Formal Poetry

Some Poetic Forms.


The Hebrew poets who composed the Pslams worked with an interesting verse form. It consisted of distichs. These are two line verses in which the first line makes a statement, and then then second line builds on the idea in the first line in one of three ways:

Sameness: The poet restates the first line by restating it in different way, as in Psalm 102:

I am like a pelican in the wilderness;
I have become an owl among the ruins.

Antithesis: the poet can opposes the statement in some way (sometimes by negating the opposite to the first statement), as in Ecclestiastes 3:4:

A time to weep
A time to laugh

Complement: This balances two halves of the statement as in Proverbs 19:21:

A man may have many plans in his mind
But the counsel of the Lord––that will stand.

Try this form: Pick a mundane event in your life, and write it as a sequence of events, leaving a space between each line to fit in the distich in a few minutes time.

Here is an example:

Today I came down to breakfast
And I was hungry
So my mother brought me some cornflakes
She poured them into a bowl
And gave the bowl to me

Now fill in the distichs, using the same techniques as the psalmists.

Today I came down to breakfast
Or breakfast came to me

And I was hungry
Eating rose by rose the wallpaper

So my mother brought me some cornflakes
Morning Mom, bringer of breakfast

She poured them into a bowl
Pouring them in the garden would be strange

And gave the bowl to me
I accepted it, humble as cornflakes.

The hard part is to create lines that echo the material from the first lines, but also to transform the material.

You may find you second lines becoming humorous or divergent: go with the flow.

Okay, here it is, the big one. Write a sonnet.

Just to revise here are the rules:

14 lines of iambic pentameter:



It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match’d with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.

Take a look at the above excerpt from Ulysses.

Why read a poem by a man who died 120 years ago, about another man who died 3000 years ago––if he ever really existed in the first place?

First try to read the excerpt emphasizing the meter, which is iambic pentameter:

In Iambic pentameter each line is ten syllables long, like this:

It lit—tle pro—fits that—an id—le king,

By this—still hearth—among—these bar—ren crags,

Match’d with—an ag—ed wife—I mete—and dole

Une—qual laws—unto—a sav—age race,

That hoard—and sleep—and feed—and know—not me.

The ten syllables are grouped into five pairs (called iambs), like this:

1 2—3 4—5 6—7 8—9 10

The emphasis is placed on the even (2,4,6,8,10) syllables, like this:

1 2—3 4—5 6—7 8—9 10

Finally, the first Syllable of each line is also given a little extra stress, like this:

1 2—3 4—5 6—7 8—9 10


Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? 

(Shakespeare, Sonnet 18).


That’s just the beginning A sonnet is an argument (an essay of sorts), and it presents its argument in a specific way.

First Quatrain (four lines): An exposition of the main theme and main metaphor.

Second Quatrain: Theme and metaphor extended or complicated; often some imaginative example is given.

Third Quatrain: Peripeteia (dramatic reversal––thank you Aristotle––more about that later in the semester), often beginning with ‘but.’ 

Final Couplet (two lines with end-rhymes): Summarises and leaves the reader with a new, concluding image.

Let’s do something other than Sonnet 18.

Sonnets from the Portuguese 43: How do I love thee? Let me count the ways


How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace. 

I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise. 

I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath, 

Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

Look at how the argument develops:

Barrett Browning begins by attempting to physically qualify how much she loves the object of her devotion (Robert Browning, or possibly––shock-horror––Edgar Allen Poe).

She then attempts to compare the quality of her love to other kinds of human emotion like humility and the search for justice.

She then reflects that her erotic love has taken the place of the love she had as a child for her religion and the saints.

She finally speculates that her love can only be improved by death…as long as God permits it.

Here’s another Sonnet:

To John Clare


Well, honest John, how fare you now at home?
The spring is come, and birds are building nests;
The old cock-robin to the sty is come,
With olive feathers and its ruddy breast;

And the old cock, with wattles and red comb,
Struts with the hens, and seems to like some best,
Then crows, and looks about for little crumbs,
Swept out by little folks an hour ago;

The pigs sleep in the sty; the bookman comes—
The little boy lets home-close nesting go,
And pockets tops and taws, where daisies blow,
To look at the new number just laid down,

With lots of pictures, and good stories too,
And Jack the Giant-killer’s high renown.

This is a sonnet as a self portrait by the plowman poet, John Clare––a self taught poet-farmer from the romantic era.

I include this because it seems like an interesting idea to write a sonnet to yourself (in this case at a younger age), which also serves as a self-portrait.

These are the conventions of sonnets. Write a sonnet. Keep all the rules, or throw them out of the window.

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why (Sonnet XLIII)

Edna St. Vincent Millay, 1892 – 1950

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh 

Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry. 

Thus in winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone, 

I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.

From Six Unrhymed Sonnets

Diane Seuss


I drove all the way to Cape Disappointment but didn’t

have the energy to get out of the car. Rental. Blue Ford

Focus. I had to stop in a semipublic place to pee

on the ground. Just squatted there on the roadside.

I don’t know what’s up with my bladder. I pee and then

I have to pee and pee again. Instead of sightseeing

I climbed into the back seat of the car and took a nap.

I’m a little like Frank O’Hara without the handsome

nose and penis and the New York School and Larry

Rivers. Paid for a day pass at Cape Disappointment

thinking hard about that long drop from the lighthouse

to the sea. Thought about going into the Ocean

Medical Center for a check-up but how do I explain

this restless search for beauty or relief?

From 4 sonnets about food:

Adrienne Su


Words can’t do

what bird bones

can: stew

to the stony


of one

small soul, the spent

sacrifice boiled down

to the hard white

matter that nourishes

the mighty

predator, who flourishes

on the slaughtered

animal and water.