Monday, 9 May 2016

In praise of poetic form by Ros Bayes

Ever since being a tiny child, I have adored classical poetic form (yes, I was a bit of a nerdy kid). I love the way a truly well-crafted poem can say as much in the elegance of its form as it does through the content of its words. I love the subtle differences between a Shakespearean sonnet and a Petrarchan sonnet, and the way in which the sestet (the concluding six lines) of an expertly constructed sonnet can bring a satisfying yet unexpected conclusion.

Some forms are notoriously difficult to accomplish well. I have never yet written a pantoum which I considered good enough to publish. And I have read some dire attempts at the villanelle form – yet executed expertly it can be poignant and plaintive – who can forget Dylan Thomas’s beautiful elegy to his father, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night?

Most poetic devices don’t translate from one language to another very easily. As a French speaker, I love to read French poetry (if you speak French, try dipping into Baudelaire or Verlaine). Much French poetry falls naturally into the rhythm of the twelve syllable Alexandrine, but our English tongue generally flows better in iambic pentameter, as Shakespeare and Marlowe discovered. That doesn’t mean that English poetry in classic form can only be written in iambic pentameter – Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “sprung rhythm” retains the classic shape and form of the sonnet, but experiments with the metre, retaining cadence and rhythm while mirroring the flow of speech.

But when I read the Psalms and the Old Testament’s Wisdom literature, I love the fact that they are written in the one poetic device that translates into any language – parallelism. Some are acrostics, which does get lost in translation, and in Hebrew they do have metre; however they don’t depend on rhyme but on the mechanics of parallelism. There isn’t time in such a short article to go into the different kinds of parallelism, but take a look at some of the Psalms and you will see how the thought in one line is echoed and then expanded in the next, by use of devices such as synonym:

     The earth is the Lord's, and the fulness thereof;
     the world, and all who dwell therein.
     For he has founded it upon the seas,
     and established it upon the floods.

or contrast:

     The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their cry.
     The face of the Lord is against those who do evil, to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth.

So, if you’ve never tried to write a poem in one of the classic forms, I would like to challenge you to try! I don’t find the forms constrain my writing so much as set it free, in the same way as the rules of a sport don’t restrict the players but free them to enjoy a game where everyone knows what is permitted, and chaos is avoided.

Here’s a quick guide to three types of poem, and an example of each from my own writing.

Shakespearean sonnet:
A fourteen-line poem, typically written in iambic pentameter. The first twelve lines are in three stanzas of four lines, which rhyme as follows: abab, cdcd,efef. The final couplet introduces a new rhyme, gg:


     Words. How I love them. Words of truth that speak
     with clarity that blows the mist away.
     Words can empower, find strength in what is weak;
     they can ennoble, making jewels from clay.

     Words. How we drop them carelessly to ground,
     fearing the silence that we rush to fill.
     If they were gold we should not cast them down;
     if swords, we would be careful not to kill.

     Words. Speak to me, not hollow words, but Christ,
     the Word of God: what God most longed to say.
     The Word that speaks - must speak, at any price -
     has washed my bleakest silences away.

    Where I had blocked my ears and wished Him dumb,
    He turned. He smiled. He spoke. The word was, Come.

Petrarchan sonnet 
Again, a fourteen-line poem, divided into an octave which can be one eight line stanza or two of four lines; however, the rhyme scheme must be abbaabba; followed by the sestet, the final six lines which often take the poem’s intial thought and bring it further, or into a different direction, and these lines rhyme cdecde or, less usually, cdcdcd.

     In the secret garden

     Welcome to my secret garden, Lord;
     You do not so much enter as pervade,
     seeping between the leaves in every glade
     and trickling over pathways like a ford.
     Like a rich perfume, carelessly outpoured,
     that lingers, drifts and does not seem to fade,
     or like a loud, impassioned serenade
     heard both by passers-by and the adored;

     You fall like twilight on the gasping ground
     After the unrelenting heat of day.
     You drop as imperceptibly as dew,
     yet everywhere I sense You, like the sound
     of waterfalls, that never dies away.
     Here in my garden, Lord, I welcome You.

