A friend recently asked me which four stanzas poetry form was the best. It’s not a question with an easy or definitive answer, but it is worth considering - since it gets at the broader question of how poetry works and how we can write it.
A form is the design of a poem. How many lines? how many syllables in a line? what rhythm do the lines have? do they rhyme? what pattern do they rhyme in? these are some of the questions that a form provides answers to.
A form also carries with it expectations about what the form will be used for. In the same way that you wouldn’t expect a Victorian house to have a garage or a minivan to be used in a drag race you wouldn’t expect a limerick to be used to explore the nuances of a complex concept or for a sonnet to do nothing but describe nature.
There are numerous examples of different forms most of which are different permutations of different meters and rhyme schemes, but each with a unique history and tradition. Even free-verse which avoids regular meter or rhyme schemes is a poetic form with its own expectations. Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook has a very helpful chapter on free-verse that is well worth reading if you wish to work in free verse. In that book she says this, “The free-verse poem sets up in terms of sound and line, a premise or and expectation, and then before the poem finishes, it makes a good response to this premise.” This is not only true of free verse poetry but all poetry. Whatever poetic form you choose sets up expectations which must be answered in some way before the poem finishes.
The correct answer is whatever form works for what you’re trying to communicate. Of course I’m trying to dodge the question, but that’s because if you’re asking this question you usually have a specific idea in mind and what you actually want to know is what form should I use for this specific poem. And the right answer to that question is whatever form allows you to best express what that poem needs to say; there’s no way that I can know what form that takes because it’s not my poem.
Now to answer the question behind the question, “How do I choose the correct form for this specific poem?
The first step is to learn your options. Do you know how an iamb sounds vs. a trochee? Can you recognize the cadence of a dactyl? The best way to gain this familiarity is read more poetry. Read Shakespeare and Browning (both Elizabeth Barrett and Robert), Dickinson, Wordsworth, Wadsworth, and Burns. Buy an anthology or a book on writing poetry. As you read learn to count the rhythm, mark the emphasis, feel the rise and fall of the syllables, repeat the lines that strike your soul until you learn to wield the hammer.
Then write. Try to write iambic pentameter in blank verse, then try rhymed couplets, or a sonnet, imitate your favorite poem, maybe try and figure out how to make a villanelle work. As you write pay attention to when the words flow easily and how they sound. Learn how their rhythms sound in your voice. Then try another form.
Finally, repeat the process again. I don’t think this process ever ends. As I write this I’m looking over at my shelves, trying to decide who I should read next, which meter I should be trying to learn better.
But you also learn as you write. For instance, I find that I default to iambic tetrameter when I write. The words flow easier, the thoughts feel less formal. If I was telling a memory from my childhood I might try to tell it first in iambic tetrameter because that form feels closer to how I speak and removes the barrier of formality from my voice.
I might choose iambic pentameter when I want a little more credibility. The extra two syllables allow me to echo the rhythms of Shakespeare or Milton, or at least to place the poem in the same conversation. If I’m trying to wrestle with an idea then I might choose a sonnet or blank verse and when I want to drive my point home at the end of the poem I might use a heroic couplet.
At the end of the day poetic forms are tools and the best way to know which tool to use is to research them and try them out.