Working up a sweat with poetic forms

Experimenting with poetic forms

How long does it take you to write a poem that you’re truly proud of? For me, it usually takes a fair amount of time; and this has led me to a recent realization that I’d like to share.

My friends and readers know that I am constantly experimenting with sundry forms of poetry and rarely write free verse. This is not to say that I never employ free verse. I do- but not nearly as often as most poets I follow on WordPress on Twitter. Free verse really does seem to be king.

Mental exhaustion from ironing out poetic forms

Two poems I recently composed each took me a fair amount of time to complete.

The first of these was ‘Innocence lies, or: Winter waits’, which I wrote in the ‘Diablo’ form, which I’d never attempted before. I find that trying out a new form always adds an additional level of challenge to poetry writing; and the ‘Diablo’ form is particularly challenging because every line contains two rhymes, two syllables apart.

The second poem I’m referring to is the ‘Nove Otto’ piece that I published in response to Sherry Lens just this morning. The ‘Nove Otto’ rhyme scheme is easier than that of the ‘Diablo’ (only one rhyme per line), but I added an additional twist to it, turning mine into a nine-line acrostic, which made it quite challenging for me.

I won’t lie – I’m proud of both poems (I wouldn’t have published them otherwise). However, as I was working on both of them, the thought did cross my exhausted mind that I was making my task unnecessarily difficult. I could have just as well opted for free verse or selected a much simpler form without rhyme or acrostic requirements.

Proud of what, exactly?

So, then I had this subsequent thought:

Am I prouder of these two poems, each written in a restrictive poetic form, than I would be of two hypothetical pieces that I composed in free verse? And the answer, I realized, is –


See, the insight that I had this morning, which is probably self-evident to many of you, is that producing a high-quality free verse poem is not necessarily easier than producing a high-quality poem composed according to the rules of a particular form. I might say that it’s a different sort of challenge, certainly, but, really, the primary difference for me is – who is setting the parameters?

Following a form means restricting one’s self to another’s parameters. Writing in free verse means restricting one’s self to one’s own parameters.

Sure, I could take a block of text I’ve written, insert random line breaks into it, and post it as a poem. In fact, I’m sure that some readers would even consider that clever and pay me compliments for it. But would I be proud of my meaningless and arbitrary line breaks?


The “form” perspective

After experimenting with many forms these last few years (and I’m still going strong with this project), I’ve come to appreciate that wrestling with poetic forms hasn’t merely trained me to employ specific devices effectively – it’s taught me to slow down and consider my every single syllable.

In other words, engaging deeply with complicated poetic forms has increased my confidence to write free verse poetry because the process of doing so has become one that I find myself taking increasingly seriously. Sure, free verse poetry is entirely open to all permutations, but my sense of and feelings towards those infinite, potential permutations has deepened dramatically since I first began composing verses.

So, whenever I compose and publish a poem in free verse – I know that I will have approached it with no less seriousness and intent than I would have with any other poem I’ve written – form or no form.

77 thoughts on “Working up a sweat with poetic forms”

  1. I love free verse or your standard rhyme with metered out syllables. The rest I find are too complicated to get creative with. Thanks for sharing. Really interesting info ๐Ÿ‘๐Ÿ‘

  2. Well-considered, David. I find free verse poetry harder to revise, and harder to know when and where to stop, because the options are limitless. With poetic forms, it’s easier for me to spot the weak areas. But in general, I write the poem that wants to be written.

  3. Interesting thoughts. Thanks for sharing ๐Ÿ™‚ Lately, I strongly prefer writing in strict form, and that may have something to do with being more comfortable conforming to the parameters of others. But, I also agree with what you said about how practicing strict forms improves writing skills over time. One of the reasons I do so many poetry challenges is to attempt to improve my skills. Plus, some forms feel like puzzles to me, so I sort of look at writing poetry as “doing puzzles to sharpen my intellect.”

