Sunday, 8 January 2012

A return to Form

I've recently read "William Carlos Williams and the Meanings of Measure" by Stephen Cushman (Yale, 1985). With "a persistance that sometimes borders on the monomaniacal ... Williams crusaded on behalf of his theory of measure for nearly fifty years". His theory was little more convincing than Hopkins'. Like Eliot and Pound he didn't think that poetry could be really Free.

Reactions to (and re-evaluation of) free verse continue to appear. Books tackling the subject include

Some poets have tried to integrate old forms with new sensibilities. The New Formalists leant towards old forms whereas the Hybrid poets were true to their modern sensibilities. More generally there's a revival of some less common forms. See -

As the final link illustrates there are dozens of forms that are rarely used nowadays. Some are gimmicky, others are waiting to be rediscovered. I'd like to draw your attention to 2 which I've suddenly seen around

  • Instead of rhymes at the end of lines, use anagrams
    Beyond it, the treasure
    he seeks. Walking at his side, two austerer
    figures: a woman, who grips on dangling tress
    of his tawny pelt as her lowered head rests
    (by Richie Hofman, New Criterion). Jon Stone's "Mustard" (Best British Poetry 2011) has lines that end in anagrams of the title - "cry out drams", "heart's mud", etc.
  • "terminals" - write a poem that has the same words at the line-endings as a famous poem has - Katy Evans-Bush in her Egg Printing Explained book (she uses Pink Floyd) and John Tranter (he uses Matthew Arnold) have used this effectively.


  1. just what I need to kick start this year's poetry writing. I had forgotten about the "terminals" form. Must give that a go. Thanks.

  2. I am one who believes that poetry is a form of writing. To suggest it is a higher form that prose when it is a more restrictive form has always puzzled me; prose sentences don’t fret about what word they end on. I would be interested to read the book on Williams. He was my first big discovery as a poet after leaving school and I’ve always cited him as a major influence; he balanced out the Larkin in me. As for poems where the lines end in anagrams, that smacks of artifice which, of course, poetry is—an artificial construct—despite its claims to be a natural form of expression.

  3. "… that smacks of artifice" - once a few people start using a form I think it becomes less gimmicky (which is why I pointed those 2 out) though I think it's true to say that forms depending on spelling (or fonts, or colours) will be thought more gimmicky than those that depend on layout or sound.

    "… prose sentences don’t fret about what word they end on" - Formalist prose frets, sometimes.