Last VerseDay on Angelhorn I spoke to poet Lesléa Newman who mentioned the benefits of writing formal poetry. Lesléa uses a number of formal poetic forms in her recent verse novel OCTOBER MOURNING. She gives an example of a pantoum in a recent post from FIGMENT. I also use a variety of forms in my upcoming verse novel AUDACIOUS. So just for fun, I thought I’d muse a bit on each of these forms.
One of the simplest, and in many ways the most useful form for me to use as a poet, is rhyme. I know rhyming poetry has fallen very much out of favor in “literary” poetry circles, but it is very much alive and well in slam poetry and of course the vibrant musical poetic form, hip hop. For me rhyme sometimes suggests major plot points that might not have otherwise come up. In AUDACIOUS for example, there is a subplot concerning bulimia, which only emerged when I rhymed “dinner” with “thinner”. It was a real aha moment about one of the characters and that detail fed into the main plot in a very real way (excuse the pun!).
Another form I used was Haiku, in it’s most widely understood variety, which is a line of five syllables, a line of seven syllables, then another line of five. Several of the longer poems in AUDACIOUS are comprised of haiku formed stanzas. I use this technique when I am in danger of rambling on and on (which is almost always). A few of poems are stand alone haiku. One, in the haiku tradition, creates a nature oriented image. Another untraditionally, summarizes what my protagonist can remember about a visit to the Emergency Room.
The hardest form I attempted was for a poem called “Two Sonnets for Stink Eye the Librarian”. I chose a Shakespearean Sonnet form for this poem and it is one of my favorites in the book. Although I have gone over and over it, I’m sure some scholar will eventually point out that I’ve gotten it somehow wrong. If that happens I will have to simply point out that I did not write the book for scholars!
I wrote one poem, titled “Pinky” in a form meant to suggest the kind of rolling internal and half rhyme used in hip hop and slam poetry. I adore this kind of poetry (I’m less enamored of some hip hop, particularly when its subject matter is moronic) and really enjoyed writing this one.
Several of the poems experiment with concrete forms, some more concrete than others. One poem, ‘Sirens: Part Two” describes an incident that takes place on Christmas day, and suggests the shape of a tree. I think it is one of the most powerful poems in the book.
Acrostic poems have long been some of my favorites to write (I used to write them for my classmates, with their names), and there are a few of these in AUDACIOUS, including two about a toothbrush!
Finally, sometimes I found the formality of composing a free verse poem in stanzas with a set number of lines to be a useful challenge. In general one of the challenges of poetry is to say the most with the least, and this kind of containment certainly helped me to achieve this.
There are many other poetic forms I’d like to try in the sequel to AUDACIOUS, which I’m writing now. I’d love to try the pantoum that Leslea describes for example. I’d also like to try a villanelle, a roundel and maybe even limericks.
There are, of course, a number of books and websites about poetic forms, but one of the most useful I’ve found is actually a children’s book called A KICK IN THE HEAD by Paul Janeczko. I plan to consult it often.
What poetic forms have you tried?