Over the weekend, one of my friends mentioned that she’s interested in the creative work of writing poetry, and asked me for a few guidelines, that could help get her going. I’m sharing some of my thoughts here, in hopes that they might be useful to others, too.
Form and Limit in the Poet’s Craft
All four of the poetic forms that I’ll be discussing here offer some kind of limits, as a scaffold or container for the poet’s work: whether simply from counting whole words, or from counting syllables, or from more complex rules around syllables, rhymes, and themes taken together.
Not all of the poetry I write, or that I enjoy reading, follows such strict guidelines. But I think there’s a lot to be learned from working within the structure of a poetic form, whether traditional or more modern. Voluntarily working with a set of limits can be a source of growth, strength, power, and inspiration, as the form challenges us, and encourages us to take special care with each word, each sound, each subtle element of the work.
Working with an established form encourages me to have a kind of focus or attention on small details, that I might not ordinarily bring to my words. Though I have also found that once I get in the habit, I do start bringing this careful attention to other aspects of my written and spoken communication, whether I’m working in free verse, or in prose, or whatever.
The constraints of an established form can also bring a sense of value to the elements of the completed poem itself. Every word, every sound, every absence of an expected word or sound—all of these need to matter. Each one of them can be carefully chosen, and thereby imbued with a kind of power.
Finally, working within a standard form can help us to overcome an initial sense of being lost at sea, with so many vague and ambiguous possibilities that we have no idea where to turn next. Knowing that we need a rhyme here, or a contrasting perspective there, can provide a helpful push, when we don’t quite know where to begin, or where to go next.
So at their best, the requirements of the poetic form—however simple or complex they may be—can provide a skeleton, a frame, a container for building something wonderful. And they also can provide a challenge, a provocation, strengthening us and our work in exactly those moments where we push against them.
With that, here are some basic descriptions of three poetic forms, which are among my favorites to write. They range from the straightforward to the much more complex, yet all of them offer interesting opportunities for expression and creativity, and for learning about sound, language, and the play of words.
These are just what the name says: the entire thing is exactly 50 words, with 10 lines of 5 words each. The number of syllables doesn’t matter, and because of that, this form has taught me some things about the relationship between words, sounds, and syllables. What does it mean, in terms of sounds, for two five-word lines to feel balanced? Or for two lines, despite both having the same number of words, to feel notably out of balance? When do those asymmetries create a pleasing effect, and when are they unwelcome?
When I write these, I sometimes start with a lot of extra lines, and/or extra words in my lines, and then slowly massage it down into the right shape, like a sculptor chipping away the bits of stone that the statue doesn’t need.
It’s interesting to notice what happens when I leave out certain familiar words (articles like a, an, the, or connecting words like and) in order to get the lines to work out, and to see what happens when I play with the relation of line-breaks and meaning-breaks, which don’t always have to line up with each other!
From my own 50-word poems, here’s an example that illustrates all these features:
Just outside an open window
Mighty, agéd Oak stands sentinel.
New green leaves dance, sway
In time with gentle breezes.
Sun’s dappled beams filter through
The leaves, and the windowpanes.
Wind picks up, blows strong,
Supple branches twist and wave,
As leaves find their voice
Singing susurrus songs of spring.
As far as I know, counting words—as opposed to syllables or other units of time—is a decidedly modern phenomenon, but still an interesting one, and I find myself working with this form quite a lot. I owe my awareness of this particular form to a blog post by Andrew Watt.
Haiku and Tanka
These are two traditional Japanese forms. On the one hand, they’re really short and sweet; on the other hand, that very shortness encourages paying attention to every word and every syllable.
A haiku has 3 lines: the first is 5 syllables, the second is 7 syllables, and the third is 5 syllables. Traditionally the theme is something to do with nature or the season(s), but I’ve written them on a lot of other themes as well.
The tanka form developed when one poet would write a haiku, then give it to another poet, who would add two more lines (each of 7 syllables) at the end, to make some kind of contrast or other reply to the haiku. Of course, you can do this all on your own, by writing the haiku then adding your own “reply” from another voice or perspective.
As with the 50-word poems (but even moreso!) it’s often necessary to leave out ordinary words, and to be suggestive rather than fully descriptive. You can create some really fun effects this way!
Also, both haiku and tanka tend to be printed with each line centered on the page. I’m really not sure why; that’s just how I’m used to seeing them.
An Elemental Tanka
Cool breeze under sun,
Rich fragrance of earthy loam
After gentle rain:
Four elements conspire
To bring forth abundant life.
The Classic Sonnet
The basic form is 14 lines, where the first 8 lines set out a theme, the next 4 lines give some kind of counter-theme, and the final 2 lines resolve the “tension” between the two themes. Shakespeare is justly famous for his sonnets, but any of us, with some time and effort, can craft our own.
In English, there are normally 10 syllables in each line, though apparently this is different in other languages. It can be fun to play with what happens when you change up the pattern of the accent, while still keeping the 10 syllables. For example, in the example I share below, most of the lines are “da DA, da DA, da DA, da DA, da DA,” but the 5th line ends with all stressed syllables: “da DA, da DA, da DA, da DA DA DA,” which (at least to my ear) gives the effect of the beating August sun here in the high mountain desert. There might also be something of the “echo” in the 8th line: “da DA da da, da DA da, DA da DA.”
As you read aloud, note some of the other places where you’re naturally inclined to speed up, or to pause, or to change the patterns of stress.
Tall pine trees stand beside the tranquil lake,
Their needles whisper in the gentle breeze.
Trunk and branches sway just as they please,
A soft susurrus in the wind to make.
While high above the summer sun’s rays beat
To scorch the earth and turn the grass to brown.
Grey smoke arises from the hill’s stark crown:
Flames echo there the searing solar heat.
Yet soon enough, the seasons’ course will turn:
Long winter nights will close in over all.
Deep snows atop these mountains then shall fall
To cool the land which months ago did burn.
And through it all—fierce heat or winter’s sleep—
The pine trees still their quiet vigil keep.
You can also see the standard rhyme pattern here (where the same letters indicate rhyming lines): ABBA CDDC EFFE (or sometimes EFEF) GG.
(I also cheated a bit in the 3rd line. Can you see what I did, and why the rhythm of the line let me get away with it?)
This is definitely the most challenging of the forms I’ve listed here, but it can be very rewarding for exactly that reason!
Explore, and Have Fun!
In the end, the best way to learn about poetry is to read (and to memorize!) poems that strike us with beauty or inspiration, and to begin crafting our own. The more that we simply slow down, pay attention, and keep on putting pen to paper, the more that the work itself will teach us.