Form and Content

Phillip Ellis

Part of my poetic practice involves mastering as many poetic forms as I can. By being able to write as many as possible, without explicitly needing to concentrate on their demands, I find that my ability to write effective poetry is enhanced: I need not lose energy concentrating on the rules of a form, and can concentrate, instead, on the poem’s content.

Part of this process involves the creation of new poetic forms, usually out of pre-existing elements. A case in point is one that I use for a series of pieces, each titled “Image”. The basis of this form is the choriamb which is either prefixed of suffixed by an unstressed syllable. This makes a line of five syllables, either appearing as U-UU- or -UU-U – this line is used for the first and third lines of the unnamed form. The central line has either an iamb or trochee added to either end. There is no further rule to this, and there is a relatively wide latitude when it comes to the choices of meter.

Further, as with the haiku, there is a focus on images. Unlike the haiku, which tends to juxtapose two images, only one is used, which need not be derived from nature. But there is no equivalent to the senryu, however; there is no real use of satire, as opposed to other forms of poetry, usually the lyric.

The following example should suffice to show the main elements:


Winter is evenings
of currawongs huddled close
under their Venus.

The use of such forms, with their various rules of length, or meter, or subject matter, often results in less successful poems, in something straightjacketed by the form. What happens is that the need to overtly follow the form supplants the poem itself, its content, so that what seems to matter is how well the form is followed rather than how well the poem works as a poem. A successful poem works with the rules of its form, and often subverts them, so that what results feels organic rather than mechanical.

This is one of the reasons why H. P. Lovecraft’s early reliance on the heroic couplet resulted in, in Winfield Townley Scott’s words, “eighteenth century rubbish.” Lovecraft, rather than concentrating on the poem, and on the demands of the poem, was content on forcing the language and subject matter to the form.

This does not mean that writers cannot first decide to write a particular form. I have often sat down to write, and felt that a particular form, usually a sonnet or a certain amount of quatrains, is what shall suffice for that poem. Having decided that, I concentrate on the poem as it arrives. Rather than on forcing what comes out into a more rigid framework. If the poem demands it, in other words, I change or abandon the form.

The effects of such a mastery are not often obvious. One of them is a greater sensitivity to a poem’s structure, and the way that a poem’s argument can work with and in counterpoint to its form. Another is the effect that such forms can have, especially stanzaic ones. Most of my free verse is written in stanzas, since the structure of the regular forms provides both a counterpoint to the argument of the poem, as well as a point of discipline. The net may be down, but it as if there is an invisible one still in play. There are rules, that is, rudimentary ones, but ones that are not rigid.

This sense of there being rules helps account for the successes of John Tranter’s free verse sonnets. Many, perhaps most of the sonnets follow the basic division into octets and sestets, with the volta, the turn in thought, between lines eight and nine. What Tranter does is that he follows these rules, while replacing the traditional iambic pentameter of English-language sonnets with free verse. This, in turn, opens up a new sense of freedom that accommodates Tranter’s playfulness of argument, language, imagery and diction, and it brings a new element to an already rich and diverse tradition.

I would love to analyse one of Tranter’s sonnets, to show how this is achieved, but  I may leave that for a later post. What I will do is offer up for dissection one of my own free verse sonnets, to illustrate something of the points that I was making about the volta.

The World of Experience (for Clare)

When I wake up in the morning,
and there’s nothing in the air
but a blueness that is breaking
like a wave upon the far
and the trunkless trees that shimmer
in a shade that’s almost green,
then my thoughts return to you,
and they do not dwell on ruin.
But I lack the life that reveals this dream is real
and not an artefact of my mind,
no matter how much I want my fingers
to linger in the leaves that shimmer,
to bring news that what I see is real,
like an elegist from a foreign country.

With this free verse sonnet there is a clear break in the rhythms of the octet and of the sestet. The octet has a form of musicality, derived from its echoes of a certain musical piece. None of its lines is longer than eight syllables, and there is no real sense of a strong series of iambs here. In contrast, the first line of the sestet is almost an alexandrine, and is dominated by iambs. Further in the sestet, there is the almost exact rhyme of “fingers” and “linger” unlike the loose pattern of slant rhymes alternating with unrhymed line endings of the octet. There is a clear sense of a turn of thought between the two.

As a result, in any poem, in any literary work, there is a dialectic between its argument or narrative, and the work’s form. The best works tend to create a compromise between the two, so that there is a sense of balance, or else of a dynamic tension between the two. And those that neglect one in favour of the other do not fare as well. What I strive for, in my best work, is such a tension, such a balance.

What of you? How do you approach form in your writing, and where do you see the balance between form and content? Is either – if any – more important than the other, or does it depend upon the work in question? And feel free to add forms that you like and/or like to use, as examples from your own practice.

1 thought on “Form and Content

  1. This is probably a stupid thing to ask but do you think it’s possible, if a person reads enough poetry, for them to unconsciously use these forms and metrical rules in their own poems? In the same way that someone knows how to construct a sentence with a subject verb object but without knowing anything about sentence structure

    (nice sonnet btw)

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