by John Brantingham
I write formal poetry for the same reason that I hike. Both help me to reach a higher level of understanding of the self.
Hiking is essentially different than normal walking. When you are walking, you merely have a destination. When you are hiking, you might have a place in mind to reach, but that’s not the point. The point is the slow movement that lets us understand the world more completely. We are at least in part a product of the earth, and knowing it helps us to know ourselves.
The point of the hike is its slowness and awareness. The point is not knowing exactly what we’re going to find along the way or in ourselves.
A Different Approach to Formal Poetry
Writing formal poetry has a similar effect. By formal poetry, I mean those forms that make many poets groan. If you’ve tried to write a sonnet, villanelle, or sestina and hated the experience, I want you to retry with a different approach. Stick with me for a moment here.
Those writers who don’t like formal poetry probably tried writing a sonnet in the exact same way that they would write a free verse poem. They came up with an idea for the poem and tried to fit it into a form. Eventually, the restrictions of the form ruined their original vision and their poem.
Try writing a formal poem, let’s say a sestina, starting not with an idea, but with a single word. Let’s make that word “bread.” Focus on writing each line as you would focus on taking each step. Don’t think about where the poem will end, just write. The form of the sestina is designed not for you to place ideas upon it, but to draw ideas out of you. Often these are ideas you were not aware of. As with hiking, you will find aspects of yourself that you never knew were buried.
If you’re working on the sestina, or any form really, one of two things are likely to happen. The first is that you will end up with a good poem. The second is that it won’t work for you, but in the process of trying it, you will have drawn out an idea that will work as free verse.
The third thing that does happen to every poet is that you will have a poem that flat out is no good, and it doesn’t work in any way. This happens in every human endeavor. After all, I have failed classes, lost ball games, and gotten unfortunate haircuts. This doesn’t mean that I don’t try new classes, don’t play new games, or let my hair and the beard go full Gandolf.
So how do you write a sestina? I’m not going to tell you all of the technical details of repetition. For that, you need a quick chart that you can find on Wikipedia. It’s a form in which there is no rhyme. Instead, the words at the end of the line repeat over and over in a scheme that looks and sounds more complicated than it is. It’s one of those things that seems Byzantine, but if you play with it for five minutes, you will completely understand it.
The point of the poem is the repetition of those words. They come back, again and again, creating emotional resonance. Beware, however. You have to choose these words carefully. I once tried to write a sestina that included my wife’s name and the word “smell,” and the resulting poem was at times silly and at other times downright creepy.
One more bit of advice. Most of your lines should be enjambed. That is, do not stop the sentence at the end of the line. If you do that, your poem will be sing-songy and really hard to manage. Most of the time, the word at the end of your line should be in the middle of a sentence, and you should not pause there when reading.
I would love for you to post your “bread” sestina or send it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I want to see these results.
John Brantingham is Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park’s first poet laureate. His work has been featured in hundreds of magazines and on Writer’s Almanac and The Best Small Fictions 2016. He has seven books of poetry and fiction including The Green of Sunset from Moon Tide Press. He teaches at Mt. San Antonio College.