What are some interesting verse forms?
February 16, 2007 1:39 AM   Subscribe

PoetFilter: I want to experiment with writing poetry in (relatively) obscure verse forms, but don't know which are challenging (in the fun way) and which are just mind-numbing.

I recently enrolled in a Creative Writing class that contains far more of a poetry element than I am comfortable with (I'm a pulp fiction/Philip K. Dick kinda guy.) After deciding to eschew blank/free verse, I wrote an Onegin stanza and was delighted with the challenge. There's plenty of guides out there, but I'd like the hivemind's opinion on the most fun to write. God knows I really won't be having any with it otherwise.
posted by griphus to Media & Arts (19 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
My first impulse was to recommend a guide
Lucky for you I read the more inside!

Clearly, I'm no poet.
I am interested in the forms though. This is tough because what is mind numbing for you may be big fun for someone else. How about a nice Sestina?

posted by safetyfork at 4:17 AM on February 16, 2007

In my experience, no "different" forms are fun to write in. If you're gonna experiment then experiment with the basics. Sprung Rhythm, Iambic Rhythm, Fixed Syllable lines, Rhymes, Half Rhymes, First, second & third person perspectives. Concentrate on different genres: political, personal, natural.

If you start by trying to write sestinas and villanelles then you're on a hiding to writing technically accomplished and ultimately boring poetry. The form should match the subject matter and the first thing you need to master is partially matching that subject matter to the tools in your basic toolbox.
posted by seanyboy at 4:49 AM on February 16, 2007

Also, every poet should own at least one copy of Frances Stillman's Poets Manual.
posted by seanyboy at 4:53 AM on February 16, 2007

As a counter to seanyboy, I'd say go through as many styles as you like, and find out by experience which ones suit you and which don't. I get myself into writing mode by writing "speed sonnets," in which I have to write down lines as soon as I think of them and can't cross anything out. Most of these are throwaways, but they get me into the right headspace. (I should add that these are Shakespearean sonnets; you can experiment with these and the Continental form)

Unlike seanyboy, I love villanelles; if two really versatile lines occur to you, you're away. (Bonus points if they rhyme.) If it's just one really resounding line that makes you think "DAMN THAT'S GOOD" and gives you lots of ideas, then you may have the seed of a ballade.

Forms I love: Sonnets (obviously), terza rima, ballade, blank verse, anything in tetrameter, whatever that stanza form is where you've got 4 lines of ABAB pentameter and then a couplet.

Forms I've taken on as a challenge and felt quite macho just for doing it: Pearl stanza, Raven stanza

Forms I'd really like to try one of these days: Don Juan stanza, rime royal

The only form I really find mindnumbing is the sestina. And heroic couplets can drive you crazy after a while. But as I said above, it's all down to what suits you and your individual writing style. Have fun!
posted by Pallas Athena at 5:18 AM on February 16, 2007

There's one form of (I think) six stanzas, each with six lines, with each line ending in a different word. Each of the five stanzas that follows ends each line with the same six words, but the order shifts around, and words with multiple meanings (homographs, I guess) can use those multiple meanings.

Also, there might be a final two-line stanza that uses the six words, three per line.

Can't remember the name of that form, but I've thought it neat since high school. I've only seen it once or twice, but it had a name. Anybody know what that's called?
posted by Alt F4 at 5:20 AM on February 16, 2007

Alt 4 is close to the sestina already mentioned. Writing a sestina was a bitch as previously mentioned. It led to my longest, and most profound, piece to date. I love it. Sometime's I'll mix up the challenge and add lines from other famous poets in. That's even harder.

I also really enjoyed some other forms like the ABC poem by Robert Pinsky, or the "13 ways of looking at a blackbird" style poem.
posted by santojulieta at 5:23 AM on February 16, 2007

For a start, I suggest the Pantoum and the Ghazal, (check out Agha Shahid Ali's work).

If you find you like messing around with formal poetry, pick up John Hollander's Ryhme's Reason. I find him helpful, as he uses the form to describe the from. (His definition of a pantoum is in the the form of a pantoum, for example.)

Finally, as someone who has taken too many poetry workshops, both as an undergrad and in graduate school, if formal poetry has you all fired up, go for it. You have to find something that excites you to make up for all the boring (as seanyboy points out), trite, and ultimately embarrassing stuff we all write in the beginning. For me, free verse and the confessional poets helped me push through the first couple of years--even though I was writing crap that was getting torn apart in workshop I was still excited. For you, perhaps it's sestinas, acrostics and limericks.
posted by kortez at 5:28 AM on February 16, 2007

Everyone writes a villanelle at some point.

