Chapter Seven: Experimenting with Forms
In this chapter I wish to introduce you not only to common forms, but also to lesser-known forms, all with the intention that you will experiment with forms while writing your own poetry. I was first introduced to many of these forms in Robin Skelton’s wonderful book The Shapes of Our Singing, which I highly recommend.
In this form, the poem works its way through the alphabet, each line beginning with the letter following the first letter of the previous line. There are no restrictions on meter or rhyme. The following example demonstrates the abecedarian form:
April 11th and out my Michigan window: no surprise, really:
Blizzard. The small sidewalk trees sag under fluff and sky.
Cindy says she can’t take it, this weather. She misses
Dallas, the blue bells, has had enough of the lake’s snow globe
Extending its stay beyond this season’s home opener, yellow
Flowers and late night light for late nights
Grilling. Her hand opens back toward Texas like a beauty queen’s,
Her eyes bat their long lashes: Take me back old friend, holy hell,
I am sorry. But everyone has different needs
Jig-sawing their bellies. Pieces of life floating down like, well, you
Know. Kevin, I’m leaving messages like lightning on your machine.
Lying in bed this morning I couldn’t sleep. Snow
Makes electric champagne of my nerves, pops me open, twists me until sweet
Nostalgia curls me up with a book, squeezes poetry from my skull, seduces me to
Ogle over young faces in old pictures, realphabetize my library, boil
Potatoes until my kitchen windows steam. I burned yesterday’s leftover
Quart of coffee reheating on the stove. But I didn’t care, all
Restless as I was and hungry for everything no longer
Snuggling in my shoes or my bed, which is to say, bodies from the past.
Time, oh time and time again time
Undoes more than the elastic seams on lingerie, but like that—
Very much like that, the things that make us sexy
Wear away. And when it snows like this I want to melt until
X-rays show me one white dot, unique, branching out, stuck,
Yearning for others like me that will have a ball balling with me something
Zesty as an orange, ready to be thrown at the world.
Copyright © Michelle Bonczek Evory. “Lake Affected” is licensed CC-BY-NC-SA.
Partner to the serenade, which focuses on evening, the aubade is a poem about the morning or dawn. There are no restrictions on line, meter, or rhyme. Here is one by Traci Brimhall:
Aubade with a Broken Neck
The first night you don’t come home
summer rains shake the clematis.
I bury the dead moth I found in our bed,
scratch up a rutabaga and eat it rough
with dirt. The dog finds me and presents
between his gentle teeth a twitching
nightjar. In her panic, she sings
in his mouth. He gives me her pain
like a gift, and I take it. I hear
the cries of her young, greedy with need,
expecting her return, but I don’t let her go
until I get into the house. I read
the auspices—the way she flutters against
the wallpaper’s moldy roses means
all can be lost. How she skims the ceiling
means a storm approaches. You should see
her in the beginnings of her fear, rushing
at the starless window, her body a dart,
her body the arrow of longing, aimed,
as all desperate things are, to crash
not into the object of desire,
but into the darkness behind it.
“Aubade With a Broken Neck”, from Rookery by Traci Brimhall; Copyright © 2010 Traci Brimhall, reproduced by permission of Southern Illinois University Press.
Before written language, folk ballads were used around the world to transmit stories—often tragic—from one generation to another. The word “ballad” has its roots in the Latin word ballare, meaning “to dance,” evidence of the rhythmic qualities of the form and its frequent recital to musical accompaniment. Although written in many variations, the ballad is today most commonly written in quatrains and A B C B rhyme. The first and third lines contain eight syllables, while the second and fourth lines contain six. According to Robin Skelton, the most common rhyme scheme is iambic tetrameter alternating with iambic trimeter. The following is a ballad by Muriel Rukeyser:
A form that lends itself well to a meditative voice, blank verse is written in iambic pentameter lines that do not rhyme. The Poetry Foundation contains numerous examples, including links to those written in 10-syllable lines traditional of epic poems such as John Milton’s Pardise Lost.
In this Chinese pattern, each line contains seven monosyllabic words with a caesura after each fourth word. The rhyme scheme is comprised of the pattern A B C B.
In the low grass, a girl holds
a bright pink shell washed to land
by high white waves. Her toes grow
like a tree’s roots in the sand.
