Forms, Books and Sapphic Stanzas

A while ago, I blogged about the benefits of constraints in poetry – using specific poetic forms.  The challenge, of course, is to make it look as though the poem is something that just occurred to you and quite naturally happened to come out as a villanelle or a sestina, rather than looking as though you’ve just spent the last 14 hours struggling with the third line.  Or worse, looking like you’ve chosen the words to suit the form, forcing them into places they don’t naturally fit, like glass slippers on Cinderella’s ugly sisters.

(For a fine example of something that looks like the poet just thought of it, read Sam Hunt’s “My Father Scything” which starts:

“My father was sixty when I was born,
twice my mother’s age, but he’s never been
around very much…”

I’d read this poem dozens of times before I noticed it’s a proper sonnet with 14 lines (8 + 6) and a subtle rhyme scheme (often half rhymes, like born/been above).  I can only marvel. (And by the way, I saw Sam Hunt: Purple Balloon at the Film Festival recently and it was great!)

There are three books I’ve found particularly helpful with respect to “formal” poetry – poetry that follows a particular form (like a sonnet): The Making of A Poem by Eavan Boland and Mark Strand, and The Book of Forms by Lewis Turco.

Eavan Boland and Mark Strand’s book is a wonderful in-depth look at several different forms, generously sprinkled with excellent examples of each.  Lewis Turco’s is a great reference book – he’s gone for breadth more than depth (but still includes some examples) and covers all manner of poetic terminology I’d never come across before…

…like Sapphic stanzas, where each stanza (verse) in the poem has 4 lines with a particular mix of stressed and unstressed syllables.  The first three lines go:

dum-ty dum-ty dum-ditty dum-ty dum-ty

and the fourth line goes:

dum-ditty dum-ty

(or in technical terms:

trochee, trochee, dactyl, trochee, trochee
trochee, trochee, dactyl, trochee, trochee
trochee, trochee, dactyl, trochee, trochee
dactyl, trochee)

An English example of this is ‘Sapphics’ by Algernon Charles Swinburne

Saw the white implacable Aphrodite,
Saw the hair unbound and the feet unsandalled
Shine as fire of sunset on western waters;
Saw the reluctant. . .

and so forth.

I’ve been struggling for days now to write a poem in Sapphic stanzas and have just about managed to get the first verse into a decent-ish sort of shape (though when I look at it again tomorrow, I may feel differently).  Quite a challenge getting the stresses right, but at least it doesn’t have to rhyme. 

So, if you’re looking for inspiration or just want a good poetic work-out, or your poem isn’t working in its current incarnation – may I recommend Sapphic stanzas!


  1. Another book on form goes nicely alongside Strand & Boland: An Exaltation of Forms, edited by Annie Finch and Kathrine Varnes (U Michigan, Ann Arbor, 2002). Finch and Varnes have fewer examples but more forms. They also have a chapter on experimentation, about a quarter of the book, that includes fractals, oulipo, paradelles, amongst other wild and woolly stuff. Thanks for the posting, Janis. It’s very interesting.

  2. beating poems into shape is half the fun – and all the insanity of a full blown mental collapse – I wish you good luck and look forward to reading the poem – what a great post –

  3. I recently read a colection of Sappho’s poetry in which the poems and fragments were reproduced in Sapphic stanzas, and I found the form to be far more subtle than those more ostentatious forms (villanelle, sestina and so forth) that I sometimes jib at – so I am very keen to read your poem in Sapphic stanzas when it appears. As others have said, that was a very interesting post!

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