THE RESURRECTION OF FORM IN POETRY
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 TIME GOES ON
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.
MILLIONS OF MINUTES
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.