Adelaide Crapsey established this unrhymed iambic form, which consists of a five-line stanza with the syllable count 2 4 6 8 2. Here is an example of one titled “Amaze” and another called “November Night.”
This Latvian form consists of a quatrain of trochaic octometer lines with feminine endings. Although there are no end rhymes, alliteration and internal rhymes are common. The example below breaks form in the last line and adds a stressed foot for effect.
Every Friday early morning
we would march to church all wearing
navy beanies nuns pulled down our
heads like muffins. We preferred them
sideways, some French painter’s fancy
style. But always Sisters reaching
over pressing God’s will into
bodies, taming young girls from the wild.
This Japanese form is composed of four lines with the syllable count 7 7 7 5. There is no rhyme or set meter.
An altar boy holds the stained-
glass door open as women
in satin-lined skirts enter
the church like saints.
An elegy is a lament for the dead and contains the character of sadness and loss. Mark Strand and Eavan Boland explain that an elegy “mourns for a dead person, lists his or her virtues, and seeks consolation beyond the momentary event.” It is considered a public poem that when done best, according Strand and Boland, sets the customs of death in a particular culture against the decorum and private feelings of the speaker.
The following is by the poet William Heyen:
Elegy for Wilt the Stilt
October 12, 1999. Remember the date.
As of this autumn day at century’s end,
God’s fortunes in heaven have changed.
He’s drafted and signed Himself a center.
Wilt the Stilt is dead.
Wilt the Stilt is dead before George Mikan,
first of the big men,
dead before Bill Russell,
before Kareem Abdul Jabbar,
before Moses Malone, before Shaquille O’Neal
who might have taken Him
to His own promised land.
God could wait no longer
for his franchise player,
so Wilt the Stilt is dead.
In Philly, his high school rims shiver with applause.
In Kansas, his college rims rattle with applause.
Globetrotter and NBA nets rip themselves in homage,
and in the silence of a hundred gyms
in the dead of night backboards
shatter in adulation and remembrance as, now
Wilt the Stilt ducks his head
under the transom of heaven,
as God reaches up to shake hands
with his new acquisition,
to welcome Wilt home among the constellations
of His cosmic league.
Wilt bows, vows to work hard,
to settle down with one woman,
to earn his minutes here with sweat,
to balance power and finesse,
even, on occasion, to pass the ball
out of the low post. God smiles,
cheerleaders leap, spread legs, and tumble,
for today the Stilt has joined them in death.
Copyright © William Heyen. “Elegy for Wilt the Stilt” is licensed CC-BY-NC-SA.
This form, invented by the Surrealists, is fun to write in a group. Each person writes two lines, then folds the paper so the next person writing can see only the second line; the next person writes two more lines and folds the paper so that only the second line is visible; and so on.
Work with a partner and play another Surrealist game called “If This, Then That.” Each person writes without knowing what the other person is writing. The first person writes a phrase on one side of a piece of paper that begins “If…” and then passes the paper to his or her partner. Without looking at the “If” statement, the partner then writes a statement beginning “Then…” Here are some examples that make it hard to believe that these were random—but they were! You’ll be surprised how the collective unconscious sometimes aligns:
If school is cancelled tomorrow… then girls will dance under umbrellas in the rain.
If turkeys made honey… then no would ever have to go to bed without supper.
If you heard a sound and didn’t know what it was… then the neighbors would be knockin’ at your door.
Typically dealing with subjects of love and separation, the ghazal is a form with Arabic roots consisting of rhyming couplets of the same syllabic length and a refrain. As explained on the Academy of American Poets website:
The ghazal is composed of a minimum of five couplets—and typically no more than fifteen—that are structurally, thematically, and emotionally autonomous. Each line of the poem must be of the same length, though meter is not imposed in English. The first couplet introduces a scheme, made up of a rhyme followed by a refrain. Subsequent couplets pick up the same scheme in the second line only, repeating the refrain and rhyming the second line with both lines of the first stanza. The final couplet usually includes the poet’s signature, referring to the author in the first or third person, and frequently including the poet’s own name or a derivation of its meaning.
Here is an example of one by Patricia Smith:
This well-known Japanese form is three lines long and comprised of unrhymed, unmetered lines with a 5 7 5 syllable count. Traditionally, the haiku’s subject matter relates to nature or seasons.
One Sunday in May
Mothers answer mothers’ calls
We are all children
The four lines are written in iambic pentameter and rhyme A B B A.
