Structure in Poetry

Most people who study poetry a bit are exposed to some of the basic forms – sonnets, haiku, limericks and ballad form are usual. Most popular songs are in something resembling ballad form, where the second line rhymes with the forth and line lengths are about even. Those who ventured further may have encountered meter, iambic pentameters, cinqain and other obscurities.

When it comes to writing poetry, the vast majority of people favour ‘free verse’ – because structure is difficult, often sounds forced and gets dull. Free verse can be incredibly beautiful, where the loose structure is shaped to support meaning and atmosphere.

However, structure does have merits. To say something meaningful within the restraints of haiku is an interesting challenge. Whether you want to use structure in your final pieces or not, I recommend exploring it, because it will teach you to write in different ways, and that’s an asset, however you then deploy it.

Perhaps the most important thing to bear in mind with poetry structures, is that they are not like laws of nature. Someone made them up, and they have gained credibility and popularity through use. Modern western writing favours syllable beats in rhythmic lines, with rhymes at the ends of lines. Haiku is all about the number of syllables in each line, and should contain a seasonal reference. It’s a totally different way of thinking, and tends to be non-rhythmical. Cinquain is American, and is about the number of words in each line, stanzas consisting of five lines, which gives the name. Again, rhythm plays no part here. Celtic poetry and Norse poetry had radically different structures involving internal rhymes and assonance and alliteration. The best descriptions I’ve found of these forms so far are in Robin Herne’s book ‘Old Gods New Druids’.

Playing with other people’s rules and structures is interesting. However, it is also possible to create your own structure. You can use the number of lines in a verse, rhyme, rhythm, syllables, numbers of words, and alliteration to create all kinds of patterns and structures.

 Why bother?

I could take

The lines of prose I am writing

And lay them out like a poem

Call them a poem

And who is going to argue with me?

But really, aside from the capital letters and line breaks, that’s no different to writing prose. Surely, poetry should be more than prose with an eccentric layout? The poetry I love most makes each word work harder than they would in a sentence. It pares out a lot of the grammar and filler words, focusing on essentials. Doing so makes for more immediate and dramatic writing. The rigours of using a structure give you a tool for cutting down the words. To fit the syllable pattern, the meter or the rhyme, you have to do something other than prose with a funny layout. That’s why structure is useful. It takes you away from other forms of writing and demands a different approach to the words. Then things can get a lot more interesting.

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