Using Form As You Like It

My first literary love, I confess, was William Shakespeare. Although I smuggled the Harry Potter books out of my elementary school library, it was not until reading “Twelfth Night or As You Will” at the age of twelve that I fell for poetry. I swooned for syllables. Devoured the copy of the Completed Works of William Shakespeare my parents gave me on Christmas. Strangely, though, I only read the plays. I laughed at the banter of Beatrice and Benedick, and cried with Queen Margaret over the death of her son, but the sonnets in the back of the red leather book I sought not.

When we discussed Burnett’s “Refuge Wear” in class, Lytton mentioned that it was, in fact, a sonnet, and I was stunned. Even after spending a previous course entirely on poetic forms, I still thought only of Shakespeare at hearing “sonnet.” How did I forget to break form? We break the line all the time! Yet, I’m not sure Burnett is exactly breaking form, not in the sense that it feels broken. No, Burnett uses the rules of the form and ignoring them when it suits the needs of the poem.

If I look at my current writings, I only see free verse, free-form poems. I tend to let lines write themselves. I’m just the pencil. After class, though, I set a challenge for myself: write a sonnet. A contemporary sonnet. I find that traditional poetic forms are off-putting. Maybe because of the rules: the rhymes, the syllables, the line count. Maybe because, to me, they can sometimes feel stiff. It becomes easy to say I’m not going to follow someone else’s rules. I’m going to make my own. It’s kind of exciting to feel like a rebel. But, right now, I’m wondering if I have a cause. Why shouldn’t I make use of established forms?

Maybe I need to reexamine Shakespeare’s sonnets, after all. I may want to challenge the stricture of form, but to effectively do so, I need to know the rules I’m breaking.

Do you, conversely, prefer to write in form?

And for those who, like me, tend to avoid formal rules: I extend my challenge to you. Write a sonnet, or a pantoum, or a villanelle. Conform to the form, break the form, whichever you choose, but engage.

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