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Passions in Poetry

Form poems are old fashioned?

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Member Ascendant
since 08-20-99
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Jejudo, South Korea

0 posted 07-19-2000 04:49 AM       View Profile for Brad   Email Brad   Edit/Delete Message      Find Poems  View IP for Brad

I'm in a debate right now at another site but I thought I'd give my opening to see if anybody was interested in this topic.

The proposition: "Traditional formal styles are old fashioned and have no place in modern poetry"

I am charged with defending this proposition.

Make it new!
--Ezra Pound

If the greatest of all pleasures is surprise, the only other pleasure nearly so great is to give surprise.

Ahhh, the villanelle, the triolet, the dizain -- the names by themselves have a certain romantic feel to them, do they not? They sound so poetic (and so French)and we know they're hard to do. Certainly, this is where great poetry must lie. We can sit at an outdoor cafe and marvel at the sheer craftsmanship of those noble souls who write DIFFICULT poetry. We can marvel while drinking our double expressos and admire the attention to form -- the rigid, unthinking capsule that suffocates whatever originality the poet may have had in the first place.

Oh yeah, and then there's the sonnet. Shakespeare wrote in sonnets and if it was good enough for Shakespeare, it has got to be good enough for the rest of us. Right?


Don't get me wrong. I think they worked in the past and as exercises for someone who wishes to improve, I see no problem in employing them. But, for poetry today they are exo-skeletons, hollow shells, that should be buried along with 'thee', 'thou' and 'methinks'.

With a proper and respectful funeral of course.

I'll give three reasons for this assessment:

First, they've already been done. The sonnet doesn't work anymore precisely because Shakepeare wrote sonnets and everytime you write one you are calling forth his shadow, you can't avoid the echo, and you can't avoid the inevitable comparison: "that's not as good as Shakespeare." Of course it's not as good as Shakespeare. He didn't invent the sonnet but he defined and created our sensibility for what a good sonnet should be.

Writers, today, should be striving to create and define their own sensibilities, not relying on something that worked in the past. Form poetry is the structural equivalent of a cliche.

Second, form poetry perpetuates class differences. I know, I know, nobody wants to talk about class anymore but if you think about it form poetry separates people in at least two ways: it separates those who have the time to master these difficult forms (ever tried to write a sestina?) and the forms themselves reflect the ideology of the upper classes. They're neat (meant both ways), they're clean, and they're self contained. What they don't do is reflect the reality that most of us live in.

Third, they don't work. If you're not familiar with a form, it is confusing and seemingly arbitrary. If you are aware of a form, you get caught up in comparing that poem to its ideal -- like scrutinizing a child's picture to its color by numbers script.

A friend of mine a while back posted a Petrachan sonnet at another site. One commentor argued that the rhyme scheme was awkward. My friend explained what he was doing and the commentor immediately apologized for not realizing this. Nowhere was there a discussion of the value of a poem as a poem, nobody was saying this works or didn't work on a personal level -- a sense of surprise if you follow Baudelaire. It was either incomprehensible or form for form's sake. Nothing more.

In other words, it was never read for itself.

I don't believe I'm alone in this opinion. Professional poets today are taking these forms and pushing and pulling them all out of recognition. Why? Because they consciously or intuitively know that these forms are no longer useful for good poetry.

Look at Elizabeth Bishop's sonnet:


Caught -- the bubble
in the spirit level,
a creature divided;
and the compass needle
wobbling and wavering,
Freed -- the broken
thermometer's mercury
running away;
and the rainbow-bird
from the narrow bevel
of the empty mirror,
flying wherever
it feels like, gay!

Is this a sonnet? It has fourteen lines and an inverted octet and sestet but what does this say about the traditional form itself?

I think it says its time is over.


Jeffrey Carter
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1 posted 07-19-2000 05:27 AM       View Profile for Jeffrey Carter   Email Jeffrey Carter   Edit/Delete Message      Find Poems  View IP for Jeffrey Carter


I, myself, have never really tried to write within any. form (too constrictive) I basically just write what I feel.

I don't know if this has anything to do with your point but I just felt like saying........

