Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Formal Construction in Poetry

Poetry abounds in history, with uses that delve into every aspect of the human condition. It has been used to create the guidelines of nations in constitutions and declarations, to lift up our lightest matter and subjugate our darkest engorgements. It has chronicled much of our ancient history and some of our modern. Poetry has been used to commemorate and send off our dead, and herald our newborns. It has been put to music, paint, ink, clay, and digital bits of meaning. In short, it has been around long enough, and with so many attributes and disciplines, that a huge variety of its designs exist. From sizes ranging the shortest couplet in iambic dimeter, to the vast and novel-like Divine Comedy of Dante, from idle notions in observational work, to the very bibles of our major religions, poetry is the engine that turns our minds in words.

I've set out to highlight some of the better known forms of poetry, the types of it we have encountered over the millenia. I will post five forms with descriptions and some origin information in each post. Where needed, I will provide scansive formula (templates using metrical indicators), and will post about once a month. In the first of these installments, we'll take a look at the sonnet, haiku, the ghazal, the pantoum, and the limerick. I have provided scansive marks where appropriate, with soft accents appearing as 'o', and their opposite hard accents appearing as '/'. These are often shown as circles and dashes, as well as other symbols, but for this text, I've chosen to go with o and /, and use color to indicate layering effects. We begin with the diva of poetry forms, the sonnet.

The Sonnet

One of the most respected and prolific forms of poetry in western history. No study of Shakespeare, Petrarch, Dante, or most of our greatest western poets until the last two-hundred years would be complete without a study of the sonnet. A gift beginning in Italy, it has since been re-articulated and its rules redesigned numerous times in English, Spanish, Italian, and German history. Most major languages have made use of the sonnet since its Italian conception. So respected was the sonnet, it almost feels as if I should capitalise its every instance in this post. There were portions of English history where it was considered shocking that a given poet might stray from the sonnet form. Up until the last hundred years, sonnets were to poets what the vatican is to Catholics. The big enchilada. The head honcho. The alpha form. The sonnet.

Origin and a Nudge of History: The sonnet came about in the very early 13th century, in the court of Frederick II, then Holy Roman Emperor. The sonnet was designed around a songwriter form in Italian, a canso or canzone. The word sonnet comes from the Italian sonnetta ("little song"). At its heart, this form was a long poem, formed around the use of two stanzas serving to divide the poem into two parts, not always equal. It was common that these two stanzas would be broken down into two sections, a fronte and a sirma, separated from one another by a turn in design or meaning (volta).

Over a hundred poems still remain from the court of Frederick II, and 35 are sonnets. These early sonnets were 14 lined, 11-syllable stanzas, composed of an octave (8 line stanza) and a sestet (6 line stanza) always rhyming abababab / ababab. Another device was being used at times involving the addition of a couplet at the end. After finding its way north, it was idealized by poets like Guido Cavalcanti and then friend, Dante Alighieri. They used the rhyme scheme abbaabba in the octave. They also designated the octave as the place in the poem for presenting and describing, and then used the sestet portion of the poem for further comment. Dante's younger works are encapsulated in an excellent book, La Vita Nuova, and show how the form was taken in among Dante and his ilk, and enjoyed greatly.

After Dante, who was exiled on pain of death by the Black Guelfs, the sonnet saw more use by other poets, and particularly by another exile from Florence, Francis Petrarch. Petrarch used the sonnet form heavily. It is Petrarch we have to thank for the sonnet still being around, 700 years later. His use of it was prolific and accomplished. Like Dante, Pertarch used the abbaabba scheme in the octave, but he often used different schemes in his sestet: cdecde, and others. The pioneering Petrarch caused a change in which this type of sonnet would be regarded, and it was named, aptly, the Petrarchan sonnet. A large variety of earlier English sonnets are adapted from Petrarch, though they also adopted contemporary continental poetic structures, as with those utilized by Spenser.

Our modern sonnets, in varying forms, are more adapted from the later William Shakespeare's format and use. Shakespeare was fond of linking several sonnets together to create a longer poem, divided by sonnets. A group of sonnets formally linked by repeated lines is known as a "crown" of sonnets. Shakespeare and other poets of the 1500's were fond of occasionally placing an extra, self-rhyming couplet at the end of the sonnet, which is a common trait of our most modern sonnets.


