“The Resurrection of Form in Poetry” by David James

David James


For 30 years, I’ve been a free verse writer. I was free to use any words in any pattern, flaunting the page without a thought of rhyme scheme, unhindered by syllable counting. Formal poetry was defined as that work from the past, by the Romantics, by Shakespeare and Chaucer, by poets before the printing press. Of course, I dabbled with forms here and there, merely as exercises, writing a ghazal, sestina, villanelle, sonnet, pantoum. I wrote in these forms so when some wag confronted me with one of them, I could say, “Oh, sure, I’ve written that.”

As I get older, however, I am being drawn to form and meter. And as I write more rhyming verse, using enjambment and mosaic rhyme patterns to mute the obviousness of sound, I have come to the conclusion that we have fallen down on the job. Contemporary poets have done little, if anything, to further the innovative use of end rhyme in literature.

Looking at the major forms of rhyming poetry, it’s obvious that no new forms have surfaced in over a century. The ghazal, a Persian form with couplets, is over 1000 years old. One of the most complex French forms, the sestina, originated in the 12th century with Arnaut Daniel. The Italian sonnet’s origin, a precursor to the English sonnet, dates back to the mid-1200’s, popularized by Petrarch (1304-1374). The French villanelle, our song-like refrain form, was standardized by the late 1500’s by Jean Passerat. The haiku first appeared in the 16th century. The most recent form, the pantoum, a Malaysian invention also containing repeating lines, became popular in Europe in the 1800’s. In the last 150 years, several generations of poets have turned their backs to formal verse, at least with regard to inventing innovative new forms for others to emulate.

As a lifelong free verse writer, I am intrigued when I venture into rhyming poetry. First, writing formal poetry alters my perceptions of the world. The rhymes, line requirements, and syllable restrictions change what I write and how I write in surprising ways. The restrictions send me into uncharted imaginative waters. My poems approach the material from a different vantage point, and I consistently end up saying what I never would have said if I was writing in free verse. The novelty and imaginative gyrations are both worth the attempts. The late great Richard Hugo voiced his appreciation for formal verse, particularly in overcoming writer’s block: “When you concentrate on the ‘rules of the game’ being played on the page, the real problem, blockage of the imagination, often goes away simply by virtue of being ignored. That’s why I write more formal poems when I go dry.”

Secondly, I have this longing to create my own forms, forms that thrive in today’s language and sensibilities. Personally, I find the age-old forms too restrictive and constraining. The sonnet and villanelle, though honorable, seem outdated for the world of the internet and global warming. Our challenge is to imagine the forms that speak to today’s culture and modern times.

So this is the gauntlet thrown down at the feet of poets: to create the contemporary forms of rhyming poetry that will outlive them. What forms will young poets be cutting their teeth on 150 years from now? What are the new types of formal poems for the 21st century? What legacy of form will this generation leave to the future, if any?

To get the movement started, I’ll provide two new examples of 21st century formal poetry. My goal is to invent forms that 1) have a certain flexibility, 2) do not emphasize the rhyming pattern, and 3) play off the strengths of free verse. The first is called a Karousel. It is a twenty line poem, four stanzas of five lines each. The rhyme pattern is the following: abcda  ecdbe  fdbcf  gbcdg. The three inner lines (bcd) rotate in each stanza until they circle back to their original bcd form from stanza one. Though each stanza is enclosed in a rhyme, there are no metrical restrictions.


As each year came and went,
the man noticed the tree
outside, the one in back,
how its bark shed
like fur, how it bent

and swayed in time to the wind.
He remembered how his dog tracked
in his last dirt before being found dead.
The man buried him, like the others, religiously.
With each year, something pinned

itself to the inside of his heart,
which he imagined was not red
anymore, but bruised and mildly
dry, an item to be stacked
on a shelf or a cart.

The years began to rain down,
one suddenly became three.
The man looked up into the black
sky. And then a strange thought in his head
fell, like the whole world, into the swollen ground.

My second example is called the Weave. It is less restrictive than a Karousel and can be written in two line stanzas, five line stanzas, or no separate stanzas at all. Its rhyme scheme follows this pattern: abcad  befbg  ehiej (and so on). The first and fourth lines rhyme, and the second line rhyme from the first stanza becomes the rhyme for the first and fourth lines in the following stanza. So, the second line from stanza one weaves into stanza two; the second line from stanza two weaves into stanza three. The following poem is an example of this form.


