Understanding and Using Form

The letter UAlthough I have always had at least a passing interest in poetry, I can point to one book that took me from mild curiosity to keen student. That book is “The Ode Less Travelled”, by Stephen Fry. Be warned, his language in places can get a bit… well, let’s just say I applied judicious amounts of Tippex before lending my copy to a friend’s daughter. However, DIY expurgation aside, it really is a brilliant book. For why? It teaches you how to write poetry.

But surely poetry is something that can’t be taught? It must be honest and free, not taught by numbers like learning how to wire a plug! Well, to quote from the book’s own introduction:

“Talent is inborn, technique is learned.”

I’m still working through this book, with its many helpful exercises and examples, but I have already learned one important lesson: Before you can break the rules, you have to know them. The rules of form aren’t the be-all and end-all of poetry, but they do matter.

As Pascal said: “It is superstition to put one’s hope in formalities, but it is pride to be unwilling to submit to them.” This is as true in poetry as in anything else: music, art, science, or even just everyday good manners. You are perfectly at liberty to do your own thing, but you ought to know what that is, not just blunder around in the dark.

Once you understand the various forms and techniques at your disposal, you can use them in combination to create something new. You can invert or alter the forms, discard certain rules and even add your own – doing what has been done for thousands of years by poets in every part of the world, in every language. You might rediscover a form that has fallen out of fashion, or re-invent a tired, old pattern.

If there’s one thing I’d like people to take from my posts this month, it is that poetry is worth studying. It’s not elitist, and it won’t strangle your self-expression. There are many resources out there, so why not look around for a book or website that appeals to you. It might be Shadow Poetry, or Young Writers or the Poetry Foundation, or even Wikipedia (hey, it’s a place to start).

I’d like to close with another quote from “The Ode Less Travelled”, a slightly longer one this time. After discussing the emotional impact of various types of meter, Fry writes:

“These effects are not accidental, the substitutions do not come about by chance or through some carefree inability to adhere to the form and hoping for the best. [The poets discussed in this chapter] studied meter and form constantly… They would no more be unaware of what they were doing than Rubens could be unaware of what he was doing when he added an impasto dot of white to give shine to an eye, or than Beethoven could be unaware of what happened when he diminished a seventh or syncopated a beat. The freedom and ease with which a master can do these things belies immense skill derived from practice.”

Even the most radical, abstract and avant-garde artists started out as diligent students of the established rules, and put in their years of “apprenticeship” on the way to becoming masters. It’s a hard road, but a necessary one – and it really is worth it in the end.

TL;DR? Try this:

Such a lengthy editorial
Means a short verse of the day.
If you skipped the long tutorial
Let me sum it up this way:

Learn the rules before you break them,
Art is made by choice, not chance,
Dig up old forms once forsaken,
Then you can turn all the established meters on their heads or inside out and do whatever
you want so long as you do it because you choose to and not because you don’t know
any better. Bon chance!


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The letter TA triolet (UK: as ‘violet’, US: “tree-oh-lay”) is a poem in eight lines, with the first line repeated in lines four and seven, and the second line being repeated as the last line of the poem. There are only two rhymes, and with the repeated lines the pattern for a triolet is: ABaAabAB, where capital letters indicate a repeated line.

See also here and here for more on the triolet. It is a light and playful form, suited to love poems or nonsense. Or both…

Oh, what a pretty thing is love!
And so are you.
As pretty as a collared dove
Oh, what a pretty thing is love!
Reminds me of
That blasted bird’s non-stop “hoo-hoo”
Oh, what a pretty thing is love!
And so are you.

I decided to challenge myself by writing uneven lines: 8,4,8,8,4,8,8,4. I find writing regular lines in eights or tens, to be my ‘default setting’, and since the triolet doesn’t specify a line length it seemed a good time to break that pattern.

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Sunday summary: Hitting my Stride

There are, at time of posting, still a few days missing from the archives. They will be up (backdated) sometime in the next 24 hours, and from here on in I’m set for the rest of the month – some minor fact-checking aside. At last, with ten days left, I have hit my stride. Time to shift my focus to a neglected Camp NaNo…

I have adjusted my goal down to the minimum 10k, and decided that I’m going to spend the rest of the month writing up my outline properly. I’ve got a half-finished mess of a document, currently standing at 5,570 words. Before May 1st, that document will be complete, and at least 15,570 words long (probably much longer). I will then have a detailed template from which to write the novel proper at the next camp. This month’s disappointment makes the second time I’ve started and stalled with this story, but there’s always a third chance. And a fourth, and a fifth if necessary (although I hope it won’t be).

