Why write in standard forms?

What's the point of standard forms? Why not just write your poetry down as it comes?

Well, I certainly wouldn't want to give anybody the idea that the quality of a poem could be judged by how closely it followed some standard verse form. This is certainly not the case. Hardly any major contemporary poet uses standard forms more than occasionally, and there is a great deal of fine poetry being written these days - more than ever before, in fact. 

For people who want to write a poem but don't know how to go about it, a standard form can be a great help. Try a villanelle. In next to no time, you'll have written something that's recognisable as a poem. This is good for morale - probably so good that you will want to write another poem very soon. Maybe this time a sestina...

Trying out a form you haven't seen before can be entertaining, too. Other cultures are liable to have ideas about poetry rather different from those of the English-speaking world. See the luc bat from Vietnam, or the pantoum, originally from what is now Malaysia. 

But the best reason for writing in standard forms, I firmly believe, is that it is the best thing you can do to improve the quality of poems you write. And that includes the later ones where you ignore standard forms and "go solo" with free verse, or use some form of your own devising.

Think of musicians practising their scales - even concert performers do that, don't they? African master drummers (according to an album sleeve I have in front of me) insist that freedom and experimentation should only come from within a traditional framework. In the visual arts, think of Picasso, who was a master of conventional representational art before branching out into the innovative styles we now associate with him. (Then compare certain contemporary "artists" who couldn't draw to save their lives. I couldn't possibly name names... although I could certainly write a poem!)  

Let's face it, there's plenty of worthless "poetry" out there.

We've all seen 
prose chopped 
up in some arbitrary self-
consciously arty
fashion into very 
sh
    o
      r
        t 
lines,
oddly laid out, 
and presented as 
"poetry".

And few of us will have been much impressed by it, I should imagine. If you've done your time with standard forms, you're much less likely to write that sort of stuff, or think that you could get away with it if you did. 

Mind you, when you come across something by a well-known poet that might seem at first sight to be no better, you'll do well to look at it more closely. See, for example, the discussion of Thom Gunn's poem about a snail, in Teach Yourself Writing Poetry. Most good poetry - and probably all of it - does have a well-defined structure of some kind, even if it is not immediately obvious to the reader. 

This is another benefit of writing in the standard forms: it helps you appreciate poetry written by other people. You will find it easier to spot the structure, and you will also have an understanding of how difficult such a structure could have been to achieve. 

Other than reading plenty of poetry (which I also recommend strongly), practising the standard forms is the best thing you can do to develop an understanding of poetry.

Back to Verse Forms home page. 

Bob Newman 2004. All rights reserved.

This page last updated 06/06/2004