On the Pleasures & Demands of Poetic Form

I’ve been busy revising poems as a part of a summer research grant from my university. That time so far has been satisfying and productive. Last week, for some reason, I found myself using certain forms in three of the five poems I revised. Two sestinas and a pantoum.

With one of those poems, I observed a pattern of repetition in initial draft–a way of turning over the subject of the poem–and I thought, maybe this could be a sestina. And then I thought, that’s too much work. Over an hour later, however, I had succeeding in creating a sestina. (More on that form in a moment.)

My impulse and attraction to so-called “fixed” forms might be a holdover from my Creative Writing: Poetry course this spring. Students wrote in a variety of poetic forms, including some that use repeating lines: villanelles, pantoums, triolets. There is usually much initial resistance to these particular forms (as was the case this semester), but students eventually came to appreciate (and even enjoy) working in these forms.

A pantoum uses four-line stanzas (quatrains), with the requirement that lines two and four of each stanza become one and three of the following stanza. The poem can be any number of quatrains (but a minimum of 3), and the poem’s first and third lines return as the second and fourth lines of the final stanza, usually inverted. Some pantoums rhyme abab, and some don’t use a rhyme scheme. Poets, as can be expected, vary in their strictness of repetition.

I’ve written a handful of pantoums, but it had been a long time since I had attempted a sestina, a 39-line poem that uses six repeating end words. These six words recur in different orders in sestets (six-line stanzas) throughout the poem, and the poem concludes with a tercet (three-line stanza) that includes two of the end words per line. Part of the fun of the form is figuring meaningful ways to use each end word seven times.

(Side note: I’ve learned that if you start tweeting about how you’re writing in certain poetic forms that someone might challenge you to a duel. A friend saw my tweet and promptly challenged me to a sestina duel, picking three of the six end words, allowing me to pick the other three.)

Writing in a “fixed” form that uses repetition is one of my favorite poetic approaches. The form provides a structure, an architecture. a set of boundaries. After all,  writing–whether poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, a blog post–involves a search for form in conjunction with a search for subject.

Just as any writer, I have subjects and images to which I regularly return, and writing in a form that requires repetition often helps me shape my ideas, my words. I find these forms (and other patterns and forms–sonnet, meter, syllabics) often enable me to explore my ideas more effectively. In these forms’ demands, I (paradoxically) find poetic freedom.

Now to finish up the draft of a new sestina. How am I going to use the word __________ repeatedly to end lines?

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