Notes on Form in Poetry

In preparing for a upcoming workshop on poetic form, it occurs to me to ask (and answer) the question: why should form matter to poets in the twenty-first century? After all, the majority of poems written in English today are written in free verse. Certainly it is important to have a grasp of form in academia, if one is studying verse written before the Second World War. Most poetry written in English, from Beowulf to Wilfred Owen, employed elements of form, and could rightly be called verse. But poets nowadays write poems which often seem to have little connection to the strictures of the past.

What, then, can poets writing today, in the vers libre form that has dominated the past sixty years of poetry, gain from studying English-language forms that moved in and out of fashion over the previous thousand years?

One answer is that the poet can gain a sense of connection to poetic lineage. Discovering that poets have been re-inventing our relationship to language for thousands of years can be deliciously humbling. Perhaps this is what Emerson meant when he said that poetry must be “as new as foam, and as old as the rock.” Even more than this important universal perspective, though, I feel that I have also gained personally as a poet through studying form.

One gain for me was the discovery, through practicing various forms, that constraint galvanizes creativity. In fact, I would say that I found a kind of freedom within constriction. By practicing various forms, I have learned that many types of constraints–such as meter, rhyme scheme, or even just a list of words to use when writing a poem–intensify my relationship to the “assignment” at hand. My creativity rises to the challenge, and I find myself writing more interesting lines than if simply given a blank page and a pat on the back. Exercises in form have helped me build creative muscle. It is a bit like running with weights. And as an added benefit, sometimes the formal poem succeeds as well.

Another wonderful aspect of studying form is being influenced by the musical heritage of poetry. I studied sonnets extensively as an undergraduate, writing essays on Dante, Petrarch, and Sydney, as well as the occasional sonnet to my girlfriend at the time. When I became more serious about writing poetry, I thought I had to somehow make a clean break from verse, and learn to write free verse as though I were starting from scratch. What I found, over time, and through working with astute mentors, is that the thousands of sonnets I had ingested in my teens became a tremendous asset. Musicality wins in poetry, above any other element (imagery, ideas, you-name-it). The music of natural English speech is closely allied to iambic and trochaic patterns. And so, once I embraced it, I found sonnet-like music suffusing my free-verse poems quite naturally and effectively.

Finally, there is a gain in studying form that brings together the aspects of lineage, creativity in constraint, and poetry’s musical heritage. By dancing between free-verse and formal poetry, I feel not only connected to poetry’s lineage in the abstract, but more able to synthesize old and new in my own work. This is the paradox of poetry–that it is a long-standing tradition of breaking with tradition. I have found that those poets who seem most unique, and whom history often celebrates as the vanguard of some new movement, were steeped in understanding of their fore-bearers–not as an abstract appreciation, but through the practical application of exercises, studies, and experiments with form.

Since free verse means the poet must invent and reinvent the form as she goes, understanding and practicing elements of form are, more than ever, a key part of a poet’s development. It is important, though, for writers to study form from a writers’ perspective–with an eye toward practical application. The intricacies of form can be seductive, since the analytical interrelations have themselves an aesthetic appeal. But it is important to ask: how is this making my poetry better? How is this increasing the musicality, and creative zeal, of the poems I write? This is a key to reaping what studies in form can offer: a greater sense of place in the timeless lineage, an explosion of creative freedom caused by seeming constriction, an attunement of the poet’s musical ear, an the ability to synthesize tradition and innovation in the centuries-old pursuit of using words to get beyond words.