Francis Petrarch translated by Edwin Morgan

Gli occhi di ch'io parlai si caldamente

The eyes that drew from me such fervent praise,
The arms and hands and feet and countenance
Which made me a stranger in my own romance
And set me apart from the well-trodden ways;
The gleaming golden curly hair, the rays
Flashing from a smiling angel's glance
Which moved the world in paradisal dance,
Are grains of dust, insensibilities.
And I live on, but in grief and self-contempt,
Left here without the light I loved so much,
In a great tempest and with shrouds unkempt.
No more love songs, then, I have done with such;
My old skill now runs thin at each attempt,
And tears are heard within the harp I touch.


William Shakespeare

Sonnet 6

Then let not winter's ragged hand deface

In thee thy summer, ere thou be distill'd:

Make sweet some vial; treasure thou some place

With beauty's treasure, ere it be self-kill'd.

That use is not forbidden usury,

Which happies those that pay the willing loan;

That's for thyself to breed another thee,

Or ten times happier, be it ten for one;

Ten times thyself were happier than thou art,

If ten of thine ten times refigured thee:

Then what could death do, if thou shouldst depart,

Leaving thee living in posterity?

Be not self-will'd, for thou art much too fair

To be death's conquest and make worms thine heir.


One of the most misunderstood and heavily utilised traditional writing forms in English today. Haiku's origin is Japanese, around 1890, but stemming from haikai-no-renga in the 16th century, which stemmed from renga in the 15th century. The age of haiku's invention can be misleading. See the description below, under 'Origin and General Information' to learn why.

The reason for this form being misunderstood in the west is due to longstanding misconceptions about the intent of the poem. Westerners use form as an exacting template in which to write, and our subjects are somewhat open. True, certain forms had specific subjects to keep in mind (Miracle Plays, Eulogies, etc...), but in general, subject was a matter of the author’s experimentation and the general level of understanding and comfort of readers. There aren’t very specific rules regarding what a sonnet must be about. So, we don’t generally apply a subject mindset to modern haiku, either, and maintain that haiku is best with no specifically chosen limiter. That is, no center of interest that must be maintained. This is unfortunate from a traditional point of view, but does open the possibilities of the poem exponentially.

Origin and General Information: There is a longstanding confusion by western poets between the three related terms Haiku, Hokku and Haikai. These are sometimes used in place of one another, incorrectly. The term hokku means, in its most literal sense "starting verse", and was only the first introductory verse of a longer chain of verses. This longer chain was known as haikai-no-renga or just haikai, for short. The intent, scope and tone of the haika (the completed chain, the entire poem) was settled early in its hokku. Writing the introductory hokku quickly gained notoriety as a feat one had to be very skilled to do well. Because of this, it became common in some circles that a poet could compose a hokku solely.

After some time passed, writing a hokku could be considered a separate endeavor, though not officially. To remedy this and to give the form its own identity, away from the notion of haikai, a single introductory hokku became known by the name haiku. This occured in the 1890s, under the supervision and pressuring of Masaoka Shiki, one of the greatest critics of Matsuo Basho, an earlier poet who had been deified by the government. Criticizing Basho, for some time in Japanese history, was a blasphemous offense. According to Shiki, if separated and complete on its own, and without the extension of other verses, a hokku was to be called a haiku, and to be considered its own poetic form.

Because of this switch in names and intent, the "haiku" actually has a short history, and those poets (Kobayashi Issa, Matsuo Basho, and many others) who are known to have written it earlier than the late 19th century were actually writing hokku. The difference is a matter of official naming and cultural shift.

I once had a creative writing teacher who, when asked what a haiku was, stated to his class: “Oh that? It’s just a poem that goes 5-7-5. That’s all.” This is neglectful. Saying a haiku is 5-7-5, and that's all, is akin to stating that a car is just a box that travels on four wheels. Yes, most cars have four wheels and travel, but there is certainly much more going on than that. The metrical count in Japanese haiku is important, but could be strayed here and there if needed. The real regulation of a haiku was its subject, concise brevity, and imagery. Westerners have a difficult time, culturally, charting and weighing subject and imagery, considering our alphabets aren't necessarily pictogrammatic, whereas many facets of asian language involve more pictogrammic usage. The Japanese symbol for 'house' looks like a house. Our word for 'house' looks like coded nonsense, if you don't read English. We can discern if we think an image in a poem is good, or of interest, and we can figure out if we enjoy or are attentive to a subject, but we don’t usually regulate it for our formats. We can write about anything, culturally. This has more to do with modernity and changes in acceptance than with cultural borders, but they do play a serious part in how we interpret haiku. So, if we don't specifiy subjects much, and we don't generally chart out our imagery, we're left with the concise brevity part. We focus most on the metrical count, one of the rules of haiku. Most scholars agree that the English syllable is the closest thing we have to the Japanese use of meter, despite that it is not so short as its japanese counterpart, and also that the English syllable varies in length ('cop' and 'strange' are both monosyllabic, but one takes longer to say). While some dislike this difference in style between traditional eastern and modern western haiku, particularly those who wish to write haiku in a more classical mode, there isn't much of a closer option than the English syllable, so that's what we use.

