On Trying to Write Formal Poetry

On Trying to Write Formal Poetry

I will put Chaos into fourteen lines
And keep him there; and let him thence escape
If he be lucky; let him twist, and ape
Flood, fire, and demon — his adroit designs
Will strain to nothing in the strict confines
Of this sweet order, where, in pious rape,
I hold his essence and amorphous shape,
Till he with Order mingles and combines.
Past are the hours, the years of our duress,
His arrogance, our awful servitude:
I have him. He is nothing more nor less
Than something simple not yet understood;
I shall not even force him to confess;
Or answer. I will only make him good.

—Edna St Vincent Millay

A friend asked at the beginning of January: What would you like to accomplish this year? What would you like to learn? Or to achieve? And in response many commenters were tossing out lofty goals. Among the chorus, I found myself blurting, rather inadvertently: I’d like to learn how to write poems that rhyme.

I’ve been reading more poetry in the past year or so. And more and more I’ve also been reading about poetry. And pondering about poetry, reading and pondering about formalism and form and rhyme and meter. I’ve been reading mostly formal poetry— A. E. Stallings and Edna St Vincent Millay and Sally Thomas . . . and all sorts of lovely poems keep washing up on my shores, gleaned from social media and the internet at large.

I love formal poetry. I always have. But I love free verse too. I’ve never really understood the battle, (which appears to have become some kind of entrenched warfare in some circles). But apart from some very faltering attempts at rhyming verse when I was younger, I mostly gave up on trying to write formal poetry. Since college, maybe, I pretty much write free verse. With an occasional rhyme creeping in here and there. 

It’s not that I don’t understand formalism and forms. I’ve got two English degrees and have studied poetry and written about poetry for decades. I know all about poetic devices and rhyme schemes and metrical patterns. I can tell you what a sonnet is and a villanelle and a sestina and a haiku and a ballad. I’ve studied Latin poetry and memorized poetry in Latin. And in French. And I even know a simple nursery rhyme in Irish.

No, I’m not new to poetry. It’s an old friend that’s just come back round again for another swing. Every so often I take a stab at trying to write something formal. A sonnet: even a couple of rhyming stanzas. I’ve never got past the awkward self-consciously-bad-at-this stage.

And yes as a teacher of writing, I know what I’d tell myself if I were my own student or a friend coming to me for advice: Don’t give up. Keep trying. Write bad poetry. Keep at it. Write lots of bad poems. Practice like a pianist practices scales or an athlete drills. And I know that.

And I haven’t given up. I will keep trying even though everything I attempt falls flat. Thud. Even though I do usually give up too quickly. I get bored before I ever finish a practice piece because I know it’s no good. Maybe what I need is to take a class. With deadlines. Someone to hold my feet to the fire. 

The thing is…. you see, the thing is…. I’ve been writing free verse poetry for years because it is easy. I can write something that pleases me. When I catch an idea and hang words in order I can achieve something that is possibly not a great poem, but which satisfies me in a little way, a satisfaction of having words which sound right, feel right, hanging just right together, to catch a mood and an idea and a moment. But when I try to take the same idea and fix those words in a particular rhyme and meter, when I try to make them fit a received form, they always fall flat, fizzle, sputter, and the light goes out and the idea is lost forever.

I know my little free-verse poems aren’t totally devoid of artifice. I play with sounds, with assonance and consonance and little bits of rhyme. I play with quotation, with images and repetition. There are things happening. I write and rewrite, they’re not just words spattered on the page willy nilly. They aren’t artless regurgitation of emotion. There are moments, phrases, turns of phrase that surprise and please me as they spring forth from my fingers as if the muse was leaning over my shoulder and pushing her own keys. I don’t think they’re especially great poems, but they are mine, my little children. And I love them. And yet… I feel absurdly guilty of the fact that they do not rhyme, they have no formal meter, they lack form beyond what form seemed necessary at the time. As a student of poetry who loves poetic form, who adores rhyme, I feel like something of a failure.

I should like to be able to write something as beautiful as Yeat’s The Wild Swans at Coole or Millay’s I will Put Chaos into Fourteen Lines or Stallings’s Like, The Sestina. I want to make rhyme and meter work for me. I want my words to sweep around the ballroom keeping perfect time so that everyone who sees them gasps not only at their artfulness and insight and grace but also at their technical brilliance.

I’ll probably never be a great metrical poet. I’m very bad at scansion, though I think I can hear and read a poem fairly well and do justice to its music. But when in poetry classes I had to include a scanned poem along with my essay, I’d get a friend to find the feet for me. I never could do it right. In English nor in Latin either. And rhyme… I can think of a million rhymes, but the ideas somehow resist end rhymes like a toddler refusing to get dressed. And I don’t think that’s something to be proud of. I feel like an abject failure as I look at the ruins of an idea spread out on a page like a dissected frog, wondering what went wrong and why the poor thing stopped croaking.

