2Poetic FormWhether poems are defined as fixed or open, all poems have form, i.e., an overall shape and structure. Structures that have long been established and have been used often will have a name.Fixed forms and open forms refer to the structure of the poem, not its content or ideas.
3Fixed FormFixed forms (sometimes called closed forms) follow a long established pattern of line and stanza.Fixed forms developed within the oral tradition and made memorization easier.Shakespeare’s plays are written in blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter), which helped the actors remember their lines.Poets converse with past poets through fixed forms, which will inspire not stifle poetic imaginations. Poets feels challenged to contribute to poetic tradition and be innovative within a somewhat defined form – although fixed forms are more versatile than sometimes supposed.Robert Frost could not conceive of writing in free verse. He explained that writing free verse was "like playing tennis without a net."
4Fixed Forms continued … In Chapter 23 of Literature: Craft and Voice, Nicholas Delbanco and Alan Cheuse explain poetry’s most popular fixed forms:• Sonnet • Villanelle• Sestina • Pantoum• Haiku • Epigram• Limerick • Elegy• OdeWe will explore a few of these forms on the following slides.
5Sonnet “A form like the sonnet … exists in poetry not just because some people like me like to write them. … It must beserving some kind of function. … Otherwise it would die out.”– Edward Hirsch“A sonnet is a moment's monument,— Memorial from the Soul's eternity To one dead deathless hour.”– Dante Gabriel Rossetti• “I love sonnets. … I loved them since I first discovered them in middle school, maybe. I didn’t realize that I loved them because they have a limit. But when you write a sonnet you discover that having an end in sight forces you into a kind of compression that I love in art.”– Molly Peacock
6SonnetOne of the most enduring and popular forms of poetry has been the sonnet, a fourteen-line poem usually, but not always, written in iambic pentameter.The sonnet originated in Italian. Sonnetto means “little song.”There are two basic kinds of sonnets: the Italian or Petrarchan and the English or Shakespearean. Petrarch ( ) was the master of the Italian form, and Shakespeare ( ) the master of the English form.The Italian form is divided into an octave (eight lines) and a sestet (six lines).The English form is divided into three quatrains (four lines each) and a couplet.The forms are easily recognizable by their rhyme schemes. The Italian sonnet will use a rhyme scheme of abbaabba in the octave and cdecde or cdcdcd in the sestet – though variations exist, usually there are no more than 5 rhymes.The English form typically uses abab cdcd efef gg – again, though variations exist, usually there are 7 rhymes.Poets will experiment with these structures. In “The Silken Tent,” for instance, Robert Frost follows a Shakespearean rhyme scheme, but the structure is more Petrarchan as the poem turns in the ninth line.
7The Italian SonnetIn Italian or Petrarchan sonnets, the octave commonly introduces a situation, a problem, a question, or a claim that is resolved, answered, or elucidated in the sestet.There are several Italian sonnets in the text: Wordsworth’s “The World Is Too Much with Us” and “London, 1802,” Keats’s “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” Browning’s “How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways,” Hopkins’s “God’s Grandeur,” Frost’s “Design,” and Hacker’s “Elektra on Third Avenue,” among others.In the octave of “God’s Grandeur,” Hopkins celebrates the manifestation of God in the world but is angry at humankind’s abuse of nature. In the sestet, his anger subsides and he finds hope through God in nature’s regenerative powers.In the octave of “Design,” Frost describes a natural scene in which a spider is devouring a white moth on a white flower. In the sestet, he ponders the significance of the event and the “design” of the world.
8The English SonnetIn English or Shakespearean sonnets, each quatrain will express a single thought or emotion, or develop a central idea or problem. The concluding couplet provides the climax or resolution.There are several sonnets of Shakespeare in the text and several written in the English form: Keats’s “Bright Star – Would I Were As Steadfast as Thou Art,” Millay’s “Not in a Silver Casket Cool with Pearl,” Nelson’s “Chopin,” and Molly Peacock’s “Desire,” among others.In the three quatrains of Shakespeare’s “That Time of Year Thou May’st in Me Behold,” the speaker bemoans his aging state and compares himself to late fall, the twilight of the day, and to a fire burning out. However, in the couplet, his self-pity wanes as he expresses gratefulness to his apostrophized lover.In the quatrains of “Desire,” Molly Peacock works out a definition of desire through metaphor. She brings her definition to a climax in the directness of the couplet, which privileges desire as “the drive for what is real … the drive to feel.”
