5 Poetic Forms the English Language Shamelessly Stole
English poetry does not so much borrow poetic models from other languages as it does rock up to their bank with a shotgun and tell them to empty the vault. Here’s a look at some its most fruitful hackings.
The sestina is often cited as the gold standard of poetic difficulty, when it actually just requires a different way of thinking about the structure of a poem. Sestinas have stanzas of six lines, but instead of a rhyme scheme, each stanza’s lines end with the same words, arranged in a different order. It’s probably easier to see a real-life example: take Ezra Pound’s “Sestina: Altaforte”.
Pound himself described it as “a form like a thin sheet of flame, folding and infolding upon itself”. I can’t really match that level of metaphorical penetration, but a good sestina feels to me like the confluence of mathematics and poetry; its ordering has a kind of precise mathematical beauty, especially when represented visually:
The sestina was invented by Arnaut Daniel around 1200, who named it a “cledisat”, meaning something like ‘interlock’ in Occitan. His first sestina is a shining monument of poetic awkwardness; whereas less ambitious versifiers might choose their end-words with a degree of flexibility, as they need to be repeated seven times; not so for Arnaut, who chooses ‘nail’ and ‘uncle’ as two of his end-words. Yes, “uncle”. And just to front even more, he brags about it, including a line towards the end that roughly translates as “Arnaut sends out this song of ‘uncles’ and ‘nails’”.
English sestinas have enjoyed an impressive variety. Rudyard Kipling’s "Sestina of the Tramp-Royal" stands at the opposite end of Daniel’s effort, quietly concealing the sestina form beneath a heavily vernacular diction:
Speakin’ in general, I ’ave tried ’em all—
The ’appy roads that take you o’er the world.
Speakin’ in general, I ’ave found them good
For such as cannot use one bed too long,
But must get ’ence, the same as I ’ave done,
An’ go observin’ matters till they die.
It’s interesting to read, but feels like a bit of an empty exercise. Compare Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘A Miracle for Breakfast’, which uses the end-words not only as topics of insistence, but as a means to advance a narrative:
At six o’clock we were waiting for coffee,
waiting for coffee and the charitable crumb
that was going to be served from a certain balcony
—like kings of old, or like a miracle.
It was still dark. One foot of the sun
steadied itself on a long ripple in the river.
The first ferry of the day had just crossed the river.
It was so cold we hoped that the coffee...
A. C. Swinburne, very a much a proponent of the ‘more is more’ philosophy when it came to rhyme, attempted rhyming sestinas, but these kind of miss the point. The sestina forces the mind to regard sameness and difference all at once, and the linking power of rhyme muddies that contrast.
The sonnet is now near-ubiquitous, with Shakespeare’s remarkable run of them taught in schools, and their bon mots scattered in the wind of popular culture. In the 1500s, though, the sonnet was a new, exotic art, practised by the medieval Italian masters, Dante and Petrarch. It was Thomas Wyatt, a courtier of Henry VIII’s, who imported the form to England by way of his translations of Petrarch, which led to his original sonnets.
Wyatt’s sonnet ‘Whoso list to hunt’ is a beautiful demonstration of this nascent form, with the added intrigue that it quite probably references the way Wyatt was forced to give up his relationship with Anne Boleyn when Henry VIII set eyes on her, and requested to be moved to Italy on diplomatic duty shortly afterwards. Wyatt’s friend, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, established the rhyme scheme that Shakespeare would eventually use: ababcdcdefefgg, which is more amenable to the rhyme-deficient English, allowing seven rhyme sounds rather than the original five.
Today, the sonnet form is a touchstone across English language poetry, used both traditionally, and experimentally. Paul Muldoon’s “Quoof” shows how the sonnet continues to provide space and time for innovators:
How often have I carried our family word
for the hot water bottle
to a strange bed,
as my father would juggle a red-hot half-brick
in an old sock
to his childhood settle.
I have taken it to so many lovely heads
or laid it between us like a sword.
A hotel room in New York City
with a girl who spoke hardly any English,
my hand on her breast
like the smoldering one-off spoor of the yeti
or some other shy beast
that has yet to enter the language.
Another Poetry Genius contributor recently issued an essay comparing the craftsmanship involved in writing a villanelle to the elaborate cross-hatching that forms the head of a lacrosse bat; it's a comparison worth bearing in mind as we think about the ostensibly basic building blocks of the villanelle, its repetitions ebbing like an incoming tide.
The first two lines of a villanelle are its backbone; they are repeated, alternately, as the closing lines of each stanza, and they're both repeated as the final two lines of the poem. Moreover, the two repeated lines have the only two rhyme sounds used across the poem’s nineteen lines. The form 'Villanelle' literally means 'farm song’, and it’s a remarkable example of how something quite folky (we often associate heavy repetition with more accessible art, e.g. “You a stupid ho / You a stupid ho”) has evolved through its practitioners to be a kind of lofty, esoteric format.
By far the most famous English villanelle is Dylan Thomas’s ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’; I don’t have much to say about it because its execution is pretty much perfect. Instead, let’s look at Hugh Haughton’s deliberately irregular "From an Abandoned Villanelle":
In our just deserts it’s hard to do a well,
Assay the soil, dig, drill, and lay it down;
That’s why the villain loves the villanelle.
He plays on the etymology of “villanelle” to turn the act of writing one into a covert, against-the-grain poetic conceit. It’s an inspiring take on what can be seen as a fusty old form, albeit one that requires considerable talent to write.
A close relative, technically speaking, of the villanelle, the pantoum is actually an adaptation of a Malay form called the puntun, and a good example of the way literary influence is not strictly lexical; forms and rhythms can reach across languages, and, indeed, language families.
A pantoum is composed of quatrains (four line stanzas): the second and fourth lines of the first stanza are the first and third lines of the second, and so on. In the final stanza, the last line is the same as the first line of the poem, and the third line is the same as the third line of the first stanza. Its repetitions are just as intense as the villanelle’s, but it allows the writer a bit more leeway by not being so tightly compressed. A good modern example is Stuart Dischell’s “She Put on Her Lipstick in the Dark”:
I really did meet a blind girl in Paris once.
It was in the garden of a museum,
Where I saw her touching the statues.
She had brown hair and an aquamarine scarf.
It was in the garden of the museum.
I told her I was a thief disguised as a guard.
She had brown hair and an aquamarine scarf.
She told me she was a student from Grenoble.
Haiku sound like an easy format to explain: they consist of a line of five syllables, followed by a line of seven, then another line of five. This definition isn’t very useful beyond teaching schoolchildren to count syllables, though; a Japanese syllable is very different to an English one, and a Japanese phrase is different to an English poetic line. There are manifold weak haiku written to this skin-deep definition; one can only guess that their authors enjoy counting to five and seven a lot.
Nevertheless, many writers have been influenced by the twinkling, crystalline structure of haiku, and the way it almost demands to be written sequentially. Wallace Stevens, possibly the English-language poet most naturally in tune with Eastern poetics, produced the spare, head-scratchingly beautiful sequence “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”, whose poems are spiritually haiku by the way they render a single penetrating insight in language that stirs up a sense of wonder:
I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.
A good haiku is brief, of course, only in its appearance on the page.
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