As a reader or writer of poetry you may have encountered various poetry forms. There are a number of them including: haiku, tanka, cinquain, sonnet, pantoum, rondeau and so forth. A question that may come up for a poet, is when should they use which form?
Different poetry forms express ideas differently. They can change how ideas are presented. Some are better suited for certain ideas and tones and others are better suited for others.
Poetry forms vary in a number of ways. They can vary by length, degree of complexity, degree of formality and degree of sound expectation, as well as in other ways.
A poet should think about what they want to express and how they want it to come across before deciding what form to use.
Things such as the seriousness of the idea, the impact of the expression, and the level of subtly desired can affect the decision of what form to use.
Here is a look at three poetry forms and how they can affect expression:
Free verse (including unstructured experimental)
A poet might not initially think of free verse as a form. Its name implies that it is unstructured. It might be thought of as the form without a form.
Despite this though, free verse does have form elements to it. For example, a free verse poem might be left aligned with a jagged right side. It might use elements of sentence structure such as periods at the ends of sentences and capital letters at the beginnings. It might vary in its use of commas at the end of lines.
Additionally, form elements can be added to a free verse form. This may be done so without the specific intention of adding form elements. For example, a poet might write a free verse poem with line breaks, indentations, partial line repeats, a maximum number of syllables per line or other qualities. It can sometimes be surprising to look over a free verse poem and see all the form elements it has.
At some point, if a free verse form has a number of form elements, it might be considered an unstructured experimental form. It is unstructured because the form elements weren’t predetermined or put with an intention or pattern. It is experimental because a poet could evaluate its effectiveness, see how the form elements impact the presentation, possibly modify the form elements, and use the form for latter poems.
Free verse and unstructured experimental can be thought of as one form group because the line between unstructured and structured can be blurry, and because both can be thought of as free, in the sense that they weren’t written with form elements in mind.
Free verse poetry can be useful in a number of situations and effect expression in a number of ways.
First, because the form is devoid of predetermined form elements, it can impart a sense of free expression to the work of the poet. The poet can write what they feel, how they feel, without considering how that fits into a form. This can give a work a sense of spontaneity and naturalness.
Second, the form works well for serious subjects. Because it doesn’t have rhyme or meter or other certain elements it can come across as more serious in nature. For example, a metered rhyming poem about death, might not have the same serious tone as a free verse poem about it.
Third, and similarly, free verse can work well for “heavy” or “harsh” tones. Again, imagine a poet is writing about death. Maybe they want to describe the death of someone in a hospital bed. This can be a very heavy and harsh thing to describe. A free verse poem might do this better than a sonnet would. A very noticeably structured form might seem out of place in this situation.
Free verse does have some drawbacks for expression.
One drawback is a lack of melodic sound. A poem with rhyme and meter can at times sound a like a song. It can have flow and beat. Depending on the idea, this can be beneficial to a poem. A free verse poem lacks this quality.
Another drawback is that free verse forms don’t have built in elements that impact expression. Think of a haiku. The first two lines setting up the third, can have an impact on expression. It can make the third line more meaningful. This is built into the form (the form can actually vary in this quality depending on how the lines are divided). A free verse form lacks this poetic element.
A third drawback is that a free verse form might not work well for light or upbeat topics. It can be difficult to tell a joke, for instance, or to describe love in flowery language, with a free verse form.
There are a number of ways a haiku could be written and there is even debate on the subject. For the purpose here, think of a haiku as a three line poem with a 5 7 5 syllable count and a structure where the first two lines set up the third.
Although haiku and senryū are different, poets sometimes use the term haiku for both and that will be the case here. For this purpose, they can be thought of as one form.
A haiku is brief. This can make it a good form when a poet wants to quickly get an idea across. It can be a minimalist approach to expression.
Also, if a haiku is written in such a way as the first two lines set up the third, it can increase the impact of an idea. A poet can describe something in the first two lines and then have a third line that makes a point about the first two, or a third line that gives the first two new meaning.
Although a haiku can be impactful, it can be used when a poet wants a sense of subtly. Because there are only so many syllables available, a poet can’t say everything. They can only say enough to get the idea across. This can make the expression seem more subtle, albeit in some cases, more impactful.
A haiku has a quality that it can be used for both harsh and light tones. A poet could have a third line that makes a very hard impact or they can have three lines that are humorous and light.
A haiku might not be the best form when a poet wants to describe a subject at length. A haiku is a sound bite, not a speech. It can work well for making a point, but not as well for explaining an idea.
Also, because of its brevity, a haiku might not work as well when a poet wants their work to have a sense of lasting weight. All else being equal, there is more to look into, see, discuss and interpret with a ten line poem than with a three line one. Because a haiku is so short, it might not be as impactful the tenth time it is read.
Also, a haiku might lack a “serious poetry” sound to some. There are some who might think of “serious poetry” as being more free verse and a haiku as being simplistic.
Although the definition can vary, an English sonnet might be thought of as a poem with four stanzas. The first three stanzas have four lines each and the last stanza has two lines. The lines are written in iambic pentameter. Within each of the first three stanzas, there is a rhyming pattern of lines one and three rhyming and lines two and four rhyming. In the last stanza the two lines rhyme with each other. There is no rhyming between stanzas.
An English sonnet is a very formal style of poetry. It has meter, rhyme and stanza structure. It can have an old or a classic sound to it.
An English sonnet is useful when a poet wants their work to sound “poetic”. An English sonnet can “sound like a poem” even to those who don’t normally read poetry. It can almost be thought of as quintessential.
It is a useful form when a poet wants to have flowery language. It can be useful when a poet wants their words to flow and to possibly include things that are grammatically incorrect, but sound nice.
It is a good poem for talking about positive or light subjects. It can work well as a classic love poem. It can also be used for somber subjects if done properly.
It can be a good form to use when a poet wants to think about each word and phrase they use with the idea of having something that can sound like a lasting poem. It can lead to a poem that reads well long after it was written or after it has been read before.
A downside to English sonnets, is that they don’t work as well for harsh subjects. The meter, rhyme and structured quality can sound off when talking about heavy things.
Another downside, is that it very much affects how a poet expresses themselves. It is not the form to use when a poet wants the words just to flow out of themselves. It is a very thought through poetry form.
A third downside is that an English sonnet is a little long. Being fourteen lines long and containing one hundred a forty syllables, it might not be the form to use when a poet wants to be brief and impactful.
There are a lot of poetry forms to use. A poet can even think of their own. Different forms have different qualities. Depending on what a poet wants to accomplish, one form might be better than another for their expression. A poet should think about what they want to express and how they want to express it, and choose a form that fits that purpose.