A Poetry Formula with 20 Requirements
Writing form poetry is not everyone’s cup of tea. Neither is reading it. However, I am a firm believer that the best poets have conquered the forms before reinventing them into new, breathtaking poems. Of course, it is possible that I have been brainwashed into thinking this by those who have taught the various writing classes and workshops I’ve attended.
Following a formula for a poem can be both challenging and fun. In fact, if you like word puzzles, you should love the challenge of writing a good poem that fits a form. It is easy to write a form poem, but it isn’t easy to write a great one.
The following exercise is from an assignment I received while taking a poetry class in college. My professor, Sam Green (who was named Poet Laureate for the state of Washington in 2007), provided this fun formula for us.
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The Twenty Requirements
1. Begin the poem with a metaphor or simile.
2. Say something specific, but completely and utterly preposterous.
3. Use at least one image, in succession, for each of the five senses: sight, touch, sound, taste, smell.
4. Use an example of synesthesa (mixing the senses).
5. Use the proper name of a person and a place.
6. Contradict something you said earlier in the poem.
7. Change direction, or digress from the last thing you said.
8. Use a word you have never seen in a poem (slang, perhaps).
9. Use an example of false cause-effect logic (The snow falls heavily, because the candle is burning, and there’s nothing on TV—see how none of these really have anything to do with each other?).
10. Use a piece of “talk” you have actually heard, preferably in dialect and/or which you do not understand.
11. Create a metaphor using the following construction: “The (adjective) (concrete noun) of (abstract noun).”
12. Use an image in such a way as to reverse its usual associative qualities (her smile is the squeal of a pig to slaughter).
13. Make the speaker of the poem do something he/she could not do in real life.
14. Refer to yourself by nickname and in the third person.
15. Write in the future tense, such that part of the poem seems to be a prediction.
16. Modify a noun with an unlikely adjective.
17. Make a declarative assertion that sounds convincing, but that makes no “real” sense.
18. Use a phrase from a language other than English, than translate it.
19. Make a non-human object say or do something human (personification).
20. Close the poem with a vivid image that echoes the image you began the poem with.
Below, you will see how I wrote the poem. I think it is a fun poem, but it isn’t finished. It can use a lot of editing and revision; in fact, I already have more current version of it. After you write your poem following the form, you can choose to deviate from it to make it work better.
DRIVING CROSS-COUNTRY, USA 2003
Billboards decorate natural scenery along the interstate
like vultures screeching over their prey.
I am full of silences shouting through my mind.
A glimpse of my eye caught in the mirror, my smile
thickens, as voices change from sweet melodies
to serious banter. I am entranced by the voices,
their words scourging through my veins, my fingers
coiling like ancient roots around the steering wheel.
And I bite through the bitterness, praying for
sweet respite, but the air is full of the rotten
fruit, the trash left at the door and trailed back
in by unwanted visitors who can’t be turned away.
Messages of harmful hope feel smooth
as a razor, and I am alone in the world,
hidden in dreams with the noise spreading
through my mind and into numbness.
They are home in bed, in sheets of cotton,
like a Sunday morning with empty prospects
and I swerve on the road like a young kid in
his red racing car. Again I’m bombarded
by billboards, because I won’t be there today,
and tomorrow has yet to come.
I’m following my plan, and I’m listening
to the woman’s relationship with God,
like the sun, and we are the dark moon
of disgrace, the silvery globe is the cold
light of sin. I grasp the radio waves in my
fist, tossing them out the window. How many
miles to go? I can’t wait to sigh with heavy relief,
stretching limbs, realizing how this lonely
adventure will shape perspectives for years
unknown. My eyes are glued to the long stretch
of strict road, and I continue on,
with the sound of memories fueling my engine,
the car rumbles soundlessly along.
Ich bin nicht auf dieser Straße allein
I am not alone on this road.
The tires ask for a break, the pedals beg
for a breath of fresh air from underfoot.
I continue alone, avoiding the cries
of the predators surrounding my car.
I will pull over, as soon
as I’m no longer here.