9VillanelleThe villanelle evolved from the Middle Ages and simple Italian peasant songs with no fixed form. The term was adapted by the French, and, in time, strict rules were imposed on its form. The villanelle made its first appearance in English in the second half of the nineteenth century and was generally used for lighthearted verse.The villanelle is nineteen lines long (5 tercets and a concluding quatrain) and has only two rhymes. The first and third lines of the first stanza are rhyming refrains that alternate as the third line in each successive stanza and end the quatrain.While the form remains consistent, twentieth-century poets have adopted the form for different kinds of expression other than the light fare of earlier English villanelles. Consider villanelles like Plath’s “Mad Girl’s Love Song,” Roethke’s “The Waking,” or Bishop’s “One Art.”Many consider Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” the greatest villanelle ever composed. Thomas uses the rhyme refrain to create a powerful plea, a chant, to rally his father to fight for his life.
10ElegiesToday, an elegy is a somber poem, a lamentation memorializing the dead or contemplating some nuance of life’s melancholy. The expression requires no fixed line or stanzaic form.In ancient Greece, an elegy was defined as a meditation on a serious subject (death, love, or war) written in dactylic hexameter and iambic pentameter couplets. Elizabethan poets applied the term to love poems, particularly complaints. It was not until the eighteenth century that an elegy came to define a poem about death, one usually occasioned by the death of a particular person.Elegies are generally moving and dramatic personal statements.There are several elegies in the text: Housman’s “To an Athlete Dying Young,” Auden’s “Funeral Blues” and “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” Roethke’s “Elegy for Jane,” Osherow’s “Song for the Music in the Warsaw Ghetto,” Lowell’s “The “Quaker Graveyard,” Hudgins’s “Elegy for My Father,” and Laux’s “The Shipfltter’s Wife.”The elegy is much more flexible than most fixed forms. Consider how the above elegies use tone, rhythm, imagery, and other strategies to express grief and to attempt to come to terms with loss.
11Elegies continued …In “Funeral Blues,” an urgent expression of grief, the speaker calls on the world to stop, to mourn, and to pay tribute to his friend. Now is the time for mourning, the poem proclaims. It is not yet time to move on.The speaker of “To An Athlete Dying Young” laments the death of his town’s champion athlete. Using the communal we, the speaker apostrophizes and pays tribute to the still-crowned champion. He tries to alleviate his own grief by telling the athlete that he may have been fortunate to have died before he saw his records broken and the joys of his triumph diminished.Other elegies, like “The Shipfitter’s Wife,” focus on a routine moment to express love and loss. In the poem, the speaker remembers her husband at the moment when he would arrive home from work. The tone is tender and more quietly intense than “Funeral Blues,” for instance, as the speaker’s husband is not so recently deceased. The pain does not seem as raw.In “Song for the Music in the Warsaw Ghetto,” Jacqueline Osherow laments the brutality and loss of life in the Jewish community during the Nazi occupation. The poem struggles to find a way to grieve an entire community, for whom music was so inspiring and life sustaining that they maintained a symphony orchestra while starving and until carried off to concentration camps.
12Open FormIn the middle of the nineteenth century, poets began to reject fixed forms in favor of forms that were less rigid, more spontaneous, and free.Open forms (sometimes called "free verse“) do not conform to established patterns of meter, rhyme, and stanza. Such poetry derives its rhythmic qualities from perhaps the repetition of words and phrases, sound devices like alliteration and assonance, grammatical structures, the arrangement of words on the printed page, and many other means. In Al Young’s “Doo Wop: The Moves,” for instance, the rhythm reflects the music of a doo-wop song.Open-form poets create order and structure in a new way, one which fits the poem. The term organic is often applied to open-form structures as the structure develops from the content. Sylvia Plath’s “Metaphor,” for instance, contains nine lines of nine syllables each, reflective of the length of the human gestation period – which is the topic of the poem.As Cleanth Brooks said, “The parts of a poem are related as are the parts of a growing plant.”
