Elementary Thoughts on Poetic Form

[None of this is particularly original—which seems appropriate. I’ve lightly adapted it from notes I wrote for a friend’s class. If I were developing it into a more robust essay, my first job would be to broaden its frames of reference, which are ridiculously Anglo-Eurocentric and male and pre-21st century. I wouldn’t want to get rid of those references, but they need to be challenged, refreshed, juxtaposed with other ideas, etc. Any stupidity here is entirely my own.]

It’s impossible for me to write without thinking of some aspect of form, usually more than one: the form of the sentence in relationship to the form of the line and the stanza; the form that rhythm creates; the visual form of the poem on the page; etc. Thinking about form helps me in the earliest stages of drafting a poem and becomes crucial in revision. I want to try to break some of that down in practical and theoretical terms.


  1. Form can help me to start writing. Whenever I’ve decided to write a ghazal, or a pantoum, or a syllabic stanza that I’ve come up with, it always feels like some of the work is already done. I still have to write the lines, but their shape has been decided, as have part of their motivation and direction. The form gives me an excuse and a map.
  2. Form can help me to think. The shape of the lines guides the shape of the thinking. Curiously, it does that by offering some helpful resistance, and that resistance stimulates my imagination. It’s not “natural” to write in iambic pentameter, or rhyme, or in any of the fixed forms (like sonnets or villanelles) or a nonce form. What is natural is for the mind to resist a form’s constraints while working within them; this is where imagination comes in, helping me find unexpected ways to stay within the “impersonal” form while saying something distinctly “personal.” (Another way to think about this is to consider form as a game whose rules you’ve agreed to follow, even if you’re sometimes looking for ways to work against the rules without ever quite violating them.)
  3. Form can help me to re-think. If I’ve set out to write a sonnet, and the second or third draft still needs to be a sonnet, then I have that form to help direct my revisions. If I’ve set out to write a sonnet, and the second or third draft, in order to become a good poem, rejects the sonnet form, I’ll follow that resistance into whatever form it leads to and let the sonnet linger somewhere deep in the finished poem’s DNA.

Other practical considerations about form arise in the composition process, but most of them follow from one of those three precepts. There are also some theoretical considerations which, although they may not directly affect how I write a particular poem, are useful in helping me read and think about my own work and that of other poets.


  1. Form is a way of being within a tradition. Two important writers to read on this idea are T.S. Eliot (“Tradition and the Individual Talent”) and Reginald Shepherd (many of his essays in Orpheus in the Bronx). Here’s my two cents: poetic tradition exists whether you want it to or not, so if you’re going to be a poet, you may as well learn about it. Actually, learn from it, and, hopefully, strive to exist as a distinct presence within it. This requires reading, imitation, practice, failure . . . until you finally write, say, a sonnet that isn’t merely successful because you’ve mastered the form but that succeeds beyond the form, and in some sense beyond you, because the tradition has helped you write a poem no one else could have written (and which only happened to be a sonnet, in this instance). As translator and editor Michael Alexander observed: “It is at this stage, when he begins to compose with and through the form rather than simply in it, that the poet can begin to use his material. Paradoxically, as the material of Anglo-Saxon and most oral poetry is traditional, it is truer to say that it is precisely when the scop has learned to use the language that the tradition is tapped, and can begin to use him as its anonymous vehicle. At this milestone the convenient distinction between form and material has to be discarded, because ‘the tradition’ does not exist apart from the language—it is inherent in its idioms and rhythms. In any great passage of verse—as, say, Prospero’s ‘cloud-capp’d palaces’ speech, or ‘The Lay of the Last Survivor’ in Beowulf—the poet becomes invisible. . . . One has the distinct impression that the ‘shaping spirit’ has put the whole machinery of composition into overdrive.” [from the introduction to The Earliest English Poems, Penguin, 1966.]
  1. Form is not static. Form is dynamic. Form evolves. I find the least helpful approaches to learning or understanding form to be the strictly prescriptive ones that never really allow for significant variation, even for beginners. A poet might present something that doesn’t seem to resemble the tradition’s exemplars, but if it’s any good at all, you’ll probably find vestiges of the tradition in it, and finding those vestiges will deepen your appreciation of the work. On the flip side: a poet might present something that strongly resembles the tradition’s exemplars but is ultimately lifeless, static, stuck in an unimaginative version of the past.  [This is one place where acknowledging and embracing non-Anglo-European traditions is crucial. Not recognizing the presence of a tradition is just ignorance. Not respecting it and trying to understand it is arrogant and bigoted.]
  2. If there’s no form, is there a poem? It seems most productive for this question to remain open and unanswerable. Writers from Flaubert on have dreamed of a kind of pure literature that doesn’t depend on human meaning or intention. Flaubert’s dream was of “a book about nothing, a book dependent on nothing external, which would be held together by the strength of its style, just as the earth, suspended in the void, depends on nothing external for its support” (letter to Louise Colet, January 12/14, 1852). The pursuit of that absurd paradox has led to some of the most interesting art of the last 175 years. And most of that art evinces some formal impulse, or a need to resolve into some formal shape. But maybe another throw of the dice . . . ?

