By guest blogger, Jennifer Lynn Krohn
There are three things that you should know about me up front. First, my first (second, third, and fourth) drafts are almost always terrible. There are a few exceptions, but I know every time I sit down to write a poem that I will probably go through ten to thirty drafts. The second thing you should know about me is that I have no rhythm. Have you ever been annoyed at a live performance by someone clapping out of time to the song? That was me. This lack of rhythm means that trying to handle formal elements like meter and rhyme can be particularly stressful. The third thing is that in high school and my first years of college, I liked to sew Victorian costumes.
Some people have a natural rhythm, so meter and rhyme comes easily. For those of us who struggle with form, it seems to belong to a spiritual realm where poets in waistcoats walk along green landscapes chatting with their muses. The type of place that probably has a tall fence to keep riff raff like us out. For a while, I told myself that I was better off without all these formal skills. Yet my jealous nature got the better of me, and I wanted to show these imagined literati that I could use traditional forms too.
My first attempt at sonnets and ballads were awful. The rhyme was obvious and clichéd, each line ending like a cymbal crash. I could never keep the meter going more than a line, and those lines tediously marched on. Part of the power of form is building the readers’ expectations and then breaking them, but I couldn’t even build those expectations. Those early attempts remind me of pictures of bustles with no skirt over them: all shape but no content.
I made a bustle once. It was not historically accurate. Instead of working with wire or complex ruffles, I used PVC pipe. The thing was admittedly the Frankenstein monster of undergarments, but throw a skirt over it and it looked fine. It gave the garment structure, but wasn’t what drew attention, which is how the formal elements of a poem should work.
Form can tighten or extend a poem, but if the main thing that your reader notices about it is that it’s a sonnet, the poem is only half-dressed. Once I realized this, I started to only use form where the reader could not see it—in my early drafts. I had a poem once that was three pages long, and none of it worked. I decided to turn it into a sonnet. By trying to fit three pages into fourteen lines, I cut what was unnecessary. There was another poem where I was only touching the surface of the topic, but I resisted diving deeper into the subject. I decided to structure it like Anglo-Saxon verse. In trying to get every line to have four stresses, a caesura, and an alliterative structure, I expanded this poem and forced myself into those places I had been avoiding. I then revised the poem several times and the finished version is most definitely free verse.
If you’re a free verse poet you don’t have to start writing poems in traditional forms. But whenever you find yourself stuck with a draft that seems to be going nowhere, those forms can give you a new way to approach a poem. After rewriting the poem in short measure or heroic couplets you may see where you need to go in the next draft. In a way form allows you to stop thinking about meaning and to just write. In that new writing, you may have found the right path to follow. You may even find yourself getting comfortable with things like meter or rhyme.
- Take a poem that you need to cut down. Select a short form, such as a sonnet, rondel, triolet, or, if you’re feeling particularly brave, a haiku, and rewrite your poem. Let your poem sit for a few days, then revise if necessary.
- Take a poem you need to expand. Select a long form or a form with no set length, such as chant royal, sonnet redouble, terza rima, or blank verse, and rewrite your poem. Let your poem sit for a few days, then revise if necessary.
- Take a poem you have been unsure of what to do with. Select a form that makes use of repetition, such as villanelle, sestina, or pantoum, and rewrite it. Let your poem sit for a few days, then revise if necessary.