Why Write in Form?
When we think of mastery, we think of practice, and when we think of practice, we often think of repetition. Violinists spend much of their early years running scales before their fingers automatically and thoughtlessly assume their proper positions on the fretboard. Ceramicists must learn to wedge clay and center the clay on the wheel before they can successfully make pots. Outside art and music, basketball players put in countless hours perfecting their lay-ups, ballet dancers’ toes bleed inside their pointe shoes, and swimmers crisscross the length of a pool countless times hoping to shave milliseconds off their time.
Although repetition is necessary, practice isn’t just repetition. When we practice, we do two things: we isolate a technique for study, and we engage with difficulty. In art and in sport, we acquire muscle memory by putting our bodies through movements over and over, repeatedly challenging our skills and abilities and refining our technique. If making a bank shot in pool was easy, we’d all be pool sharks.
In poetry, one of the best ways to practice technique is to write in traditional forms. But for many writers—and I’ve been guilty of this as well—this notion can elicit not just avoidance but also outright opposition. It’s easy enough to look at the current literary landscape and say there’s no point to practicing these old forms. Most journals don’t seem interested in publishing formal poetry, and though there are some fantastic poets working in form today, they are in the minority. Even when there is a resurgence of interest in form (such as New Formalism), it’s seen as an outlier, even reactionary.
Perhaps some of this opposition stems from a common misconception. Unlike other arts—and perhaps even other forms of writing—readers and writers alike often associate poetry with feeling, not technique. Part of this may stem from a misunderstanding of William Wordsworth’s famous definition of poetry, in which he begins, “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings. …” His wording encourages a reading in which poetry simply occurs and does so uncontrollably. If this is the part of the quotation that sticks with you, it’s no surprise that you might associate poetry more with emotional intensity and less with the how of its conveyance. But in the second half of that quotation, Wordsworth tempers his original statement: “... it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” Those unexpected and powerful feelings are actually being observed at a calming distance from that emotion.
More important, Wordsworth’s statement doesn’t acknowledge the structure that serves as a scaffolding for those feelings, a framework that makes a poem more than just cathartic release. It doesn’t acknowledge form. Why would it? For Wordsworth and his contemporaries 200 years ago, form was assumed. If a poem didn’t rhyme, readers could be sure it employed some sort of metrical scheme.
Associating poetry with feeling can seem very egalitarian because everyone has feelings. Although that’s true, not everyone is a poet, and the message of this model of art is actually exclusionary: it doesn’t offer an aspirant poet a pragmatic path forward because it hides the real work behind the scenes. What is an aspiring poet supposed to do in this model—feel harder?
I want to clarify that some of the best poets have qualities that can’t be practiced. It’s that ill-defined, hard-to-put-your-finger-on something that separates merely technically proficient writing from the work we call genius. Whether we have that spark is out of our hands, but we can have all the inspiration in the world, and it won’t matter if we can’t express it well. Setting aside romantic notions of poetry and dealing with the nitty-gritty of technique gives all of us the ability to improve our poetry. We all, with practice, might move others to feel something that we have felt or to see the world as we do. If we’ve got that spark, technique gives us a way to share it. For my money—mind you, I am a poet, so that’s not much—writing in form is one of the best ways for poets to practice technique.
Even if you have no desire to be a “formal” poet (and no one says you must choose a side!), the skills you learn by grappling with form are skills that will serve you well in free verse. Poets who tune their ears to iambs and trochees are poets who have a better sense of a line’s rhythm. After all, free verse isn’t entirely without meter—rather, its meter just doesn’t have a consistent, discernable pattern. Look at these lines from the second stanza of W.S. Merwin’s “In the Winter of My Thirty-Eighth Year”:
Walking in fog and rain and seeing nothingI imagine all the clocks have died in the nightNow no one is looking I could choose my ageIt would be younger I suppose so I am older
The first line of this stanza catches my ear. I hear a pattern: WALKing in | FOG and | RAIN and | SEEing | NOTHing. There are five feet to the line, a dactyl followed by four trochees. Such a musical line in a free verse poem arrests readers, even if they don’t recognize why.