In other news, I have managed to achieve one of my RoW80 goals – or rather, maintain it. My streak over at Duolingo is currently at 35 days. Sometimes I feel so brain-dead that I’m sure nothing is sinking in, but sheer repetition means that something is bound to stick. Eventually.

I’m still working at the other goals of writing every day, and reviewing other people’s work, but at least I can chalk up one success. And, in honour of that, I give you: Small Victories.

Small Victories

As Adam crested the final rise
His back and legs all sore
A shining vista met his eyes
Like none he’d seen before

Through rough and smooth he’d forged ahead
Through heat and ice and rain
He’d battled on with steady tread
Just one thought in his brain

He’d be a hero, not a chance
That now they’d ever ditch him.
Now, thanks to him, his fellow ants
Have a way into the kitchen.

Form: Lyric ballad (which is in quatrains) on a piece of nonsense poetry.

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Procrastinator’s Pantoum

The letter P

An interlocking form, with each line the same length and cross-rhymed (abab). What makes it a pantoum is the repetition of lines: the second and fourth lines of the first verse become the first and third lines of the next, and so on until the final verse. Here, the rules are changed slightly so that the first line of the first verse becomes the last line of the last verse, with the third line of the first verse making the second line of the last verse. There is no limit on the length of the poem, although three verses is the minimum.

Pantoum structure (capital letters for repeated lines, rather than simply rhyming)
A1, B1, A2, B2 / B1, C1, B2, C2 / C1, D1, C2, D2 / D1, A2, D2, A1

I’ve finally stopped trying to keep up, and just jumped ahead to today’s letter. The “missing” days will be filled in as soon as possible, and back-dated so that the archives are in order. If you are following this blog, then you’ll be alerted of the posts as they go up. I hope to be fully caught up by the beginning of next week.

Procrastinator’s Pantoum

Playing catch-up isn’t fun
Time is fleeting, all too short
Chasing deadlines at a run
Often glimpsed, never caught.

Time is fleeting, all too short
Moments of a brief respite
Often glimpsed, never caught
Rushing onwards out of sight

Moments of a brief respite
[[Write a line here to repeat]]
Rushing onwards out of sight
[[Need to make this verse complete]]

[[Write a line here to repeat]]
Chasing deadlines at a run
[[Need to make this verse complete]]
Playing catch-up isn’t fun.


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Nonsense Verse

The letter N

There is an art to nonsense, which lies in weaving an internal logic through the wild flights of fancy. Some of my favourite poets are masters of silliness: Ogden Nash, Wendy Cope, Pam Ayres, Alan Ahlberg and Quentin Blake, to name but a few. Sometimes the silliness lies in the subject matter, like “The Dong with the Luminous Nose”, or “Be Careful When You Crim”. Here, the images themselves create the comedy. Other poems play with the nonsense of the words themselves (“Eletelephony”) or the sheer joy of sounds (“The Ning Nang Nong”).

Most of these poets use standard forms for their comic work, although the audience is usually too focused on the joke to realise that they are also seeing a perfect roundeu, or sonnet, or villanelle. Wendy Cope is especially good at this; Pam Ayers and Alan Ahlberg often use a ballad or a quatrain for the comfortable bounce of the rhythm. Quentin Blake and Ogden Nash seem to favour writing freeform poetry, but they still make use of any number of traditional techniques to hold that free-form together – from simple end-rhymes to hidden patterns in the meter.

Like true freeform, true nonsense is very hard. It’s not just about abandoning the rulebook, rather it’s a way of subverting those rules, giving the audience what they don’t expect, and turning that strangeness into the new normal. By the end of the ride, if it’s done right, reality itself should be the thing that feels strange.

I wish I could take you on such a ride, but I’m not there myself yet. Here, however, is an early attempt. I realise that doing things this way round is a bit like discussing the thrills of a rollercoaster, then presenting you with a kiddies’ slide, but I’m doing my best. Recognising great poetry is a lot easier than writing it…

Not So Much of the “Common”, If You Don’t Mind

It’s very well to tell me I should use my common sense,
But senses are suseptable to all kinds of pretense.
I do not trust my eyes or ears, I daren’t follow my nose,
(It sticks in where it shouldn’t be, inviting nasty blows)
While taste and touch just sit around, as passive as you please.
I do not think that common sense is any one of these.

As for my other senses, as intangible as air,
I doubt that I would find much commonality in there
My sense of humour is a joke, my sense of timing’s slow,
My sense of the occasion never knows when it should show.
As for my sense of balance, that’s been slowly winding down;
It’s quite a big achievement to stand firm on solid ground.

I had a sense of fashion once, I’m not sure when or why.
But if we wait here long enough, it might come wand’ring by.
For all the good that does us – look, I hate to let you down,
But I have to say I think you’d better try another town.
It seems I have no common sense, you’ll have to look elsewhere.
My senses, like my self, are all incredibly rare.