13“Poetry without form is a fiction “Poetry without form is a fiction. But that there is a freedom in words is the larger fact, and in poetry, where formal restriction can bear down heavily, it is important to remember the cage is never locked.”– C. D. Wright
14“You know, free verse for me … is nothing less than … a discovery, and we haven’t even got to the bottom of it yet. We’re only scratching the surface, because ultimately free verse is a form of writing in which the poem is completely organized by instances of coincidence … stanzas are units of coincidence and lines become units of coincidence, and the whole poem becomes organized with that in mind. … It sounds simple, but it’s a lot harder to do than one would think.”– Li-Young Lee
15Walt WhitmanWalt Whitman was a leading force in the widespread use of free verse in modern and contemporary poetry. His volume of poems, Leaves of Grass, first published in 1855, took imaginative liberties with line length, rhyme, repetition, and diction.No one had ever heard poems quite like Whitman’s before. Most critics and poets did not appreciate his frank and revolutionary verse. Renowned editor and critic Rufis Griswold called it “a mass of stupid filth,” and popular poet John Greenleaf Whittier reportedly burned his copy. One London magazine said that Leaves of Grass proves that the fields of American literature need weeding, and a London newspaper said Whitman should be publicly flogged. Emily Dickinson’s father did not allow her to read Whitman, whom he thought indecent and disgraceful.Of course, not all reviews were negative. The influential literary magazine Putnam’s considered Leaves of Grass “a mixture of Yankee transcendentalism and New York rowdyism [which] fuse and combine with the most perfect harmony.” In July 1855, Ralph Waldo Emerson famously wrote to Whitman: “I give you joy of your free & brave thought. … I find incomparable things said incomparably well, as they must be. I find the courage of treatment, which so delights me, and which large perception only can inspire. I greet you at the beginning of a great career.”
16Whitman continued …Whitman’s long lines burst forth on the page with boldness and proclamation. His form suggests a large and expansive voice, one not only reflective of an immodest and daring self but also of an energetic and resourceful nation. Consider a few lines from “Song of Myself”:I Celebrate myself, and sing myself, And what I assume you shall assume, For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you. (sec. 1)Unscrew the locks from the doors! Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!…I do not press my fingers across my mouth, I keep as delicate around the bowels as around the head and heart, Copulation is no more rank to me than death is.The scent of these arm-pits aroma finer than prayer. (sec. 24)Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.) (sec. 51)I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable, I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world. (sec. 52)
17Whitman’s RhythmThe lack of meter and rhyme in Whitman is a major technical innovation. By throwing off the restrictions of the iamb with its regular rising and falling pattern, Whitman liberated himself and created a more personal rhythm, something that corresponded with the ebb and flow of his own emotional vibrancy.Whitman’s diction is often rough and robust. Whitman uses words that previous poets would have thought ill-befitting the altar of poetry: “barbaric yawp,” “arm-pits,” “bowels,” for example. While he did not eliminate outworn poetic diction, he did invigorate the old with colloquialisms and frankness.Each of Whitman’s long, rolling lines is a rhythmic unit and is usually end-stopped. Their long, flowing rhythms have their source in the King James’ Bible. Compare to Song of Solomon 4:1-7 [“Behold thou art fair, my love”].To create rhythm, Whitman often relies on parallelism, anaphora, alliteration, assonance, and other poetic devices.Whitman’s cataloging seems tedious to some readers, but this strategy creates not only rhythm but also a sense of America’s abundant resources. See, for instance, “I Hear American Singing.”
18Whitman’s Influence Whitman’s influence cannot be overstated. As a result of Whitman’s poetics, American poets were emancipated from the iamb and challenged to define their own poetic rhythms. Because of Whitman, William Carlos Williams said that American poets who write in iambs have to show cause why it is the proper form for them.Consider the influence of Whitman on Allen Ginsberg’s “A Supermarket in California” and Sherman Alexie’s “Defending Walt Whitman.” Note how Whitman has influenced their poetics and vision of America.Compare and contrast Whitman’s use of open forms with those of others in the text, particularly Hass’s “Dragonflies Mating,” Cisneros’s “Pumpkin Eater,” Lawrence’s “Snake,” Stevens’s “Sunday Morning,” and Algarin’s “HIV,” among many others. Is Whitman’s influence apparent?
19Visual PoetryThe visual appearance of a poem is an often overlooked element of poetry. The neatness of a sonnet’s appearance, for example, can be very appealing. The poems of Emily Dickinson with their unorthodox presentation featuring extensive use of the dash and unusual capitalization can be tantalizing, as can the robust appearance of the long lines of Whitman and Ginsberg.However, visual poetry (sometimes concrete poetry or shaped verse) goes a step further and organizes lines in a recognizable shape – usually the shape of something the poem describes.Among the visual poems in the text are George Herbert’s “Easter Wings,” John Hollander’s “Swan and the Shadow,” Chen Li’s “War Symphony,” and Dylan Thomas’s “Vision and Prayer.”Hollander published some 25 shaped poems in his collection Types of Shape. In “Swan and the Shadow,” he creates the image of the swan and his shadow to suggest the fleetingness of life. The swan signals his appearance, swims before the speaker, and then disappears. The brief scene, which unfolds in the same space of time as it takes to read the poem, suggests much about human consciousness, perception, memory, and contemplation.
