Poetic form – The perfect way to add freedom and fun to your study of poetry
Joseph Coelho explains how students and teachers can explore the rich, creative possibilities of different poetic forms
Poetic form is hard. It’s obscure, and involves iambic pentameter and something about feet!
That’s what often goes through the mind of someone confronting the syllable- and beat-ridden world of poetic form – frequently for good reason. Form can indeed be hard. It may well involve meter, and feet, and strange creatures like spondees and trochees – but it doesn’t have to. And even when it does, it doesn’t have to be hard.
There are a huge variety of poetic forms that we can play with. Some involve stressed and unstressed syllables. Others might involve curving a line of text to create a shape. Others still can entail repetition and play, or even dives into other modes of writing entirely, like prose (haibuns) and letter writing (epistolaries).
At its heart, poetic form is about having fun with words; about pushing what a line of text can do, and can be as simple or as complex as you want it to be. Here, I’d like to share some of my own favourite forms that you can use in the classroom, which I hope will reveal to you and your students just how broad the creative possibilities of poetry really are.
First, let’s look at some one-word poems – the simplest form of all. The trick to writing a one-word poem is to have a long title…
The Sad Tale Of A Fly
The Day I Fell Down The Toilet
The Last Time I Cried
A one-word poem can be funny, silly, sad or anything in between. It’s always the first form I’ll share with a class because it’s so accessible and fun. Young and old alike get the ‘game’ of this form very quickly, and can’t help but want to start creating their own.
It’s a very non-threatening form that never fails to raise a smile in a classroom. It’s also a great way of getting students to sum up an experience, feeling or topic by whittling things down to a single title and a single word.
No doubt many readers will have encountered the acrostic poem and possibly become sick to death of it. It’s the go-to poetic form for when we need a quick poem where a word is written vertically down the side of the page…
Just reach for the clouds
Utilise the air beneath your feet
Make a breeze your stepping stone and
Push up into the sky.
No doubt you’ll have made a class write many of these during the holiday seasons. Yet while it can be a wonderful and accessible form, perhaps you and your students are ready for something a little more challenging. Therefore, may I introduce…
Now, we have our starting word down the centre of the poem, meaning we must find ways of incorporating its letters mid-sentence. This can be far more challenging, and thus far more rewarding to pull off successfully:
….The diving board Juggles my fears of falling,
…..the water below Undulates my worries
…….the blue pool’s Mirror swirls,
…tempts me to jumP into its wet hug.
If you’ve ever tried to give one of these a go, you’ll have probably found that instead of worrying about the poem being good, bad or ‘poetic’, you start focusing on finding words that can not only convey your meaning, but also fit the (creative) restraints of the form.
The little editor we all have living in our heads – that voice that whispers ‘You can’t do that, that won’t be good, that’s a silly idea’ – gets distracted trying to fit letters into words, letting you get on with the business of creating.
I see this distraction as the real value of the mesostic. It enables us to be freer in the creation of poetry, rather than getting tangled up in worries of ‘Is this good enough?’ It’s especially great for nervous writers – those who get so worried about the quality of their final piece that they never get to start!
For me, finishing a form poem often feels like coming up for air, and seeing afresh the dramatic landscape of the shoreline around you. That landscape, those crashing waves – they all make up the final poem, but you only get to fully appreciate that once the poem itself is complete, because you’ve been so focused on its creation. It’s a beautiful feeling, and can be quite addictive.
Once you get the bug for form, you can start searching out yet more ways of writing a poem and begin to see how the strengths of different forms reveal themselves.
The ballad is a simple rhyming form traditionally used to tell a story, and it’s easy see to why. Its regular rhythm lulls you into that sweet landscape of narrative. It’s often written in four-line verses that intermingle tetrameter (four stresses per line: ti-tum ti-tum ti-tum ti-tum) with Trimeter (three stresses per line: ti-tum ti-tum ti-tum).
But, as with everything relating to poetry, that’s entirely down to choice. As the old saying goes, once you know the rules you can start to break them.
This is a tale about a mouse
That tried to eat a cat
It chased the cat about the house
Now what’cha think of that!
It’s quite a seductive form. Once you get its rhythms in your head, you’ll want to hear or write more.
The cat did run, the mouse did grow
Its mouth became a hole
The cat did plea “please don’t eat me”
The mouse swallowed him whole.
As you dive deeper into form, you’ll find that different forms can support the intention of what you want to say in surprising ways.
The villanelle is a beautiful form, consisting of five three-line verses and one four-line verse. The first and third line of the first verse repeat alternately as the last line in each subsequent verse, before coming together in the final quatrain.
This regular repetition, along with the use of only two rhymes, for me, mirrors circular thinking – those times when you can’t stop pondering something due to a worry or fear going round and round your head, or following some great epiphany that wows you with its certainty.
A prime example is ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’ by Dylan Thomas, where the narrator is certain in their belief that one should “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
A pantoum shares some similarities with a villanelle, in that lines are repeated between its five quatrains. Here, however, each line is repeated only once, before being abandoned for a new repeating line and rhyme.
The effect of this pattern of repetition and abandonment is to create a sense of an evolving idea; a concept that’s developing, growing and changing form. For me, a pantoum mirrors the act of hashing out an idea, or discovering what it is that you truly believe.
By allowing young people to discover themselves as poets, showing them different entry points into poetry and revealing how different forms can help them share their voice, we can break down the fears often associated with poetry.
Perhaps then poetry can stop being a medium that’s only analysed and appreciated from afar, and instead become a tool that we can actively appreciate and use for ourselves.
Joseph Coelho is a poet, performer and the current Children’s Laureate; for more information, visit thepoetryofjosephcoelho.com