Because the first line seems metrical, I look more carefully at the second line. I hear it like this: I iMAgine ALL the CLOCKS have DIED in the NIGHT. I want all to be unstressed so that “all the CLOCKS” and “in the NIGHT” are matching anapests. I like that idea because it nicely links the two images. But when I say the whole line aloud, I keep stressing that ALL. The line doesn’t seem metrical, but it almost does. Viewed in the context of the previous line, Merwin sets up a metrical pattern and then lets it dissipate. This structure reinforces the sense of the lines, in which clocks, the keepers of order, have lost their power.
What about those last lines? I would argue that they aren’t just unmetrical but anti-metrical. Because Merwin doesn’t use punctuation in the poem, it challenges our sense of syntax. The first and second lines are complete clauses; it’s no great challenge to our sensibility to view the line breaks as the missing punctuation between them. But in lines three and four, independent clauses butt up against each other in the same lines. This gives the lines a rushed quality, a sense that things are running together. To my ear, it also has the effect of flattening the stresses in the line. I hear stresses on CHOOSE and YOUNGer, but on the whole, the lines have a monotone quality. This effect amplifies their meaning. In the first two lines, the speaker indulges in a fantasy in which time ceases to matter. But as the stanza continues, the lines rush together just as time rushes on, and the conclusion of the fantasy (“I could choose my age / It would be younger”) only confirms its impossibility (“so I am older”).
I very much doubt that Merwin, while composing this poem, said to himself, “I’m gonna slip a line of iambic pentameter into this free verse poem just to mess with them.” Instead, I suspect that he had spent some time in the past reading and writing metrical poetry and employed these techniques more or less unconsciously. His knowledge of meter attuned him to the line’s rhythm. Imagine if he had instead written “WALKing in the FOG and RAIN, SEEing NOTHing.” Suddenly, it’s a very different poem; we lose the rhythm of walking.
Meter is like allusion. We use it all the time whether we know it or not—it’s inescapable. Just as the idea of two kids in love from warring families can’t help but conjure up Romeo and Juliet, so too does language fall into patterns that evoke older associations. We do this without even thinking; free verse poetry is littered with meter. By writing intuitively, we naturally fall in and out of meter. But if you’re unable to identify that meter and understand how it is or isn’t working with your meaning, you’re abdicating a large degree of control.
I begin with meter because prosody is the first formal element to leap to most poets’ minds and perhaps the most intimidating. Rhyme is probably the second and has a worse reputation. Many of us think of poetry with a set rhyme scheme as old-fashioned and just bad. Here’s an example of what may come to mind when we think of formal, rhymed poetry:
It was biting cold, and the falling snow,Which filled a poor little match girl’s heart with woe,Who was bareheaded and barefooted, as she went along the street,Crying, “Who’ll buy my matches? for I want pennies to buy some meat!”
These lines are by William McGonagall from his poem “The Little Match Girl.” I hope you’ll forgive me for picking on him a little. He was a fascinating figure—former Shakespearean actor, self-styled “Knight of the White Elephant of Burma”—but not a great poet. When rhyme is bad, it’s really bad, and it’s bad because we know what rhymes are coming. Of course he rhymes snow with woe. I know that from the moment I see the word filled. But—ignoring meter for the moment (and McGonagall seems to, often)—imagine if those lines instead read, “It was biting cold, and the falling snow / scraped the match girl’s heart hollow.” I’m not saying it’s brilliant, but in this version, we don’t know exactly where the line is going before we get there. There’s a little bit of surprise, not to mention personification and image.
