Monthly Archives: July 2012

Rules for Poetry

So formalism uses regular meter (for example, iambic pentameter in Shakespeare) and often rhyme. What other rules are there for writing modern formalist poetry?

I’m still learning the answer to that question. As usual, it’s easiest to start with the list of what you shouldn’t do. There are some definite turn-offs that I’ve learned from Stephen Fry’s book, from workshopping poems online, and from helpful poetry journal editors such as George Simmers at Snakeskin, who has posted some guidelines ( Here’s a partial list.

1. No archaic words. Just because poetry forms like the sonnet go back a long time doesn’t mean we should be writing them like we’re wearing periwigs. Old-fashioned terms like o’er and ‘tis and droppeth belong on the dustheap. Modern poetry should use modern language.

2. No inversions or other tortured syntax. Nothing screams ‘amateur’ like sentences that are twisted around to fit a rhyme: “I know that I will disappointed be / each time a garbled sentence I see.” This isn’t how we talk in English. Poems don’t need to be exactly like spoken conversation, but the grammar should be roughly similar. If your poem sounds like Yoda is saying it, then an inversion you have. Fix it.

3. Meter should be regular but not too regular. This is a hard one, and I’m not sure I get it yet, but if your poem trots along da-dum-da-dum-da-dum-da-dum-da-dum with absolutely perfect regularity for 10-20 lines, it can be monotonous, especially if there is a full-stop or a comma at the end of each line and never in the middle. Vary the rhythms a bit with caesura (a pause in the middle of a line instead of the end), and with the occasional metric variation. These can include extra unstressed syllables (da-dum-da-da-dum), or missing stress (da-da-da-dum), or  reversed feet (dum-da-da-dum). But, well, this seems to be a matter of taste. Some people always seem to read metrical variation as a mistake, while other people insist on it.

In general, I think the golden rule is to make it look easy. The language in a poem should seem as free and natural as conversation, even if you’ve had to sweat bullets beating it into shape.


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Formalist manifesto

Formalist poetry is the stuff written with regular meter and (usually) rhyme. It’s what you used to like before they taught you it was unfashionable. Nowadays, poetry journals are almost entirely composed of free verse instead, much of it seemingly written for the exclusive enjoyment of other literary poets. You or I might often get to the end of a poem with literally no idea what it was supposed to be about.

I write for the person who enjoyed poetry in school but hasn’t necessarily read much of it since. I think if such people can’t understand your poem, you’ve done a bad job. Poetry is after all a form of communication. In the words of Leonardo, ‘Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.’

WH Auden made the distinction between sacred and profane poetry: sacred poetry is the more abstruse, serious, high-minded poetry aimed at a highly-educated (small) audience, and profane poetry is for the rest of us. It’s often but not always funny, which leads it to be more commonly called ‘light verse,’ although many poets who write it are offended by the term. (Which is not an unreasonable response, since many people use the term ‘light verse’ to belittle the people who write it). Stephen Fry argues eloquently in favour of light verse in his excellent guide to writing poetry, The Ode Less Travelled. I’ve found many comrades and fellow travellers on the web poetry critique forum Eratosphere. Join us in fighting back against the sacred machine.

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Hello world!

Well, hello. I started writing poetry in August 2o11, and started submitting it for publication about 6 months later. I thought it might be fun to share some of my experiences and ideas about poetry, but I’m clearly no expert. To date I have had 1 poem published, in the March 2012 edition of the excellent Lighten Up Online:

Oh, and I had an honourable mention in The New Statesman in June, in a competition to come up with pointless proverbs. Mine was: ‘Where there’s life, there’s phlegm’. I think we can all learn from that.

My alter-ego is a scientist specializing in MRI, currently working for Cancer Research UK in Cambridge.

Enjoy my ramblings!

Mary McLean

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