Forms: Lewis Turco

Perhaps you have decided that you would rather not write "formal" poetry. Perhaps using a form seems like "cheating" to you, or you think that forms make poetry sound dated.

I can completely understand your apprehension. For years, I plugged along writing free verse (a term which we liberally apply to, let's be honest, everything we write that does not rhyme), but I read and enjoyed lots of poets who write formal poems. So, a couple of years ago, I asked one of my mentors, Dr. Irena Praitis, to help me work through some forms. I had chosen about two dozen forms and we worked through three to four forms a week for a whole summer.

Over the course of our "summer of forms," Dr. Praitis introduced me to the work of Lewis Turco and, in particular, his fine, fine book The Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics (be sure to try to find the 1968 version as it is easier to navigate than the newer versions). His book was a huge influence on this project, which is why the title of this project is an obvious nod to him. Turco purposefully decided to create a book which would be compact enough for any student poet to carry around with him/her, which is why the 1968 version offers no example poems. The idea was to allow the student a chance to explore the form, play with it, and then notice that form in poetry he or she found on their own.

I've attempted to stay true to Turco's intent by separating the forms in this project from most of the example poetry, but I felt it was important to provide some example poetry and really take advantage of the linking that is possible with an online resource. Turco wrote the first version of The Book of Forms long before laptops and iPads were standard in classrooms; I am concentrating on offering something a little more contemporary and layered. Certainly, this project would probably produce a massive printed volume, but, as an online resource, it can afford to take a little more space, offer students more ways to engage with the forms.

So, it is my hope that Lewis Turco would come to my project and be pleased with how I have used his book as a jumping off point.

Here's how I would suggest you approach the forms you find here:

  1. Start with the few examples I provide in the exercises. Enjoy seeing how the form looks, what it sounds like, how it flows.
  2. Try the exercise yourself; take a stab at that form - or take a few stabs.
  3. If you need a "pick-me-up," take a look at my example attempts at the forms. They'll mostly be terrible, but I want you to be okay with "being terrible with form" because it is the only way we can get better.
  4. Use the extensive resources I've provided to explore other writers using forms and writing poetry in general.
  5. Keep writing your own poetry.
  6. When you just can't think of something to write, return to step one!

By the way, if you would like to find out more about Lewis Turco, check out his web page, Poetics and Ruminations . Turco also keeps up an ongoing list of unusual forms at Odd and Invented Forms. If you do happen to pick up his book, keep it near by wherever you write - many times you can just flip open to a form and just try to write a poem that fits that form; it is a great way to overcome writer's block because the form does half of the work for you. A form might lead you into a poem you were not expecting. In a strange way, forms are sort of the meditations or prayers, if you will, of a poet - we practice them out of devotion and, every once in a while, they reward us with an epiphany.