefully placed them on the little
table where they put things for the children,
next to our favorite set of translations
of fairy tales we first heard in German.
She leaned one every day against his books,
the white paper stark beside the dark books.
But my father never answered her letters.
Instead, he returned them with his German
corrections in the margin, his little
red marks--hieroglyphs for her to translate,
as if she were one of the children.
Maybe she was just one of the children
in that house surrounded by rows of books.
Maybe her whole life was a translation
of what she imagined in the letters.
The space between them made her that little
girl, wandering lost inside the German.
Because her own children were half-German,
she built her life around those little books
translating the lines of her own letters.
The task of the poet, when deciding upon a particular poetic form, is to ascertain what she wants to accomplish in the poem. As the above poems illustrate, the various forms contribute to the overall feel of the poem itself. Is your potential poem progressive, moving at a steady or lively pace? Does it tell a story? Perhaps the Sestina is an appropriate form for this kind of poem. Or is what you're trying to convey more impressionistic, requiring something more simple and elegant, like the Haiku? This is the question! I will be writing very soon about three more poetic forms: the Limerick, the Ghazal, and the Phantoum, all lesser known poetic forms, but useful for the thoughtful poet, in specific ways. Stay tuned!
Also, I would truly love to hear from you! What poetic forms are you most attracted to, and why? Do you prefer highly structured forms, or those that allow for a bit more give and take? Shoot me a comment, or join the discussion HERE!