We drove the silver van full speed
The branches snapped in windows
We dipped and bumped in rocky holes
From earth we felt like we’d been freed
Write an Italian quartet, then develop it into a Petrarchan sonnet (see below).
In this three-line poem with the syllable count 5 7 7, the first line poses a question that the next two lines attempt to answer in an intuitive, immediate way. Try answering with the first image that pops into your mind.
What’s in my future?
The budding heads of tulips
Fragrant, red-lipped, and sealed.
Originating in Malaysia, the pantoum was adapted by French poets. It consists of an unlimited number of quatrains in which the second and fourth lines of each are repeated in the first and third lines of the next. The first and third lines of the first stanza become the final stanza’s second and fourth lines. There can be some variation. For instance, the first line of the poem may be the last.
The following is an example by Melissa Rhoades:
Dutch East India Company
Back home, my new wife makes fine lace. I keep
a scrap of her work in my brine-soaked breeches.
Black waters pitch and the hull creaks
as I head for spice stores at Malacca’s beach.
The scrap of her work in my brine-soaked breeches
is soiled from these sickened months
of heading for spice stores at Malacca’s beach.
The taste of molded hard tack licks my tongue
and soiled from these sickened months,
we had to leave nine scurvied men with the Boers.
The taste of molded hard tack licks all our tongues
and the Captain won’t say when next we moor.
Although we left nine scurvied men with the Boers,
we’re all bleeding gums, thin skin, and fleas.
The Captain still won’t say when we moor
and some dirty dogs talk of mutiny.
But for all our bleeding gums, thin skin, and fleas
sweet land comes, a line on the horizon.
Now, no dogs talk of mutiny,
not with palm trees visible from our galleon.
Sweet land! Malaya fills the horizon.
Scrabble at the riggings, keen to anchor.
Palm trees look heavenly from the galleon.
Once ashore, we drink till we slur,
scrabbling around port, keen from anchor.
Sweat runs down our backs. In the shade
we sprawl out, still drinking in a slur.
At dusk, I thrust into a dark-skinned maiden,
sweat running down our backs in the shade.
Black Malacca reeks of nutmeg and mace.
Again, I thrust into the dark-skinned maid
and moan. Back home, my new wife makes fine lace.
Copyright © Melissa Rhoades. “Dutch East India Company” is licensed CC-BY-NC-SA.
This Spanish form was practiced by poets of the court in pairs during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. One poet asks a question or series of questions in one form and the second poet, matching the form, answers. The topics usually related to love, philosophy, or morality.
Q: If two loves want one heart
And the heart thrums both loves’ strings
How long before one parts
From two and chooses a single fling?
A: Since no hearts be alike
If no love presumes a thing
You may wish to keep arms wide
And see what each day brings.
Alternatively, it might be fun to experiment with different topics and be loose and spontaneous with the answers and with the form. The Surrealists were great at inventing these types of games. Pair up and in the style of the Surrealists, have one person write a question and the other write an imagistic answer without knowing what the question is.
Q. How do I know if I love her?
A. The shutters will fly off the house.
Q. How do I know when to tell her?
A. A row of blackbirds a choir on a wire.
Q. How will I know when to ask her?
A. Her open hand and the light lifting from it.
The prose poem, which can be any length, isn’t broken into verse, but contains many of the elements of poetry: figures of speech, musical language, internal rhyme, repetition, condensed syntax, and imagery. There is some debate over the form, as there are some poets who do not consider the form a poem, per se, but something more akin to flash fiction, or at least a genre of prose rather than verse. Either way, it is a cross-genre form—half prose, half verse—and fun to experiment with.
An influential revivalist of the form was Robert Bly, who said in an 1997 interview that the form is part of an evolution in human democracy: from gods to heroes to everyday humans; from sacred culture to aristocracy to democracy; likewise, from sacred chants in which “all words are signs” to metered poetry to free verse to prose. Additionally in the interview, Bly spoke about his feeling of freedom and “safety” in writing prose poems: “The most wonderful thing about the prose poem is that nobody has set up any standards yet.”
The following poem is by Russell Edson, known as “the godfather of the prose poem.” As a father of the form, Edson provided one of the form’s common characteristics: strangeness. His subjects tend to be odd, surreal, and humorous. The figure of the ape is one that appears frequently in his poems.
