Form Poetry

What it is and why I like it

I've always been an advocate of free verse, where the form is simply the natural rhythm of speech. Except in very, very rare cases, rhyming, metrical poetry usually sounds contrived to me. It so often, especially in my hands, circles awkwardly around what it is trying to say, losing the clean elegance of the thought in the effort to conform to the restrictive rhyme and meter. Words are chosen that aren't quite the best words for the thought, but they rhyme. Concepts are cut short or elongated to make them fit the meter. Free verse is free! Think music, think breathing. Don't count - just ask if it has that elusive right feeling... Does it say exactly what it needs to say in the cleanest, most elegant way with that natural rhythm?
But I always had a feeling somehow that free verse was not Real Poetry, even in the hands of an expert. Now that I've come across some of the structures and strictures of form poetry - sestinas, villanelles, pantoums, et cetera - I've found something that delights me, yet is difficult enough to be considered Real Poetry - a convoluted way of seeing it, but it is how I think.
There are many different styles of poetry. A poem may rhyme - or not. It may run to a particular beat - or not. It may count syllables - like haiku or senryu or tanka. Or it may follow a particular form without regard to any of the criteria just mentioned. For instance, the abecedarian form is concerned with the letter that starts each line. The first line starts with an "a", the second with "b", and so on through the alphabet. And it must finish with the 26th line, which starts with "z". An example of an abecedarian poem is Under the Carpet, which was written just because I could, just because it was fizzy and fun.
Another type of form poem is the sestina, which is a little more difficult to explain and a lot harder to write. In a sestina, it is the words at the end of each line that give the poem its form. There are six stanza of six lines each, and an envoi of three lines. The end words of the first six lines are also used as the end words of each stanza of six lines, but in a particular order. If we number the lines as 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, then in the second stanza the end words are 6, 1, 5, 2, 4, 3. This pattern is repeated throughout the poem, with each stanza springboarding off the one before it. I know this explanation is confusing, but it may be easier to understand with a sample of a sestina, "On the Eve of 2001", which I wrote in a fit of indignation about the way my life was going at that moment. There are also several other sestina on these pages.
The envoi - the last stanza of the sestina - has three lines instead of six. It wraps up the poems, and hopefully it delivers something memorable. In it, too, all six of the end words are used, but in a different order. There are only three lines - you can see how they work in the examples, if I haven't gotten too confused.
One more thing about sestinas - they can also be concerned with the physical shape of the lines on the paper. That is, a sestina may try to have lines of close to the same length or it may have lines of varying length. This is not syllables or metrical feet, but a simple, visual thing - the lines look the same length. These two types produce very different effects. The lines of the same length seem to develop a kind of an unrelenting pressure in the mind, but the lines of radically varying length, make you (if they are done well) jump to attention. They bring you up short or hold you for a long thought. "On the Eve of 2001" uses varying lines to reflect my feeling of being jerked around by the universe somewhat. "Wild Waters, Unsteady Ground" uses the same length lines, insofar as possible, to reflect the unrelenting and seemingly-inevitable feeling of the emotions associated with it for me.
Now, using those different line lengths was not really a conscious decision. It is more that it worked the other way around - the forms reflected the subject matter. On the other hand, the forms also evoked the depth of the subjects. In both cases, I found that the necessities of the forms led me to explore thoughts I didn't quite know I had, discovering insights as I wrote.
To me, this is one of the most exciting things about form poetry. It seems to almost reverse the usual thing of inspiration going into words. It is as if the words evoke the inspiration. Some writers complain that sestinas become repititious, circular, and superficial - and I can see how that might happen - but I didn't find that so. In fact, I found it a way of going beyond my surface thoughts, digging deeper and deeper to surprising personal treasures of insight. I think it depends on how much blood one is prepared to sweat in the writing process. And how interested one is in delving into the depth and and exploring the breadth of one's life.
This was part of what I meant about the form, length and other constraints forcing me into greater depths than I might otherwise gone. I couldn't just say the same things over and over, so I had to look for more--and there it was. I find this 'interactive' part of writing so fascinating - I'm writing it, but it's also writing itself, something beyond consciousness is welling up, and bringing up things hidden in the depths. Fun.
What I found interesting about the sestina form was that it seemed to compel me to go deeper into the subject than I believed I could. The restrictions of length and form and end words made me concentrate so on the structure that other things just surfaced, slipping past any inner guard I might have. There are a couple of lines in the poem that I still don't think I fully understand, but I couldn't get them out of there. MySelf talking to myself, I suppose, and me not quite hearing...
Another interesting form is the pantoum. It has nine stanzas of four lines each. It doesn't rhyme, but lines two and four of the first stanza become lines one and three of the next. This process continues through the poem, lines two and four of each stanza setting the first and third lines for the next stanza. This is a lot of repetition, of course, and can develop an interesting "pressure" within the poem. The last stanza follows the same rule, except that the last line is a repeat of the first line of the first stanza. The echoing lines don't have to be exact repeats, but can make minor shifts as long as it sounds essentially the same and has the same rhythm. An example of a pantoum is Oh! My Dear Goddess!. Using so many lines as repeats means that one has to make sure that the lines you do use are up to that - that they say something interesting enough to bear repeating. I'm not saying I manage that - just that I know it needs to happen.
There are more forms of course - villanelles and others. I'll try to get some examples up here in due course...

A good book on form poetry: The Making of a Poem by Mark Strand and Eaven Boland, Norton Publishing.

Copyright © 2001 by Jessica Macbeth. All rights reserved.

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