The bigger challenge is not in writing to a form -- which can easily turn into an exercise of syllable counting, and rhymes for the sake of it -- but in making form do unexpected things, or in doing unexpected things to form. Its on thing to write a light-hearted villanelle, another to write one that treats a serious, or a prosaic subject.

Don't dismiss 'free verse' entirely -- in truth there is little poetry written today that is wholly free verse [1]. Most contemporary poetry has some sort of structure, it's just not as obvious and more internal to the poem (or poet). I'm fond of writing in iambic pentameters, but splitting them over two lines (something I stole from John Burnside). This forces you to consider exactly why you are breaking the line where you are -- something I think is a vital skill (and not one you will learn from formal verse).

[1] this is probably more true of the UK, where I am based, that the US.
posted by tallus at 6:11 AM on February 16, 2007

If you start by trying to write sestinas and villanelles then you're on a hiding to writing technically accomplished and ultimately boring poetry.

I completely disagree. If you're a boring poet you'll be boring no matter what form you use; it's simply a lot easier to write boring poetry in "free verse," which is why there's so much of it around. One of my favorite modern poets is Richard Wilbur, who's technically impeccable and never wrote a boring line. I'd say just try whatever forms look appealing; no one can tell you how much you're going to like any particular one, and really, how much of your life are you wasting if you try a villanelle and decide you don't like it?
posted by languagehat at 6:14 AM on February 16, 2007

Put me with Pallas Athena: I have real fun writing villanelles but could not write a good sestina to save my pet's life. They are terribly long, for one, and to me are the poetic equivalent, for a writer, to a 1500 page book.

But I do agree that having a rhyme and stanza structure to adhere to can be fun, and allow you to flex (and find!) your muscles. Good luck, and enjoy!
posted by onlyconnect at 6:22 AM on February 16, 2007

/makes gesture of poetic solidarity to onlyconnect

Reading griphus's question again, it seems to me you might enjoy the work of Depression-era American poet Don Marquis. (some of his "archy and mehitabel" poems are linked on that page; more here.) He wrote mostly free verse, but he was a master of form when he felt like it.
posted by Pallas Athena at 6:58 AM on February 16, 2007

If you are looking for constraints, look no further than Oulipo. Personally, I am a fan of the chronogram and the Clerihew.
posted by mattbucher at 7:47 AM on February 16, 2007

Find a way to use the near rhyme of orange and door-hinge.
posted by nomisxid at 8:26 AM on February 16, 2007

I think it's important to look at the form not as a math problem, but as something with an internal force to it, if that makes sense. I think Seamus Heaney has said that any form has an external quality, but it also has a more general internal sense--the muscle of the form. I think you get a sense of this by seeing how the form has been used historically. For example, I think you couldn't really understand sprung rhythm without reading Hopkins. Also, have you read Ted Berrigan's Sonnets?
posted by kensanway at 10:05 AM on February 16, 2007

I'm fond of the sestina and villanelle.

You might try the "Sestina Challenge," invented by me and a friend on a snowy afternoon very much like this one. Rules:

1. Find a buddy.
2. Each of you make a list of 8 interesting words. (No word too odd, no word too long.)
3. Exchange lists.
4. Start the timer! You now have one hour to come up with a complete sestina, using 7 of the 8 words in the list as your key words (you're allowed to discard one word).
5. Return in one hour with your poems. Read them aloud for maximum enjoyment.
posted by ourobouros at 10:53 AM on February 16, 2007

6 of 7 words, I mean. D'oh.
posted by ourobouros at 12:40 PM on February 16, 2007

Bummer that you already hit the Onegin stanza, since that's one of the most fun/interesting to my mind. If you liked that, you'll like terza rima. Villanelles and sestinas are fun in a perverse way.

I think probably the most fun stuff I've ever done with highly structured verse was to force subject matter that was tough to work with into a form that didn't fit. Nothing like writing a sestina about calculus while studying for finals to make a girl feel alive, you know? And probably the coolest move I've ever pulled while pitching woo was writing a letter in Onegin stanzas to my beloved. Well, for certain definitions of "cool".
posted by crinklebat at 12:49 PM on February 16, 2007

I second terza rima and sestinas, but I'd actually advise checking out Jackson MacLowe's experiments, many of which are disarmingly rigorous and fertile.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 2:12 AM on February 17, 2007

ouroboros, my friends and I used to play that same game in the school lunchroom! Rock.
posted by Pallas Athena at 8:44 AM on February 17, 2007

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