The Importance of Form

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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!

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

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