I like to write in forms: haiku, limerick, diamante, etc., and in coming months, I might share tips for some of my favorite forms. Someone asked me recently, though, how I decide on which form best suits a particular topic, so I thought I’d share a little of that process with you this month.
When I wrote my set of 10 poetry collections for Capstone Press, I tried to include a limerick, diamante, acrostic, haiku, and cinquain in each one. In the last one, I put in a poem for two voices, though that didn’t make the final cut. So, out of the 16–20 poems (in each collection), how did I decide which one or two would be haiku, which would make good acrostics, etc.?
Some of it is just intuitive. And some of it is just desperation, aka trial and error. If a poem isn’t working in free verse, I might try a form. If it’s not working in one form, I might try a different form. But there is some method to my poetic style, and the same kinds of poems often end up with the same form.
Haiku: When I am writing about one tiny, crystal clear moment in nature, the haiku is my go-to form. Its microsize forces me to look closely and really narrow my topic. I can only say one thing in a haiku, and it must be one illuminating thing. A couple of my favorite haiku in this set described autumn leaves laced with frost and summer peapods.
Limerick: A limerick is funny. I think it’s a law. I’ve never seen a serious limerick, at least not one that didn’t feel odd or inappropriate. So when I’m writing a silly poem, and I have an idea for a mini-story, I try a limerick. If the ending to my mini-story is a twist or surprise, it works even better. One silly limerick I wrote for this series involved an astronaut searching the moon for his birthday balloon, which had drifted away.
Diamante: A diamante contrasts two things, so obviously it works best when you want to write about two objects that oppose each other in some way. A couple of diamantes I wrote for this project described the moon blocking the sun for a solar eclipse and that describe the black and white keys on a piano.
Acrostic: I love acrostics! They work best for words full of common letters, like R and L and T. If your word has unusual letters, it can limit your poem’s content. Acrostics have many moods, but since they’re puzzle-like, they tend not to be terribly serious. If I want to write a poem about a topic that is one word, I often write the word vertically on the page and doodle around, seeing if it works with this form. Then if I run into a sticking point, I just turn to another form. For this set, I wrote an acrostic about BIRCHES, though the C did give me a little trouble!
Cinquain: Cinquain is not my all-time favorite form, but I have grown to really appreciate it. The cinquain form works best for me when I want to use a poem to ponder a topic. Its syllable counts forces me to be precise, which is a good thing! And it makes me look closely at the topic, since usually you rename the opening object with a different word in the last line. So if I have a topic, like a cat, and I want to write a poem that describes how I see that cat in one particular way — for instance, as a comfort — then that would probably make a good subject for a cinquain. When I wanted to compare a silky grey mouse running across the ground to a small rushing creek, I used a cinquain to do it.
Poem for Two Voices: This poetic form has two different speakers or groups of speakers. When I have a poem that is, figuratively or literally, a conversation between two people or groups, I ask myself if it would work well in this form. In one poem for two voices that I enjoyed writing, two pieces of land — argued — with each other and started shoving, starting an earthquake. Other times, it might not be actual back and forth conversation. Sometimes, a poem I’ve written seems to lend itself to some heavy pauses, and I find that this form emphasizes those pauses since there’s a little delay between readers.
Of course, I’ve written poems in these forms that don’t follow these guidelines. These are just generalizations. They’re just one way I might decide to write a poem in a certain form. The rest, I’m afraid, is just part of the mystery that is poetry. But if you write enough poems, you’ll come up with your own versions of what makes a good haiku subject, etc. Poetic forms can guide, inspire, and challenge you, but they aren’t in charge. The form is always your choice.