A Practical Guide to Poetry Forms is a practical handbook on poetry forms, giving informative details on the construction of the major set forms. It also includes exercises, all within the scope of the beginner, yet stimulating enough to engage the more experienced poet.
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Compass Points: A Practical Guide to Poetry Forms
How to Find the Perfect Form for Your Poem
By Alison Chisholm
John Hunt Publishing Ltd.Copyright © 2013 Alison Chisholm
All rights reserved.
The Concept of Form
Being a poet is an amazing calling. Whether you feel it's your life's work or just a pleasant pastime, it places you in an elite group of people whose ranks include Homer, Sappho, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Eliot, Plath and Motion. It shows you the world in a new and exciting way, and allows you to communicate that excitement with people you will never meet, but whose lives are affected by what you have said.
Your poems will be crammed with ideas and insights, emotion and reaction, observation and perception. The vehicle for conveying these depends on imagery, use of language, rhythm, metaphor and other elements; but before these can work, it needs a form.
As soon as you start to write your poem down, a form, its physical structure, begins to emerge. As it takes shape, it may evolve a pattern of its own, or it may be worked into one of the set forms that have been developed, practised and perfected over generations. Poets of the past have left a legacy of templates that work. If they didn't we would not still be using them.
Some forms lend themselves to particular themes and subjects. Sonnets, for example, are often used for love poetry. Others convey a mood or atmosphere, like the haunting villanelle whose repetitions give it an enclosed, almost claustrophobic feel.
The skill of marrying content and form, acquired as much by practice as study, gives your poetry an edge - the advantage of working well in patterns poets inherit and readers recognise. Understanding the dynamics of different forms adds to the enjoyment of the poetry you read, and enriches the quality of the poetry you write.
Playing with forms can be exhilarating and exasperating, often at the same time. It's easy to be whipped along by the excitement of the moment, and glory in the joy of fitting all the words into a sestina, getting the repetition right in a pantoum, or finding the perfect Zen moment for a haiku. These are, indeed, moments to be enjoyed and relished; but never at the expense of the quality of the poem. It's always a case of poetry first, nuts and bolts after.
For the writer, there is something reassuring about using a set form. It provides you with a framework into which you can fit the information you want to communicate in the poem. It tells you where lines and/or stanzas begin and end, and how the rhymes fit. Apply it correctly, and it gives your poem shape, authority and confidence.
For the reader, a set form gives the assurance that this poem has direction, a planned route through its content, which indicates that safe hands are providing guidance to help you understand what it has to say.
The form indicates the number and length of lines, their metre, and the placing of rhymes and repetitions. This involves some ancient Greek terms and a touch of alphabet juggling, but it's worth persevering with these. Let's start with the lines.
Some forms have fixed numbers of lines, while others may be broken down into a sequence of verses or stanzas. Limericks have five lines, for example, triolets eight, and rubais a multiple of four, as they can be written in any number of four-line stanzas. The line length is the second half of the metrical description, but we'll look at it first. (We're poets, we're allowed to be contrary.) It may be:
Monometerone measure - or foot - in the line
Dimeter two feet
Trimeter three feet
Tetrameter four feet
Pentameter five feet
Hexameter six feet
Heptameter seven feet
Octameter eight feet
The first half of the phrase is the definition of each foot, depending on the emphasis natural pronunciation gives to a word, part of a word, or a phrase. It's the metre, this pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables, that gives the lines a beat, and the major ones are these:
Pyrrhic two unstressed syllables of a
Spondee two stressed strange times
Iamb/iambus one unstressed, one stressed behind
Trochee one stressed, one unstressed Friday
Anapaest two unstressed, one stressed in the house
Dactyl one stressed, two unstressed heartily
Anti-bacchic one unstressed, two stressed a long night
Bacchic two stressed, one unstressed deep breathing
Amphibrach one unstressed, one stressed, behaviour
Amphimacer one stressed, one unstressed, candle wax
Tribrach three unstressed if it is
Molossus three stressed four train guards
The metrical foot most often used in the English language is the one that fits most naturally into the way words are pronounced. This is the iambic foot, often in the pentameter version. So a single line of iambic pentameter consists of five feet, each of two syllables - the first unstressed, and the second stressed. Try saying this line aloud, and the pronunciation should fall neatly into the pattern:
He rode the horse across the furrowed field.
To avoid any possible misreading, the line can be marked with x to indicate an unstressed syllable, and / for a stressed one:
x / x / x / x / x / He rode the horse across the furrowed field.
Iambic tetrameter, with lines a foot (two syllables) shorter, is second in popularity:
x / x / x / x / He rode the horse across the field.
