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Formal verse appears vulnerable to seeming archaic because it has generally fallen out of fashion. It may also increase the sense of immaturity, particularly with strict following of obvious forms (perhaps from a singsong effect, perhaps from not expertly breaking the rules).

While I rarely object to and have sometimes fully embraced an archaic sense, there may be times when a more modern feel is desired. Since a juvenile feeling is commonly associated with lack of quality, I would like to avoid it more generally.

Obviously reading good modern formal verse would help, but such verse is less common and less well filtered by time. Years ago, when I was more interesting in poetry, I read some Robert Frost (which sometimes seemed a little archaic because of its rural emphasis) and a little Edna St. Vincent Millay (which I enjoyed less, perhaps because of a more modern sentiment), and works in The Lyric and Plains Poetry Journal (to which I subscribed in part because they were likely targets for my own writing).

While I would certainly benefit from more extensive reading, I am interested in what techniques can be applied to avoid a juvenile or archaic feel without abandoning the creativity-enhancing constraints and aesthetic quality of formalism.

Techniques which seem to have been somewhat helpful include the use of longer lines, non-iambic feet, and more complex rhyming patterns as well as the mild violation of strict formal rules. Vocabulary and setting might also play significant roles in the feel of verse.

Obviously, what the verse is seeking to communicate introduces constraints, but within such constraints there remains significant flexibility.


Sentimental, idealistic, and playful inclinations may exacerbate this issue, but I do not wish to exclude such from my writing. (I am a something of a sentimentalist by Oscar Wilde's definition: "a man who sees an absurd value in everything, and doesn’t know the market price of any single thing"—Lady Windermere's Fan, Third Act.)

Incidentally, I have enjoyed playing with less familiar forms such as analyzed rhyme and alliterative verse (as from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight), so I am reasonably open to unusual forms.

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Create your own meter.

One that defies the rules. One that does follow constraints but not classical ones, but ones you've created by yourself.

My example approach: rhyming scheme:

A B A C B
D E D C D

Five-verse stanzas with one verse rhymed across stanzas. That's unorthodox. That's modern. That's restraining and challenging, but it doesn't fall into old, worn schemes.

Touch upon old, archaic schemes, like sonnet which requires repeating rhymes across stanzas (ABBA ABBA CDC CDC) or other restricting forms, a pantoum, a villanelle, but adapt them, change them to be your own, to violate the rules in ways you allow - or add restrictions of your own. You aren't immature creator of doggerel or a petrified, old writer of epic hexameter. You set your own rules - and then you follow them. You respect the ancients but you don't let them restrain you - or you shove additional restraints in their face.

There are countless meters. And roughly half of them is ancient and classic. Just reach for the other half without falling for the pitfall of some doggerel. Or violate the rules in some other way - adapt a classic scheme but subvert the topic, force modern themes into ancient frame.

Come, let us hasten to a higher plane,
Where dyads tread the fairy fields of Venn,
Their indices bedecked from one to n,
Commingled in an endless Markov chain!

Come, every frustum longs to be a cone,
And every vector dreams of matrices.
Hark to the gentle gradient of the breeze:
It whispers of a more ergodic zone.

In Riemann, Hilbert or in Banach space
Let superscripts and subscripts go their ways.
Our asymptotes no longer out of phase,
We shall encounter, counting, face to face.

I'll grant thee random access to my heart,
Thou'lt tell me all the constants of thy love;
And so we two shall all love's lemmas prove,
And in our bound partition never part.

For what did Cauchy know, or Christoffel,
Or Fourier, or any Boole or Euler,
Wielding their compasses, their pens and rulers,
Of thy supernal sinusoidal spell?

Cancel me not -- for what then shall remain?
Abscissas, some mantissas, modules, modes,
A root or two, a torus and a node:
The inverse of my verse, a null domain.

Ellipse of bliss, converse, O lips divine!
The product of our scalars is defined!
Cyberiad draws nigh, and the skew mind
cuts capers like a happy haversine.

I see the eigenvalue in thine eye,
I hear the tender tensor in thy sigh.
Bernoulli would have been content to die,
Had he but known such a squared cosine 2 phi!

From The Cyberiad, by Stanislaw Lem.

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I would suggest that poetry feels juvenile when it gives off the sense that the form (meter, rhyme, etc.) drove the composition, instead of the other way around. An extreme example of this is when a poet meanders through multiple subjects just to achieve rhyme (something I see in a lot of children's compositions), but can also be visible in someone imitating old-fashioned formal verse.

Do your poems vigorously express ideas, images, and feelings? Do you focus on what you wish to say, and let the "archaic" style serve your message? Or, on the other hand, do you find yourself trying to come up with things to say that will fit your meter?

Formal verse could be a fascinating medium if reduced to a tool for your work instead of an end of itself. If you expressed modern ideas in an unusual way, formal verse might serve you well indeed.

My suggestion on method might seem a little counter-intuitive. I would suggest that that you try the old-fashioned custom of first working on many imitative formal verse efforts until the style comes to you as effortlessly as possible. Once you understand formal verse from its roots, as it where, it will be much easier to "think in formal verse" and therefore to express your own poetry creatively and individually.

At that point, a formal verse poem about, say, the futility of cat pictures on the internet might feel quite mature and non-juvenile. :-)

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