Roger Stevens: Poetry Forms

There are some very strange and beguiling forms, styles and varieties of verse out there in Poetryland. I’ve always been fascinated why this should be so and how different forms of poetry come about.

Take blank verse, for example. Its first recorded use was by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, in his translation of the Aeneid around 1540. Not so very long after, in 1561, the first play in blank verse, Gorboduc, was written by Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville. The work of Shakespeare and Marlowe show how they then adopted and adapted this form.

Shakespeare, ever the innovator, developed blank verse in many interesting ways, using enjambment and feminine endings, for example, as well as using the potential of blank verse for abrupt and irregular speech. In this exchange from King John (3.2) one blank verse line is broken between two characters:

My lord?
            A grave.
                        He shall not live.
                                                Enough.

Believe it or not, one of the oldest poetic forms is the acrostic. The word was first applied to the prophecies of the Erythraen Sybil, of classical antiquity, which were written on leaves and arranged so that the initial letters on the leaves always formed a word. Many writers and poets have had fun with this idea over the centuries. Notably Lewis Carroll in his poem for the “three Misses Liddell” whose names are spelt out by the poem.

My favourite variety of this form is the mesostic, where letters in the middle of the poem vertically spell out the poem’s title. Mesostics were invented by the Fluxus artist John Cage in the 1960s and work much better in the classroom than acrostics, causing children to try a little harder for their poem to make sense and giving a more pleasing shape when written down.

Taking the idea further, there is the horizontic:

hope Or a mirAge, Shimmering In the deSert

This and other unusual acrostics, as well as examples and explanations of many different kinds of poetry, can be found in my anthology Is This a Poem? (Bloomsbury, 2016).

Haiku poems emerged in 13th Century Japan as the opening phrase of the Renga, an oral poem generally 100 stanzas long, which was also composed syllabically. The much shorter haiku broke away from its parent in the 16th Century. And was distilled a century later by the haiku master Matsuo Basho.

the old pond
a frog leaps in
sound of the water

No modern children’s anthology, it seems, can do without at least one haiku – which should really be about nature – or its cousin, the senryu, – which describes human behaviour and is usually satirical.

After having attended a course on writing haiku, as an anthologist I now describe all these types of poems as ‘written in the haiku style’. Proper haiku poems are very complicated beasts indeed and are typically serious. I broke that rule with the very first poem I had published, way back in the early 1990s:

When I write haiku
I always seem to have one
Syllable left o

Roger Stevens

Roger Stevens has published over forty books for children. He is a National Poetry Day Ambassador, a founding member of the Able Writers scheme with Brian Moses and runs the award-winning website www.poetryzone.co.uk for children and teachers, which celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2018.  A Million Brilliant Poems (Bloomsbury) was shortlisted for the CLPE prize and his book Apes to Zebras – an A to Z of shape poems (Bloomsbury) won the prestigious NSTB award. This year he published his best-of collection Razzmatazz (Otter-Barry Books) to excellent reviews.

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