Brief Essay on Poetic Form

Updated: Jun 8


There is a continuing boring conversation among some "formal" vs "modernist" poets about whether prosody and end rhyme are better than free verse. This has nothing to with form. "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day" is iambic pentameter followed by another 13 end-rhymed lines in a pattern like abab cdcd etc. There is, but not always, a turn on the eighth line, e.g.; "Yet, in these thoughts myself almost despising, happly I think on thee..." (Sonnet 29) But Shakespeare is also using form in the plays: "Er from black Hecate's summons the shard borne beetle with this drowsy hums hath rung night's yawning peal there shall be done a deed of dreadful note." Free verse, which, by the way, is a form, allows for more formal variation than the strict prosodic line of the sonnet. Notice the pattern of sound, the buzzing of the beetle that continues through the lines to "hums," layering in stunning composites of visual and sonic images; "yawning peal" gives us the yawn of the bell's dark throat as well as the night's swallowing darkness and then "peal" is the clapper striking the brass to wake us out of it. All of this concluded with a drum beat: "there shall be done a deed of dreadful note." (Macbeth)


I used to sit in the hall at the West Haven VA hospital waiting to see my therapist. I frequently had the company of a man who in addition to being traumatized was schizophrenic. He would say things like,

"I used to go to the farmers market there. I studied marketing but a ting is a ricochet off the gun mount. Thing is ting is fucking is. Ing. Ingemar. Do you remember when Floyd Patterson, son of Patter, tinged Ingmar? Old enough? What did you say? You said, yes I do. Yes I do. My wife tried to hang in there. She still comes over with the lasagna. I do I do remember the wedding and we were all so drunka bunk."


One day I decided I was going to try to have a conversation with him using his linguistic particularities. I said something like "That must have been hard, the pard, bearded like the pard? La sagna sang in the sangha and seered it."

He looked at me like I was crazy.

What I'd missed in his speech was his incredible pain. Mine was merely a technical imitation. Form must be organic to the poem, must come from the poet’s very being.


I guess I'm trying to say form is everywhere in language. So the argument about form vs free verse is never about form; it's usually about end rhyme and metered verse. Yawn.


Go outside and draw a blade of grass. Really look at it. You will be overcome with a composite of form and wonder.


By the way, I took the above photos on the Cape two years ago. I was struck by the way nature is always showing us form. What nature has, and what poetry needs, is something like sprezzatura, a studied carelessness. The forms in nature are always pushing beyond themselves into not-knowing. Note the pebbles in the long graceful forms in sand, and in the other photo the way the wind seems to have moved the grass although there was no wind when I took the shot. Both of these are forms and both full of the unpredictable and surprising.


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