20“Easter Wings”“Easter Wings” is probably the most famous visual poem. Shaped like wings, possibly an angel’s or a bird’s, the poem is a prayer in which the desperate speaker asks God for salvation.The poem is organized into four movements: an emotional reference to the Fall of Adam and Eve, the speaker’s first request for personal salvation (“O let me rise”), the speaker’s personal fall, and his second plea for redemption.The poem references skylarks and falcons (through imp, which refers to the reparation of a falcon’s wing or tail). The speaker would like to rise to heaven in “victory” with the help of Easter wings. For Christians, Easter celebrates Christ’s resurrection and the acknowledgement that Christ died so that others could gain salvation.Note too that if you turn the poem sideways, its shape resembles a Communion chalice, which is consistent with a plea for salvation.
21Visual Poetry continued … Consider other less obvious examples of visual poetry in the text: William Carlos Williams’s “Red Wheelbarrow,” E. E. Cummings’s “Buffalo Bill’s Defunct,” and “l(a.”Note the following complete poem by William Carlos Williams: ta tuck a ta tuck a ta tuck a ta tuck a ta tuck aThrough the arrangement of lines and onomatopoeia, Williams replicates a stairway and the energetic movement of a bellhop. Sound, rhythm, structure, and appearance merge for a playful effect.
22Prose PoemsProse poems are usually compact works that look like prose, but sound and read like poetry.Prose poems rely on poetic techniques to create rhythm and imagery, often to produce a heightened emotional effect.Prose poetry was inaugurated in the 19th century in France. Practitioners included Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, and Stéphane Mallarmé.Whether a short work is a prose poem, a short essay, or a short story depends entirely on the author’s definition.
23Prose Poems continuedPoet William Stafford responded to a question concerning traditional poetry and the prose poem:“If it is put in prose form on the page without the line-breaks then you have given up some of the opportunities that there are for acrobatic swingings from line to line and emphasizing certain words or phrases. But you gain something in that the reader will feel that you are not trying to bamboozle him with white space. Of course, I like prose myself. Not just prose poems, but prose. So the prose poems don't worry me. You gain something and lose something.”Is Stafford suggesting that poets try to deceive readers? And that prose poems are more honest than other poetic forms, including open forms?
24“The Colonel” – A Prose Poem Carolyn Forché documented human rights violations for Amnesty International. She worked closely with Monsignor Oscar Romero in El Salvador between 1978 and 1980, during which time she wrote “The Colonel” – a “documentary poem,” as she calls it.The prose poem derives force from its ominous tone established in the first sentence and its ironic contrasts throughout. The speaker and her friend eat a sumptuous dinner in a rather commonplace domestic setting – a daughter files her nails and a cop show plays on television. The mundane atmosphere contrasts with the violent actions of their host outside the home and the violence throughout El Salvador.Forché uses the rhythm of simple declarative sentences to create an ominous and eerie tone and to emphasize the stark brutality of the colonel. … Through the repetition of some, at the end of the poem, the speaker sounds a voice of resistance, almost a rallying cry.Forché creates an especially jarring contrast through the image of the “green mangoes” and the ears “like dried peach halves,” which like the television show, indicates how externalviolence is infiltrating the home. The ears, in an example of metonymy,represent the Salvadoran people – those mutilated and murdered by thedeath squads and those with ears “pressed to the ground” as they listen andresist the brutal regime of the colonel.Through a combination of prose and poetry, Forché has created a powerfully disturbing work.
25For Further Consideration Compare and contrast Housman’s “To an Athlete Dying Young” and Roethke’s “Elegy for Jane.” Compare the speakers and the imagery. How do they define those they mourn? How do they express grief? How do they try to come to terms with their grief?Examine how fixed forms operate in the following poems: Kumin’s “Saga,” Bishop’s “Sestina,” Funkhouser’s “Pantoum of the Great Depression,” Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind.” Do they create dramatic effects? Does each form seem especially suitable for the content of the poem?The following poems might be considered meditations: C. K. Williams “Tar,” Olds’s “Sex without Love,” Hass’s “Dragonflies Mating,” and Lawrence’s “Snake.” Consider how the use of an open form reflects the speaker’s contemplative state? Does the form change as the meditation evolves?Compare and contrast the poetic techniques in the prose poems of Louis Jenkins “Football” and Ray Gonzalez “Corn Face Mesilla.”