To me good poetry doesn't have to be in any form. It just has to come from the heart
Sudhir Iyer
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2 posted 07-19-2000 06:54 AM       View Profile for Sudhir Iyer   Email Sudhir Iyer   Edit/Delete Message      Find Poems  View IP for Sudhir Iyer

Lets see it this way...

How does one define Modern Poetry? Does the lack of form create a feel of modernity or is it the time that the poetry speaks of that causes the poem to be modern.

From what I read very recently, (and my eloquence in these topics might be on the other side of being respectably high), modern poetry is very much about creating a visual effect... some use a flow to describe what they feel and place words accordingly...
like vertical and horizontal lines created giving it an effect like Modern art... Other count exact syllables for each line and place words in a rectangle giving a block-like, symmetric effect... others just do a twirl and use words in italics, raise a few words make them boldfaced... in effect they make it appear visually attractive...

But this is in print form alone...

For a recital of poetry what is eternal beauty is perhaps rhyme and rhythm... (although my poetic skills is far too limited here).

An extension of poetry is often a song. A song could be free verse or blank verse, but whats it without a profound thought or rhythm... thats the beauty of the traditional ballad... constructed prominently on the sounds (I still haev not been able to write a ballad or a sonent though)...

To me modern poetry signifies the time, and the way things are percieved and presented... In 17th/18th century they wrote about wars, heroes of a war, mechanical inventions etc... today we might write about modern-day tragedies like a nuclear explosion or inventions like internet etc...
Though the situations have changed its still in our perspective to write about something in a particular way.

But there is something else that poets have always written about - feelings of love, hatred, loyalty, romanticism with nature... etc... and they have withstood the test of time and will remain so... and in all certainty, the form of writing will also remain present in the writings...

Personally I enjoy writing in whatever way that pleases me and perhaps that should be the objective issue to all poets. If I can propogate what I want to via poetry, then I better do it right, but what form I choose, is not so significant.

In one sense I agree with Jeffrey poetry is from the heart and has to be that way... else we could just invent a poetry writing machine , couldn't we?  

Thanks for listening me ramble...

Amongst distinguished poets, I am just a small voice... and I will not be bewildered if I end up with some other stance in a couple of hours...


Death, be not proud, though some have called thee,
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;

- John Donne
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3 posted 07-19-2000 04:42 PM       View Profile for Craig   Edit/Delete Message      Find Poems  View IP for Craig

Hello Brad,

Taking your arguments to the ultimate conclusion, that poetry forms have a shelf life beyond which they shouldn’t be used, raises a couple of questions. The first and most obvious is how long is too long? The second is who decides the cut off point? The last would be how the heck are you going to convince people to swallow the idea?

Taking those points one at a time I’ll try to explain why I feel fixed forms have, and will always have, a place in the field of poetry, modern or otherwise.

How long is too long?

Not as simple as it first seems this one, you pointed out that Shakespeare didn’t invent the Sonnet he just wrote them better than most people before and after him. Where would that leave us if the Sonnets ‘time was over’ before Shakespeare started writing? Who’s to say that in the not to distant future a writer that surpasses even Shakespeare won’t come along? In either case the world of poetry would be the loser.

Who decides the cut off point?

Poetry is a strange product, despite the academic pressure of the learned poetry elite (whoever ‘they’ are) and the attempts by critics and publishers to guide people along by the ear, the readers of poetry refuse to be swayed. The people who decide what they want to read are the readers, sort of a horses to water situation. The answer to this question is simple, the readers decide the cut off point and unfortunately for your argument they don’t look like doing it yet or in the near future.

How do you get people to stop writing in old-fashioned forms?

Another simple answer, you don’t, can’t and won’t until you can convince people to stop reading the darn stuff! Poetry is intrinsically linked to commerce, poets of old reeled off a couple of ballads and were rewarded with remuneration, either in money or kind (singing or in this case reciting for their supper). That link with commerce hasn’t disappeared, in fact it’s grown, poetry is big business, from television jingles and slogans to magazines and books the link has grown ever stronger. As in all aspects of commerce the driving force is supply and demand, as long as the readers buy or read poetry in set forms that rhyme writers will keep writing them, they are the audience and the consumer after all. There is another slight fly in the ointment of your reasoning, some people actually like writing in set forms. They are perhaps the hardest group you’ll have to convince, they don’t do it for money, fame or glory, most of them don’t do it even well but they enjoy doing it and will continue to do it, whatever the arguments.

