FORMS OF POETIC EXPRESSION: FINDING YOUR POETIC VOICE
THE 10 MAJOR FORMS OF POETRY
What is form?
A poem seeks to do one of two things:
1) Reflect the world, as the poet perceives it. 2) Re-create the world as the poet imagines it to be.
Besides word choice, a poet can use other tools like rhythm, rhyme, and meter to reflect or re-create the world. In addition, a poet also uses form as a way to communicate more creatively and more effectively. Simply put, form is the way the poem is presented on the page. It is the physical shape of the poem itself. An English (Shakespearean) sonnet has a certain shape. It is specifically a fourteen-line poem in iambic pentameter with a rhyme scheme of ababcdcdefefgg. Every time you decide to write an English sonnet, it must meet these requirements. It is the same with a villanelle, a pantoum, a terza rima, a rondeau, etc. These forms all have a particular way in which they must be presented on the page. Free verse poetry also has form, even though less restrictive than the rhyming forms, but it has form nevertheless because its shape separates it from normal prose. As you’ve seen with many poems, the lines are shorter than a regular line of prose that fits across a single line on the page; various lines may be grouped together followed by a break to form stanzas; and a certain number of stanzas may comprise the entire poem. This allows you to break a poem up into sections, which may show a change in thought or idea, or a change in scenery, or even a change in the direction of the poem.
For example, take this sentence:
Sorry I missed you at noon today because a couple holding hands strolled by me, and they couldn't take their eyes off each other; when she smiled at him, I could have hit myself over the head with a hammer!
These lines, as is, seem more ordinary than poetic, something you might write on a post-it. But let’s look at the same lines in their original form, with title, line breaks, and form.
Sorry I Missed You
At noon today, a couple holding hands strolled by me.
They couldn't take their eyes off each other.
When she smiled at him — I could have hit myself over the head with a hammer! —Eddie Morales
After reading the same words in a different format, you can see that I wanted to slow your reading, to have you linger over every detail, picturing not only the couple, the holding of the hands, and the two strolling along, but also the missing girl in the last stanza, which you know, for whatever reason, the man observing the couple missed an opportunity to be with, and with whom he missed having a similar couple-moment.
Now, take a moment to write a similar poem. Write a casual sentence as if you were writing a post-it of your own, or memo, to a relative, a friend, or a loved one, etc. Once you're done, break up the sentence or sentences (try for no more than two sentences) into lines of between two to five words. Then break up the sentences into stanzas of three to four lines each. Also, try several combinations of words per line and lines per stanza to give the poem a different feeling as you emphasize different thoughts or words. Usually, the reader gets this feeling from the last word of each line.
Writing in different forms is good for your writing. If you take writing in different forms as a challenge or an inspiration, instead of a hindrance, it can lead you to say things you wouldn't otherwise say in a poem. Learning poetic forms may discourage some poets, but those who take the challenge of writing particular forms (ones that require lines of a specific length, a particular meter, a specific number of stanzas, a specific pattern of rhyme, or a combination of poetic elements) may find they have acquired some valuable skills. I believe if you conquer the sonnet, for example, you conquer all forms, because writing a sonnet and adhering to the requirements of the sonnet, with time and practice, will make you a better writer of sonnets, and maybe even a writer of perfect sonnets. With this skill, the other forms would just be variations of what you already know.
Form is a poet's main tool for organization. Once you've selected what your "best words in their best order" will be, you can decide how to arrange them. Choosing one particular form may help you put yours words into an order that accomplishes your poetic goals.
Although there are dozens of poetic forms, there are ten major forms (nine of the most significant and timeless forms, and one that is starting to be seen more often, the pantoum). As you read the definition of each form, think about how you can use the form for your own particular needs, or write in the form just to try it out and see what kind of poems you end up with. it could be fun. For myself, I want to write in all the forms I can.
FORM ONE: COUPLET
The couplet consists of two rhyming lines of poetry, usually of similar length and rhythm.
Nothing could be simpler and easier than two consecutive rhyming lines. Consider this poem from an unknown author:
I’m a poet, And I know it.
The English poet Geoffrey Chaucer introduced this versatile form during the fourteenth century in his collection of stories told in verse, The Canterbury Tales. Due to its simplicity, the couplet quickly gained popularity. This form readily lends itself to a wide range of moods, from the comic to the refined. Notice how different the two following poems are even though they both use the couplet form.
From In a Prominent bar in Secaucus One day In a prominent bar in Secaucus one day Rose a lady in skunk with a top-heavy sway Raised a knobby red finger - all turned from their beer - While with eyes bright as snowcrust she sang high and clear
Now who of you'd think from an eyeload of me That I once was a lady as proud as can be? Oh I'd never sit down by a tumble-down drunk If it wasn't, my dears, for the high cost of junk.
