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On Poetic Form – With help from Robert Pinsky! – And a Poetry Contest!

From Signing School – Learning to Write (and Read) Poetry by Studying with the Masters by Robert Pinsky

I found this book by Robert Pinsky at a bookstore while I was traveling. I don’t remember the bookstore name or where I was, but I remember seeing the cover, reading the title and thinking, I need this book.

That was about a year ago. And I haven’t picked it up until now. Yes, I will openly admit that I have too many books on my shelf that I purchased because my heart felt a connection to them but that I haven’t opened to read and find out why. I hope over this month to visit a bunch of these books and get a taste of what my heart already knew was something delicious.

I flipped to any page and feasted. If you know me, and how I struggle with form, you’d agree with the ‘meant-to-be-ness’ of this random flipping.

Chapter: Form

pg. 111

“The poetic line is a means of performing energy and balance in writing. As in other kinds of performance, or in editing a movie, the relation between pause and movement is essential to writing in lines.”

pg. 112

“Silence is a part of rhythm: a truism these pauses demonstrate. But the pauses are made effective by the varying kinds of change and movement around them.”

pg. 112

“…the poem has taste, which could also be called efficiency or purpose, to keep the rhythm changing and moving. Emotion comes partly from intense balance of hesitation with explosive force.”

These quotes are poetic in themselves and only small parts of a wonderful chapter on ‘form’. For the purposes of today’s blog, let’s respond to these quotes.

When I write a poem, I hand-write it first. If the poem is written in haste on the back of a receipt, let’s say, I can’t give much attention to form. I splooge out the words and edit when I type the poem into a document on my computer. I carry around small books and something to write with to enable me to stop and write if the need arises (and it usually does). In the raw, pouring out of the poem, form is not of utmost important to me. However, I do make line breaks, and often times, I keep most of the breaks where they were in the pouring out.

I make line breaks so readers can take a breath or to make an impact on the words before and after the break. When I want a reader to feel speed and run with me through the poem, I’ll use the full page length and have the sentences running into each other without any line breaks other than when the line ends because there’s no more space on the page. I don’t usually use punctuation because I find it distracting. Sometimes I’ll capitalize the first word of each line in a stanza, but that part comes in the end stages of editing when I step back and look at how the poem looks on the page, at how the black ink letters fall into the white space.

I enjoy white space on the page. It’s as much a part of the voice of the poem as are the letters. I absolutely agree that there is a relationship between pause and movement…When I write I write knowing that these poems will be read out loud, at least by me. Because of this, I try to make the form of the piece powerful in space, in pause, in movement and in rhythm so that when it’s read out loud it will be read in the cadence I hear in my head as I’m writing it, and so it will be fun to read.

I’m ignorant when it comes to writing pre-determined forms of poetry like glossa, sonnets, limericks, etc.. I mean, I have probably written these different forms at some point in my writing career, but I’m organically inclined to write in free verse. I do think there is a great challenge to writing in a form like villanelle, for example, or any form that is outside of your natural instincts. Poetic forms have so much to offer!

Let’s have a little contest, shall we?

Here’s a link to 55 Types of Poetry. Choose one type and write a poem. Post it in the comment section of this blog post. A winner will be announced a get a fancy prize – most definitely poetry-related!

*No longer than 48 lines*

*The theme: FORM* (doesn’t have to on poetic form…let your imagination run wild!)

Please post your poem by Friday, April 10, 2015.

 All poems (even the ones that do not win!) will be published in a blog post on this blog during National Poetry Month – so if you’re interested in submitting it, know that posting it on this blog makes it ‘already published’ and/or if you DO NOT want it posted, please make that note in your comment. I will only publish FIRST NAMES, but please give me a way to contact you by email (you can do this without it showing in your comment when you post it).

If you have any questions, email me at

What we talk about when we talk about poetry is definitely form…and it’s also about how fun writing contests are and that there is pure joy in writing poetry too!

4 thoughts on “On Poetic Form – With help from Robert Pinsky! – And a Poetry Contest!

  1. My favourite Pinsky phrase on poetry is (and I paraphrase as I do not have the exact quotation in front of me) “the quality of a poem is to be had in the absence of the personality of the poet.”

    This is something that seems so absolutely essential at a time when “personality” and “presentation” and “performance” all seem to trump the internal and contemplative quality of a poem considered in the quiet communion between reader and text. How often have I purchased a book of poems after a lively reading and taken that book home only to be disappointed by the poetry I had been so engaged with as a member of an audience entertained by the force of personality of a poet capable of grabbing the listener by the lapels and waking us up and entertaining us.

    Years ago Don McKay cautioned me with these words, “Beware your audience; they can ruin the work.”

    The poem on the page and the poem on the stage are very different. An audience and a readership are also very different. I’d far rather write work that appeals to deep need in a silent and solitary reader, than write work that engages and enlivens a listener. The irony of this predicament involves the fact that I write with my ear atuned to dictionary music, and I read my work aloud as I write.

    all good things, John B. Lee


    1. John, you make some important points here. I agree that there can be a disconnect between a poet’s ‘performance’ of her poetry and the poetry on the page. I also agree that sometimes, the ‘performance’ of the poem is where the integrity of the poem lives, which is more of the poet than it is the poem itself. As a poet who loves to write with the intention of the poem being fun to read aloud AND being impactful read silently by a reader, I know firsthand the challenge it is to write a poem that fits both these intentions. I’ve been turned off by a poet’s performance but loved his work too though. All in all, yes, Mckay was wise to caution ‘beware your audience; they can ruin the work’…but I think that rings true when the poet is writing and doing the ‘work’…but it helps when an audience appreciates and loves the work as well. Thank you for reading and responding John. I believe we write from the same place of intention, which is why i adore your poetry and when you read it.


  2. my haiku for your blog contest:

    as the weather warms
    each day snowman grows smaller
    and loses his eyes


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