When I met a group of writers for a poetry workshop this month, we discussed some of the features that make a memorable poem, and from our list three qualities stood out: form, musicality and surprise. In this post I’m going to say something about form.
What is form? Well, essentially it’s shape, it’s the shape lines make when they’re set down on a page, and while the shape of certain poems will be looser than others, (compare Alan Ginsberg to Wordsworth), any well-made poem should have a sense of form.
One criticism levelled at free verse – that is poetry written without consistent rhyme or metre – is that it’s simply ‘chopped up prose’. This accusation is sometimes reached for when a poem refuses to fit into a neat box, but critics have grounds for complaint when there are no guiding principles influencing the shape of the poem. Poets have only the line break, so they need to use it well. During the workshop we discussed some functions of the line break; here are a few thoughts in answer to the question What does the line break do?
Gives the poem shape. Line breaks give the poem a shape on the page. A poem needs a sense of harmony, (which doesn’t mean uniformity).
Highlights musicality. If you think about the poem as an arrangement of sound, like music, the line break is a way to ‘score’ the poem, to create sound patterns. A poem like Alice Oswald’s ‘Dart’ is attentive to musical effects.
Adds emphasis. However you choose to break your line, the word at the end of each line naturally gets more emphasis and becomes the ‘exposed’ word. Close reading of a sestina (such as this one by Elizabeth Bishop) reveals how these end words create an accumulative impact.
Changes tempo. Long lines may feel more meditative or lend the poem a sense of sprawl, while short lines force the reader to move quickly. But this isn’t always the case. We experimented in the workshop by writing out ‘This is Just to Say’ by William Carlos Williams. Written in long lines we rattled through the poem, but the short line arrangement Carlos Williams chose made us read with pauses, and all that white space slowed us down too.
Adds surprise. An unexpected line break helps with surprise, tension or humour.
love juts out
and you walk right into it.
(The opening of ‘Love Cuts’ by John Hegley)
* * *
Some poetic forms are hundreds of years old. A sonnet like John Clare’s ‘The Mouse’s Nest’ is easily recognised because it has fourteen lines and a rhyme scheme. But the sonnet is endlessly flexible and not all sonnets rhyme, or even have fourteen lines. Seamus Heaney’s ‘The Haw Lantern’ for example belongs to a sequence from his 1987 collection of the same name. During his long writing career he’d developed an intimacy with the sonnet; he knew its essential qualities and could adapt the form to his needs. The better we understand form, the more we read and recognise what other poets have done with it, the wider our options in our own writing.
One way to find a new poem is to experiment. Sometimes writers use other poems as a model, or they try to respond to the spirit of an older poem. When I began to investigate the rondel, a circular form with two rhymes, I decided to write my own version just to become familiar with the structure. The model I was working from was a rondel by Victorian poet Henry Austin Dobson, which begins ‘Love comes back to his vacant dwelling/ the old old Love that we knew of yor.’
The poem I came up with looked very much like an ‘exercise’, and although I’d learned a new form, my poem didn’t have any life of its own. Gradually I took my poem further away from the model and began to introduce more changes. Still, something didn’t seem right. Every time I read the poem it felt stiff – the shape of the poem on the page didn’t seem to echo its spirit, which called for more air and movement, so eventually I opened it up by zig-zagging the lines along the page. The end result is obviously not a rondel but it plays with some of the associated sound patterning and the same rhyme sounds as Dobson’s original.
Kathryn Simmonds from The Visitations (Seren, 2013)
In my previous post I mentioned The Making of a Poem by Strand & Boland, which is an excellent starting point for anyone interested in form. As poetic forms evolve, so new anthologies emerge – if you want to stay right up-to-date, a dip into Adventures in Form (Penned in the Margins) offers ‘a multitude of new and unusual poetic forms…from skinny villanelle to breakbeat sonnet.’ There’s a lot to be discovered.