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Sunday summary: A Whole Heap o’Updates

Wow, this week’s been even worse than the last! But I really am getting better. No, I mean it this time – no more croaking, sneezing or messed up sleep patterns. Nothing but writing-focused goodness from now until… well, until Wednesday. Because that’s when the next lot of busy-ness begins, and I will probably fall behind again. No worries – I just need to get a month’s worth of work done in the next… four… days. I can do that.

OK, I probably can’t, but here’s to crazy optimism. Speaking of which:

In Defence of Optimism

I haven’t met with much success
In fact I’m barely getting by,
Though failure dogs my heals, I guess
I’ll always have just one more try.
Though I may never “do or die”
Or shake the world, I’m not without
My own, unfailing battle cry:
“I’m often down, but never out.”

You’ll know by now, I’ve failed the test
At least, in posting this on time,
My goals I’ll have to re-assess
That 50k will never fly
And I may have to simplify
The things I want to blog about
But there’s one thing you can’t deny:
I’m often down, but never out.

It’s tempting simply to regress
To sweet inaction, days slip by
In peaceful slumber, but unless
I stand again, I’ll never fly.
Despair may sing its lullaby
“Give up, give in, drop off, drop out.”
My stubborn soul will still reply;
“I’m often down, but never out.”

So onward, to a clearer sky
Soon all dark days must turn about
Let this persistence signify
I’m often down, but never out

Form: Ballade. Not to be confused with the ballad, the ballade is another French form dating back to the 15th century. The name is derived from an old French word that means “a dancing song”, and the form reflects the strict patterns of a set dance.

A distinguishing feature of the ballade is the dense rhyming, with only three different rhymes across 28 lines. The first three stanzas are a type of huitain, with eight syllables to a line in a rhyme scheme ababbcbC, where ‘C’ is the refrain. An envoi of four lines (bcbc) is used to “sign off” and tie the poem together. Since this is a French form, and the French language doesn’t use stresses the way English does, the lines are measured in syllables rather than feet.

More on the ballade:

It may be a result of blitzing these last few posts and poems, but I seem to be writing exclusively in tetrameter – iambic or trochic. Tomorrow’s post should break this streak, however. It’s time to consider the poetry of song lyrics.

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Kyrielle Sonnet

The letter K

A kyrielle is a poem written in quatrains, stanzas of four lines each. Each stanza contains a refrain, usually the last line. The exact rhyme scheme is up to the poet, so long as the refrain is present. There is no limit to the overall length kyrielle poem, but three stanzas is the minimum.  Each line has exactly eight syllables.

A sonnet is a fourteen-line poem, which means that exactly three kyrielle stanzas plus a closing couplet turns a standard kyrielle into a kyrielle sonnet. The closing couplet is made from the first line of the poem, plus the refrain.



Since I’m still playing catch-up, I decided to write a Kyrielle sonnet outlining my Camp NaNovel, Fragments.  Rhyme scheme: AbaB, cbcB, dbdB, AB.


In a land of many factions
Ancient grudges nursed with pleasure,
Hidden barbs in every action,
Trust remains the rarest treasure.

Through a forced co-operation
Each will find the proper measure
Of their worth, and their salvation,
Trust, remains the rarest treasure.

Prejudices tried and tested
Weakened, despite all endeavour
They will find, like all rest did:
Trust remains the rarest treasure.

In a land of many factions
Trust remains the rarest treasure.

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The letter J

The placement of two things side by side. A literary device that suits poetry well, due to the concise and open nature of the medium.

The juxtaposed ideas can be opposites, or even (apparently) unrelated. By putting them side-by-side, new light can be shed on both. (Compare ‘oxymoron’: the juxtaposition of seemingly contradictory ideas.)

Form: Huitain




Traffic roaring past my bedroom
Quickly fades to background rumble
Aching muscles’ pain takes head-room
But in time, familiar grumbles
Lose themselves in rough and tumble
All must fade that’s too familiar
Or makes up the daily jumble
One-time shocking, now inferior.

A French form, consisting of eight lines of eight syllables each. The rhyme scheme is interlocked: ababbcbc, although other permutations exist. 

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Iambs, and Other Metric Feet

The letter I

Hands up if that post title invoked nightmares of studying Shakespeare at school. “Iambic pentameter” is synonymous with “unfunny jokes and weird talk” for many people; scarred for life by being plunged head first into The Tempest at fourteen with no idea what was going on. Blank verse? Blank faces more like. Well, don’t panic – I’ll try to clear things up a bit.

(You can put your hands down now, by the way.)