I should try to do exercises, make myself write bad poetry just so long as it rhymes and has meter. I try, but I get bored. It doesn’t sing and doesn’t live. This is why I gave up piano. It’s a fault. I’m easily bored and have no staying power to make myself forge on regardless through the exercises. I try. I try and I try but blech. I see no progress whatsoever and I despair. And then a poem comes, unbidden and unlooked for that does feel like it sings, though maybe it’s flat to everyone but me. Maybe it limps in truth but with one or two good lines.

And perhaps I’m too swayed by the critics of free verse. By Robert Frost declaiming that free verse is like playing tennis without a net. Maybe I shouldn’t let it sting so much. I don’t hate free verse. I rather like reading it when it’s well done. So why shouldn’t I write what I like? Why do I fear what other people think? Maybe it’s the internalized voice which I’ve heard from so many quarters that says I should have to earn the right to write free verse by first mastering formalism.

“Poets should be well-grounded in form poetry before leaping into vers libre,” says William Childress, quoting Christian Wiman.


“Another gnomic utterance from Eliot states: “It’s not wise to violate rules until you know how to observe them.” This still stands today as an indictment against would-be poets who never really take the trouble to learn how to practice the rules of formal poetry but stick to free verse all the way through,” says Sean O’Neil

And there you have it… it’s a sort of imposter syndrome, perhaps. A feeling of inadequacy, a fear of being sneered at, denounced as a fraud. But it’s not only that, either. It’s also admiring very much the skill and art of formal verse and wishing I had taken the time to acquire that skill. 

So… my goal this year. I want to learn how to overcome all the noise and the competing voices, how to discipline myself to just write exercises, just make bad verses until I can write better and better versions. That’s what I want to do…. but I fear it will remain a nebulous goal and I’ll have no follow through.

Maybe I’m doomed to be a critic and not a poet. Doomed to writing free verse.

 I believe intellectually that forms can be liberating, that constraints can free creativity… or I want to believe it. And yet, I feel like I’m standing on the edge of a cliff with a crowd of voices calling from the darkness on the opposite site of the chasm: come on, jump, trust us, you’ll make it, it’s not that far. But… the chasm….

”Remember how awkward you felt when you first learned ballroom dancing,” Kate Braid says to her students, meaning it to be encouraging. Well… I never learned ballroom dancing. I suck at rhythm, at clapping to the beat, at moving to the music. I’ve never succeeded, though, I haven’t really ever tried to take a class. I’m too scared.

A.E. Stallings is somewhat more encouraging: “Glibness aside, though, do I feel belligerent against free verse? No, I admire good free verse, I wish I wrote it better. Tennis without a net has its own beauties and choreography. But I write best (as more than one editor has pointed out to me when I tried to sneak in some free verse in a submission) when I write against the constraint and pressures of form–any constraint, really, be it syllabic, repetend, stanzaic, metrical, rhyme-schemed. I write… freer that way.” And yet… I really, really want to write poems as lovely as hers.

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  • I actually did write structured poetry before free verse…but that’s because rhyme was easier for me than alliteration or imagery. I have literal reams of poetry, all written before the age of 20…and I have written perhaps a dozen structure poems since then. It turns out that recieving enough education in poetic forms to understand why my flights of poetic fancy worked and how much more craft was possible squashed some of the joy in writing…I lost the ability to write as a writer rather than as an observer and critic of my own writing. So now I write free verse privately in my diary, where it is free to be awful or inconsistant. I would love to somehow recapture the fun of playing with rhythm and rhyme again, though; and looking back my youthful instincts were fairly decent. I still love those old poems of my own improvised structure and form even if I am too self-conscious and distracted to write new ones.

    • Yes! That sounds very much like what happened to me: the more I learned about poetry the more I developed an internal observer-critic voice that tells me it’s not good enough and that I am not doing it right. I keep thinking maybe if I only can work past that self-consciousness maybe I can get back to the joy of structure and form. It’s interesting that you are able to look back on your youthful poetry and see that you had good instincts. Most of the time I cringe at my youthful verse, though I think there were good moments.

      • Oh, one of my besetting faults, I am afraid, is terrible vanity about my own writing. I cannot help but roll the words around in my mouth with very near the same delight I had upon first considering them–and often with more. 🙂

  • Keep writing, even if you or others find it bad. Practice your scales. (I never did when I was learning piano, which explains why I’m a bad pianist but a decent singer.) Eliot is also right to tell you to learn the rules before you break them; as I recall, Pound thought Eliot followed the right course by mastering the craft first and then “modernizing” himself.

    I wrote a lot of vers libre in my teen years, and then at 19 finally wrote a sonnet, after which I wrote some rhyming poems but mostly (bad) blank verse here and there for the next 19 years. Last February, something finally clicked, and my minor obsession with the infamous exploding whale of Florence, Oregon turned into a 336-line monstrosity in ottava rima. (Byron was spinning in his grave the whole time.) At least while I was working on it, the constraints of form had finally become a delight rather than a burden. I used slant rhymes, assonances, and a couple of forced rhymes when needed, too; it wasn’t all pure and perfect.

    I doubt you will take as long as I did to get there, but yes, practice does work. 🙂

  • The thing is, my poems often only go into stricter forms after I’ve written a draft or two in free or blank verse. I start seeing internal rhymes than could move to the end of a line if I broke the lines differently (which might give me a meter I hadn’t thought of) — or potential rhymes, if I just tweaked a word here and there.

    OR I look at something and think that it doesn’t have enough white space — too much block-text starts to seem claustrophobic. So I count the lines (because I usually have no idea how many I’ve written), and divide them into even stanzas and consider whether that lets too much light and air in, or not enough, or what.

    Often I set out deliberately not to rhyme or have meter . . . but when I go to revise (which I’ve learned to do fairly ruthlessly), I just find these things waiting for me, and that they generally solve whatever feels slack or un-urgent or otherwise not on-point somehow.

    I think formal poetry *can* be too easy — reach for the convenient word, snap shut on the convenient conclusion. But writing into form from a free-verse draft — Yeats wrote prose, incidentally, then revised it into lines with meter and rhyme — is a way to let the poem remake itself, which often means remaking it in ways that you didn’t envision or consider that you wanted. What I like about it, from the standpoint of a Catholic artist, is that this method — and it’s far from the only method that might do this, but it works for me — makes. me. let. go. It makes me obey something, and consent to things not of my choosing, and to open the door to the poem’s own life, so that it can decide what it wants to be about. Then, the most exhilarating feeling in the world is when it all clicks into focus — a focus I would not necessarily have chosen or imagined — hopefully without the easy lock-clicking kind of conclusion that I don’t like in poetry!

    Not that this happens all the time. I have plenty of failed exercises, in both free verse and form. And it’s true that I can write sonnets, as in, sit down and intend to write a sonnet and write one, but that’s a function of long practice. And as with photographs, you have to write a lot of them, and many of them will be bad, in order to get any good ones.

    • I think most of my poems in free verse seem to settle very quickly into a form that resists change. They want to be stanzas, but they’re odd stanzas. They like to have word plays and allusions and have definite shapes… but they don’t want to be reimagined into something more formal. At least so far they have not. I poke and prod and re-read them every so often and try to rearrange them, but they don’t really ever resolve into something that looks like an established form. And so far I’ve found lots of writing exercises designed to get ideas flowing, but when it comes to writing in forms all the writing exercises I’ve found just sort of say: here’s what X form looks like. Write one. And it’s that part I can’t seem to figure out. I poke at the stuff I’ve already written and it doesn’t want to be any particular thing. If it’s already a poem it wants to stay what it is and if it’s not a poem yet, it sort of resists being squeezed into poetry form. But I think I’m probably just at that stage that Ira Glass describes so well:

      “Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

      I’ve got to figure out how to make myself push through the resistance and just write bad formal poems. I’m just… not very good at doing that because as soon as my ideas start to coalesce they seem find a free verse form and want to stick there. Because my desire to write formal poetry is sort of at odds with the part of me that has settled into writing in a certain informal style and resists change. I can write things that I’m rather pleased with, though I know they aren’t technically brilliant, and I resist going back to a stage of writing things that are displeasing to my highly refined sense of taste.

  • I am only beginning to write poetry again, and hauling out all of my older poetry from younger days (the stuff that makes me think of Flannery O’Connor’s opinion about stifling writers in college). I have the same experience you are talking about, Melanie, when writing rhyming and most other formal poetry vs writing free verse, but I find myself falling into, and fitting my writing into, blank verse or a metric pattern similar to it. I don’t know if it’s a consolation prize, or self-deception as if it now somehow has more literary merit, but it gives me a structure and that little bit more of a challenge (not that it’s supposed to be hard for its own sake). I also find Sally’s words above encouraging, since many of my poem drafts start as prose and have, if not end rhymes and meter suggesting themselves, then at least some internal rhyme, assonance, some options for structure that surprise me a little.