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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!

Poetic forms have a particular advantage. Using the restrictions imposed by a sonnet (14 lines, using a particular rhyming scheme if you like) or a sestina (6 stanzas of six lines + 1 of three with a set pattern to the end words in each line) can make a good poem better.

It makes me think of Gerard Manly Hopkins’ poem, Windhover, about a falcon (or perhaps a kestrel), where he says: “AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!” There are many ways of interpreting this, but the one I remember from school is that it referred to the falcon as a trained hunting bird, under the control of a falconer. The ‘chevalier’ also represented Hopkins’ Christ – made lovelier by his sacrifice. Hopkins himself, as a Jesuit priest, was under the control of his religion, which, while repressing him in some ways, perhaps gave him freedom in others.  (For the record, I am suspicious of organised religion and think it has a lot to answer for, but that’s another story).

This is only one interpretation of the poem (and it’s just my recollection of it), but the point remains. By using the constraints of a poetic form, we can bring an extra dimension to poetry. And it’s fun, like working out a crossword puzzle. The challenge is for the form to fit the poem and not to try to force words into fitting the form. It works best when you can read a poem through, enjoy it, and only then notice that it’s a sonnet or has a set number of syllables to each line or that there is some subtle rhyming scheme at work.

Another way of looking at it, is discipline – the forces of order and control vs the forces of wildness. If you can get both into some sort of balance, it’s better than one or the other – to write, you need both wild inspiration and the discipline of sitting down and capturing it on paper/ flashdisk.

More on poetic forms here: poetic forms

The masters and mistresses of constraints are perhaps the Oulipo poets (“Ouvroir de littérature potentielle”), who use mathematical formulae in poetry or extreme constraints such as Georges Perec’s novel, La disparition, written without using the letter “e”. The wonderful Christian Bök, a Canadian poet who was here for the last Writers & Readers Festival in Wellington, uses some amazing constraints – his book Eunoia comprises five poem sequences, each using only one of the vowels. And speaking of discipline – the book took seven years to write.

Do try this at home.

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