But what makes this rhyming poem “bad” isn’t just that McGonagall is picking expected rhymes. It’s that you can see him working so hard to get to them. We may look at a poem like this and think that the writer lacks control over the language—but what we’re really seeing is a poet who can’t give up control. The meter and even the line length in his work is all over the place because McGonagall knows what rhyme he wants and will do whatever he can to get there.
One was fire red,Hand carved and new—The local maker pried the woodFrom a torn-down church's pew,The Devil's instrumentWrenched from the house of God.It answered merrily and clearThough my fingering was flawed;
The rhyme new/pew is straight and simple, but as a reader, I don’t see pew coming until I get to church. At that point, the rhyme slips easily into place. Likewise, the second stanza’s rhyme of God/flawed feels natural and unforced, and pairing the idea of imperfection with that of God further reinforces the almost sacrilegious origins of this violin, “the Devil’s instrument.” There’s a sense of the inevitable with rhymes such as these, yet there’s also surprise.
I’ve heard more than one creative writing teacher say, “I had to ban rhymes in my workshop.” Believe me, I sympathize. Reading bad rhyme can feel as though someone is intentionally trying to hurt you. But those wooden or clumsy rhymes are still going to be present in free verse poetry; there will simply be fewer of them. Formal poems lay these deficiencies bare. When we prioritize a rhyme’s completion over syntax or sense, then rhyme is only a problem to solve, not a tool to amplify meaning. Creating a poem with a graceful rhyme scheme asks us to experiment with many different structures to improve our fluidity and even our vocabulary. Yes, we’ll write a lot of clunkers on the way. Struggling with rhyme in a formal poem, successfully or not, means the rhymes we use in free verse will be more subtle. We’ll better understand the effects of placing those rhymes near or far from each other because we’ll better understand the effects of rhyme in close proximity.
Rather than sidestepping the problem, we should confront it head on. If teachers of poetry ask intermediate students to write at least ten formal poems before moving on to free verse, then those students will better understand not only the tools and qualities of language but also the history of poetry. Poets who are teaching themselves could set this as a personal assignment. Many forms that sharpen skills are useful in free verse. Forms with repeating lines, such as the villanelle or the triolet, help train poets in the power of repetition and refrain in free verse and how a phrase can be recast through shifting context. A form such as the sestina, in which only words repeat, might help you work with recurrent images. It will certainly push you to write a longer poem. The ghazal, whose couplets can operate autonomously, is a lesson in juxtaposition. The possibilities aren’t limiting; they’re endless.
This proposal may seem retrograde. In the past, visual artists with classical educations might go through something like the atelier model, in which they began by drawing plaster casts, then reproducing drawing masterpieces, and finally moving on to the live figure. The idea is that beginning artists learn the fundamentals before moving on to create their own art. Van Gogh was trained in this way. So was Picasso. Willem de Kooning too. None of these artists was “traditional” for his time; instead, their work was revolutionary. The atelier style of teaching declined in the United States during the 1970s, when conceptual art took hold in universities. I don’t advocate a return to classicism or strict realism, but is it so hard to believe that students who wish to create art in a non-representational, abstract style might greatly benefit from first learning how to create representational art? If nothing else, it gives their aesthetic choices authority because they understand the “rules” they are breaking. It gives them an understanding of artistic history and lineage. So it is with writing.
When I ask my students to write formal poetry, I tell them that these may not be their best poems. These are practice, and they are difficult. Most things worth learning are difficult. The masters of art and writing make hard expressions look effortless. We aren’t privy to the years they’ve spent gaining that seemingly tossed-off quality. When we mistake hard-won skill for ineffable and rare genius, we excuse ourselves from attempting to match them, and we lower our sights to something comfortable and more easily attainable.
Rebecca Hazelton is the author of Fair Copy (2012), winner of the Ohio State University Press/The Journal Award in Poetry, and Vow (2013), from Cleveland State University Poetry Center. She was the 2010-11 Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellow at the University of Wisconsin, Madison's Creative Writing Institute; and winner of the “Discovery”/Boston...