I’m drowning
in a pool of my own making
like a minnow at the bottom of the ocean.
It’s too dark to see. There’s a pounding
between my ears, peeling the flesh

off my brain, breaking
each good thought
into dust that dissolves in water.
Much of what we do could be called faking
it, going through the motions

so we won’t get caught.
But we learn too late, this one life,
these millions of minutes
can’t be bought
or sold, only used or wasted.

Whether or not these forms last or evolve is not important. Only time and fate will determine that. They are, however, forms that I have used and reused to make dozens of poems, new forms that have allowed me to see the world in a different light.

Even though rhyming poetry has fallen out of favor and practice with contemporary poets, that does not mean formal poetry must die a slow death.  It is our right, perhaps our duty, to resurrect rhyme and meter and transform its use to capture the day.  With a little imagination and attention, a new formal poetry can speak out in this terrible world.

from Rattle e.4


David James teaches for Oakland Community College. His most recent book is Trembling in Someone’s Palm from March Street Press.  His other books include, A Heart Out of This World, published by Carnegie Mellon University Press, and three chapbooks, Do Not Give Dogs What Is Holy, I Dance Back, and I Will Peel This Mask Off. His one-act plays have been produced off-off-Broadway, as well as in Massachusetts and Michigan.

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9 thoughts on ““The Resurrection of Form in Poetry” by David James

  1. I do not want to attack these notions that I think that there is merit to much of what Mr. James brings up here. With the 30 years of writing under his belt be surpasses my time threefold.

    However I wonder of the usefulness of this conversation. regarding the notion “Contemporary poets have done little, if anything, to further the innovative use of end rhyme in literature.” Holds true, but we as workers of verse must look closer at this sentence; more particularly at the term ‘innovative’. What of end-rhyme is innovative? I might venture to say: nothing. It seems to me that the relevancy of these forms, more particularly the Sonnet (given special attention in Mr. James essay) came to its climax with Berrigan’s The Sonnets. Berrigan displayed to us that rhyme was not at the forefront of form: that form did not depend on it, and that these forms existed to define what a poem was, as distinct from other types of literature. We no longer require these distinctions. When poets have word-for-word translated newspaper clippings as poems, when cut-up, eksfraxis, and chance entered into the catalogue of tools that the poet could use, these ‘innovative’ ideas and methods took over.

    I would resist if I could bringing up an older, and perhaps less relevant rivalry concerning form, however I think that if I were to ask I’d find Mr. James on the side of the ring that housed Elliot, rather than the opposite where Williams sat. We freed the line. Or rather not we, as I have only been in this game 10 years, but rather I’d say you, Mr. James, you and Frank O’Hara, and Robert Duncan, and Robert Blaser, and Hilda Doolittle, Jack Spicer, and Williams, freed the line.

    Turning more directly to the poems themselves in this essay (I think it relevant to note that there are moments when they are successful) I think that they are products of, and examples of, what form can still do for us. I enjoyed very much the historical synopsis of the emergence of these forms. I think well of the quote from Victor Hugo. Hugo does have it right, and I think that the merit in form is that it can distract a writer from their focus enough to allow something new in. Mr. James is certainly spot-on with this quotation. However when we look back at the poems themselves there are two spots that highlight to me why the poems aren’t working, and why the forms themselves are the reasons why they aren’t working. I’ll note both spots:

    In As Time Goes On:
    “The man looked up into the black
    sky. And then a strange thought in his head”

    In Millions of Minutes:
    “Much of what we do could be called faking
    it, going through the motions”

    Note the unnecessarily abrupt landing on sky, and it. The poem does not want to emphasize these words. They are not more relevant than others. Rhyme exists to show emphasis to readers, that certain things, images, words, or moments are important. But when the rhyme “eats the meaning” like it does with those two instances, I think that the rhyme scheme, the form itself, is doing far more harm than good.

