Start with a familiar person, place, or thing.
A young woman came into the bookstore where I used to work looking for some sort of guided workbook that shows different poetic forms and gives her room to try them out, see what fits. Not idea prompts. Form prompts.
Be still, my heart.
There are lots of guided journals out there, some that even focus on poetry writing. But their focus is the idea or motivation behind the writing, not the craft of writing (not that I’ve seen anyway). Until such a craft-focused guided journal exists, here are three places you can look for poetic forms to master.
Persons of Interest
What poets do you admire? What poetic forms do they use? What poets do they read and what forms do those poets use?
Shakespeare worked in blank verse and came up with with his own rhyme scheme for composing sonnets. Samantha Holmes writes poems that are short-and-sweet and IG-worthy.
Pick someone to be your teacher, and let what they did be your guide.
A Place in the Sun
Where are you from? Where are your forebears from? Where have you always wanted to go?
Italy invented the sonnet and the English came up with several variations, Russia’s got a sonnet form as well. The Japanese have their famous haiku and English-speaking poets (Americans in particular) created a variation using 15 syllables instead of 15 ons (because they are in fact two different linguistic units).
You could throw a dart at an atlas and then google what poetic forms originated (or were further developed) there, and then you just plug away at it til you feel comfortable in your new literary landscape.
Any Old Thing
What poetic forms can you name off the top of your head? What objects in your home get you tapping your toes? Ever dork out over the prevalence of the Golden Ratio in nature?
You can work your way through a book of nursery rhymes and rewrite them to be complete nonsense. You can write a line of verse for every second in a twelve-hour period and call it an epic. (I’ve literally done both of these, guess which one’s still in progress.)
If you can think it, count it, turn it inside out, it’s a poetic form and you can play with it all the livelong day.
Once you’ve decided on a form to play with, challenge yourself to write some crazy number of poems in that specific form. Or challenge yourself to hyperextend that form in some way.
100 seems to be a very popular benchmark. There’s a lot of romance around that number, a lot of perceived magic. Though it may be the magic lies in achieving triple digits.
The Rubaiyat has anywhere from 75 to 110 quatrains, depending on the translation. Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets, Sir Philip Sydney (who wrote the first-ever sequence of sonnets in English) wrote 108, Petrarch wrote 317, and Guittone d’Arezzo (who Petrarch modeled) wrote 250.
And those are just the first that spring to my mind because of writing all these Pushkin sonnets thematically-inspired by Star Trek (while actually neglecting to pay attention to the feminine/masculine rhyme issue entirely). Alexander Pushkin, meanwhile, didn’t just invent-and-use the form but hyperextended it to the point of writing a novel in verse with almost every stanza being such a sonnet. The book totals 389 sonnets.
So pick a form deeply associated with someone you admire or a place you want to visit, or that just happens to tickle your fancy, and use that form again and again and again.
Challenge yourself to take it so far to the extreme you learn things about your own creativity you never knew before.
For instance, the first pantoum I ever wrote was a narrative poem. Thing is, pantoums have such a high degree of repetition in their structure that most people use them to write lyric/non-narrative poems. And before you ask, the poem is hiding somewhere among the massive pile of notebooks/journals in my parents’ storage unit a couple of state lines away.
I wrote the poem at a day-long writers retreat (only retreat I’ve ever done, le sigh) without any thought about it being a narrative. The other writers brought it to my attention and they seemed impressed, but I couldn’t help feeling that I’d failed yet again to write a lyric poem (something a professor had recently challenged me about).
So the pantoum form revealed how
— at the core of all my creative work —
I’m a storyteller.
I eventually challenged myself to write an epic pantoum, hyperextending the form from the usual 8-12 quatrains to 150. I tried my best throughout the whole thing to teach myself to be more lyrical, but if you read Random Bearings for yourself you’ll see how more often than not I continue to tell story after story like Scheherazade just trying to get through the night.
And now — taking my own medicine — I’m thinking of Scheherazade’s 1001 Nights (a period of about 3 years) which served as inspiration to Rismky-Korsakov’s symphonic suite of four related movements which (coupled with the Nights) gets me thinking about nocturnes — a kind of musical composition taking inspiration from the night — and now I’m toying with the idea of how I might turn a musical form into a poetic.