Understanding and Using Form


April 24, 2014 by KWills

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!



5 thoughts on “Understanding and Using Form

  1. Very true. I never studied poetry (because of any number of excuses, as I occassionally write it) and because of this, I’m always conscious of what I don’t know. It bugs me:)

  2. Alex Hurst says:

    Thank you for this!! Now I can finally study poetry properly! 😀 (Also, sorry I’ve gotten so behind on reading your blog! It’s been a crazy month, but I haven’t forgotten it. 🙂 )

  3. […] Understanding and Using Form […]

  4. Stephanie Scott says:

    Well, I can only imagine how a Stephen Fry poetry book would read–he’s so funny and clever. I’ve read Billy Collins by request of a friend, and I do like accessible poetry like how he writes. I agree, with all writing, you need to know basics first before you break the established rules.

    I’m glad Alex Hurst pointed me in your direction for the A to Z challenge! My posts are about Memorable Characters.

  5. I have a mediocre understanding of poetry (all I know is meter should be consistent, and that there should be some structure to the verse, along with, preferably, rhyme), but I’ve never studied any specific forms. I’ve always either ignored them or made up my own. As you can imagine, I’m a rather poor poet. I will, however, look up that Stephen Fry book—it sounds interesting.

    This was a wonderful post. I love your explanations with your original examples—you’re a much better poet than I’ll ever be!

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