The Freedom of Poetry in Form


Poetry is an art. Some of my friends have asked what the point or value of poetry is, which is interesting as these are the same people who are moved by certain songs; but for some reason, poetry is a distant and unapproachable concept to them.

So, what is poetry and why is it important? Poetry is that art form that can capture a singular emotion. I feel a poem has achieved its objective when a stranger reads or hears it and instantly recognizes it as an emotion that they themselves have harbored.

It can also capture a state of events, a memory, a wish…either way, it is not meant to alienate the audience, it’s meant to pull them in. It’s not meant to create confusion, it’s designed to instigate clarity.

‘If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.’ ― Emily Dickinson

The second state of mind that I have come across with regards to poetry, comes from those who consider themselves to be poets but are unfamiliar with or shy away from the forms of poetry. This brings me to the crux of this article.

With all other arts, artists and non-artists understand that there is a certain amount of training involved. If you want to be a painter, you first mimic the greats, the classic artists as well as the contemporary artists. You even study the art of those that didn’t quite make it.

If you want to be a musician, you listen to the symphonies, or perhaps to other DJs, rappers; either way you spend time listening, learning.

However, with poetry, all that seems to be required is a pen and paper.

So let me enlighten you.

Poetry as an art, has been around for thousands and thousands of years. And our great great great grandfather poets created forms.

With Prose, we tend to the form/genre we are writing in before we write, whether it be fiction or non-fiction, whether it be a memoir or a how-to book. What you are writing affects the way that you write it. For example, if I decide to write a cook book, I know that I will need to include recipes, I will need to include pictures of the dishes (really, what’s a cook book without pictures?) and so on.

Poetry forms are a lot like that. Depending on the form you choose, there are certain ingredients you will need to include to accomplish that form.

There are lots of different forms – sonnets, sestinas, villanelles, odes – to name a few. A sonnet, for example (which is the first form I ever experimented with), always has fourteen lines; after the first 8 lines, there is a shift in the tone of the poem. Also, it has a rhyme scheme and is traditionally written in the iambic pentameter (but I promise, it’s less complicated than it sounds). Sonnets were often used for love poems but it’s not a must that it be employed that way.

So perhaps you are wondering now, why bother with a poetry form? Why can’t I just write whatever I feel and call it a poem?

Well you can do that, but I will tell you three reasons why you shouldn’t; especially if you consider yourself a poet.

1)      If you write a poem that uses no poetry elements i.e. rhyme, meter etc; you are still writing in a poetic form; it is called Free Verse. And one day, someone (like me) will walk up to you and say “I see you favour Free Verse. Why do you choose that form rather than Blank Verse?” and you will look at this person blankly, exposing yourself as a non-poet.

2)      Though there are those who find forms to be restrictive, I, on the other hand find that they are freeing. Don’t get me wrong, I like to let my mind do its thing every once in a while, but I have also found that when I select a certain form, when I know I need ‘x’ amount of lines and ‘y’ type of rhyme, when I know that there needs to be ‘x’ amount of repetition, my mind is really put to work. I need to get across a particular meaning with a limited amount of material. It’s like someone telling you to find a cake and blindfolding you. But when you can’t see, you are forced to rely on your other senses – touch, smell, taste; and you experience something different but beautiful. This is what the forms of poetry do for me and can do for you.

3)      Even if you decide the forms of poetry are not for you, it is best that you first know what they are, so that you have made an informative decision to operate outside of them. Until you have experimented with poetic forms, you have not really experienced what poetry can offer you, as a poet. A lot of contemporary poets today bend the forms to suit their needs. Basically, they use an aspect or two of the form and forget the rest, but they have made a choice based on their knowledge of the form and the needs of their poem.

‘A poet is, before anything else, a person who is passionately in love with language.’ ― W.H. Auden

Remember, read poetry. If you have trouble finding poetry you like, contact me. Keep writing!


(The photo was taken in 2013 – Location: St Vincent)


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Oyinkan Braithwaite

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