Stephen Robertson

Slanting Lines

Notes on form

Some of these poems are annotated as following a specific poetic form, and I provide an index to these form annotations. What follows is a discussion on form — not, I hasten to add, on the huge subject of form in poetry in general, but on my own use of some of the forms represented. Many of these poems were written for the Girton Poetry group, often as a response of the prompts sent out before each meeting, which sometimes include a form. These prompts are offered as suggestions only, to provide inspiration, and can be used or ignored. I enjoy the challenge of following (in some fashion) a new or old form. It’s often a question of using the form to discover patterns or rhythms that are in some way implicit in the language already, but can be revealed and built upon.

As a first example, the first meeting of the group that I attended gave the triolet form as a prompt. I hadn’t come across triolets at the time and didn’t try to use the form straight away, but for the following meeting I produced a pair of triolets, both talking about overheard voices. Later I expanded this into a series about sounds. Somehow the form and the subject-matter went together easily.

A triolet is an example of a fairly specific, strict form — rhyme pattern and repetition of lines — though of course the rules of a form are as strict as you take them to be. In the case of the triolet series, I largely stick to traditional tetrameter or pentameter (four or five stressed syllables in the line), and also largely to an iambic pattern (alternate stressed and unstressed syllables). But I don’t take either of those constraints as absolute (for example, the first of those triolets has some shorter lines).

Line length is something I like to play with. In particular, it often appeals to me to write very short lines, as short as I can make them. For example, in Bonfire, the form is pantoum, which also has a rhyme scheme and a pattern of repeated lines. I follow that pattern very precisely, but I have restricted the lines to dimeter (just two stressed syllables) throughout — with zero, one or two unstressed, so no line is longer than four syllables. There are some other examples of very short lines in these poems — it’s a constraint that can be (I find) very satisfying.

Some forms don’t have a name. In The Lady’s Maid, I have followed (quite closely in this case) the form of Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott, which I guess he invented for the poem — I’m not aware of any other poems using it, before or since, except perhaps in direct tribute to him, which descibes my attempt too.

English poetry makes a great deal of use of iambic pentameter (di-dum-di-dum-di-dum-di-dum-di-dum), but often poets allow themselves freedoms with this — to move or vary the number of unstressed syllables. Japanese poetic forms usually involve counting syllables without regard to stress — a few attempts at these are represented here (Hopper Chōka; Tide; Wind, fall; Sunburn. In the last two cases, each poem starts with a sonnet (of sorts) and then adds one of the Japanese forms — more on sonnets below. There are also some western forms that take the same kind of syllable-counting view — for example, the fib and the nonnet.

For other forms, for example limericks (a few represented here), the form is so strong that you diverge from it at your peril. However, even there fun can be had — for example the limerick (not mine) quoted in a footnote in the pdf version of Periodical.

On sonnets

There are a number of sonnets here, though you might be forgiven for not recognising some of them as such. The traditional English sonnet has 14 lines, sometimes broken 8/6; iambic pentameter lines; and a specific rhyme scheme. For this last, there are actually at least two such schemes, the Petrarchan (abbaabba cdecde), and the Shakespearean, which is charcterised by a rhyming couplet at the end (ababcdcdefefgg). For my own sonnets, I have a strong preference for the Petrarchan, though I sometimes do abbacddcefgefg. I also usualy follow (more-or-less) the 8/6 pattern. However, where I often leave tradition behind is with the line length and meter. If you followed the link above to Sunburn, you will have seen a 14-line poem with some of the characteristics of a sonnet, but with very short lines (the octet has dimeter lines, and the sestet has monometer lines).

Another sonnet (Periodical, best seen in its pdf version, link above) is a little more elaborate — you might reasonably think that it is trying to be much too clever for its own good. There are 14 lines, with a main rhyme scheme that is sonnet-like, but divided 7/7. For the first section, each line has the number of syllables of the corresponding line of the periodical table of the elements (reproduced below the poem). This includes the insertions (the Lanthanides and the Actinoids) which are usually represented separately because otherwise the table gets far too wide for the paper on which it is printed. The second half of the poem simply reverses the pattern of line lengths. Each pair of insertions (lines 6-7 and lines 8-9) has its own rhyme (the Actinoids are sometimes known as the Actinides, but actinoid works better for the rhyme!).

On villanelles

Even given Shakespeare’s dominance, there are many beautiful sonnets in the world, by many people. Villanelles (a few examples here) are different -- they all seem to me to sit in the long shadow of Dylan Thomas’s Do not go gentle into that good night. One of mine, Jump willing in, attempts to follow Thomas not just in the form, but (a) in using commands for both repeated lines, and (b) in making each verse a different example. Thomas’s poem has each of the middle four verses introducing a different quality of man (wise/good/wild/grave); mine are different qualities of books. I also, like Thomas, (mis)use an adjective as an adverb (gentle/willing).