Following close behind is iambic hexameter, with its six feet, also known as the alexandrine. Some forms end a stanza of iambic pentameter with an alexandrine or two.
x / x / x / x / x / x / He rode a chestnut horse across the furrowed field
Once a pattern such as iambic pentameter is established, it's important to keep to it throughout the poem, unless you are changing it for a sound artistic reason; but it would become very dull if it were pounded out for hundreds of lines without a single variant. It's a good idea to practise unvaried metre until it becomes second nature, and then to look at the tiny syncopations that work within it.
The first of these frequently used variants is initial trochaic substitution, where you replace the first iambus with a trochee, so that the line begins with a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed, and then reverts to the usual form, eg:
/ x x / x / x / x / Riding a horse across the furrowed field
This gives a pleasing effect, but it's important to remember to change back to the familiar pattern in the second foot.
The other change that often occurs is the addition of an unstressed syllable at the end of the line, or feminine ending:
x / x / x / x / x / x He rode a horse across the grassy meadow.
This gives a lingering note to the end of the line, and again makes an attractive change. (The less usual additional stressed syllable is a masculine ending.)
Iambic pentameters produced without rhyme are known as blank verse, a good device for conveying a narrative poem. It's the form we find in the main body of Shakespeare's plays, (although he does include occasional fully rhymed extracts and also some prose.) Wordsworth's autobiographical work, The Prelude, is also written in blank verse, and this form is dealt with in more detail in Chapter 5.
It's always useful to read developing poems aloud, as it gives a new angle on them. When you are assessing your use of metre and line length it's especially important, as any hiccups are discovered by the ear as readily as the eye.
The alphabet juggling comes with the addition of rhyme to the lines, as letters are used to indicate where rhymes fall. Each time a new full (exact) rhyme sound is introduced, it's assigned the next letter of the alphabet. Appearing in lower case means that it will rhyme, whereas upper case means that it will be repeated, often alongside other repeated words or maybe the whole line. If a number of lines rhyming together are repeated, an alphanumeric system is used: A1 A2 A3, B1 B2 etc. If a sound is not going to rhyme with anything, the letter x appears.
The shades of night A
were lifting, light a
expelling shadows, x
drawing day. b
The shades of night A
were put to flight. a
He shuddered, wept x
and tried to pray. b
He never knew c
that she wept too.
Further rhyme sounds would be designated d, e, f, and so on with R standing for a refrain, (repeated word/s usually appearing between stanzas,) and a forward slash denoting slant rhyme with its sound similarity, rather than full rhyme.
If you do not already have one, a rhyming dictionary, on paper or electronic, is a vital piece of equipment for anyone wanting to write in set forms. Some people worry that this is a form of cheating. That is most definitely not the case. The rhyming dictionary does not give you the answers; it simply sets out the possibilities so that you can make your choice. It bypasses some of the poetry spadework, allowing you more time and creative energy to concentrate on the poem itself, rather than on the mechanics of construction. Think of it as a tool that helps with the job, and it will become your best friend.
By the end of the twentieth century, over 250 forms were in regular use. The communications explosion of the internet has seen that number increase wildly. New forms are being proposed all the time, some more successful than others. This means that there's nearly always a form available for the poem you want to write. Many of the forms discussed in this book are accompanied by suggestions for the type of content that could work well in them.
The forms are explained according to any combination of the elements of number of lines or stanzas, line length, metre, rhyme, word or syllable count, and shape. If you don't enjoy the idea of working from statistics, you can use the examples as a template, fitting your own subject matter into the same pattern. Do still look at the statistical bit, though, as there are often alternatives offered which are not shown as separate examples.
This same practice can, of course, be continued in the wider world of poetry, in both set form patterns and free verse. The devices for conveying a poem you read may strike you as a brilliant idea for communicating something you're wishing to say, but can't work out how to begin. A device as simple as starting the poem with a phrase like I hate it when ... can be enough for you to emulate in order to kickstart your own material. By all means make good use of any such source, and you may trigger a brilliant poem from it.
Always remember, though, that your finished poem must be yours. You don't want it to appear like a pale imitation of someone else's. Make sure your subject matter is vastly different from theirs; and when you have completed the poem fitting the template that inspired you, make enough adjustments to your writing for it to be impossible to identify its source. Then you will have the satisfaction of knowing you have written an original piece, and will not be kept awake by anxieties about a suit for plagiarism.
Usually the selection of form is instinctive, but sometimes it helps to have a hint of guidance. However experienced a poet is, there's always a chance that things could go wrong, resulting in a thought-provoking poem to be delivered at a funeral produced in jaunty rhyming couplets, or a light, frothy subject in ponderous iambic hexameters.
