My friend Jeanette died of cancer this week. She was a lively spirit with an infectious laugh. She was also an inspiring poet. Of course I’m going to remember her for all those wonderful qualities and more, but I’d also like to honor her memory by bringing up a subject we both felt strongly about.
The topics of the day, my friends, are meter and form. I am speaking not about parking tickets, but rather the cadence that underlies all formally-structured poetry. I’m not here to tell those poets among you that you must always write villanelles, sonnets and odes. Nor must you rhyme. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. I am here to tell you that if you really want to get good at the art of poetry, you should know how to do these things. Just as Picasso learned to depict realistic people before he started making distorted faces with lips all askew, so should poets learn to put things in order.
This knowledge becomes a tool that you can then use and discard at your will. If you really understand the science of metrics, you can fine tune a poem to get its motor up and humming smoothly. You can adjust a beat here and there to bring in the cadence of galloping horses, to slow the mood down or speed the thing up. You can suit your form to your poem. Some poems cry out for a free verse jeremiad, while others are best served by a sestina’s repeating end words. If you haven’t learned to use formal patterns, your options as a writer will be limited.
My friend Jeanette knew how to use them all, and I learned a lot from her. I’ve made it a personal policy to attempt each form at least once. It’s like tasting new foods. I won’t know if a villanelle suits my palate until I’ve rolled it around on my tongue a little. I found it’s good in small doses, for certain very specific uses. Each form I learn is a new dance I can pull out for special occasions, and the better I get at meter, the better I get at hearing the rhythms of free verse and even prose. This stuff can be tricky, but it’s the hard work you do to get great. Isn’t your writing worth it?
Your assignment, should you choose to accept it:
55. Write a poem using a form. You can choose something as easy as a limerick, or as tricky as a sonnet. Revel in your accomplishment.