Not Building a House but Making a Brick
By Rachelle Toarmino | Thursday, February 10, 2022
By Rachelle Toarmino
Thursday, February 10, 2022
When I’m stuck—when I know a poem just isn’t working—I like to approach revision by playing around with form. How might my poem work—how might it look, move, and tick—if I reformat it as a sonnet, haiku, or villanelle? What expectations do these forms set, and how can I work within them to find opportunities for wildness and surprise? Below are five steps—five formal modes—I like to jump between when drafting new poems and revising old ones. We will discuss these and others at my writing lab, “The Poem Is a House I Build Then Live In.”
1. Start with a haiku.
In just seventeen syllables, the haiku is one of the world’s briefest poetic forms. If you’re drafting a new poem, good—you can manage that! Focus on two images, put them next to each other, and see how they begin to relate to one another. If you’re revising an old poem, you’ll need to cut some material to meet the requirements of this constraint. Ask yourself: Which parts are absolutely essential? What am I really trying to say?
2. Elaborate into a sonnet.
Fourteen lines, a rhyme scheme, and a turning point toward the end. Since you’ll need to generate some new material, you might ask yourself: Where else did I want my haiku to go? Were there multiple moments I had to pick between to adhere to the seventeen-syllable rule? Let the possibility for rhyme guide you when you’re stuck. It’s a sonnet, after all—the Italian word for little song.
3. Reformat the poem as a villanelle.
The villanelle is a nineteen-line form that incorporates rhyme, like the sonnet, as well as another key device: repetition. You’ll need to do a bit of reworking—generate and cut, generate and cut, rearrange the order of the words to adhere to the villanelle’s particular rhyme scheme. When deciding which parts to make the refrain, ask yourself: Which lines make the biggest impacts, offer alternate meanings, and carry the most power and music when repeated?
4. Try out a duplex.
The duplex is a new form invented by the poet Jericho Brown that borrows structural and musical qualities from the sonnet, ghazal, and blues music. In fourteen lines—seven sets of couplets—this form plays with slight alterations in repetition to elaborate on each preceding line. In an interview with The Rumpus, Brown revealed that the form arose out of a two-fold love for and rebellion against the sonnet, a form he’d been educated in: “I have this responsibility to be skeptical, even of what I love.” Now that you’ve got some practice in repetition, take your villanelle and rewrite it as a duplex. How might slight alterations in repetition open up new possibilities for music and meaning?
5. Set your poem loose.
Ignore the rules—break them. Pick the qualities you like—lean into them, put your own spin on them. Ditch the ones you don’t—forget them. Break the lines wherever you want—experiment with how line breaks contribute to surprise, rhythm, and pace. Besides rhyme, what other kinds of sounds can be amplified in your poem? Instead of a predetermined number of lines, how much space do you sense the poem actually needs? Without any rules, what is the poem telling you it wants? Where do you feel its heart, its heat?
The title of this blog post is adapted from a line in Oblique Strategies by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt.