Poetry: What can Form do for My Poem?

To free verse or to form? Contemporary poets have a plethora of options for formatting each piece, and choosing the right format for a specific poem can be daunting. One question that may cross your mind when considering whether to put a poem into a form is “what can the form do for my poem?” What difference can the conventions of, say, a villanelle, make to the way a work is read? The answer is different for every form, but if we look at the function of a specific form, the influence of structure gets a little clearer.

Let’s go with the example mentioned above: the villanelle. This form consists of nineteen lines in a specific pattern – five tercets and a quatrain with a repeating rhyme scheme and a refrain (you can read more about the villanelle’s structure here, and its history here). The pattern of a villanelle looks like this:

A1/b/A2  /  a/b/A1  /  a/b/A2  /  a/b/A1  /  a/b/A2  /  a/b/A1/A2

A1 and A2 are lines that repeat, and a and b are rhymes. A good example of a villanelle is the poem “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop (retrieved from the Poetry Foundation):


One Art

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master


In this and other villanelles, the tight structure, repeating lines, and relatively unvarying rhymes create a duality that feels like barely restrained madness. In Bishop’s poem, the villanelle’s form highlights the disorientation of loss, the way it leave us reeling even as we go on with our daily routines. The repetition of lines and sounds drives home just how much we lose in our lives – objects, time, places, people – and how powerless we are to stop it. It “isn’t hard to master,” yet the very fact that she tells us so many times raises the question: whom is she trying to convince?

The villanelle’s structure is based on rhyme and refrain, but other forms may have different components. For example, blank verse consists of unrhymed iambic pentameter – both a metric and rhyme requirement. Sestinas have a patterned repetition of whole words, and prose poems have no line breaks. Some forms, such as elegies or Ars Poetica poems, only have requirements of content. The range of forms and the elements that comprise them are broad and varied. Yet each form carries its own history and has its own way of influencing the poem that adopts it.

When constructing a poem, it’s important to let the poem dictate the form, rather than the other way around. It’s fine to write a poem with a form in mind, but don’t try to force free verse to be a sonnet. Feel free to explore formal possibilities with a poem – you may find that the repetition of a sestina highlights the dilemma you’re exploring, or that the short poem you’ve been working on would be perfect as a lune. Whatever form you choose, the point is to have one that fits – a form that works with your words to heighten and illuminate your poem’s meaning.

Want to explore forms? Here is a pretty good list from The Poetry Foundation.