All the gents used to swear that the white of my calf Beat the down of a swan by a length and a half In the kerchief of linen I caught to my nose Ah, there never fell snot, but a little gold rose.
I had seven gold teeth and a toothpick of gold My Virginia cheroot with a leaf it was rolled And I'd light it each time with a thousand in cash Why the bums used to fight if I flicked them an ash
Once the toast of the Biltmore, the belle of the Taft I would drink bottle beer at the Drake, never draft And dine at the Astor on Salisbury Steak With a clean table cloth for each bite I would take
In a car like the roxy, I'd roll to the track A steel-guitar trio, a bar in the back And the wheels made no noise, they turned ever so fast Still it took you ten minutes to see me go past
When the horses bowed down to me that I might choose I bet on them all for I hated to lose Now I'm saddled each night for my butter and eggs And the broken threads race down the backs of my legs
Let you hold in mind girls that your beauty must pass Like a lovely white clover that rusts with its grass Keep your bottoms off bar stools and marry your young Or be left - an old barrel with many a bung
For when time takes you out for a spin in his car You'll be hard-pressed to stop him from going too far And be left by the roadside, for all your good deeds Two toadstools for tits and a face full of weeds
All the house raised a cheer, but the man at the bar Made a phone call and up pulled a red patrol car And she blew us a kiss as they copped her away From that prominent bar in Secaucus NJ by X.J. Kennedy (1961)
Spring and Fall: To a Young Child Márgarét, are you grieving Over Goldengrove unleaving? Leáves, líke the things of man, you With your fresh thoughts care for, can you? Ah! ás the heart grows older It will come to such sights colder By and by, nor spare a sigh Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie; And yet you wíll weep and know why. Now no matter, child, the name: Sórrow's spríngs áre the same. Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed What heart heard of, ghost guessed: It ís the blight man was born for, It is Margaret you mourn for. by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1880)
(from Microsoft’s Encarta Encyclopedia):
During the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the couplet also attracted satirical poets Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift. This relatively new form allowed poets to attack any target with elegant savagery, exposing the faults of a person, of an institution, or of a concept. At the same time that it is attacking, the satirical poem can be clever, clear, and to the point. If we examine an excerpt from one of Alexander Pope’s satirical works, we can see why he chose the couplet as the form best suited to his purpose (which in this case was insulting a man referred to in the poem by the fictitious name Sporus. Pope (P. in the poem) has written his satirical poem as if it were an epistle, or letter to his friend Dr. Arbuthnot (A. in the poem):
From Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot Let Sporus tremble — "What? that thing of silk,  Sporus, that mere white curd of ass's milk? Satire or sense, alas! can Sporus feel? Who breaks a Butterfly upon a Wheel?" Yet let me flap this Bug with gilded wings, This painted Child of Dirt that stinks and stings;  Whose Buzz the Witty and the Fair annoys, Yet Wit ne'er tastes, and Beauty ne'er enjoys, So well-bred Spaniels civilly delight In mumbling of the Game they dare not bite. Eternal Smiles his Emptiness betray,  As shallow streams run dimpling all the way. Whether in florid Impotence he speaks, And, as the Prompter breathes, the Puppet squeaks; Or at the Ear of Eve, familiar Toad, Half Froth, half Venom, spits himself abroad,  In Puns, or Politicks, or Tales, or Lyes, Or Spite, or Smut, or Rymes, or Blasphemies. His Wit all see-saw between that and this, Now high, now low, now Master up, now Miss, And he himself one vile Antithesis.  Amphibious Thing! that acting either Part, The trifling Head, or the corrupted Heart! Fop at the toilet, Flatt'rer at the Board, Now trips a Lady, and now struts a Lord. Eve's Tempter thus the rabbins have exprest,  A Cherub's face, a Reptile all the rest; Beauty that shocks you, Parts that none will trust, Wit that can creep, and Pride that licks the dust. by Alexander Pope (1735)
Now that you have seen how the couplet’s form can be used for such witty and stinging verse as “Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot,” reexamine the structure of the poem. Pay careful attention to the punctuation, which will provide cues for you to see that each line of the couplet is end-stopped, meaning that a grammatical pause occurs at the end of each line. Now read each couplet aloud so that you can better grasp how each couplet can stand alone as a complete unit of thought. For example:
“Eternal smiles his emptiness betray, As shallow streams run dimpling all the way.”
These two lines complete a sentence and express a complete idea.
Writing in this form gives Pope the opportunity to showcase his ability and discipline. Because he has shown us how disciplined and capable he is, we trust Pope when he speaks poorly of Sporus. In this way, the form Pope has chosen contributes to the meaning of his words. To simplify the point even more, if you would like to portray someone as inferior, you may want to portray himself as superior. In both the form and content of “Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot,” Pope portrays himself as clever and talented, while he portrays Sporus as a “painted child of dirt that stinks and stings.”
