Be not the first by whom the new are tried,
Nor yet the last to lay the old aside.
—Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism
The history of poetry reminds me of standing knee-deep in the water at the beach. Though you are continually in the water, you are able to feel movement after movement, wave after wave rolling in. You can feel the receding water sucking the sand from beneath your feet, but with the coming of each new wave, you need never fear being sucked into the miry ground. So it is with poetry. There's something intrinsic to poetry—the joy of prosody, of the delightful placement of words, and of the novel communication of ideas—that it keeps bringing wave after wave, generation after generation of poets and styles and forms.
Let me take you back...
I cannot say what came first: poetry or music or storytelling. But I do know that the day man found that he could piece together words evoking the strongest thoughts and images and sounds, he was determined to use it. When man made music, he joined it to his poetic verse. When cultures told stories of the history of their people, they used the most poetic language to preserve their memories. As time passed on, the form that these poems took, whether in song or in story, became just as important as the songs or the histories themselves. And as more time passed on, only the form endured. The tunes of the ancient Chinese Book of Odes, the oldest extant collection of poetry, are long forgotten, but the line structure, the repetitions, and the rhymes are preserved for us still. We read the Iliad and the Odyssey, but no longer do we know who Agamemnon or Odysseus or Achilles really were; not a bone has been found of them, but their memories exist in the ancient rhymes and rhythms and wordplays.
What I am saying is this: that poetic forms have thrived for so long because they each have an intrinsic function to them. The most enduring forms are not simply an arbitrary conglomeration of rules and regulations. I will quote Gandalf in warning you: "Do not take us for some conjuror of cheap tricks!" Rather, the guidelines that poets make when crafting forms or using them are essential; they contribute directly to the effect of the poem.
What's in a form?
To demonstrate my point, I would like to break down one of my more familiar forms, the sonnet. There are a great deal of sonnet forms, but a few essentials stand out. Fourteen lines are not only wholly sufficient to encapsulate a dynamic thought in lyrical fashion without undeveloping or overblowing it, they also allow for flexibility of subdivisions. 14 lines could be divided into 4 tercets and a couplet as the terza rima sonnet, or an octave and sestet like the Italian, or 3 quatrains and a couplet like the English. This flexibility of organization is NOT trivial, as it determines the rhythm of the piece, the spacing of ideas, the distribution of sounds and rhymes, and most importantly, the position of the volta, which is the "turning point" of the sonnet where the dramatic shift in thought happens. Iambic pentameter, the mainstay of English poetic meter, is long enough to have substantive lines, while not so long as to drag the prosody. And this is just your standard sonnet form: Other sonnet forms shorten or lengthen the basic form, others use different meters, others introduce repetitions, and many others have all kinds of modifications.
I will offer another piece of evidence to demonstrate that poetic forms have an intrinsic function. If you look at poetry throughout the world, you will find that cultures and peoples independently came up with their own poetic forms. The mind's capacity to make intelligent mental links, to organize, and to make sense of the world around it is fully embodied in poetic form. The rondeau of France and the terza rima of Italy are extremely rhyme heavy, for example, because Romance languages tend to be replete with rhymes as opposed to English. Chinese forms, on the other hand, not only regulate rhyme, but also the number of characters per line as well as the tones of each character. Chinese, after all, is a tonal language, and the predetermined cadences and arrangements of these tones are able to set a certain timbre when the piece is read. In a sense, art is meant to create an ideal version of things (for good or bad), and poetic form is the means by which cultures create the ideal version of what their language is able to express.
It's not about the box
I will grant it true that in choosing to write a form, you create a predetermined environment for the contents of your poem. However, rather than being "unoriginal," you will find that the most masterful of poets thrive in these deliberately chosen conditions, even to the point of comfortably breaking the rules (Du Fu being the epitome of such a poet). This is where the element of skill comes in, and perhaps why poetic forms are shied away from by newer poets. It is true that at its worst, form-based poetry can sound terribly forced and be horribly cliched. But if you think that you can simply slap a pile of raw words and emotion onto a page and call it "free verse," I would not call you an artist or a poet, I would call you a coward, and a predictable one at that. As Oscar Wilde said: "All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling. To be natural is to be obvious, and to be obvious is to be inartistic."
Rebukes aside, let me conclude with an encouragement. Poetry is as much of a mastered skill as cooking or drawing, and it is important to not only to understand the fundamentals of what makes a poem a poem, but to keep on practicing and honing your art. For the willing, I can think of no better teacher than the forms that were invented long ago and the numerous examples thereof, not only in the Western canon, but also from the East. Keep on writing, keep on reading, learn the rules and learn to break them. Perhaps then you may be able to say with the great general and poet Cao Cao, "Oh, what a joy! My heart is in my song!"
A closing sonnetina
When all is ruined in the times to come,
And glorious temples grow dilapidated—
Their altars empty, thick with scum
For festivals no longer celebrated—
Posterity will walk these hollowed halls
And see the fading paint and rotting wood.
But beauty still resides within these walls,
Though they might not be fully understood.
A people's memory may not remain,
But marble stands against the sun and rain.
Questions to ponder
- Think of an artform or a skill that you enjoy. What are some vital fundamentals and rules that make them what they are?
- Take a look at a poem from #Rhyme-and-Reason, #formfindsfunction, #Fixed-Form-Poetry, or #Crowns-of-Sonnets and pay close attention to the structure and form the poet uses. Do you feel the poet successfully brings out the best in the form? Did they break any rules, for good or for bad?
- Do you speak another language, and if so, do you know any poetic forms in that language? How do the characteristics of that language influence their poetic forms?