Amazon Release Date of Parasite Kingdom

Today is the official Amazon release date for Parasite Kingdom. If you haven’t ordered it from SPD or The Word Works (which you can still do and directly support small presses!), click your way to a purchase, why dontcha? And if you’ve already read it, I’d be more grateful than I can say if you took a moment to give it an Amazon or Goodreads review. Thanks, y’all!

New Orleans Poetry Festival: Post-Apocalyptic Polyvocality Panel

[I was honored today to present at NOPF5 with Laura Mullen, Jerika Marchan, and moderator Elizabeth Gross. Honestly, I think was the least polyvocal of the bunch, but I enjoyed the thinking this made me do—and I definitely felt the need to think in advance rather than just wing it on this one. I’ve also been jotting down a lot of thoughts about Parasite Kingdom, so this was an opportunity to focus and shape those into this draft—and it is very much a draft.

Rather than dealing with formatting issues on here, I’ve inserted a link to “The Raft of the Medusa” in the spot where I read from the first section. Also, because the panel preceding ours was a tribute to Marthe Reed’s Ark Hive, and because Laura Mullen, Marthe’s dear friend, was also on that panel, I also chose to read my “Cento to the Garbage Patch” as a tribute to Marthe’s advocacy and love for the fragile and imperiled ecosystems of South Louisiana. I’ve inserted a link to that one, too. Thanks for reading.]

One of the movements in my work from Motion Studies to Parasite Kingdom is from being a lyric poet reflecting on the nature of abjection (as subject and as witness) to being some other kind of lyric poet trying to imaginatively comprehend the powers that make others abject. In the former case, I was responding to a very literal disaster—the catastrophic federal flood that followed Hurricane Katrina—and bringing that experience into dialogue with, primarily, two works of art: Thomas Eakins’ painting Swimming and Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa. In most of the book, the voice is my lyric “I,” but in “The Raft of the Medusa,” it shifts into a plural register: [“The Raft of the Medusa”]. I took on the voice of the city, and had I only done that, I think it would have failed; but in “inviting” readers onto my/our raft, by placing them in my city’s abject position, I hope that I placed them inside the precarity and angry despair so many of us felt. I hope that doing that, and attending to the TV cameras that made that our abjection a spectacle for a nation of voyeurs, mitigates to some degree the unavoidable fact of my white male voice speaking for a city in which the worst and most enduring suffering was among poor people of color. Géricault made his painting to indict the French government and French capitalists. My aim was similar.

The shift from that to trying to comprehend power (the powers, for instance, that built the levees and allowed them to fail and brought in cameras to film the scene) arose from the spectacle we’ve all been part of for the last four or twenty or a hundred or more years: when, really, did the 2016 presidential campaign begin? And, actually, these poems started a few weeks after 9/11, when I wrote a poem called “Fear,” narrated by a librarian in a city at war. He takes refuge at his dilapidated place of work, where he finds the king has done the same and forces him to go through “unreckoned contents of his regime.” I’m just going to read the ending.

