Have we got it right? Does the poem work? Did the poem win?

Last week my multiple foibles and fixes were more in a spirit of play than anything else. Poets should get in more, and have more fun. And worry less about winning.

But I had a subtext that never made it into the blog, and it was to do with form. Form intrigues me, although of all the forms a poem could take, we’re often ruled by fashion and habit. (I’m using the word ‘form’ in the widest sense: it includes ‘free’ form.)

This isn’t always a bad thing. I’ve known poets who, for an extended time, wrote sonnets relentlessly. The result was a handful of wonderful poems (in the middle of others less remarkable). One can stick to a particular form for ages, in order to become so comfortable that the range of possibilities stretches and extends.

On the other hand, writers can stick to a familiar form because it’s the way they write, and the way most of their contemporaries write. It’s what most people do, at least at first. It’s normal.

Just now, there’s a lot of poetry in two-line stanzas. Fashion favours aeration in poems these days. And although there are a number of texts that leap about the page with gaps and jumps, far more poems follow a dutiful line down the left hand margin. If there are stanzas, they’re mainly chunked in regular numbers, and often this chunking works against the verse paragraph: you see that by the amount of cross-stanza enjambment. Prose poems are ‘in’: you see them in numerous first collections, though sometimes the shape is formed by the typesetter, not the poet because the poet, wrongly, thinks prose is just prose.

Sometimes readers mention a sense of boredom or ‘same-ishness’ when reading poetry journals or inside whole books of poems. They can’t quite put their finger on what causes it but it’s there.

I think it’s often caused by lack of variety in form. And yet – I don’t think that nails it either. Because sometimes I have the same sense of same-ishness in a journal where the poems are actually pretty varied on the page, insofar as layout is concerned.

The thing I often miss is the sense of everything coming together: that the sound, the shape and the sense have fused. That the form (whatever it is) feels like the only one possible. That the poem has led the form, rather than the form guided the poem.

You know it when you see it – or rather, I think you feel it when you read it. It’s an intuitive matter to some extent, and there’s no recipe for getting it ‘right’. But there is a mindset in poets that can allow for good form. I think it’s a playful mindset. Playful, in the best sense.

Often writers believe they must be innovative. On back covers of books, the blurbs brandish ‘risk’, ‘experiment’, ‘fearlessness’ and any possible aspect that can be described as ‘new’. We have been persuaded to value innovation to a ridiculous extent, to the extent that the word ‘innovative’ is bland and mindless.

But for poets there’s no need to be stuck on what’s new, any more than being stuck in the rut of familiarity. Every single form that has ever been done — from Old English metre through rhyme royal through Spenserian stanzas (never liked them much) through ottava rima through dada through L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry and the avant garde through iambic pentameter through ballads through salads through the chains of free verse through syllabics through Sound and out again through round through concrete and discrete and tall and short and fat and thin and out-loud poems and poems so hard to decipher you have to read them on an iceberg all by yourself — all of this stuff, and more, is available to you.

Using retro language might be inadvisable, but no form is ever redundant. All forms and shapes and approaches are options. It’s mind-boggling.

This doesn’t mean you have to run the gauntlet of clever-clever I-can-show-you-all-my tricks. It’s a mindset I’m talking about. A sort of informed instinct, even in the act of writing, for the shape/form the poetry might need, whether it’s two lines long or 5000. And sometimes an instinct for when the poem hasn’t found its true form, or is behaving sheepishly in order to fall in line.

I’ll end with a poem by W H Davies, who was often accused of repeating himself, though actually his range of form and method was pretty wide. He wrote a lot, and played with different forms a lot, and out of that play came a handful of lovely things, where everything fused. I think ‘The Villain’, first published in 1920, is one of these.

It opens in plodding ballad metre – such a heavy plod – and it summons ‘joy’ (Davies had a thing about joy) and then calls ‘where’er’ into service. Your heart sinks.

But Davies is mocking his own method. Read on. Look how he uses the indents to shape the poem, to emphasise change in tone and action, and how the rhythm of the last line isn’t like any of the rest.

The Villain

While joy gave clouds the light of stars,
    That beamed where’er they looked;
And calves and lambs had tottering knees,
    Excited, while they sucked;
While every bird enjoyed his song,
Without one thought of harm or wrong—
I turned my head and saw the wind,
    Not far from where I stood,

Dragging the corn by her golden hair
     Into a dark and lonely wood.



One thought on “ON GOOD FORM”

  1. Hi Nell,

    I’m not great at matching form to the meaning of a poem, or sometimes even recognising when other poets have done it successfully, but what a fantastic image this poem ends on. I love it. Many thanks for introducing me to this poem and the poet.

    All my best,


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