Poetic form, a confession

Welcome to the second in a series of posts on my poetry practice, as publication of my first collection – with Black Bough hoves ever closer into view.

Notes on Form.

I probably shouldn’t admit this, but my understanding of how a poem works, or how its construction works, in a technical sense, remains a work in progress. 

This is not for lack of interest. As well as various critical books and essays, I’ve read a few manuals or guides to poetic composition – covering form, structure, line-length, rhythm, metre and so on. 

These include, Robert Haas – A Little Book on Form (actually quite big) and Don Paterson’s The Poem (also pleasingly brick-like). Both works I’ve found extremely useful, detailed and often witty. Thanks to books like these, I am not entirely unfamiliar with some theoretical language around poetry – the world of trochee, spondee, iambic pentameter etc. 

That said, I have to confess, specialist poetic language can at times cast me back to distant school or university lessons or tutorials with an apprehensive groan (like maths, without the Rishi fandom). After a dense paragraph or two, all that ABAB ABCAB, Dum di dum, da diddle diphthong, triphthong, dactyl  /// – // – //   talk, does more than stress my syllables.  

But I try. So that, slowly, one term at a time, I can begin to have a go at describing what I’ve done, or tried to do instinctively, with the correct, formal terminology. 

And yet, when it comes to form, I rarely have any idea where a particular shape, or structure comes from when I first set out to write a poem. From there, how that initial collection of words evolves into a final, coherent shape, is often as much a mystery to me as the central idea, or vision behind the poem itself. 

Aside from once trying to write a ballad-style verse, based on a folk tale about a haunted hill, because I’d read that ballads traditionally use a quatrain, or at school being made to attempt a sonnet, I tend never to set out with a particular form or structure in mind. I feel quite envious of poets who choose to write sonnets, or villanelles etc and embark on this task, armed with a confidence and knowledge that escapes me. However, as I write, busking my way towards a poem, one way or another, a form invariably begins to emerge, with little conscious effort from me. 

Free form does not equal formless

With my stuff, particularly with shorter, imagist type poems of twenty lines or less, I tend to write free form. This does not mean I’m not thinking at all about the shape of the poem. Unlike prose, when writing free form verse, I’m usually very attentive to line breaks. I can fuss over these for a long time. More often than not, this is because I want to achieve a double meaning, in order that a line can be taken one way if read on, using enjambment, or suggest something slightly different if the break is taken as a pause. 

When I’m writing more imagist type poems, frequently about a place, I tend to want to capture a sense of a whole scene, made up from a jumble of sources or impressions – fusing actual description, with simile and metaphor, as I tumble towards a reflective final line or two. 

I like poems that lead you on, in something of a motion blur, running through a moment or situation, because they feel somehow close to a filmic, or painterly way of capturing a strong visual impression of a somewhere, a someone, or something.  

Writing this type of poem in free form, I find, allows for a more garrulous, looser, almost liquid-like quality. With less white space around, the writing has the potential to achieve a more urgent feel. Though my watch out here would always be to keep it short – as a reader I don’t want to wade through endless lines in search of a point. Unlike stanzas or verses, which literally give you a break.

This is why, when I write poems that are more reflective, or narrative in intent, I find that I am then typically inclined to use a more formal verse structure. Again though, as I write, this is more of an impulse than a conscious choice. As the poem takes shape, stanzas begin to appear, but I’m rarely certain what length  these will end up when I start. Sometimes a set of triplets will become couplets, or quintets, or vice versa.

Through some kind of instinctive process, the shape of the poem goes hand in hand with the flow of the words within each line, as they move through the sequence of set up, development and conclusion – or not. 

Once I get a sense that a poem is ready, the final form, finally, seems to feel right, largely through gut instinct. This generally takes me several attempts. In a few cases, after over-excitedly submitting poems, which inspiration has gifted, without letting them settle, these get rejected, or are never heard from again. I then, depending on how confident or not I feel in the poem, sometimes go on to change its shape entirely – a set of quatrains might become a free form poem, or a free form is chiselled into long line triplets. 

On the whole, form for me arrives through a mysterious unconscious unfolding, with a poem taking on an unpredictable shape, or shapes, which through a process of reading aloud, moving around and rewriting, eventually seems to make sense.

A part of me wishes I felt a more direct sense of control or order from the off, when writing a new poem, but another aspect enjoys the unpredictable emergence of a form, as what may become a poem begins to shift and gather substance.  


A couple of years ago, I had an idea to write a poem where Earth itself was a person in some kind of care home. In note form there was no particular shape, just some vague, verse-like lines. 

Eventually, it became a piece of dialogue between two characters, with the title ‘Home’ (see what I did there?). Somehow, it seemed to work, but I couldn’t tell you why.

The poem was originally published in Issue 3 of Patchwork Lit Mag, from the University of Iowa.


In a hushed room in a care home, two people stand next to a bed. 

This her?

That’s her.

Feels hot…

Yeah, often is these days. And her breathing’s getting laboured. 

Doesn’t sound good. She been here long?

We’re not exactly sure, feels like forever. 

Wonder what she was like when she was young? She ever talk?

Not much. Still smiles sometimes. Lights up the place – most days she’s silent now.

Used to be full of it: chat, chat, chat – everything mattered, everything interesting: dust and sand, fur and feather, seasons, scales, waves, iceberg fields, Northern lights, buffalo by the million, turning leaves, blossom erupting, birdsong, flight, people  – I believe she even quite liked slugs.

Wish I’d met her then.

Yeah. She was something else, now she’s just tired. 

Any relatives, visitors?

She had children. They don’t see her now. 

What happened?

The usual. Grew up, thought they knew it all. Squabbled – all take, take, take amongst themselves. Lost sight of their roots.

That’s sad. She have a name?

Several, we use the shortest, it’s on the label there…

The second person lifts the tag to read it.


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