A shell burst above us, a shadow whimpered

behind me: he cowered as boots pounded down the stairs,


and I was glad to snatch my knife away, glad to point

to his dank little uniform, glad to let them open


the ledger of my body, to feel their bayonets

inscribe me with their cleansing lies.

That turn, where the librarian is apparently both himself and the king, is something I’ve thought about a lot. To quote Pogo (if you recall Walt Kelly’s brilliant comic strip), “We have seen the enemy and he is us.” I think it’s fitting that Pogo was talking about the first naive inklings we had of the environmental disaster around us, half a century ago. That disaster, the disaster of war, the disaster of our politics: they’re all the same. And we are the disaster, both its masters and its abject subjects.

In the scheme of Parasite Kingdom, a pathetic king is at war with, among other enemies, a mythically gigantic parasitic wasp. She breeds, as many wasps do, by laying her eggs in a host creature, on whose body her larvae feed and from which they emerge. To freely paraphrase Bela Lugosi’s character in The Black Cat, “Disgusting, perhaps; evil, perhaps not.” I mean, she’s a wasp, right? Nonetheless, as metaphor or allegory, that idea, that image, of one’s self being overpowered by another force that wants to use you for its own material ends—and even of one’s possible complicity, possibly even one’s pleasure, in letting this happen—has been disturbing and compelling.

That all leads to a peculiar polyvocality in this book. It contains a legion of first person narrators. They’re different and they’re the same. They are, like the wasp, solitary and yet a collective. They do not trust themselves or one another. If that sounds like the world you know, I’m sorry. There will be at least one sequel to this book, and perhaps things will become more optimistic. Or not. The voices will tell.

I’m going to close with one short poem, “The Baker,” so you can see what it’s like for an ordinary citizen in my book’s imaginary.


Lately, I’ve been baking people

I mold from spit and clay.

Maybe they don’t look like people—


headless hat stands? baguettes on tripods?—

but I know what they are

and so do they. At dawn, after they’ve cooled


on the rack, I set them on a chess board

made from a butcher block.

Each waits, meditating on its shadow, poised


on a light or dark square. Toward noon,

they start to move, wary

of one another as they inch across the board.


Mid-afternoon, something about the light

agitates their limbs,

and they glide, zigzag and tumble


like soldiers dodging bullets. Some cower

in corners, while the rest

collide and merge: a new beast: horn-crowned,


stout, thick-legged, he hunts the others,

his touch poison, paralyzing—

rigid, each sinks into a light or dark square.


The last one caught, the King sinks with it,

the board is empty

and it’s dark. So I shut up the shop


and go to bed, and try, under my quilt,

to remember who I am,

panicked until it comes to me:


I am King.


[“A Cento of the Garbage Patch”]

Upcoming New Orleans Appearances

If you want to see me and you’re in or near New Orleans, you’ll have lots of opportunities!

Saints and Sinners Literary Festival, March 28-April 1.
Sat. 3/30: Moderating a poetry panel, “Songs of Ourselves,” 10 AM, Hotel Monteleone, Royal Salon D. Also moderating a discussion on “The Power of Sexuality in Contemporary Literature,” with Garth Greenwell and Justin Phillip Reed. Hotel Monteleone, Queen (!) Anne Ballroom.
Sun. 4/1 10 AM reading with a very fun group of writers, Hotel Monteleone, Bienville C.

Poetry Buffet, Latter Library
Sat. 4/6: 2 PM reading with Peter Cooley and Andrew Squitiro.

New Orleans Poetry Festival, April 18-21
Sun. 4/21: 4:10 panel, “Post-Apocalyptic Polyvocality.” Cafe Istanbul, The Healing Center.

Octavia Books
Wed. 4/24, 6 PM: a reading with Elizabeth Gross. Our official launch for my new book and her debut collection!

Jefferson Parish East Bank Regional Library
Tues. 4/30, 6 PM: A reading with Cassie Pruyn (the organizer of this wonderful event), Elizabeth Gross, Ben Aleshire, Esme Franklin, and Benjamin Morris.