  4. โค THIS! Reminded of a quote, echoed by many, regarding "Well, Learn the rules first, so when ya break 'em? Ya know exactly why you are breaking them to create something unique to you and new to others" –

    I so admire the parameters/rules of so many written forms – essays, speeches, poetry – novella, short fiction, novels, research papers, presentations, website content, copy writing, marketing content, etc. – they each have their own 'rules' based off trial and error from those who live/breathe, continually 'hone their blade' in this format –

    And yet – no matter the true set with heart intent course? It seems to, for all of them, no matter the rules – come back to "just the right word, syntax, flow' for the overall – as they test, try, cry, edit, lay aside, take back up again – their craft and becoming a master at 'this/that' –

    I admire that so much! And when all that comes together – it SHOWS! Over and over again – and I learn more on various fronts – even though, I'm not a master at anything – really – but every day, someone, somewhere, displays the discipline, the rules, the blood sweat and tears it takes to be REALLY good at something – and I pick up tips on 'how to be good enough, just now, for those who think I can do it all' and yet – – my life/the needs of those who count upon me?

    Don't need me to be a master in one front or another – they need me to be just good enough to get them started – avoid huge pitfalls/lots of rework later – and buy them time with 'good enough' while they become ever more, the masters at what THEY are good at –

    Thus – sorry so long – but this is WHY I follow you – comment – read other comments here – try, experiment, sometimes share here – cuz I'm a generalist and don't I know it! But always, always, I stand on the shoulders, to do best as I can 'for now' on the masters in many fields who share their gifts – THANK YOU!!!!!! โค

  5. This is admirable of you, David. Poetry forms can present a challenge to us poets, but we enjoy challenges, donโ€™t we? Iโ€™ve set up a page as a Guide to Short Poetry Forms and will introduce it later on. Keep on keepinโ€™ on.

  6. Hard work always pays. Congratulations on experimenting with different forms. Forms have usually been devised by poets to cling to a particular subject matter. So using a set form to express something completely different is the difficulty. Any poem needs work, rewriting, trimming. Satisfaction only comes from our own sense of accomplishmentโ€ฆwhich scarcely arises in the multitude of poems we write, even if praised by others. No real answer to what makes a satisfying poem work. It all depends on the readers.

        1. who does, Susan? Who does? ๐Ÿ˜€

          BTW, please feel free to call me ‘David’ – that is my first name. The word ‘ben’ means ‘son of’ in Hebrew, and my father’s name was ‘Alexander’… I created this blog in his memory, you see.

          I know that ‘Ben’ is also a common name in English – I’m really sorry for the confusion!

          Much love,

  7. It’s wonderful to read about your passion and discipline, David. It’s no joke to write and having to write according to rules and formats is even tougher. But yes, the practice and sheer dedication makes one’s writing on the whole much better. Of course your verses testify to this. Continue the awesome and hard work. It’s liberating. ๐Ÿ™‚

  8. I’m pretty new to this poetry writing malarkey, but even at this early stage I have realised that wrestling with different forms, which can seem forced and restrictive, actually helps a lot in forcing me to consider each word, each syllable, and what it contributes to what I’m aiming to express. Which carries over to when I use a different form – or none. A really helpful post – thanks.

  9. I was brought up on free verse DH Lawrence as well as a lot of metred poetry such as Wordsworth. But most interesting for me is the poetry of Larkin who is highly structured- rhyme rhythm and alliteration in precise
    Formats. Yet when you read the poems the devices are imperceptible. You read the cadences but the meaning is first. I think that is so clever and so appealing. For many years I taught poetry appreciation to a level students. It was a great journey of discovery for them. Writing in a similar way was a great challenge for my students, but sometimes with great results. The joy of Larkin is that no we ord is forced to fit the scheme. Itโ€™s the naturalness of the sound that makes it poetry and not verse

  10. Interesting subject, David. I write my free verse poems in minutes sometimes but I have to be inspired. Other poems have taken me hours, in the past. As long as we are proud of our work, thatโ€™s all that matters.๐Ÿ’žโœจ

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