Ape and Coffee
Some coffee had gotten on a man’s ape. The man said, animal did you get on my coffee?
No no, whistled the ape, the coffee got on me.
You’re sure you didn’t spill on my coffee? said the man.
Do I look like a liquid? peeped the ape.
Well you sure don’t look human, said the man.
But that doesn’t make me a fluid, twittered the ape.
Well I don’ know what the hell you are,
so just stop it, cried the man.
I was just sitting here reading the newspaper when you splashed coffee all over me, piped the ape.
I don’t care if you are a liquid, you just better stop splashing on things, cried the man.
Do I look fluid to you? Take a good look, hooted the ape.
If you don’t stop I’ll put you in a cup, screamed the man.
I’m not a fluid, screeched the ape.
Stop it, stop it, screamed the man, you are frightening me.
Russell Edson, “Ape and Coffee” from The Tunnel: Selected Poems of Russell Edson. Copyright © 1973 by Russell Edson. Reprinted with the permission of Oberlin College Press.
Here is another example by Devon Moore:
I was five but the woman thought I was seven ‘cause that’s how old you had to be to be an unaccompanied minor, so that’s what my daddy told me to say, so then I was an unaccompanied liar catapulting through the clouds and later I told my daddy, “I saw a lightning bolt,” and he said, “Yeah, right,” and I said, “Why?” and he said, “Cause I thought you said you saw an angel,” and I said, “No, a lightning bolt,” and we were quiet.
I was up in the clouds looking for angels and the nice stewardess offered me hot chocolate instead of pop, and maybe it was the turbulence or my open hands, but the next thing I know the scalding hot was all in my lap, and I was crying loud, but that’s not the worst of it ‘cause then I was standing in the front row butt naked from the waist down, just a simple small hairless vagina for all to see.
I was in the terminal on a layover, but I still thought every man I saw with black hair and a moustache might be my father, and I tried to go to them but the stewardess grabbed me back and said, “No, this is not your stop,” so she sat me down on a chair and told me not to move and left me for what felt like hours and I had to pee so bad but I couldn’t move ‘cause I was still hoping that my daddy might surprise me and show up before his time.
I was chewing the bubblegum my mommy got me for popping ears when I started throwing up Dramamine and I might as well have been the plague or the grossest thing she’d ever seen ‘cause the woman sitting next to me leapt out of her seat and pointed and said, “She’s sick,” which was true, but I cried anyways and then my new coat that had a detachable outer layer smelled like throw-up, so the stewardess put it in a plastic bag, which was the first thing they handed my father when he got to the airport.
Copyright © Devon Moore. “Motion Sickness” is licensed CC-BY-NC-SA.
The roundel is an English form consisting of eleven lines in three stanzas with no set meter. The first part of line one repeats at the end of the first stanza and again as the last line of poem. The half line also forms the rhyme pattern and is indicated here as R for “refrain”: A B A R–B A B–A B A R.
The daffodils roaring from the ground, at the April
market, tables are lined with buds and green
and people stand in lines looking around
at the daffodils roaring from the ground.
In winter’s sleep few colors seen:
no birds or bugs outdoors make sound.
Now, voices, friends, and new bags of seed
are garden bed and birdhouse bound.
Off with gloves and scarves and wool that’s been
wrapped around us for so long for now we’ve found
the daffodils roaring from the ground.
The sestina consists of five sestets culminating in a final tercet called an envoi, also called a tornada. The six words that end each of the lines in the first stanza repeat throughout the poem in the following pattern:
1. A B C D E F
2. F A E B D C
3. C F D A B E
4. E C B F A D
5. D E A C F B
6. B D F E C A
7. (envoi) E C A or A C E
In addition, the envoi also repeats the words that end lines B D F in the first stanza. These three words can go anywhere in interior of the final tercet’s lines.
Here is an example by Chad Sweeney:
I’ve tried to understand this winter
that grows out from no root and no
seed, yet sways like a meadow toward the mind,
sways on its white stem and is
a figure of uncertainty over hills of sleep,
where aging factories gesture to a train
and mills are shuttered over river ice. The train
crosses a bridge from Michigan into winter,
its silos and tobacco fields framed by sleep,
inscrutable and nine hells down. No
horses center the pastures where the sky is
its own pasture, a drift of snow over the mind.
