Writing to Form

Broadly speaking, there are two ways to format a poem.

The first is to use a form. This can include structures like a short unrhymed haiku, a complex luc bat of indefinite length, or rhyming every second or fourth line.

In my own work, I would normally default to free verse, but in a recent piece, I started writing a triolet before realising that a villanelle has a similar repetitive structure, but allowed more than twice as many lines. The intent was to present as a heated argument between two people, so the repetition worked quite well.

In free verse, by contrast, the form is dictated by the poet in terms of line length, syllable count, where any rhyme is placed, &c. In my experience, this is often misunderstood by non-poets – and even some poets – as it can look like the words are simply chopped-up prose or placed at random, rather than placed there with intent.

It’s difficult to sum up in a few paragraphs how to write free verse poetry, but the best advice I can give is to chop out what you don’t absolutely need. Even when writing to form, I sometimes find it necessary to remove the unnecessary and replace the missing syllables with another thought or a stronger image.

This advice particularly comes into its own with rhyming couplets. If it works for the piece, then that’s great, but consider whether removing the couplets element might make it stronger. I have a lot of experience of hearing second lines that seem to be placed there only to rhyme with the previous line.

A View on a Clerihew

Regular readers might have gathered that I’m a big fan of the clerihew as a poetic form. Recently, I’ve been writing more of them than I have for a long time. But first of all, what is a clerihew?

In the late 1800s, Edmund Clerihew Bentley devised the form as a method of remembering key facts about historical figures for his schoolwork. As such, a verse starts with the name of a person, or sometimes a place or an event. The second line rhymes with the first, while the third and fourth lines rhyme with each other. The more ridiculous the poem, the better, as it then becomes more memorable.

In a few ways, it’s the opposite of another short form: the haiku. A haiku has a fixed syllable count, no intentional rhyming, and is traditionally a serious and reflective verse. It’s a personal view, but I’ve long become tired of reading and writing these, as they’ve become a kind of poetic trope.

By contrast, I don’t often encounter the clerihew. Its liberated form makes it ideal for a quick observation. Over the last few weeks, my subjects have included: my partner and our mutual friends, performers at an LGBT poetry event, and the tenant of a very narrow home.

One day, I might tire of writing these, as I did with haikus, but my pencil will continue to flow until then.