 The villanelle is written in nineteen lines – five stanzas of three lines (tercets), followed by a concluding stanza of four lines (quatrain). The stanzas rhyme aba, aba, aba, aba, aba, abaa - in other words, only two rhymes are used throughout. Now comes the tricky bit. The first and third lines of the opening stanza are repeated alternately as the last lines of the following stanzas. Then in the final quatrain, these two lines form the concluding couplet. This means that there are only thirteen original lines, the rest are repetitions. And the skill of this form lies in making repetitions that somehow don’t sound tediously repetitive. This one is inspired by Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest.

     Prospero to Miranda

     Strange, how man's will becomes the tool of fate,
     Unleashing things it's anxious to prevent,
     Rousing the very gods it would placate.

      A rat-deserted barque, its only freight
      Was you, my books and I; so we were sent.
      Strange, how man's will becomes the tool of fate.

      No calming words could soothe or mitigate
      Antonio's avarice. My speech was spent
      Rousing the very gods it would placate.

      Callously cast adrift, my brother's hate
      Stealing our home and rank, his sentiment
      Strange. How man's will becomes the tool of fate!

      Voyage of spite, ordained to elevate
      Your star above your uncle's firmament,
      Rousing the very gods it would placate.

      On waves of triumph now, with pomp and state
      Sail, Queen of Naples, home from banishment.
      Strange, how man's will becomes the tool of fate,
      Rousing the very gods it would placate!

But for those of you who don’t “get” my love of form, and only ever write free verse when you’re waxing lyrical, here’s a closing thought:

     Free verse

     It’s like playing tennis, said Auden,
     Without the net.
     But knowing, added Heaney,
     Where it was.

     But without that dratted net
     Most of my shots
     Land somehow

 Ros Bayes has 8 published and 4 self-published books, as well as some 3 dozen magazine articles. She is the mother of 3 daughters, one of whom has multiple complex disabilities, and she currently works for Through the Roof ( as their Training Resources Developer, and loves getting paid to write about disability all day. You can find her blog at and her author page at Follow her on Twitter: @rosbwriting.  


  1. This made my little English teacher's heart go boom-diddy-boom. I loved your post. And your poetry. I like writing to form, too. It's a challenge.

  2. A dauntingly difficult challenge! Fabulous post, Ros.

  3. I'm no poet; I can only wonder at your craft,
    For should I try and write that way,
    It would surely drive me daft.

    Interesting and impressive!

  4. Thank you all - I can only hope this has inspired people to get writing poetry!

  5. Title:
    A poetic exploration of classical poetic structures, written from the perspective of the Twenty First Century worker, having little time to perfect such complex and time consuming artistry:

    Classical structures?
    Yes, admirable and tough.
    Save time with Haikus!

    However, to quote John Cooper-Clarke:

    To-con-vey one’s mood
    In sev-en-teen syll-able-s
    Is ve-ry dif-fic

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. Best haiku I ever read was by a fellow member of a writing group I used to belong to, whom I won't name just in case I'm not quoting it quite accurately but it was written after her husband's death and went something like this:
    Virgin covering
    of snow fails to delight me,
    lacking your footprints.

  8. Excellent post, Ros - I often fall into quatrains without meaning to, but to expand my abilities in strict form I did a villanelle course and a sonnet course with the Poetry School online. I won't say mine are good yet, but at least I sometimes attempt them. I totally love villanelles!

  9. Ros: I am the editor of WordWise, the quarterly mag of SFCW (Scottish version of ACW) I would like to quote both your lovely poems from this post in the summer issue. Please let me know if this is not agreeable to you (franbbrady@aol.The mag will be getting paginated this week so, if you can let me know asap, that would be much appreciated.

  10. Sorry, Ros, bit of a blip there! My email is: