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Sunday, September 25

Poetic Forms

I loved teaching poetry. I guess that may be the songwriter side of me that’s always been intrigued with poems and poetry. And I, like Frost, never cared much for free verse. Not that there aren’t many good poets who used free verse—Carl Sandburg, Walt Whitman, e. e. cummings, to name only a few. What most appeals to me about traditional methods and forms is the challenge they entail. I’m most pleased by a poet who finds a clever or insightful idea and then fits it into the confines of a set form.

The most obvious traditional poetic form is the sonnet, both Italian and English. The Italian (or Petrarchan) sonnet consists of 14 lines of iambic pentameter (ten alternating unaccented and accented syllables) usually rhyming abbaabbacdecde. The poem breaks into two parts, the first eight lines (the octave), which states a question or a situation or a problem, and the last six lines (the sestet), which answers the question or explains the situation or solves the problem. The English (or Shakespearean) rhymes ababcdcdefefgg, breaking into four parts, three quatrains and a concluding couplet, with the first twelve lines stating variations of a question, situation, or problem, and the couplet answering, explaining, or solving.

Here are two of the best known to show each, Shakespeare’s "Sonnet XVIII" and William Wordsworth’s “The World Is Too Much with Us”

Many poets in the early Twentieth century turned to the most untraditional form, free verse, which freed the poet from nearly all of the traditional requirements of patterned rhythm or rhyme. But a lot of poets as well as many working in other creative forms wanted to break away from tradition, but not completely. Examples: Stravinsky in classical music, Picasso in art and sculpture, Constantin Brancusi's Dadaist sculpture "The Kiss," Tristan Tzara's Dadaist play The Glass Heart, Martha Graham in modern dance.

In poetry, there was an attempt to create new forms based on the old. This odd sonnet, "An Aeronaut to his Love," uses both tradition and freedom to make its point.

This was published anonymously sometime in the Twenties, but I can't understand why. I'd have felt honored to have written such a clever poem. It sticks to the Italian sonnet form for the most part, using the octave and sestet (question and answer), but uses the English couplet at the end. And, of course, the line length goes from ten syllables to only one per line. Clever.

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