Brevity: My past instructor’s remark is a perfect example of forgetting subject and imagery, focusing on nothing but brevity. The general rule in English is three lines, of 5, 7, and then 5 syllables, and many people allow one to alter this, within reason. It is commonly accepted that modern, western haiku can be interpreted as the author wishes, so long as it's short. Most stick with 5-7-5. Unfortunately, this is not the sole rule one should follow (yet most do) in writing more traditional haiku. I can write 5-7-5 from sunrise to sunset, no problem, but I can’t write a good, true haiku without expending a lot of thought into it. You can dedicate your life to it. Ask Issa or Basho. The subject and imagery is key in traditional haiku, every bit as much as the metrical lines.

Haiku must contain a kigo, which is a seasonal word. These exist to indicate in which season the haiku is set. Snow would indicate winter, mosquitos can indicate summer, and one of the more famous images, cherry blossoms, indicate spring. There were, in the traditional Japanese, a wide variety of seasonal words that were acceptable, and it was the mark of a craftsman to gain acceptance with a new one of his own. In western haiku, the kigo and various other forms of subject and imagery, once mandatory and of great importance, even here, have been widely lost. Western haiku has largely become as my old creative writing teacher stated. A five, a seven, a five. That's it, the boring result of a hard watering down by masses of occasional poets and tinkerers.


Kobayashi Issa (western calendar: June 15, 1763 - January 5, 1828)

A man, just one -
also a fly, just one -
in the huge drawing room.


Matsuo Basho (roughly 1644-1694)

Fallen sick on a journey,
In dreams I run wildly
Over a withered moor.*

*written on his deathbed.

The Ghazal

Originating in 12th century Persia, from an arabic word that means 'talking to women', the ghazal (pronounced like 'gozzle') has a longstanding history. It is a poem comprised of entirely separated couplets, of which there is no enjambment or lead-off, and of which consist of lines of equal metrical length. The first line of each couplet is introductory, and the second line amplifies the meaning of the first. The rhyme scheme and system of refrain (repeated word or phrase) is uniform and does not change throughout the ghazal. The rhyme scheme is present in both lines of the introductory couplet, but thereafter is utilised only in the second line of each succeeding couplet. The rhyme does not end the line, but tapers into the refrain. The length of the ghazal is of the author's choice, but they are not usually longer than 15 couplets, and the last couplet in the poem has a specialized function, in which the author may introduce their name in whatever person they choose. It is a sort of signature by the poet.

The following is a template example in 3 stanzas, using iambic heptameter (seven iambs per line), with bold to show an example of rhyme, and red coloring to show a possible refrain. There is a blue patch to show a possible place to add your signature name. Remember, the refrain will always follow the rhyme immediately:







Most ghazals are longer than this. If I were to lengthen it, I would add more couplets in the middle, all of which would bear the same design as the middle couplet already shown. The template example above merely shows the pertinent structure of the poem. The rhythm and meter are open and can be chosen by the author, so long as that chosen is consistent throughout. Also open are the rhyme and refrain you choose, as well as the way your signature works.


Khwaja Shams ud-Din Hafiz-i Shirazi (1326-1390, also known as 'Hafiz'.)

agar ân tork-e shirâzi be-dast ârad del-e mâ-râ
be-khâl-e henduvish bakhsham samarqand o bukhârâ-râ

badeh sâqi may-e bâqi keh dar jannat na-khvâhi yâft
kenâr-e âb-e roknâbâd o golgasht-e mosallâ-râ

faghân kin luliyân-e shawkh-e shirinkar shahr-âshub
chonân bordand sabr az del keh torkân-e khvân-e yaghmâ-râ

ze ‘eshq-e nâ-tamâm-e mâ jamâl-e yâr mostaghnist
be-âb o rang o khâl o khatt cheh hâjat ru-ye zibâ-râ

man az ân hosn-e ruzâfzun keh yusof dâsht dânastam
keh ‘eshq az pardeh-ye ‘esmat berun ârad zolaykhâ-râ

agar doshnâm farmâyi va gar nefrin do‘â guyam
javâb-e talkh mi-zibad lab-e la‘l-e shakar-khâ-râ

nasihat gush kon jânâ keh az jân dustar dârand
javânân-e sa‘âdatmand pand-e pir-e dânâ-râ

hadis az motreb o may gu va râz-e dahr kamtar ju
keh kas na-g’shud o na-g’shâyad be-hekmat in mo‘ammâ-râ

ghazal gofti va dorr softi biyâ khvosh be-khvân hâfez
keh bar nazm-e to afshânad falak `eqd-e sorayyâ-râ


(The following poem is a translation of that directly above, and for which I couldn't find a translator's name.)