    Not that this does not invalidate the poems at large, but perhaps speaks to their incompleteness (if they were submitted to my magazine I’d reject them accompanies by a formal letter that noted these issues). These two works are excellent starting points, drafts Mr. James should be proud of. I do not in any way want to decry abruptness, harder sounds, enjambment, or the unexpected, as these lines deliver. I think that there are poets who do it very well, and do it deliberately. But with those two glaring issues still present in the poem, I think that it is time to leave the form behind, as the rest of poetry has decided to do, and feel free to manipulate those lines as the poet sees fit.

    • To Alex Rieser, et al.:

      I want to thank everyone for the discussion here caused, in part, by my essay on form. I want to assure Mr. Rieser that I’m on the side of W.C. Williams all the way, not Elliot. Though Elliot has some compelling lines and poems, overall I’m not emotionally moved by his work.

      I like Mr. Rieser’s claim that O’Hara, Williams, Duncan, etc., “freed the line” from rhyming patterns, as if rhyme was evil. I don’t think it’s an either-or dichotomy. There are benefits to writing free verse and there are different benefits to writing in form. One isn’t better than the other, regardless of its popularity. It’s my contention that there are images, lines, sentiments that would NOT appear in my poems unless I was working within the limits of structure. I don’t entirely agree with Frost’s comment, but I understand his view when he says, “Writing free verse is like playing tennis without the net.” Some limits and rules can lead some to excellence.

      When Mr. Rieser concludes that I or any other poet should “leave the form behind, as the rest of poetry has decided to do,” I laugh a bit to myself. How can anyone be so certain and sure that poetry as an art has reached its pinnacle in free verse? Would Shakespeare’s sonnets have worked better if he was freed from structure? This sentiment is like telling classical music composers to give it up; they will never write anything as good as Mozart, Beethoven, or Bach, so why try? Write pop songs, freed from the burden of archaic orchestral instruments.

      I see experimentation in rhyme as an unexplored realm by contemporary poets precisely because of the ideas expressed by Rieser here. Whenever and however we challenge ourselves as writers, then we grow as artists. Our primary goal should be to remain open to all possibilities or else we close ourselves to some.

      This is a great discussion and it’s what I hoped for when I wrote the essay. Thanks to all involved!

  2. Hello, my name is Gay Cannon. I arrived here by a link posted on facebook by Maureen Doallas, a colleague of mine. I author a monthly article on Poetic forms (FormForAll) for d’VersePoets Pub http://dversepoets.com. I would be happy to either have you guest host an article on your invented new forms, or allow me to. You can reach me at gaycannon@yahoo.com or leave a note for me on my blog or on the d’Verse website. Thank you.

  3. Whenever I come across a contemporary villanelle, I feel like I’m reading something somebody wrote for their creative writing class, not something they wrote out of any sense of moral or artistic urgency or need. At the opposite extreme our magazines are bursting at the seams with humongous, sloppy, formless “poems” that are too ill-defined even to be the slaves of their own freedom, to paraphrase Chesterton. When I see these sprawling episodes of word-diarrhea that pass as “free verse” I see the automatic typing of someone who is most likely ignorant of traditional forms, not someone who is making any kind of artistic choice not to write within them. The good free verse poets working today (they exist) have, I think, absorbed traditional forms into their “free” verse. You can often hear the ghost of a villanelle, a sonnet, etc. “sunk” into the body of what may be a free verse creation. So we have not rejected or abandoned those forms. We have received and made artistic use of them.

  4. The form for the twenty-first century has already arrived, is thriving, and is actually widely popular, as free verse never was. It’s rap, which is highly formal yet flexible. I’ll venture that rap has not found its defining genius yet, to discover its more subtle potential, but that will come, as the sonnet found Shakespeare and Spenser.
    By the way, I’ll double Mr. James’ years as a poet, both free-verse and formal.

  5. To Paul Dickey:
    Yes, the Karousel is my form and I have many examples. I have more examples of the Weave and a modified Weave. Many of these have been published, but I highly doubt the editors know they are rhyming poems…

  6. David,

    I think what you are doing here is interesting. I even gave the Karusel a go myself yesterday. Might play with the rhyme scheme even as a bit of structural template for some prose poems. Thanks for the article.


    • I think that’s a great idea. I’ve used the Weave in several prose poems and it adds the music to the prose yet no one can see the structure of it. I love that part of these new forms.

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