Why I Love the “F” Word

No, not that one.  “Form” is what I love.

I didn’t know I loved form, not for a long time.  I remember near the end of my very first writing workshop course at Arizona State, my classmate Erin, in commenting on a poem I’d turned in for comments, said, “I feel like Charlie’s work is often informed by form.”

It was the first time I actually considered my relationship to form.  I’ve never looked back, either.

I think form gets a bad rap these days.  “Free verse” poets (whoever they are) sometimes claim form is too limiting, that it’s archaic, that its time has passed and we’re on to smarter, more interesting things.  I don’t disagree entirely.  But I define form very broadly when it comes to my own work, and these considerations have been essential in how my own writing has grown and developed since that workshop meeting way back when.

The lessons of form are essential for all poets.  Form teaches you to be intentional about word choice, word order, rhythm, and sound.  When writing in what I call a “traditional form” like a sonnet or a villanelle, you have to play by the rules and challenge yourself to turn your thoughts into structured language.  The free verse poet should also do this.  Free verse is not a license to barf text onto the page.  The poet’s first responsibility is always to shaping language meaningfully.  It’s what separates us from the animals (read: fiction writers).

I like to differentiate between “form” and “pattern.”  Things like recurring rhyme, recurring meter—those elements are pattern.  Form is broader than that.  Form for me includes considering the length of the line and the placement of the line on the page (and viewing the whole page as a field that can hold text if warranted by the poem).  I equate form more with its design definition and find form and function should always correlate, though I won’t decide which follows the other.

The other thing I like about form is that you can invent one yourself anytime.  I’ve had a lot of fun corrupting those traditional forms and playing with their conventions.  I’m a fan of what I call the “cinqtina,” a poem of five five-line stanzas that repeat in the same pattern as a sestina (and a three-line envoi).  I also turned a ghazal upside down so that the last stanza opens the poem (so the speaker identifies herself in the first two lines) and ends with a repeated refrain in the last two lines.  These are fun experiments that create opportunities for me.  Sometimes they fail.  If they fail, I try something different.

I don’t see form and free verse as antithetical. In fact, they’re highly compatible!   The free verse poet should leverage his or her awareness of the power and impact of form when writing seemingly-formless lines.  I like poems that have a formal structure to them, a plan, that isn’t obvious on initial readings.  I like form to be a discovery.  The face of the clock tells time, but it never reveals all the complicated cogs and gears working just under the surface.  The best poems are like that.  That’s how I strive to write.