ACL 1002
Studying Poetry and Poetics
Semester 2 2012

Footscray park

Lecture 2
Poetry and Form

Ian Syson

When we speak of the form of a literary work we refer to its shape and structure and to the manner in which it is made (thus, its style) – as opposed to its substance or what it is about. Form and substance are inseperable, but they may be analysed and assessed separately.
A secondary meaning of form is the kind of work – the genre to which it belongs. Thus sonnet, short story, essay.
Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms

This entry holds the two mains notions I want to look at today:

  1. form as genre or type

  2. form as the shape/structure/style of the work

Both of these notions treat substance as separate from form but they can have very different attitudes towards the relation between form and substance.

  1. form as a container or a structure into which appropriate substance is poured;

  2. form as the shape of the work when the substance of the work has found its final realisation -- sometimes unconstrained by conventional form


1. Genre or type

Think about the way forms are used in daily life.

  • We fill in forms to make applications for jobs or bank accounts or whatever.

  • Builders use forms as moulds when they pour concrete on building sites.

  • Sculptors use forms or moulds when they create their works

We use metaphors like

  • breaking the mould

  • thinking outside the square

  • square peg in a round hole

  • pushing the envelope

all of which invoke the notional of conventional or appropriate form (and, importantly, its attempted transgression or rejection). It can result in work that is free form

  • dancing

  • painting

  • music

In poetry this esacpe from form can result in what we call free verse. Though, in its own way free verse can become another kind of conventional form. EG TS Eliot and Contemporary language poetry.

Indeed, there's an argument to be made that the history of poetry is the history of the two notions of form clashing. Poets write in conventional forms until those forms are no longer adequate to their purpose at which stage new forms emerge, sometimes intially as free form explorations.

In fact it's possible to see them as notions that are in a kind of permanent dialectical embrace, sometimes antagonistic sometimes complementary. At different times they synthesise to produce a new kind of conventional form. Some of you might recognise this kind of conflict and its resolution as Hegelian.

What are some conventional literary forms?

What do conventional forms prevent you from doing?

Sonnet is one of the more rigid poetic forms – one of the earliest forms established in English. Comes from the Italian (little sound/song)

  • In the middle ages developed by the great Italian poets including Dante and Petrarch – the latter establishing it as a major poetic form.

  • A number of English poets wrote sonnet sequences: Sidney; Spenser; Shakespeare – all very centrally about love and passion.

  • Often blazons, a poetic catalogue of a woman’s body parts.

  • E 17th century poets seemed less interested in the love theme; Donne in religious themes and Milton less specific, occasional themes.

  • Virtually extinct for a century

  • Rescuscitated in the Romantic period and again in the Victorian age

  • Contemporary poets use the sonnet but explore the boundaries of the form – often producing unrhymed poems

Set Rhyme scheme

abbaabba | cdecde (cdeded)
abab | bcbc | cdcd | ee
abab | cdcd | efef | gg

Meaning organized around the groupings: octave, sestet, quatrains, couplets – volta

Set Rhythm and Metre

  • Iambic pentameter most common; look at Meter in the web glossary.

  • Meter refers to the number of strong beats in a line

  • Foot refers to the way these invividual beats are organised


What does this prefabrication produce? Look at some sonnets:

1. eg of Petrarch and trans


2. S penser: Sonnet 75

    One day I wrote her name upon the strand, A
    But came the waves and washed it away: B
    Agayne I wrote it with a second hand, A
    But came the tyde, and made my paynes his pray. B

    "Vayne man," sayd she, "that doest in vaine assay. B
    A mortall thing so to immortalize, C
    For I my selve shall lyke to this decay, B
    and eek my name bee wyped out lykewize." C
    "Not so," quod I, "let baser things devize, C
    To dy in dust, but you shall live by fame: D
    My verse your vertues rare shall eternize, C
    And in the heavens wryte your glorious name. D

    Where whenas death shall all the world subdew, E
    Our love shall live, and later life renew." E

3. Shakespeare


Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? A
Thou art more lovely and more temperate: B
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May, A
And summer's lease hath all too short a date: B

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines, C
And often is his gold complexion dimmed, D
And every fair from fair sometime declines, C
By chance, or nature's changing course untrimmed: D
But thy eternal summer shall not fade, E
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st, F
Nor shall death brag thou wander'st in his shade, E
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st, F

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, G
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee. G


That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

In me thou see'st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.

In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed, whereon it must expire,
Consum'd with that which it was nourish'd by.

This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well, which thou must leave ere long.


My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red, than her lips red:
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound:
I grant I never saw a goddess go,
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet by heaven, I think my love as rare,
As any she belied with false compare.

Holy Sonnet X: Death Be Not Proud

Death, be not proud, though some have callèd thee A
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so; B
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow B
Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me. A
From rest and sleep, which yet thy pictures be, A
Much pleasure, then from thee much more, must low B
And soonest our best men with thee do go, B
Rest of their bones and soul's delivery. A
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings and desperate men C
And dost with poison, war and sickness dwell, D
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well D
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then ? C
One short sleep past, we wake eternally, E
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die. E

Beth Houston sonnets


In the second model the substance establishes the form; substance finds the necessary form for its expression. In doing so it transforms the mere content into the artistic work.

The poet goes through an act of creation/making in which substance is given appropriate shape.

This is something that occurs over time.

The problem is that when we read poetry the first thing we apprehend as readers is the form. We can see before we even recognize the words on the page that we are apprehending poetry -- in other words before we have even contemplated the substance. This is the error that I tried to induce last week by presenting things that looked like poems.

But orally it is very different.

It might well be the opposite. Poetry only becomes obvious orally once the process has developed – or we are told we are about to hear a poem at a performance or on a video.

  • Rhythm

  • Rhyme

  • Word selection

  • Syntax

Get emphasized. These aspects work with and against the words to produce the poem.

If I were to speak in measured thoughtful style
At just which point would you begin to think
that I've been versifying all the while.


This is the process of substance establishing the form and well may be a partial model for understanding how poetry is conceived and written.