One last question (three actually), in this world where poetry moves with the times, evolves and changes leaving behind the old and embracing the new, when does ‘modern’ poetry become old fashioned? When do we toss today’s practices aside and move on and what type of poetry is going to replace it?

Is that a Sonnet?

Yes it’s a type of Sonnet if the person writing it calls it one and it has enough markers to draw a parallel between it and the form it was derived from. Therein lies another bonus of set forms, their ability to spawn other forms, tomorrows poetry perhaps? A case of evolution not revolution?

Thanks for the chance to read, think and reply.


BTW I wouldn’t mind your thoughts on PDV’s thread in feelings regarding the merits and meaning of an ‘old-fashioned’ Thomas poem, if you find the time between campaigning.  

Yes, I admit your general rule. That every poet is a fool:
But I myself may serve to show it. That every fool is not a poet.

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4 posted 07-19-2000 05:08 PM       View Profile for Cerenity   Email Cerenity   Edit/Delete Message      Find Poems  View IP for Cerenity

I Do not know why I am here, but I so much enjoyed the read. There were some very good points to think about. As for me when my heart sings I dance.

Love, Cerenity

"God doesn't have to be reminded that we exist.
We have to be reminded that He exist!"

(Writer Unknown)
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5 posted 07-19-2000 09:17 PM       View Profile for Brad   Email Brad   Edit/Delete Message      Find Poems  View IP for Brad

Thanks for taking an interest.

Poetry from the heart?  Well, we can certainly debate that one if you wish.  

Do I have to debate you too. Remember I did not choose this position but in order to argue something effectively you have to MAKE yourself believe. Most of my comments I do believe, by the way, just not quite in this way.

I will try to get to that post.

Campaigning -- do you mean like medieval crusades or political elections?  

Just trying to have some fun,

Tim Gouldthorp
since 01-03-2000
Posts 175

6 posted 07-20-2000 03:03 AM       View Profile for Tim Gouldthorp   Email Tim Gouldthorp   Edit/Delete Message      Find Poems  View IP for Tim Gouldthorp

In general I agree with you but I'd like to make a couple of comments.

Firstly, I think the ability to work in traditional forms is a necessary prerequisite for writing in free verse.  Just 'writing as you feel' doesn't produce good poetry.  Free verse requires the delicacy of a surgeon.

Secondly, I think good free verse is not entirely free.  Iambic pentameter etc have been used traditionally for a good reason - they provide ideal musical mechenations for poetry.  To remove this element I think is to empoverish poetry.  However I think a traditional form is not necessary to be numerically/musically effective.
serenity blaze
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7 posted 07-20-2000 10:06 AM       View Profile for serenity blaze   Email serenity blaze   Edit/Delete Message      Find Poems  View IP for serenity blaze

Sigh...I start by admitting that I do not know--and I am still trying to write a "damned sestina"  lol...and friends have often asked me "why?"

It's because I enjoy the challenge.  True, it has been done, but it is much harder to be "fresh" in traditional form...besides, it's the answer to "How to get to Carnegie Hall?"  yes, practice...

Athletes may not know why they are jogging through rows of old tires on the ground-- to play piano, you must practice scales, etc. etc.  You may not understand "why" you're doing it...but it sure comes in handy later,
when you wish to "make a difficult leap".

I do not pretend to be an intellectual, or a great writer, or even that writing in the style of a great writer will make me great.
I just love poetry.  And if poetry is to be my love, then I want to know everything about him...
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8 posted 07-20-2000 11:37 AM       View Profile for Elizabeth   Email Elizabeth   Edit/Delete Message      Find Poems   Click to visit Elizabeth's Home Page   View IP for Elizabeth

Why do we feel the need at all to label poetry as "modern" or "old-fashioned" or whatever? Do we really need to do away with standards, just because they were in existence 500 years ago?

