Traditional poetic forms are powerful tools that influence the perceptions of the reader or listener. The devices of form are rhyme, syllable stress, number of syllables per line, number of lines per stanza, number of lines or stanzas per poem, and line breaks.
Let’s use for an example this anonymously created medieval poem:
'Westron wynde, when wilt thou blow,
The small raine down can raine.
Cryst, if my love were in my armes
And I in my bedde again!'
Notice the stressed line endings: “when wilt thou blow”, “were in my arms”, “down can rain”, “my bed again”. So much emotion is communicated in this plea to the Deity for a western wind. It is like a cry put to music, yet tightly wound around a definite form.
Over time strict rules were used to make more complex forms such as the sestina, villanelle and sonnet. Today, rhyme schemes and strict syllabic structures are less popular.
Yet almost all poetry has form: a hint of rhythm and/or rhyme that tells the reader they are reading a poem rather than a recipe. Despite the conspicuous absence of classical forms in most modern poetry, rhythm and rhyme remain powerful tools whereby the poet can transmit feelings and thoughts to the reader/listener.
I advise beginning poets to compose sestinas, villanelles, and especially sonnets in order to teach themselves how to use the powerful tools of rhythm and rhyme. Once a poet has wrestled feverishly with a sestina a few times or fought a few pitched battles with sonnets that just will not let themselves be written, they will have attained a respect and affinity for rhyme and rhythm, or at the very least a knowledge of how not to use them.
After a poet has (relatively) successfully composed a few sestinas and sonnets and maybe a villanelle or two, then they can start experimenting with breaking the form –composing a poem in a classical form, then breaking out of that form in order to make the poem as powerful as it can be.
Take for example the following quatrains, broken at the end:
Their faces, red with anger, spat invective
He had seen her spending all his hard earned pay
To track his wrongs, she had hired a detective
He could not bear this travesty one more day
He said, “I’m leaving and the baby’s coming, too!”
Lifting the babe so fast it tossed her curls
His wife, replying, “She is not going with you!”
Also laid hold of their beloved girl
“She’s coming with me!” “You are no good!”
Both man and wife tightened their grip on the babe
And when they both pulled as hard as they could
… it was decided.
The sudden contrast of the last line adds to the shocking ending.
Stepping past minor deviation, one can compose in a form to organize their thoughts and then completely abandon the form.
This sonnet, for example:
You are a hole in my chest that lets in
The cold of a winter that never ends.
My imaginary warm coat wears thin
As icy fingers grip my heart. ‘Just friends,’
Words painted on a sign pointing to hell -
A sign you would prefer me to follow
Back to the lonely town I know so well
Where love is a myth and vows are hollow.
You throw me from the train of your being
At the deserted station, ‘Alonesville,’
Where mists of ennui wrap unseeing
Would-be suitors whose vague desires, now still,
Lapse catatonic, rolling down the slope
Of lost consciousness, in dreams finding hope.
Abandoning the sonnet form, it might go something like:
Hole in my chest
You let in the never-ending winter
My heart in a fist of ice
You are my home town
Synonym of hell
Where vows of love are hollow
Like you, sorrow
From the train of your being
Rolling torn and injured
Wrapped in the mists of ennui
And vague desire
Down the slope of oblivion
Where at the bottom I find
I kept the phrases that held the most emotion for me and arranged them in a way that I found best expressed the meaning I wanted to try to convey. I also reworded some phrases, and other phrases occurred to me during the editing process.
In the example above, I believe I like the original sonnet a little better than the free verse mutation. Perhaps that shows that some poetry just works better in a classical form. If I wanted to pursue the poem further, I might end up with something more of a hybrid between sonnet and free verse, borrowing freedom from one and structure from the other.
Ultimately, poetry should come from somewhere in your soul and then be translated as clearly and with as much brevity as possible into a poem that expresses your emotions as completely as possible.
So, why are you still here? Go write something.