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I've written poetry for a long time, but most of it is free verse. Sometimes I want to experiment with forms (sonnets, villanelles, etc.). Are there any suggestions for working with the more formal structures, rhymes, etc.? I have several books on forms, so I'm not looking for a description of structures, but techniques.

  • Are you intending to be lyrical, satirical, bawdy, confounding, sublime, inspired? The deceptively simple Japanese Haiku is a wonderful "play" for beginners in Form. – Doctor Zhivago Jul 7 '16 at 2:08
  • I love a love-hate relationship with haiku. Every time I write one that I think is decent, there's always someone to tell me that I missed some aspect (such as a seasonal reference) and therefore it isn't really haiku. – Terri Simon Jul 7 '16 at 11:16
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Coming from free form, the poet's attitude towards poetry is somewhat radical. And this comes from the fact that the words flow freely through your ink. Most times, as it is said with the voice in the poet's head, so it is written. Form serves to do two things:

  1. Constrict this frivolity to write more purposeful poetry.
  2. Open up a form of expression hitherto unknown to the poet.

There are many ways to make this transition. But before making a transition into writing poetry to form, the poet needs to know, live, and breathe the forms

Learn (and practice!) the forms

When a poet writes to form, the poet's mind gets into the habit of thinking in that form. For starters, the poet can re-write a poem in a particular form with a pen and paper. Read the poem, and write it. For example, you see a Madrigal, you pick a pen and copy down the words on paper verbatim. Grunt work. This would get the poet thinking about being bound by rhyme schemes, refrains, and so on.

From this point on, the poet can go on to exercises. Practice writing poems in that structure. They do not have to make sense. Write write write. Take this exercise like the Japanese martial arts kata. Do it mindlessly.

Repeat this for different forms.

Now we have the forms in mind, these are a few tricks I have used to write poetry to form.

Start with the original idea

When you have an idea, say an inspiration, a line, a scenario... (frankly I don't know how these things come), write down the idea as plainly as possible. Most times, this idea will fit into some type of form. You may then choose to discipline yourself into continuing the entire poem in this form, or change the form to whatever feels better.

Use form purposefully

There are some forms which exist for certain purposes. If an idea is meant to serve a certain purpose, I have found it easier to use the form for this purpose. A few examples

  • I want to debate two points of view; I use a bob
  • A song comes to mind; I use a limerick, a ballad, sound poetry, or pure lyrics
  • Cajoling people or places? A clerihew would suffice
  • Showing linguistic prowess? A fib, monotetra, or any of them algorithmic forms
  • ...and so on.

Mix and match

Most free-verse poetry finely fits into spoken-word poetry. This claim is on the grounds that free-verse poetry mainly originates from the voice in the poet's head. That said, free-verse poetry would yield more to mixing poetry forms. I find this to be the easiest transition method for me because introducing many constrictions reduces the constricting. It's an odd irony (:

The poet can start with a free-verse poem and break up parts into form. This can expand or reduce the poem.

Try to use forms from different classes to increase the form variation. For example:

  • Variated: (Limerick - Clerihew - Limerick - Haiku - Sonnet). These are from different classes.
  • Not variated: (Haiku - Renga - Tanaka - Tanaka - Senyu) OR (Rondel - Rondeau). These are from the same classes and have similar form structures.

Start with the form in mind

I believe this to be the most difficult way to approach this task. In this method, before the idea comes, the poet already decides on the form: I am going to write a four-leaf alternating Etheree. The poet could be less specific.

This method serves to instill discipline on the poet. This is why I recommend it be used when learning about the forms. It could also be employed in poetry challenges and for other academic purposes.

  • Very helpful! I like the idea of hand-writing examples of forms, as I write my first drafts by hand and it will help internalize the form. I'm not sure I understand what you mean by variated and non-variated forms, however. Could you clarify? Thanks! – Terri Simon Sep 21 '16 at 20:22
  • Sorry, I was in the zone when writing this answer so I don't know if variated is the correct word to use (frankly, I don't even know if it's a word). But what I meant with variated is poetry forms which have visibly different structures. – iGbanam Sep 21 '16 at 20:31
  • If it's any use to the reader, checkout my instagram profile instagram.com/yaasky for some poetry written to form – iGbanam Jan 7 '17 at 0:46
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Forms are there to help you express yourself. They are not set in stone. For example, there is more than one type of sonnet.

Poets use forms but also 'break' them. Haiku is a good example. People get very precious about haiku in English and make up all sorts of rules around it. Consider that written Japanese doesn't even, I'm told, have syllables and you can appreciate the point.

I do not claim to be a great poet, but when teaching teenagers to write ballads I encourage them to get a rhythm in their heads and then start trying to fit words to it. Write down any lines that come close and when you have a few, start to work on them. Don't expect them to be perfect from the start.

A colleague of mine suggests thinking of pairs of words that rhyme related to the topic of your poem before you start. Make up a list and then start fitting them to your structure. I have used a variation of this with students where I gave them a list of rhyming words about Christmas before asking them to write a poem.

If you want to write something that rhymes, on line rhyming dictionaries can help.

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Formal poetry has a "puzzle" aspect to it, it's not enough to find the right word, it also has to fit the rules for its particular placement. That can be restrictive and frustrating, but it can also lead to unexpected creativity.

I'd recommend starting with a stricter form and following the rules exactly (no matter how arbitrary). Once you've internalized the lessons of structure, you can start relaxing or breaking the rules a bit as needed.

The classic sonnet in iambic pentameter is a good place to start, since it's strict, but also close to the rhythms of natural speech (so not impossible).

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