Three crows motionless on a fence, in the mind
are moving, crossing the windows of the train
like Japanese characters whose sense is
effortless, a calligraphy of winter
whose shifting figures evoke a No
theater, three masks in a theater of sleep.
But the land draws its own lessons from sleep,
a heap of frozen images in the mind,
Polish teachers in the birch grove and no
one to bury them, shoved from the train,
the faces of the dead occupy the whole winter,
one borderless nation of snow. Memory is
unable to bury them. What was and what is
and what never was—mounded together in sleep:
history erects a statue to winter,
a wolf leaves its tracks across the mind,
the train and the memory of the train
arrive on the same line, though no
station is there to greet them and no
one is getting on or off. Is
it irony draws this train
west toward Chicago with its cargo of sleep?
My forehead against the window doesn’t mind
closing its one eye against winter,
the train moves deeper into memory, no
train and no winter, though one crow is
changed in sleep to the Japanese character for mind.
Copyright © Chad Sweeney.”Michigan Sestina” is licensed CC-BY-NC-SA.
Make a list of six words you absolutely love. Then write five sentences that include all of the words. Then, write five more. Then write ten more. Then use these six words to write a sestina!
Although there are several versions of the sonnet, each has fourteen lines and contains a volta, or a turn in thought, which can sometimes be indicated with the words “but” or “yet.” In contemporary poetry it has become common for poets to compose sonnets with differing rhyme or meter, or with none at all.
Shakespearian: Comprised of an octet and a sextet, this sonnet is composed in iambic pentameter and rhymes A B A B–C D C D–E F E F–G G. The volta appears either between lines eight and nine or between lines twelve and thirteen.
Petrarchan: This sonnet contains two stanzas: one octet that rhymes as A B B A–A B B A, and a remaining sextet with varying rhyme schemes. The volta occurs between the stanzas.
Spenserian: This sonnet modifies the Petrarchan to contain a rhyme scheme of A B A B–B C B C–C D C D–E E.
Composed of two lines, the split couplet contains a first line in iambic tetrameter and a second in iambic dimeter; the two lines should rhyme. Another variation is to write the first line in iambic pentameter.
A rabbit hops across my trail
A bouncy tail
A fawn leans into chamomile
Its sunny meal
The miles vanish beneath my feet
It brings me peace
Tanka, or Waka
This Japanese form, which focuses primarily on nature or strong emotions, consists of five unrhymed, non-metrical lines with the syllable count 5 7 5 7 7.
In Waka, lines one and two, as well as three and four, form complete sentences, as does the last line.
Onto the sunflower’s face.
From lavender to basil.
The whole garden is alive.
Than-Bauk, or Climbing Rhyme
This Burmese form consists of three four-syllable lines, with rhyme falling on the fourth syllable of the first line, the third syllable of the second line, and the second syllable of the third line.
Relish your sleep
Wake, repeat, wake
Count sheep and dream
Never lose hope
There is no time
To mope around.
Experiment with different syllable lengths that integrate the same climbing rhyme pattern.
This French form consists of five tercets and a final quatrain. The first stanza’s first and third lines repeat in an alternating pattern as the last line in the subsequent stanzas. In the final quatrain, the two lines that have been repeating throughout the poem form the final two lines of the poem.
The following villanelle was written by Victor James Daley. It is title is simply “Villanelle”:
We said farewell, my youth and I,
When all fair dreams were gone or going,
And Love’s red lips were cold and dry.
When white blooms fell from tree-tops high,
Our Austral winter’s way of snowing,
We said farewell, my youth and I.
We did not sigh, what use to sigh
When Death passed as a mower mowing,
And Love’s red lips were cold and dry?
But hearing Life’s stream thunder by,
That sang of old through flowers flowing,
We said farewell, my youth and I.
There was no hope in the blue sky,
No music in the low winds blowing,
And Love’s red lips were cold and dry.
My hair is black as yet, then why
So sad! I know not, only knowing
We said farewell, my youth and I.
All are not buried when they die;
Dead souls there are through live eyes showing
When Love’s red lips are cold and dry.
So, seeing where the dead men lie,
Out of their hearts the grave-flowers growing,
We said farewell, my youth and I,
When Love’s red lips were cold and dry.
“Villanelle” by Victor James Daley is in the Public Domain.
For more examples, please see the The Poetry Foundation.