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Form Follows Function

One of the first things I learned about poetry was the principle that form follows function. This is apparently a principle used in many disciplines such as architecture, design, and manufacturing, but I was introduced to it as it relates to the format of a poem. For example, you wouldn’t attempt to explain a long story about a ten-year journey in a haiku and likewise, a highly structured sonnet might not be the best form to describe a chaotic riot. Poetry is the most subjective subject on earth so of course there are no hard and fast rules to this, but the concept of form follows function is to ensure the message you hope to write about is advanced by the format of the poem itself.

For those of you who did not spend their prime studying forms for fun, poetry forms are the unique combination of meter, rhyme, lines, stanzas, etc. that make up a poem. Going back to my earlier examples, a haiku is a famously brief form with just three lines, each with five, then seven, then five syllables. Historically, haikus also contain a word to indicate seasonality such as leaves for the fall and bees for spring. On the other hand, sonnets (specifically the English Sonnet), are fourteen-line poems, each line containing ten syllables written in iambic pentameter (every other syllable is stressed), with every other line rhyming. Even more specifically, the rhyming scheme changes every four lines (ABAB, CDCD, EFEF, GG), with the final two lines rhyming together. Confused yet? You can take a look at these two famous examples for help: haikus and sonnets.

So how do you apply this practically? I’ve come at this from two angles in my creative writing experience.

1. Free-write and then Form

If you have a feeling or story to tell, just write it out. Do a literary brain dump and then, once you have a sense of the subject matter, pick a form that will improve it. Edit and craft your dump into the form of your choice.

An example from my own work is the poem, “Mourner’s Tobacco.” My grandfather had just passed away and I had a few pages of prose that I felt were mixed with grief, memories, and the adventure of being back where my grandparents lived for the funeral. I developed a form which provided enough structure that the reader would have a sense of the emotion and sentimentality, but allowed the content to remain abstract, just like grief. The form is eleven lines, each with three stresses, and each line must contain something that reminded me of my grandfather. I avoided rhyme as I find rhyme provides a level of predictability and comfort that didn’t align with the abnormality of the poem.

Mourner’s Tobacco

Rust my hands – shut

petals won’t stay their pages.

Blind spot, right eye.

Peppermint rib cage

won’t hold your river.

Road strands never

got us lost just tasted

the starch like cold pennies

and faked us home. Daisy button

smells like cinnamon and paste,

like my hands in the rain.

2. Pick a Form and Match the Subject

This is one of my favorite activities. I pick an obscure form which isn’t often used and build a poem into it. I’ve taken the rhyme scheme from famous songs or researched unusual forms and then chosen a subject which I think is enhanced by the form.

An example from my own work is the poem, “Heavy.” For this poem, I leveraged a triolet, which has eight lines, with the first line repeated for line 4 and 7 and the second line repeated for line 8. Additionally the poem has a ABaAabAB rhyme scheme.

Given the repetitive nature of the poem, I chose the first two lines carefully so that the repetition would further emphasize the point.


You see, I carry everything and my arms ache.

If only I could learn to put things down.

I carry children, work, and home – all the weight.

You see, I carry everything and my arms ache.

The layers of expectation and criticism – everyone’s take.

I hope you escape the burden I’ve found.

You see, I carry everything and my arms ache.

If only I could learn to put things down.

I hope as you read and write poetry and perhaps also in your other activities throughout the day you’ll see the concept of form follows function come to life. It is, all at once, a nerdy and essential notion, but it’s served me well in poetry and more.

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