If that Shirazi Turk would take my heart in her hand,
For her dark Indian mole I would give Samarkand
and Bukhara.

Wine, sâqi, bring the remaining wine!
For in Paradise thou’lt not find
the water’s edge of Ruknâbâd or the rose-park of Musallâ.

Alas, these wanton Luli girls upset the town with their sweet work;
they take away patience from the heart in the same way that the Turks plunder the feast.

The beauty of the Beloved has no need of my imperfect love:
what need has the beautiful face for perfume, rouge, moles, and makeup?

From the daily-increasing beauty that Joseph had, I know
the love that brought Zulaykhâ out from behind her veil of innocence.

If thou pronounce curses and maledictions, I will say prayers.
The bitter answer suits the sugar-eating ruby lips.

O soul, listen to advice
which is dearer than the soul to joyful youths
from the wise old man who knows:

Tell the tale of the minstrel and wine,
and don’t inquire much into the mystery of time,
for nobody’s wisdom will untie or undo this knot.

Thou has spoken the ghazal, and strung the pearls; come, sing sweetly, Hâfiz!
So that heaven may scatter on thy poem the necklace of the Pleiades.

The Pantoum

A French form, originating in Malay. The pantoum's traditional form consists of 4 stanzas, 4 lines each, of approximately 8 syllables to the line (this indicates the use of 3-footed rhythms like Dactyl and Anapest are out), rhyming ABBA. However, these rules are but a beginning of what makes a pantoum. The difficult and defining characteristic of a pantoum is its recursive quality. The pantoum re-uses its lines again and again, in a very specific order: The second and fourth lines of each stanza reappear EXACTLY as the 1st and 3rd lines of the next stanza. The last stanza's 2nd and 4th lines are also the 1st and 3rd lines of the first stanza, creating a never-ending loop. The last rhyme in the ABBA scheme doubles as the first rhyme when it repeats (example: ABBABBABBABBABBA. The red is used to denote how the end of one ABBA doubles as the beginning of the next. That second A doubles as the first A in the next rhyme scheme fulfillment). Today, most people who write pantoums allow an infinite number of stanzas, so long as the recursion rule is followed, and the use of 4 lines to the stanza. Some will augment the syllable count, so long as it's static throughout, and it's not uncommon to find modern pantoums with ABAB rhyme schemes. Many poets rank this classical form of poetry to be the strictest and most difficult (I disagree) but with a touch of modern laxity and experiment, they become easier. Sticking to the classical, traditional mode can be a headache, hence why these poems have been respected for some across many countries.

I've noticed that the pantoum is sometimes used for ‘dirty’ poetry, or, poetry of a debauched or raunchy gist, but classically, it is usually elevated for purer intentions. The pantoum is an amazing, recursive form, and difficult. Your lines have to be open enough to fit a variety of circumstances grammatically, yet specific enough to be of interest to the reader. In short, acrobatic word choice and lines capable of several meanings, in context. The toughest part of writing a pantoum is that any change you make to a line will require changing it in other lines, which changes the meaning of surrounding lines, which all have to be changed then, and on and on... It's the Rubik's cube of poems.

There is also the imperfect pantoum, which finds some use in the modern poetry arena. In this form, the final stanza differs from the traditional form, with the second and fourth lines allowed to be different from preceding lines.

The following is the template design of a usual pantoum, using trochaic tetrameter (four trochaic feet [/o] = 8 syllables). The color code represents which lines are the same (I.E. line 4 of the first stanza repeats as line 3 of the second stanza). By following the colors, you can see where each line repeats exactly. Lines 2 and 4 repeat as lines 1 and 3 in the next stanza, always. The last stanza's lines 2 and 4 repeat, just as before, but in the 1st and 3rd lines of the FIRST stanza, concluding and sealing the loop of lines together. The last stanza presupposes the very first stanza follows it, and the rhythm as well as the recursive line structure is completed.

/o/o/o/o A

/o/o/o/o B

/o/o/o/o B

/o/o/o/o A

/o/o/o/o B

/o/o/o/o B

/o/o/o/o A

/o/o/o/o B

/o/o/o/o B

/o/o/o/o A

/o/o/o/o B

/o/o/o/o B

/o/o/o/o A

/o/o/o/o B

/o/o/o/o B

/o/o/o/o A

Example (Note: In the following example, Charles Baudelaire ignored the common tactic of repeating the first line of the poem as his closing line, and also chose to use an ABBA rhyme scheme.)

Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867)

Harmonie du soir

Voici venir le temps où vibrant sur sa tige
Chaque fleur s’évapore ainsi qu’un encensoir;
Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir;
Valse mélancolique et langoureux vertige!
Chaque fleur s’évapore ainsi qu’un encensoir;
Le violon frémit comme un cœur qu’on afflige;
Valse mélancolique et langoureux vertige!
Le ciel est triste et beau comme un grand reposoir.
Le violon frémit comme un cœur qu’on afflige,
Un cœur tendre, qui hait le néant vaste et noir!
Le ciel est triste et beau comme un grand reposoir;
Le soleil s’est noyé dans son sang qui se fige.
Un cœur tendre, qui hait le néant vaste et noir,
Du passé lumineux recueille tout vestige!
Le soleil s’est noyé dans son sang qui se fige . . .
Ton souvenir en moi luit comme un ostensoir!


(An English translation follows)

Here comes the time when, vibrating on its stem,
Each flower evaporates like a censer;
The sounds and scents revolve in the evening air;
Melancholy waltz and languorous vertigo!
Each flower evaporates like a censer;
The violin trembles like a heart that is distressed;
Melancholy waltz and languorous vertigo!
The sky is sad and beautiful like a great altar.
The violin trembles like a heart that is distressed,
A tender heart, which hates the vast, black nothingness!
The sky is sad and beautiful like a great altar;
The sun has drowned in its freezing blood.
A tender heart, which hates the vast, black nothingness,
Collects all vestiges from the luminous past!
The sun has drowned in its freezing blood . . .
Your memory shines in me like a monstrance!

The Limerick

Believe it or not, this form of poetry, once considered the lowest of the low and generally relegated to drunken bar cronies rhyming anything they could with words obscene, profane, or just plain fun, is still alive and kicking. We've all met someone who has recited that they ‘once knew a man from Nantucket...’ who, at some point, did or said something that rhymed with 'fuck it' or 'suck it' or else. Believe it or not, there's a Limerick Day, which is celebrated on May 12th, coinciding with the birthday of Edward Lear , a notable writer of limericks who wrote in the early-to-mid 1800s.

Origin: The object of the limerick, most of the time, is humor with a dash of shock-value. The subject matter for any good limerick usually involves something foul, low, begrudged, or sexual (and if you're really good, all four at once), and the poem is delivered like a joke or riddle, as it usually involves a punchline ending. I’ve heard all sorts of endings to limericks, from men having sex with mules, to drunken blackouts, and even a vacuum cleaner inserted in a politician's bottom. At 5 lines completed (I have seen experiments involving longer and more intricate structures, but the usual form is 5 lines), the general rhythm for this form is two lines in trimeter (usually anapestic, but on certain occasions iambic, and any other rhythm is workable), dropping into two shorter lines in dimeter, and then exalting its end with a final trimetric line, which tosses out the final rhyme and, like the punchline to a joke, delivers the witty shock or dirty wrap-up. We find out in this last moment what happens to the man from Nantucket, what tools were utilised, and to whom he involved in his humorous debauchery. The rhyme scheme of most limericks is AABBA.

Let's take a well-known (albeit filthy) version of 'Nantucket' apart:

There once was a man from Nantucket

Whose dick was so long he could suck it.

While wiping his chin,

He said with a grin,

"If my ear were a cunt, I could fuck it."

o/oo/oo/o A

o/oo/oo/o A

o/oo/ B

o/oo/ B

oo/oo/oo/o A

You'll note that in the last line of this version of the poem, the author snuck in an extra syllable at the beginning. The rhythm needs not be exact, but it can't be entirely forgotten or you don't have a limerick.


A flea and a fly in a flue
Were caught, so what could they do?
Said the fly, "Let us flee."
"Let us fly," said the flea.
So they flew through a flaw in the flue.



There was an Old Person whose habits,
Induced him to feed upon rabbits;
When he'd eaten eighteen,
He turned perfectly green,
Upon which he relinquished those habits.

-Edward Lear


There was a young lady named Alice,
Who used dynamite for a phallus,
They found her vagina,
In North Carolina,
Her arsehole in Buckingham Palace.

-commonly known, yet unattributed

1 comment:

OldSchoolHaiku said...

Thanks for the tip

“Let the ones who have Knowledge share it with the ones who seeks it, so they also can teach those who seek it next”