If you have the slightest uncertainty about the best form for a subject, it's useful to try it out in a range of different forms. Sometimes you can surprise yourself by experimenting with a form on the off-chance it might work ... only to find it's the perfect vehicle for your idea. And if you decide that half a dozen experiments didn't work, you can remind yourself that it wasn't a waste of time. The experience of trying out the forms adds to both your writing skills and your understanding of the relationship between subject and form.
The following exercises are designed to help you get the most practical help from the information in this book. They are, where possible, open enough to allow you to return to them repeatedly and produce new work. Some are designed to put into practice theoretical points we have considered. Others will lead to complete poems. And in case you have the slightest doubt about these, remember that it doesn't matter whether a poem started as an inspirational bolt from the blue or from the slog of an exercise; it's where you take the germ of an idea - and what you do with it - that counts.
1. Following the example of the line about the man riding a horse, create a single line of iambic pentameter, then adapt it to iambic tetrameter, as an alexandrine, then with initial trochaic substitution, and finally with a feminine ending. Which version pleases you most? How have the meaning and grammar altered with the adjustments?
2. Select any nursery rhyme and see whether you can identify the key metre it uses. The reason for using nursery rhymes is that they tend to have a regular beat, and you can recite them without looking at the page. The reason for 'key' metre is because there are often variations part way through the verse. If the idea of identifying the feet is too tedious, simply say them aloud to yourself and listen to the metrical patterns.
3. Take any rhymed poem you have not read before, and mark the rhymes alphabetically as indicated in the Shades of night verse. Leave it for a day or two. Return to the poem and, without re-reading it, make a note of the combination of letters. Now write your own poem on a different theme, reproducing the rhyme scheme. When you have finished, compare your version with the original to check that rhymes have been placed in the same positions.
4. Read aloud some nineteenth or late eighteenth century poetry. Even if the poem sounds less magical, let your voice over-stress the weightier syllables of the line, and under-stress the lighter ones. Can you spot irregularities in the poem? Are they subtle or glaring? Can you identify what the poem was doing there?
5. Pick any line length except pentameter from the list, and write a few lines to the length in iambic feet on any subject. Now write lines to the same length in trochaic feet.
6. Write a poem - rhymed or unrhymed - in amphibrachic dimeter beginning with the word 'Remember.' If you wish, make some of the lines, placed at regular intervals, a syllable shorter (catalectic lines,) as demonstrated:
Remember the teacher
who gave inspiration
to prompt you to follow (each line two amphibrachs)
the path to your dreams. (catalectic)
Incidentally, a line may have an unstressed syllable missing at its start. This is referred to as acephalous.CHAPTER 2
Short and Simple
The simplest form of poetry is the rhyming couplet, where two consecutive lines rhyme together. This gives the rhyme pattern: a a and can be continued to form: aa bb cc dd etc. It's easy to write and easy to remember. In fact, many of the first verses we learned by heart as children use rhyming couplets, such as:
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall, a
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall ... a
followed by another couplet with a different rhyming sound:
All the King's horses and all the King's men b
Couldn't put Humpty together again.
This nursery rhyme introduces two points of interest to the poet. First, in addition to the rhymes it is full of repetition, with the name and the references to All the King's. This type of deliberate repetition is used to reinforce the sense of poetry - and is distinct from accidental repeats, where unintentional over-use of a word can become tedious.
Also, there is an example in the second rhyme of a sound which may lose its impact through pronunciation. Although the men/again rhyme works perfectly in standard English, some regional variations result in the use of the -ay sound rather than the -e, to give ag-ay-n instead of ag-e-n. You can spot this phenomenon, too, when poets write within the pronunciation of their regional accent. Wordsworth, for example, rhymes matter with water, and of course he would have used the short -a sound in both words.
Excerpted from Compass Points: A Practical Guide to Poetry Forms by Alison Chisholm. Copyright © 2013 Alison Chisholm. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 The Concept of Form 2
Chapter 2 Short and Simple 11
Sicilian Tercet 17
Italian Envelope Stanza 22
Chapter 3 Learning from Italy 26
Ottava Rima 30
Terza Rimas 32
Chapter 4 Let's Hear it Again… 35
Chaucerian Roundels 39
Chapter 5 And Another Thing… 56
Burns Stanza 59
Blank Verse 66
Rime Royal 69
Chapter 6 Numbers and Pictures 71
Rhymed Syllabics 74
Englyns or Englynion
Spatial Poetry 76
Chapter 7 Free Verse - Or Is It? 80
Chapter 8 Where to Next? 90