The English language is “stress-timed”, meaning that we emphasise some parts of words over others. If you’ve every played “The Sims”, you’ll notice that the characters “talk” in gibberish, but the rhythm of their speech sounds like English, because of the way the stresses fall.

When using English in poetry, then, these stresses must be taken into account. To help poets talk to each other about that, the different patterns of stress in a word or phrase have been given names. For a full and detailed explanation of the six main patterns, see this article.

Some definitions:

Meter: the pattern of stresses used in a poem. Often described in terms of the number and type of…

Foot: a unit of poetic measurement; a small grouping of stressed and unstressed syllables.

Iamb: a type of foot. Two syllables, rising from weak (unstressed) to strong (stressed). Today, New York, like so.

Trochee: the opposite of an iamb, a trochee has two syllables going from strong to weak. Know-how, hair-do, Bible.

Spondee: two stressed syllables together. Rare, but useful for emphasis. Top dog, high noon, get lost.

Pyrrhic: two unstressed syllables together. Even rarer, to the point where some poets argue that there is no such thing as a pyrrhic foot, and that there must be some stress, however light, when syllables come together.

Anapaest: a three-syllable foot, of two weak syllables rising to one strong. At the time, in a way, never mind, Robin Hood. Only in Britain, of course. In America, the famous outlaw’s name is a…

Dactyl: the opposite of an anapaest, one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed ones. Verity, Christopher, happiness.

When describing a poem’s meter, work out how many feet are in a line, and what type they are. Sometimes the strict rhythm is broken up with a few changes (known as “substitutions”), but you can usually tell if the overall pattern is “da-DUM”, “DUM-da”, “da-da-DUM”, or whatever. The type of foot used gives you the first part of the meter (iambic, trochic, anapaestic, etc.) and the number of feet in a line gives you the second part of the name (tetrameter = four feet per line, pentameter = five, hexameter = six, and so on).

So iambic pentameter isn’t scary at all – it simply means lines of five iambs each:

da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM.

Voilà! Blank verse.

There’s a lot more to talk about with meter, but since I’m already behind I’m going to push that forward to next week and the letter ‘M’. Meanwhile, here is my poem for the day, written in iambic tetrameter.

In such a lengthy post (and late)
I’d better keep this poem short
Besides which, I am running low
On subjects for upcoming verse
This unrhymed doggerel will suffice
Until tomorrow’s post arrives.


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Haiku: A Short Form With A Long History

The letter H

Five, seven and five.
What a very simple form!
Except, it isn’t…

To be true haiku (a form which has a long and fascinating history) a poem has to do more than meet the syllable count. I found a very neat summary here which says, amongst other things:

  • Haiku is not a sentence in three fragments.
  • The best haiku are open-ended.
  • Haiku is about nature and season as experienced or observed by the poet.
  • Haiku uses minimal punctuation.
  • Metaphors, similes and other poetry elements are unnecessary in haiku.
  • Haiku does not tell but shows the emotions as experienced by the poet.
  • Haiku present specific moments rather than extensive picture

The haiku is a relatively young form, coming from a long history of Japanese poetry. It was made from a combination of two earlier forms: the haikai and the hokku. Both these forms, in turn, came from renga – a mix of poetry, word game, and competition that has been around since at least the 12th century. Poets would take it in turns to come up with verses, on either light or solemn themes. Light or comic renga was known as haikai. The initial three-line “hook” of a renga was called a hokku, and has the familiar “5-7-5″ structure that we know now as haiku.

(For a modern (and funny) example of a “poetry battle” see here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K7-2_gUuWK4)

Because of the nature of the Japanese language, the syllables of a haiku can have many meanings – as well as being a chosen for their sound and even the aesthetic of their written form. Since this is not the case with English, “the modern haiku need not strictly follow 17 syllables in 5-7-5 format. Some haiku poets follow 5-3-5 format, whereas some do not even follow the uniform pattern of syllables. The most common haiku format is unrhymed three lines poetry.” (Quoted from here again.)

That said, I personally prefer to stick to the pattern of “5-7-5″ where possible.

In light of all this, let’s try again to write a “proper” haiku:

Rain lashing windows
Winter plays the chimney pots
Fireside comfort

So, it turns out that haiku is not as simple as it first seems. If you’re going to honour the rich traditions of this ancient form, there are some pretty hefty rules to follow. But, you know what? You don’t have to. The origin of the haiku is interesting, but like all poetry, the rules are there to be broken. It comes from ancient Japan, but the words you write today come from you, and so in the end it’s up to you what you do with them.

Who knows – in another five hundred years, people could be writing subspace holo-vid updates about “traditional” English-language haiku, and how it departed from its Japanese roots to form a style of its own.

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