I don't see the need for this. Different styles work for different people. When I read a sonnet, I don't think, "What a waste of time! This person is not as good as Shakespeare! Why even bother?" I have read many sonnets (by poets on this site, I might add) and I liked them, and I did think they were good. Obviously, others don't feel that way. But when we do away with the standards because some people label them as old-fashioned, then what are we left with? Chaos! Today, people want to define anything as poetry. If you write a bunch of words down, about any subject matter, it's called a "poem". And that doesn't work.

Take a look at this:
Today, I walked
to the grocery
and bought
two bananas
and a
The bananas
were a bright yellow,
like the sun,
and the pear was
a gentle
shade of

Is this "modern" poetry? If I called it a poem, would that make it one?

I don't think so. But I've read "poems" like that--and I don't think they are poetry at all! I don't care if it's modern or whatnot. And that is what so much (much, not all) modern "poetry" is.

And that's why I write in the old formats and standards. I like the way they sound. Free verse, and the modern style, doesn't work for me.


I'm grabbing my hat and coat
I'm leaving the cat a note
Quick call me a ferry boat-getting out of town!

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9 posted 07-20-2000 11:59 PM       View Profile for Brad   Email Brad   Edit/Delete Message      Find Poems  View IP for Brad

Do you like William Carlos Williams?

He does a similar style but I think his poetry works.  

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10 posted 07-21-2000 01:43 AM       View Profile for Sven   Edit/Delete Message      Find Poems  View IP for Sven

Well, I've been going through a book about Poetic forms that I've just been finding quite fascinating. . . and I've been trying to write a poem for every form in the book!!  No small feat, since I don't think that I really write in any sort of a "form" to speak of!!

I'm doing this because I feel that to make my writing better, I need to know the basics. . . and there's nothing more basic than a sonnet, or a sestina. . . learning to write these will help me, I feel, to become a better writer and a better poet. . .

You have to get "back to the basics" sometime. . . so much of what is called "poetry" today is based on the forms of yesterday. . . although today's poets have taken the forms to their limits, the basic structure is there. . .

So, a sonnet is a sonnet is a sonnet. . . even if it's not Shakespearean. . . or Spenserian. . .

That's my two cents!!


That which gives light must endure burning
--Victor Frankl

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11 posted 07-21-2000 10:35 AM       View Profile for Elizabeth   Email Elizabeth   Edit/Delete Message      Find Poems   Click to visit Elizabeth's Home Page   View IP for Elizabeth


No, I am not a fan of William Carlos Williams. Is he the guy who wrote the poem about the plums that were in the icebox? I never liked that one. I know it's supposed to be about finding beauty in everyday things (after all, that's part of poetry), but come on, anybody could have written that in about three seconds. It took me about that long to write the lines about buying fruit at a grocery store.

Besides, if you take away the line breaks, it isn't a poem any more. It's prose!

Today, I walked to the grocery store and bought two bananas and a pear. The bananas were a bright yellow, like the sun, and the pear was a gentle shade of green.

What's so poetic about that?


I'm grabbing my hat and coat
I'm leaving the cat a note
Quick call me a ferry boat-getting out of town!

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12 posted 07-21-2000 10:38 AM       View Profile for Trevor   Email Trevor   Edit/Delete Message      Find Poems  View IP for Trevor

As Gary Coleman used to say, "Different Strokes for different folks"....well I don't know if he ever really said that but that's really irrelevant, the point I'm trying to make here is that Tiger Woods does have a legitimate shot at winning the British Open and landing on the Wheaties box for a second time in as many years....which brings me to my next point. Eggs are good but only when they're cheesey omletts. Thank you and good day.....oh wait,

"Traditional formal styles are old fashioned and have no place in modern poetry"

