Formal Experiments

Posted on Wed, Oct 30 2013 9:00 am by Paula Cisewski


When I first became passionate about poetry, I admit, I had an aversion to formal poetry. I took the formal elements seriously: rhythm, meter, image, sound, but writing a sonnet or a villanelle felt both outdated and, frankly, intimidating. There are so many rules! Plus, how could I bring anything fresh to any centuries-old form? Was I going to try to contend with Shakespeare, for crying out loud?

Eventually, two experiences transformed my bias and my fear.

First, in 2003 I had a poetry advisor who demanded I compose a crown of sonnets. If you are unfamiliar as I was, a crown of sonnets is a series of seven sonnets, on a particular theme, in which the first line of each individual sonnet is the last line of the one that precedes it. When required to produce seven times the original obstacle, making one first sonnet was put into unique perspective.

It wasn’t a particularly good crown of sonnets. The U.S. had just invaded Iraq. I was trying to wrap my head around the blueprints of a classic poetic form and the horror of war simultaneously. I fulfilled the assignment, but would still say I failed at creating a crown of sonnets. I didn’t mind. To quote Beckett, I was ready to “fail again. Fail better.” The push to think differently and to push myself beyond my comfort level made me a better poet who has since written, and sometimes published, sonnets and villanelles and pantoums and tanka with which I am happy.

Second, John Keats happened to me. Rilke, Bishop, and Shakespeare happened. And on and on. Maybe it was akin to learning to play an instrument, even rudimentarily, before going to a night at the orchestra. New moments of illumination would happen for me: “Holy cats! This e.e. cummings poem I’ve loved since high school is a sonnet!” Furthermore, I gained a deeper appreciate for how contemporary poets who play with form break the rules when they do, and why.

Though I still don’t usually write in form, I can quickly list a few of the reasons I’m glad I can:

  • Practicing forms tunes my ear to the music of both formal and free verse poems.
  • It helps me cut the extra bulk from language and get to the image and song of a lyric.
  • It allows me a deeper understanding of and relationship to the legacy of poetry, which I choose to join every time I sit down to make a poem.
  • I have become a better reader.

A heroic crown of sonnets is a set of fifteen sonnets, linked as the crown of sonnets above, in which the final poem is made of the first lines of all the others. I have never written one. I have no idea what’s going to happen, and I am going to try it!

Paula Cisewski is teaching "Bent Forms: Exploring and Exploding Formal Poetry" this fall at the Loft. Her second poetry collection, Ghost Fargo, was selected by Franz Wright for the Nightboat Poetry Prize. She is also the author of Upon Arrival (Black Ocean), and of three chapbooks. Her poems appear regularly in literary magazines such as South Dakota ReviewA Handsome JournalH_NGM_NForklift, OH; failbetterEveryday GeniusWe Are So Happy to Know Something; BOMB; and Esque. A liberal arts instructor and a Jerome Grant recipient, Paula worked in warehouses, was an artist mentor with Minneapolis teens, owned a coffee shop, and waited one million tables while raising her son and earning her degrees. Please visit