The Best Form For Your Poem

I recently read some of the best advice in the current Writer's Chronicle. In his article "The Reinventions of American Poetry Now," Ed Ochester asserts:

Critics or ordinary readers often make the mistake of deciding that the poet should have written like somebody else, rather than considering why the poet has chosen a particular style or form. That's as wrongheaded as telling Emily Dickinson to write like Walt Whitman. It's as irritating as saying to a happy person, 'why do you smile all the time?' or to a quiet person, 'why are you thinking all the time?' Give the poet a break! Just as one rule of reading in general is 'you have to allow the author her subject,' another is 'you have to allow the poet his style.' Figure out why he or she is writing that way--what the function of the style is for delivering the content of the poem.

This was the most refreshing paragraph on poetry I've read in a long time. I think about this as well, specifically in a poet's choice on how the poem looks on the page. Too often we want to change the style of a poet instead of trying to understand why they choose a certain form. In a recent workshop, a friend of mine had a certain form going that moved around the page like waves (the poem did also have the word "beach" in the title). In the last four or five lines of the poem though, the poem changes dramatically. In these final lines, the space between the words was much greater. One or two words would be spaced across the page like this. Or this.

A poet in the workshop asked about the change in form, she wasn't sure it was working for the poem. I spoke up to defend the poem's spacing and form change because the poem was about leaving the beach (the word "leave" was also mentioned in the title). For me, I saw the poem not only leaving the beach, but leaving the form as well. The subjects in the poem transformed as did the poem itself.

I think the ability to have the poem's form respect and enhance the poem's subject is a skill to learn and a pleasure to read. Occasionally, I have come across a poem and thought, "Oh great, what's with all the indenting or _____________ (fill in the blank)." Usually, if I take a few moments to sit with the poem, I can get a better idea or feel for why the poet chose a particular form. And I believe, there needs to be a reason.

Some of the best advice I learned about the form of a poem was back as an undergrad at the UW with Linda Bierds. A classmate of mine questioned the poem's form, the question was something like, "I don't understand why the form of this poem is this way?" We talked about as a class, came up with reasons we thought it was or stated, "I have no idea why the poem looks like this." I remember Linda telling the poet afterwards that they are of course welcome to choose to put the poem any way on the page, but that they needed to know why they had done it.

That statement changed the way I thought about my poems. If I found myself putting my poem in classic four line stanzas or couplets, I needed to have a reason why. Sometimes when I write about God or the church, I use three line stanzas because in my mind it pays homage to the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. If I write a poem about a relationship, sometimes its in couplets to reflect the couple, if the relationship breaks away, the form may as well.

At my writing workshops, I've heard others suggest that a poem needs more space when its about nature, a poem about a river should wrap around the page more, or that longer lines have created a poem to fast for its subject and it needs shorter lines to slow down. There are many different reasons for how a poem may look on the page, but ultimately, the poet needs to be aware of her reasons and not working out of a habit. If all your poems are in couplets and flush left, the poet should think about that when s/he starts the next poem.

The form of the poem is one more way to reflect the subject or tone of the poem. It can be create an actual shape or hint at something more. One of my poet friends who does this very well is Ronda Broatch. Here's a poem she wrote published in Literary Mama where form and content are working hand in hand.

Grasping at Ghosts
by Ronda Broatch

She lights a stub of candle,
studies its slow burn and dissolve
into a brass bowl.
I watch her from the edge
of the kitchen.

    It was the crackling that woke us,
    roar of heat devouring cedar.
    I took her from her crib, fled
    down darkened stairs, out
    to cool lawn, cold moon.

Eleven now, her fingertips dart
through fire, some unspoken
rite of passage I learned
from my grandmother,
entrusted now to my daughter.

    Glass shattered as sirens
    whined past, unable to find us.
    Now open, our house
    sucked fire into its body,
    a phoenix igniting.

She tips the candle,
drips wax onto a napkin,
squeezes it between long fingers.
Her red hair flickers in the spit of light
as she shapes the cooling flesh.

    From ash we built again,
    exhumed bones and sooty reek,
    broken teeth of window, rusted nail --
    secrets of past fires rising
    to the surface.

    I stand in the kitchen a while longer
    before telling her Enough is enough.
    She sighs,
    blows out the tiny flare,
    grasping at the trail of passing ghosts.

    The poem's form works well in many ways. Each stanza offers a moment in time and the poem weaves between present and past--the stanzas that are indented represent the past and the memory of the fire in the home and the stanzas that are flush-left represent the present where her eleven year old daughter plays with a candle. Each stanza looks like a puff of smoke or a "passing ghost," an image she uses in the last line. Even the title works adds to the form, we're "grasping" at ghosts, which makes me believe they wouldn't be lining up in a row for us, but floating around the page. The poem could have been in many forms, but I find the one she chose adds so many extra rewards to the poem. As a reader, I feel well taken care of when I read this.

    Each poem should create a form that best represents the poem. And just as a fiction writer should know everything she possible can about her character, a poet should know when the poem is completed why she made the choices she did in the poem. A formed work of art, the poem is, unique in its own right and should be framed that way.