Writing in Form: Two Possibilities


Choose one of two fixed forms in which to write a poem: a sonnet or a pantoum. Before you attempt your own poem, you should read the comments and links below including the sonnets and pantoums to which I’ve linked, as well as perhaps digging through some anthologies for formal pieces that strike you. Here are a few key notions I would like you to remember about writing fixed forms.

Entering the Poetic Tradition

Forms that seem prescriptive to us were once merely descriptive. The codified “rules” of writing sonnets or ballads or pantoums (or Hebrew acrostic poetry) often were compiled after years and years of experimentation by writers and singers. After these artists found ways of shaping language to their needs (and to the needs of their culture), they continued to use those familiar shapes, pouring new language and notions into their past successful methods until, after a time, others copied them. And after still more time others broke with and altered these forms to meet new needs and linguistic developments. Attempting to write in these forms is a way to enter into that poetic tradition, to understand more fully how the language works, and to see how the language has changed over time. It will make you both a better writer and a better reader if you understand some of these forms from the inside out.

Form and Function

At first, writing formal poems will seem like linguistic calisthenics. However, after more experience with forms, you might find that particular forms actually prove useful as a means of dealing with particular subject matter. For instance, I was attempting to write a poem about my wife’s grandfather, a man who worked for many years as a mason. It wasn’t until I discovered the pantoum that my poem began to work. The interlocking layers of the language and the rhythmic repetition turned a rather distant portrait of a long dead relative into a meditation on the act of making things, of choosing one word or brick over another. Be conscious, then, of how the forms you investigate fit themselves especially well to certain subject matter.

No Archaic Language

WordsworthDonneKeats, and Shakespeare used the language of their day. Though the forms may be old, it’s important that you also attempt to write using a contemporary version of English–both in terms of diction/word choice and syntax. If part of the exercise is to learn how the language works, you need to use the language as it has evolved. So avoid “thee” and “thou” and be conscious of the effects of flipping word order. Using occasional enjambment and/or slant rhymes is one way to avoid archaic sounding lines.

An Elizabethan Sonnet: While English speaking poets write three main types of sonnets (Petrarchan, Spenserian, and Elizabethan), I think it’s easiest to begin with the Elizabethan or Shakespearian sonnet. Here are the major elements of the form

Length and Rhyme Scheme: A sonnet consists of 14 lines of rhymed iambic pentameter. The rhyme scheme occurs in sets of quatrains, or four lines, with every other line rhyming. For example, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 has these three quatrains:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold, a

When yellow leaves, or none, or few do hang b

Upon those boughs which shake against the cold, a

Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang. b

In me thou seest the twilight of such day, c

As after sunset fadeth in the west, d

Which by and by black night doth take away, c

Death’s second self that seals up all in rest. d

In me thou seest the glowing of such fire, e

That on the ashes of his youth doth lie, f

As the death-bed, whereon it must expire, e

Consumed with that which it was nourished by. f

The poem ends with a rhyming couplet:

This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong, g

To love that well, which thou must leave ere long. g

Octave and Sestet Besides being grouped by rhyme scheme, most sonnets also follow another sort of organization, one that is more an arrangement of thought or feeling. The first either lines, or octave, usually pose a problem or question. The final six lines, or sestet, then respond with a solution or answer. This requires a kind of turn, or volta, between the octave and sestet.

Meter and Rhythm

Each line in a sonnet utilizes iambic pentameter, historically the most common meter in English poetry. An iamb, or foot, is composed of two syllables, with the second syllable being the one that isemphasized. Each line in iambic pentameter consists of 10 syllables, or five feet:

when I / con SID / er HOW / my LIFE / is SPENT

that TIME / of YEAR / thou MAYST / in ME / be HOLD

Of course when you read a sonnet aloud, you don’t necessarily ride the emphasized syllable. And sometimes, you may want to break with the standard pattern of unstressed/stressed. But this underlying rhythmic pattern is a basic part of a sonnet.

Subject Matter

Sonnet actually means “little song,” and as such sonnets were typically lyric poems about love, most often romantic love. Nearly as often, sonnets have been meditations on God, mortality, or nature. The octave/sestet structure often fits these subjects especially well, as the speaker in the poem raises a question about love/God/death and then finds his or her way towards a temporary answer. Don’t feel constrained, however, by these historical subjects. Try several subjects and see what the form does to shape your thinking about them.

Some Sonnets in mostly contemporary vernacular

Unholy Sonnet–Mark Jarman (Look especially at the one beginning “Think of the harsh attire that God put on”)

First Fight, Then Fiddle–Gwendolyn Brooks


The Pantoum

A pantoum is a Malaysian form of poetry that relies on interlocking, repeating lines, not unlike the French villanelle. Unlike a villanelle, however, the repetitions in a pantoum only move from stanza to stanza. A pantoum is written in four line stanzas, or quatrains, in which the second and fourth lines of one quatrain become the first and third lines of the next quatrain. There is no fixed line length or topic, and in English the pantoum does not necessarily rhyme. Here is a pattern of the form:

Stanza 1:

Line 1

Line 2

Line 3

Line 4

Stanza 2:

Line 5 (repeat of line 2 in stanza 1)

Line 6 (new line)

Line 7 (repeat of line 4 in stanza 1)

Line 8 (new line)

Stanza 3/Last Stanza:

Line 9 (line 2 of the previous stanza)

Line 10 (line 3 of the first stanza)

Line 11 (line 4 of the previous stanza)

Line 12 (line 1 of the first stanza)

You can read a similar explanation of the pantoum here orhere.

And here are a few samples:

Another Lullaby for Insomniacs–A. E. Stallings

First Pantoum of Summer–Erica Funkhouser

One sleep depletes, another fills the well
Our night’s companion shapes the coming day.
My bed this morning grew drafty as a cell
When you took off for town. I couldn’t stay.

Our night’s companion shapes the coming day,
And where we make our bed can make us weep.
When you took off for town, I couldn’t stay.
I fell into these woords—a second sleep.

Where we make our bed can make us weep
Or leave us a clean and clear and ravenous.
I fell into these words—a second sleep,
A summer sleep, the windows generous.

You left me clean and clear and ravenous.
I drank new air, a warm and welcome stream
Of summer sleep, the windows generous.
Here or away, you lead me out of dream.

I drank new air, a warm and welcome stream.
My bed this morning grew drafty as a cell.
Here or away, you lead me out of dream.
One sleep depletes, another fills the well.

Watching Ella Trip in Her Seventies–D. Wright

You can believe when Ella trips,
moving on stage, she’ll never get up,
this old woman with her broken hip,
her arm crooked like the handle of a cup.

Moving on stage, she’ll never get up
to the top of her range again. Again,
her arm crooked like the handle of a cup,
she arcs her neck, eyes closed, no strain

to the top of her range again, again,
beyond, within this body she has left.
She arcs her neck, eyes closed, no strain
and here’s the songbook she’s kept

beyond, within this body she has left.
She mimics Bird, and you think of his death,
and here’s the songbook she’s kept,
phrases like bursts of her own breath.

She mimics Bird, and you think of his death,
This old woman and her broken, hip
phrases like bursts of her own breath.
You can believe, when Ella trips.

Altar Piece–D. Wright

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