The Importance of Form

I just updated the poetic forms list on this blog (click here to check out 29 different poetic forms). I feel that attempting poetic forms is an essential step on the path to becoming a good poet. This doesn’t mean that I think poets have to write in forms to be considered poets, but there is something important in learning the traditional rules of poetry before bending and breaking them. After all, even most of the best free verse poets had (and have) a sense of form.

Here’s the thing: Most early attempts at any poetic form are going to be bad.

The reason behind this is not that forms are horrible or too hard; instead, it’s just the simple fact that early attempts are often focused on following the rules of the form. It’s like learning anything new.

I have four boys, and I’ve seen them all go through the process of learning something, getting frustrated with their own limitations, and then taking themselves to new levels. Whether it’s learning to talk, walk, ride a bicycle, swim, etc., there is the initial period where you’re just focused on completion before you get comfortable.

Here are some reasons why I think poets should learn and play with forms–even if they intend on only writing in free verse:

  • Form gives structure to a poem. Form is the skeleton (and skin) of the poem; the content is the blood and vital organs. Even poets who write free verse should have an idea of how their line breaks affect their readers.
  • Form teaches new tricks in conveying meaning. For instance, I find that I often have to compress ideas or images to make them fit a certain meter or a rhyme scheme. This forces me out of my comfort zone and ultimately into an area of excessive creativity. The tricks I learn trying to make forms work can then enhance my free verse poems.
  • Form is important for the reader. Even readers of free verse poetry like to think the poet has an idea of what they’re doing–and that there is a point (even if the point is that there is no point). Otherwise, why should readers waste their time reading?
  • Form adds an extra layer of complexity to the poem. This does not mean that a bad poem in sonnet form is going to be considered a great poem, but form provides the poem an extra layer of interpretation and investigation for the reader. Layering can help make a poem more challenging and/or more fun to read and ponder.
  • Form is fun. I notice that many poets don’t need to be wrestled into writing forms, because they see forms for what they are: poetic puzzles or games. Sure, forms can be challenging, but challenging in the same way as learning to dribble a basketball or finish a crossword puzzle.

I don’t think that all poems should be traditional forms, and I don’t think that all poets should publish traditional forms. I think one of the strengths of poetry is its diversity. However, I do think it’s worth the time of all poets to play around with and learn from forms.

Try the forms listed at the link above. Make up your own forms. Push yourself out of your comfort zone. Poem away!

*****

Follow me on Twitter @robertleebrewer

*****

Interested in reading and writing poetry? Check out Writing the Life Poetic, by Sage Cohen (also available as digital download).

 

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  4. Amy Barlow Liberatore

    Inspired by this post, Robert, I have taken on this week:
    Shadorma
    The challenge of the ghazal, TWICE
    Several haiku, which I didn’t used to like much, but am now finding stored in those background rhythms of my mind
    Triolet (AKA Toilet, too hard for me!!)
    Another kyrielle
    Two sestinas

    And finally, I posted an "I Hate Forms" mini-rant on my blog. I think it’s called something like "I Hate Forms," ha ha ha.

    Keep us honest, Robert. It’s like my current phys. therapy for bursitis – doing stretches I’ve never done before. Thanks! Amy

  5. Daniel Ari

    Here’s a performance I gave at The Marsh Theater in San Francisco comparing sonnet writing to writing product copy for SkyMall catalog. Like Linda Goin points out, form is everywhere in writing!

    DA

  6. Hannah Gosselin

    Okay, I’m convinced!! I’m taking on that challenge too, Barbara! Great thoughts from ALL on this and thanks for making the forms so available Robert!

    Smiles,

  7. Barbara_Y

    I’m really weak on metrical poetry–it’s never been my choice, even knowing it’s the tomato of writing. maybe not essential, but very tasty when well grown. My self-challenge for the next six months is a formal poem of some sort every week.

  8. Linda Goin

    Hi Robert — I was trying to explain this "writing in form" to another writer over the weekend. I told her that when I entered my first year in graduate school, it was the first time, really, where I needed to follow a format for writing papers. While I bucked against this "formula" writing, it boded well for my other work in the second year…although my writing still was contained within a formula (somewhat), it was that formula that gave bones to the fleshed out thesis.

    Formula writing is everywhere, and an accomplished writer — a journalist, memoir writer, fiction writer, scholar — all know what their "formulas" mean to them and how those guidelines can make or break their stories. Fortunately, poetry forms contain choices…what a joy! While writing true to form for, say, a sonnet or pantoum, the poet has that choice to use the form to say even more…is the thought better said in a sonnet or a pantoum…or is it best this go-round to let it flow in free verse?

    If the latter, I know from my experience that my free verse is much tighter simply because I’ve learned some of the forms. It’s great to get back to them…as there are many forms I haven’t tried, and some that I need to continue with to become more "fluent" in their flow. Thanks for making them available!

  9. Daniel Ari

    Many artists in many media describe the process of creation as letting the art "come through" them. Artists often seek ways to put themselves in the passenger seat of the creative process and to let something else drive the artistic decisions, something that’s larger/other/egoless/mysterious.

    For me, writing in form is a good way to do this. By forcing myself to seek words that fit into a rhythm, meter or rhyme scheme, I’m required to choose words that I wouldn’t have otherwise chosen. Those words bring their connotations, associations and sounds with them, suggesting other words and other meanings in the poem that I might not have otherwise discovered.

    I find myself in the passenger seat with the English language doing much of the driving. The poem goes to unexpected places where I find new understandings about what I thought I was writing about. The finished draft is as surprising to me as an original work can be. The paradox is that formal poetry can yield wildly "free" results.

    DA

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