We can learn still more from this form, which calls for control and order from the poet who uses it. Each line of “Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot” has ten syllables; if you recall the section on meter, you will recognize that each of these couplets is written in iambic pentameter. If you look at the punctuation once more, you will see that each line has a pause, or caesura, in it. In the last couplet, “Beauty that shocks you, parts that none will trust; / Wit that can creep, and pride that licks the dust,” we can see that the punctuation indicates a pause between “you” and “parts” in the couplet’s first line and between “creep” and “and” in its second line. In each of Pope’s couplets, you will find this kind of grammatical pause.
Note: A couplet that meets these conditions — a complete unit of thought, written in two lines of iambic pentameter, and each of which contains a grammatical pause — is called a heroic couplet.
Sometimes, you may find that what you have to say will not fit so neatly into couplets. Perhaps you do not want to write a series of short sentences as Pope has done. Instead, you want to write in longer sentences. Or perhaps you feel that your poetic message would be better said in sentences so brief that they do not go on for the two lines needed to make a couplet.
Note: One of the good things about knowing the forms is that you then have the poetic knowledge and license to create your own couplets, quatrains, etc., and develop your own form and style of poetry. For example, if you know well the rules of grammar, then you’ll know well when to break them to suit your poem.
As you will see in the next example, sentences of any length can be used to make couplets. Each couplet, instead of containing only one complete unit of thought, may contain either a partial unit of thought or an entire thought unit and part of another. The meaning of a phrase continues beyond the end of the line of verse. This type of flowing couplet has an unbroken sequence that heroic couplets do not.
Note: a thought that continues from one line onto the next without a pause is called enjambment.
Robert Browning, an English poet from the Victoria era, in his poem “The Last Duchess,” makes use of enjambment. I have highlighted in bold one section in particular to show you as an example.
The Last Duchess That's my last Duchess painted on the wall, Looking as if she were alive. I call That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf's hands Worked busily a day, and there she stands. Will't please you sit and look at her? I said "Frà Pandolf" by design, for never read Strangers like you that pictured countenance, The depth and passion of its earnest glance, But to myself they turned (since none puts by The curtain I have drawn for you, but I) And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst, How such a glance came there; so, not the first Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, 'twas not Her husband's presence only, called that spot Of joy into the Duchess' cheek: perhaps Frà Pandolf chanced to say "Her mantle laps Over my Lady's wrist too much," or "Paint Must never hope to reproduce the faint Half-flush that dies along her throat": such stuff Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough For calling up that spot of joy. She had A heart — how shall I say? — too soon made glad, Too easily impressed; she liked whate'er She looked on, and her looks went everywhere. Sir, 'twas all one! My favour at her breast, The dropping of the daylight in the West, The bough of cherries some officious fool Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule She rode with round the terrace — all and each Would draw from her alike the approving speech, Or blush, at least. She thanked men, — good! but thanked Somehow — I know not how — as if she ranked My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name With anybody's gift. Who'd stoop to blame This sort of trifling? Even had you skill In speech — (which I have not) — to make your will Quite clear to such an one, and say, "Just this Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss, Or there exceed the mark" — and if she let Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse, --E'en then would be some stooping, and I choose Never to stoop. Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt, Whene'er I passed her; but who passed without Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands; Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands As if alive. Will't please you rise? We'll meet The company below, then. I repeat, The Count your master's known munificence Is ample warrant that no just pretence Of mine for dowry will be disallowed; Though his fair daughter's self, as I avowed At starting, is my object. Nay, we'll go Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though, Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity, Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!
You can see right away how Browning’s enjambed couplets differ from the heroic couplets Pope used. Pope’s couplets follow the strict rules of the heroic couplet and Browning’s do not.
Note: Browning writes his couplets in a manner that most imitates natural speech. If he had written his poem using heroic couplets it would not have the conversational tone, since no one speaks in phrases of uniform length. Natural speaking patterns are more random, as Browning has reflected in this poem. A good poet, whether writing free verse or rhyme, knows this and creates verses that mimic natural speech.
You have seen examples of how couplets can embrace a variety of moods and viewpoints. Think about how the poets used the form of the couplet in various ways to affect and enhance the overall tone of their poems.
Which poet used heroic couplets to mock a personal acquaintance, using imagery and metaphor to drive home his point?
Which poet wrote to a young girl who felt sad because the trees were losing their colorful foliage before the onset of winter?
Which poet used enjambment in a poem that tells of a cruel man talking about a painting of his first wife, whom he has had killed, and the dowry he expects to get from the father of his second wife-to-be?
Which poet used a first-person point of view and couplets to humorously and coarsely capture nostalgia for the persona’ s lost beauty and youth?
As you can see, the couplet can be adapted to many uses and functions and that it allows much room for poetic expression. As an exercise, you might want to try to test your skill with this form and write a 20-line poem in each of the styles of the four poets presented here.