Why I Write Poems in Form

By Charles Hughes

We often decide very personal things without spending much time and effort on articulating reasons, and I would say that’s been true of my decision to write poems in form.  As a reader, I tend to gravitate to formal poems (by which I mean poems making use of meter and sometimes of rhyme and traditional stanza forms).  I read and enjoy lots of free verse poetry as well.  I dearly love some of Elizabeth Bishop’s poems, but probably Richard Wilbur’s and George Herbert’s are the poems I would least like to do without.  I guess it’s not surprising that I began trying to write poems of the kind I felt most drawn to as a reader.

To say this, however, still leaves the question of why the preference on my part (whether as writer or reader) for formal poems.  The most obvious answer, I think, is the aesthetic appeal that formal poems have for me.  Meter and rhyme have a unique capacity to appeal to my ear and to my memory. Of course, meter and rhyme should rarely, if ever, be the main thing in a poem (and, to my taste, are often most effective when their effects are muted).  My claim for meter, rhyme, and traditional stanza forms is only that they are available tools (although certainly not the only ones) that poets can use to enhance the expressiveness and beauty of their poems.  One big reason I use these tools, in writing poems, is the same reason I often use other tools in other types of work, the  same reason I used an angled brush on the edges and corners of a ceiling I painted recently: I believe that they help me to do a better job than I could do without them.

By the way, I hope no one will think I am somehow equating beauty in a poem with an upbeat subject matter. Byron’s “Darkness”—and its lovely blank verse—should make it impossible for anyone to doubt that beauty and harsh subject matter can co-exist in the same poem.

Whether to write poems in form or in free verse must, in the end, be a very personal choice that poets make, in large part, on aesthetic grounds, and I feel no impulse to proselytize. Beauty is, after all, in the eye of the beholder, and I know there is no consensus, to say the least, among poets that meter, rhyme, and traditional stanza forms actually contribute to the expressiveness and beauty of poems or even that expressiveness and beauty are things that poems can or should strive to achieve.

This is not to say, however, that the choice is necessarily an unimportant one for the individual poet. In my own case, each time I decide to write a poem in form, I believe I am making an implicit self-disclosure concerning what I take to be most essential about poetry.

To write a poem in form means accepting significant limits; the metrical requirements have to be met, as (in some cases) do the requirements of a rhyme pattern or a stanza form. To me, there are aesthetic benefits conferred by this acceptance, as I’ve mentioned, but these limits are also meaningful to me in other ways as well. The limits that go along with formal poetry can be seen—and I do see them, in all events, in this way—as emblematic of the limits of finite human existence. They are accordingly more or less constant reminders to me of the obstinate otherness of the world. They remind me that, in the making of a poem, I am not so much creating, in any fundamental sense, as I am trying to describe how it feels to live in the given world—and this, for the sake of companionship of the sort that poetry has always offered, companionship with readers who share that world and its limits with me.

We’re all in the same lifeboat, so to speak, when you get right down to it, bound for the fate common to all mortal creatures. At the same time, paradoxically, common human experience includes a tendency to see land—or to try to see land, or to think we do, or to wish we could; somehow, in other words, to seek to transcend the limits to which our lives are subject. I want to conclude this after-the-fact reflection on my connection to formal poetry by hazarding one further observation: hemmed in as it is by limits which, however, do not preclude—which may, in a mysterious way, even encourage—the expression of something beyond limitation and loss, formal poetry seems especially apt for embodying both sides of this great paradox of our existence, and this seems a high aspiration for any poem.