Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Using Poetic Forms, Part 1

To begin with, how do you decide to write a formal poem, as opposed to free verse? (By a formal poem, I mean a fixed form such as a sonnet, sestina, ghazal, tanka, etc.) Maybe you just read a poem in a particular form, and you feel you’d like to try it out. Or there’s a form you’ve always wanted to try, and suddenly you feel like you’ve got the chops to actually write it. Sometimes there’s a form kicking around in your mind, the way a song gets stuck in your head. It’s just there, waiting to be put in the game, like a player nervously pacing around the dugout. (OK, I know I’m mixing metaphors here.)

If it’s the case that a form is already eager to be part of your poetry, then maybe your next idea for a poem wants to go in that form, even if the form hasn’t yet been introduced to the story or idea or feeling that is hoping to be your next poem. Once the two knock into one another, the form and the idea for the poem, that collision can activate both, like particles in a linear accelerator.

The alternative to writing in a fixed form is to write in free verse, although some say free verse is also a form. The advantage to free verse is that the language is liberated so it can find its own rhythms, line-lengths, and endings, so that it’s not saddled with any structure. Structure can sometimes reign in emotion or ideas, because the constraints of the form limit spontaneity and flow.

But sometimes form is exactly what you need to give shape to the feeling or idea in your mind. The form becomes a perfect container to hold what’s teasing your mind. It’s as if the Jello mixture of your poetic idea needs a mold to give it shape, color, and flavor, or it will just melt away. (Now we’re really deep into mixed metaphor, once we’re into chilled desserts!)

In my experience, it’s really an either/or situation. Either a poetic form is tugging at my coat, asking to be noticed, or it’s not. If it’s not, I go with free verse. If it is, then I have to wait for the right idea for that form. But more often than not, the idea and the form arrive almost at the same time, like two different connecting flights that both funnel passengers to the same plane.

In the blogs that follow, I will not provide an exhaustive catalogue of all the possible poetic forms. I'll just touch on a few that resonate deeply with me.

Other recent posts on writing topics:
Using Poetic Forms, Part 1: Introduction; Part 2: The Sonnet; Part 3, The Sestina;  Part 4, The Ghazal; Part 5, The Tanka; Part 6, The Villanelle

Zack's most recent book of poetry, Irreverent Litanies

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