A Traditional Form Poetry Starter Pack
Many poets are interested in learning or at least experimenting with traditional form poetry, but where to start? There are hundreds of traditional forms and variations, and learning which is which can overwhelm before you even get to the writing part. It’s hard to dabble when the options are practically infinite.
So today I’m narrowing down the field in hopes of sparking a fire. I’ll suggest eight different potential starting places, focusing on the chief complaints about form poetry and which are the friendliest to first-timers. Each category comes with two options: Go Easy On Me and I’m Feeling Brave.
For The Rhyme-Avoidant
The didactic cinquain may sound like a small venomous dinosaur, but it’s a super simple little poem. It consists of five lines (cinque like French for five) of increasing words until the final line, which reverts to one, like this:
One Two Three
One Two Three Four
This form usually fills out as noun (serving as title), two adjectives, three detail words, four words of emotion, and a closer, but it’s not strict, and nothing has to rhyme. The real challenge is in making the poem powerful in its simplicity rather than so simple it’s pointless. If you prefer to hang on to meter, try the American cinquain instead.
I’m Feeling Brave: Sestina
If you’re looking for more of a challenge whilst avoiding rhyme, why not tackle the sestina? Beware, though: this one is super heavy on repetition. You’ll end up with a 39-line poem consisting of six six-line stanzas plus a three-line envoy. The last word of each line in the first stanza are repeated as line-enders in all the rest, doubling up in the final tercet. Read more details about the sestina here.
For Poets With Commitment Issues
Go Easy On Me: Haiku
Short on time and shorter on patience? A haiku is literally 17 syllables long. Take three lines that go 5-7-5 with their syllable count, and you have a haiku form. There are entire tomes of argument and definition on the haiku, debating its tradition and usage, but for our purposes of dipping a toe into the waters of form poetry, you don’t need to worry too much about all of that. If you feel like trying to adhere to some, stick with natural imagery and a juxtaposition of images that creates or alludes to meaning. Bonus: haiku do not need (or really even allow) titles. You slacker.
I’m Feeling Brave: Minute
Nothing is short compared to the haiku, but the minute is still on the tiny side. Also a syllabic form, this one is composed of 60 syllables – thus its name. If you read at the snail’s pace of one syllable a second it would take one minute to read the poem aloud. The minute has three four-line stanzas that follow the syllable structure 8, 4, 4, 4. Rhyming – usually in couplets – is allowed but not required, but iambic meter is strongly encouraged. (Sorry.) For those unfamiliar, an iamb is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. I.E.: the word because (bih-cawz).
An example of a minute poem to give you the form.
For Those With Two Left Metrical Feet
Go Easy On Me: Englyn
Some people just hate meter (iambic pentameter, trochaic tetrameter, etc.), and I can’t really blame them. It’s a delight to read but so tricky to get right. Enter: the syllabic forms! In this case, in steps the englyn to give you a break. There are many types of englyn, but a good one to start with has four lines of the syllable counts 10, 6, 7, 7. The trick is that there’s rhyme, and particularly interesting rhyme as it comes not at the end of the first line, but buried within it at syllable 6. The effect is a unique one, and pretty fun to play around with. It’s also worth noting that you can string more than one of these together like stanzas if you’d like to cover more ground.
I’m Feeling Brave: Prose Sonnet
Personal bias: this is my favorite on this list. I love, love, love a prose sonnet, and I rarely see them done. What’s fantastic about them is that they require no meter or syllable count at all, nor even lines or stanzas: only prose that rhymes. You take the traditional rhyme scheme of a sonnet (ABAB CDCD EFEF GG for Shakespearean) and place those rhymes at the ends of sentences instead of lines. The effect is a unique and subtle rhyme nearly hidden within what appears to be a paragraph or two of prose. I have one called “Breaking Earth” published in Mirror Dance if you’re interested in seeing an example.
For Peeps Who Just Wanna Have Fun
Go Easy On Me: Limerick
Rhyme requirements, lengthy lines, and metrical measures are all valid complaints against form poetry, but the one reason I hear cited most often for poets avoiding them is simply this: they’re not fun. They’re boring, or too much work, or just restrictive. And I get that. I personally enjoy the challenge of making something I like out of a set of rules, but sometimes you just want to play, you know?
Honestly, there’s no better way to play around with poetry than the limerick. Write ‘em silly. Write ‘em dirty. Write ‘em wrong. Who cares? Just sit down and churn out a few. All you have to lose is ten minutes and a little bit of dignity.
Traditional limericks are composed of five lines that utilize two rhyme sounds in an A, A, B, B, A pattern. The meter is most typically anapests (two unstressed followed by one stressed) with 3, 3, 2, 2, 3 feet in each line, but there’s plenty of variation on that. Confused yet? Don’t worry about it. You’ve likely heard enough limericks in your life (here’s a nice gathering) that you know how they go without even counting. There once was a man from Nantucket, after all.
I’m Feeling Brave: Acrostic
I suspect that anyone who’s stuck with me for this long probably just rolled their eyes pretty hard. An acrostic poem, Annie, really? Yes, really. Give them a chance. While you may have preschool flashbacks about filling out your own name, acrostic poems can actually be surprisingly good, and are more versatile than you think. If Edgar Allan Poe wrote one, you can write one too. That’s why I’m listing this one as a level up. In theory, writing a word vertically and using the letters to start your lines is crazy easy, but in practice, making it any good is hard.
Can you make the poem so good (and not forced or random) that most readers won’t even notice the acrostic quality? Can you play with line length in interesting ways, varying them, being strict, or even choosing a meter or syllabic count? What if you made the word spelled out somewhere besides the beginning of each line, like at the ends? Can you make one playful, one serious, one powerful? Hell, can you make it rhyme?
Maybe, or maybe not, but I bet you’ll have fun trying. Or maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll be miserable and curse my name for wasting thirty minutes of your valuable time.
Chances are good that even if these exercises end in frustration you’ll be able to get something out of them. A new topic to write in a different form. A line or two you can excavate. A fresh idea. Unstuckitude. (Experimentation is great for writer’s block.) And maybe you’ll get a fantastic form poem out of the deal that you can actually use. You’ll never know until you try!
Poets and newbies to form, feel free to ask questions in the comments, or even to suggest your own favorite forms, resources, or offer tips. Happy writing!
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