More on Forms

The topic of traditional verse forms comes up often in the poetry section over at the Questions like: Is formal poetry even valid today? Is it too hard for beginners? Should they avoid forms altogether or at least wait until they are more comfortable writing in general? The following is modified from a reply I posted to one of these topics.

A newer poet posted a rhyming poem. The rhymes were forced and the poem had no detectable metrical structure. One suggestion made was for the poet to abandon their attempt at rhyming verse and to focus on what they wanted to say. It was a thoughtful suggestion and presents an approach that may work for many. Another approach, and one I advocate, is to learn the building blocks of metrical verse through study and imitation. I think this approach will serve the poet throughout their life regardless of their intend to work in form or not.

Poetry evolved. It is a mistake to assume that at some magic point in time poets cast off their shackles and started writing ‘real’ poetry. It is equally a mistake to assume that the tools and techniques put to use effectively in the past are irrelevant to modern expression. Every poem, or at least every poem worth reading, has a form. The poet is creating a soundscape to carry their meaning and all the emotion appropriate (in the sense that it conforms to the poet’s intent) to it. Otherwise every utterance is a poem and all definition is pointless.

At a minimum we should agree that a poem tries to say something in a purposeful and specific way. That way is the poem’s form. Seen in this light, good free verse is not formless. Its form is organic. The idea that it is easier to write good free verse than in a traditional form is simply false.

There is a creative tension between the artist and their medium regardless of what that medium is. It’s kind of the “necessity is the mother of invention” idea. The problem in poetry of relying on what you have to say is that what most of us have to say is not all that earth-shattering. Worse than that, someone has certainly beat us to the punch.  As poets we count on this. We are hoping for a connection. We want our words to resonate with the reader. What we can do, is say it in a way that is pleasing, that engages the readers senses, appeals to their common humanity, and makes them think. Uniqueness does not need to be forced. It is a given.

If a young poet is bending their content to fit a rhyme, the problem is not the rhyme, it’s more than likely a weakness of vocabulary or the creative faculty to rephrase exactly what they want to express in a manner that fits their medium. This effort is what forces the formal artist to get creative. I will add that the effort often drives the poet to examine their idea(s) intimately. The effort itself forces them to know what they want to say. I think it is in this sense that Winters viewed poetry as a form of discovery.

Young poets focused too heavily on just saying it run the serious risk of counting solely on moral judgements, political affiliations, and fashions of thought. Please don’t misunderstand, there are many talented people out there. Some with the such raw ability that they will find their voice regardless. But, if we are talking about young people of average genius, telling them that expression is enough and to ‘just go with it’ is destructive to them as artists and destructive to the art as a whole. Its effect on modern poetry can be read in reams and reams of agenda-based nonsense, sentimental drivel, and lowest-common-denominator sexualization that lost even its shock value decades ago.

I’ve known people in the visual arts. To a one, regardless of style, they have a strong foundational understanding of classical technique. This foundation is viewed as core competence and provides them with material for their own innovations. Musicians, if they are worth there salt, know at least some measure of theory. When it comes to poetry however many aspiring poets operate under the assumption that centuries of history and the evolution of their art can be dismissed. Self expression may be therapeutic and political expression may be socially valuable, but they are not art. They can be expressed through art and a poet that want to address the valid issues of their day to effect should know at least the foundational building blocks of what that art is.

Again. I’m not advocating everyone or anyone go back to writing sonnets (it won’t hurt), but I do think young people who want to be poets should know the history of their art and appreciate that at one time, the forms that are now considered staid and stale were once radical innovations capable of extreme emotional and rhetorical power. That these techniques can inform and enrich their own poems. And that the best way to express yourself effectively is to know how to speak. This means having all the tools of our literary heritage on our palettes whether we chose to use them in a particular work or not.

On Meter and Form

The following is taken from an answer I gave to questions I received on a great writer’s forum I’m a part of. I’ve cleaned it up a bit for readability, but this is essentially the text as posted. As such, it is not even close to a complete handling of the topic. However, it was well received and people thought it was useful. I hope you do as well.

Could you outline the importance of form and meter?
Does having a meter improve the poem?

Let me answer your questions in reverse order.

Does having a meter improve the poem?

It depends on the poem. If your goal is a metrical poem then of course. If free verse, no, but in both case it is critical that you remain conscious of the syllabic arrangement of the words you are using and the impact on not only the music, but the meaning, and the emotional effect of your poem.

The effect of a series of unaccented followed by accented syllables is the same regardless of form. The same with successive accented ones. The former has a lazy almost conversational tone and the later communicates urgency, sometimes frivolity. This is true no matter of form. That’s only two examples, but I hope you see where this is going.

In traditional metrical verse there are standards governing the effective use of these sound patterns. These patterns evolved as poets explored the most effective means of conveying their intention in a pleasing manner. As rigid as these forms can seem, they are not arbitrary, and the best practitioners often deviate from their chosen pattern at key points for effect. Think of accidentals in music.

Could you outline the importance of form and meter?

No. Not without writing a book. I will try and illustrate. First with a metrical poem:

No Bird – Theodore Roethke

Now here is peace for one who knew
The secret heart of sound.
The ear so delicate and true
Is pressed to noiseless ground.

Slow swings the breeze above her head,
The grasses whitely stir;
But in this forest of the dead
No bird awakens her.

Can you hear how the music has a delicacy that fits perfectly with the imagery and the theme of poem?  Its opens in iambic tetrameter,  followed by a trimeter. The pattern then repeats. It culminates in a sense of extreme gravity by the time we get to the last line where “No Bird” can almost be read as a spondee and then the 3 syllables of “awakens” rush to the finality of “her”.  Which is fitting since the poem is about just that, the finality of her, the subject of the poem. This is a very cursory look at a great poem that deserves much better treatment, but I hope it helps.

Now for something completely different:

This is Just to Say – William Carlos Williams

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

This poem has been analyzed in several ways. Some that make it out to be an obscure reference to man’s fall, or some form of comment on repression – the whole forbidden fruit thing. I take it on face value. It’s delightful. Not everything needs to be deep. In any case, its structure an tone are whimsical.

This is no accident. Dr. Williams’ use of line breaks and accents are brilliant. If you just beat the syllables out on a table they are a joy. Combine the sound and the form and it’s easy to picture a man playfully teasing his wife about eating her plums. So again the words and the structure combine perfectly to convey the authors intent.

So at long last my point: Both of these poem are excellent examples of completely different styles. If you really want to understand the importance of the forms involved, try to apply their respective styles one to the other:

Here peace is
For one
that loved
some music


As for the plums that were for you
I ate them and was feed
you planned to eat them very true
Once risen from your bed.

It really is about picking the style that best fits your voice or your intent at the time. Please forgive any technical inaccuracies, etc. I think the point should still be clear.

Some reading if you’re interested:

A Poetry Handbook – Mary Oliver
Rules for the Dance – Mary Oliver
Free Verse: An Essay on Prosody – Charles O. Hartman
Poetic Meter and Poetic Form – Paul Fussel