Well currently they are old fashioned, but hey so were bell bottoms a couple of years ago...uggg, why can't the children of today learn from our ancestor's horrible mistakes? ....I think there is no doubting that traditional formal styles are old fashioned but maybe they still have a place in modern poetry? I'm sure that many modern poets have read and learned from traditional ways even if that learning included what they do not want to do. So if modern poets are paritally shaped by traditional poetic forms then in some ways these traditional poetic forms are responsible for modern poetry and perhaps even their own demise. Really there is no way to escape the past even if the past is forgotten so there will always be a hint of traditionalism in poetry even if it is dilluted beyond recognition and tendered as obsolete. With that said I will say something else that perhaps will make someone else say something else, there is a place for traditional poetic forms in modern poetry even if it is on an unconscious mantle and even if it recieves no kudos. Led Zepplin is rarely co-related with two apes beating bones on a sun-bleached skull but thanks to those rythmic chimps Kashmir does exist. Perhaps it should be a quantative much of the traditional forms remain in modern poetry? How much is noticeable? Perhaps it will always have a place whether we want it to or not?

Don't look at me that way, I never said I had any answers!

Ian Llewellyn ap-Griffith
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13 posted 07-22-2000 01:19 PM       View Profile for Ian Llewellyn ap-Griffith   Email Ian Llewellyn ap-Griffith   Edit/Delete Message      Find Poems  View IP for Ian Llewellyn ap-Griffith

   There is a basic flaw in your argument when you state that poetry forms are obsolete: free form is a form. It is an unstructured form but a recognizable form nonetheless.
   As to your other arguments; So what if a form has already been done? Do composers avoid the symphony because Beethoven wrote the best ones ever heard (I really believe this!)? Should film directors stop accepting mystery scripts because Hitchcock is dead? No,the form is a joy in itself. Who knows, perhaps the poet who will take Shakespeare's place as master of the sonnet is in a passions forum right now?
   As you can tell by my posts, I do like structure. While I'm not fond of rigid forms, I don't think they should be discounted. Metre and rhyme are the bones of poetry, the words that are chosen and the emotion displayed are the flesh. Without structure there is no poetry, only ramblings.
   Don't get me wrong, I don't think that free form is unworthy to be called poetry, but alot of pieces that take that form are. Free form seems to me to be a cop-out; a way for untalented hacks to feel as if they have a gift.

The above is just one side of an debate that I've been having with myself for years. I hope no-one is offended.

Sing while you may
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14 posted 07-22-2000 08:15 PM       View Profile for Brad   Email Brad   Edit/Delete Message      Find Poems  View IP for Brad

Yes, Elizabeth, he wrote the plum poem. I like that poem by the way - it sounds juicy to me.  Don't suppose you're a big fan of Charles Bukowski either?

Actually, it's an interesting idea you've brought up - what is the poetic? How about starting another thread?

No, that's not the flaw here. The question says quite specifically "traditional form", not form in and of itself. In that sense, I agree - there's no such thing as formless poetry.

the traditional argument is that poetry must have something of the 'spirit of the age' to it. I don't think it can be pinned down as neatly as you suggest and I'm pretty sure you don't either but that's your point, isn't it?

Ironically, nobody, not even my opponent (who seems to have conceded), saw the counter arguments embedded in this introduction.

There are at least two ways to counter this:

1. Empirical evidence - Ezra Pound wrote sestinas and sonnets.  Elizabeth Bishop wrote in traditional quatrains at times. I haven't checked this but I'm pretty sure Baudelaire wrote pantoums. I think it safe to say that the majority of major poets today have published some type of formal poetry.

How do I argue against that?

2.  Poetry never works in a vacuum; it can't turn its back on history or it would be unrecognizable.  Good poetry is traditional and innovative at the same time.     Even in such a supposed revolutionary work as Ginsberg's "Howl" there are what Robert Pinsky calls embedded iambic pentameters - and certainly Ginsberg was also applying the line lengths of Walt Whitman.

3. Along with this idea is the tension between the strange and familiar. Good poems work within this tension, not in the extreme of one or the other.

4. Popularity - you could make the argument that form poems are new because so many people don't even know they exist or have just heard of a few of them. I learn new ones all the time.

That said, I agree with much of what I said in the first post here - just not quite in the way I made it look.    

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