Formalism - the shape of things to come?

 A widespread modern view of formalist poetry is that it sets an elitist barrier to deter the majority from participating in poetry: the word “formal” is somehow in league with formal evening dress, regimental tie, an exclusive gentlemen’s club. Formal poetry, of course, simply has structure or form, and, one could add, popular appeal, expressive power, and, what is more, is memorable  by nature, and rubs shoulders with music and with dance*.

This special relationship with the other expressive arts can be said to extend to the writing of popular ballads, the debate about whether Bob Dylan is a poet, and the rhythmic physical response which goes with rap. People buy more formalist poetry than free verse; only 5% of poetry book sales are attributable to contemporary poets and the greater part of those sales are Seamus Heaney collections. 

The power of formal poetry allowed oral history, wonderful stories, and moral teaching, to survive in exacting detail from one generation to the next. Nursery rhymes are a potent reminder, and children instinctively love repeated patterns of sound, as do we all. As intelligent beings we are pattern-seekers.  

Poetry can pass from mouth to mouth among an oppressed people. The poems of Vladimir Mayakovsky** alerted many Russians to the terrible purges of Stalinist Russia.

“In our language rhyme is a barrel. A barrel of dynamite. The line is a fuse. The line smoulders to the end and explodes…”


'Formalism' in poetry today represents an attachment to poetry which recognises and uses schemes of rhyme and rhythm to create poetic effects and to innovate. To distinguish it from archaic poetry the term 'neo-formalist' is sometimes used, and to a lesser extent “expansive”. In the USA, there is also a parallel “new narrative” in the world of fiction. These movements have recovered the ancient forms of meter and storytelling once banished by modern aesthetics as elitist artifices.” (Encyclopaedia of Literature and Science, Greenwood (pub.))

Some contemporary poets who have made interesting use of formalism on this side of the Atlantic are Seamus Heaney (and remember how massively his poetry sells), Douglas Dunn, Tony Harrison, Anthony Hecht, Derek Walcott, Carol Ann Duffy, and Gwyneth Lewis.

Candelabra is the foremost UK poetry magazine which encourages formalism.

Formalist poets may be considered as the opposite of writers of free verse, but the true situation is more complex. TS Eliot could not have written The Waste Land in other than free verse. But his cat poems are superb examples of humorous formal poetry. Carol Ann Duffy uses both formal and non-formal ways of writing poems.

Having chosen a traditional form, and set an expectation in the first few lines it is then an option to burst out - a magnificent way of expressing great emotion, sudden freedom, or the power of uncontrollable forces. If the poet can give a reason for departing from the rules then even the most demanding critic will be satisfied.
Express yourself naturally, in modern idiom (i.e. in your own poetic voice). In everyday life, nobody speaks or writes in perfect iambic rhythm. Poets don’t even write in iambic very long, although when they do, they have chosen iambic because it is the rhythm that most closely resembles everyday speech.

Most poems do not employ the same rhythm throughout. If the beat of its words slips into a mechanical pattern, the poem marches robot-like right into its grave. Robert Frost told an audience that if when writing a poem he found its rhythm becoming monotonous, he knew that the poem was going wrong and that he himself didn’t believe what it was saying.

Are there enough rhymes to rhyme with? The following poem outlines the problem of finding perfect rhymes in English.


Tercets  and Terza Rima   (extract)       Paul Griffin         
( p. 111, E.O. Parrott (ed.), How to be Well-Versed in Poetry, Penguin Books 1990)

We English poets seldom rhyme in threes,
And when we do, choose simple rhymes like these;
Italian poets rhyme with greater ease,

Because their language skips like a Bacchante:
It’s full of rhymes, while English rhymes are scanty,
A fact which makes it hard to translate Dante.

Fortunately, modern English poetry is generous in its understanding of what constitutes rhyme. Rhyme is a similarity in sound between two or more words. Remember that rhyme is a form of rhythm; the echo of a consonant sound may be enough to establish musicality and meter. There are over fifty types of rhyme to choose from in addition to the difficult-to-find-in-English of perfect rhyme (also known as exact rhyme, true rhyme or full rhyme): alliteration - great/grow,  assonance -  great/fail … and so on. The poems of Paul Muldoon are full of great examples of how rhyme can found in the most unlikely pairs of words if we have but ears to hear. An alphabetical list of types of rhyme is available from


Informal tips for formal poetry writing:

Even though a lot of everyday speech is iambic you will still find yourself, if attempting a pure iambic form, reaching for antiquated words; better to express oneself naturally, in modern idiom (i.e. in your own poetic voice). Good poetry doesn’t embrace a straitjacket; rather it uses a form for its own expressive purposes. When writing e.g. a sonnet - arrange for five stressed syllables interspersed with one, two, or three unstressed syllables, and that’s fine. The first poet to advocate this was Gerard Manley Hopkins (Sprung verse). He was strict, though, about having five stresses to each line. Many formalists these days vary the number of stresses per line. Free verse took off when rhyme at the line ends was dropped.

Choose a form, or adapt one, or choose free verse, according to the need of the poem.
Free verse is there as an option and can make use of many of the same poetic devices as formal poems (e.g. alliteration, rhyme, voice rhythm, and strong line endings).

A close reading of The New Oxford Book of English Verse will show you broadly what poets have written about in the past. Neo-formalism delights in writing about everyday life in our modern world, and addresses current issues. After all, why repeat what has already been written.
Advantages of writing formal poetry: 

When writing formal poetry you are harnessing sound as well as ink, 
“To the tintinnabulation that so musically swells
 From the bells, bells, bells, bells.”
                                              - Edgar Allen Poe****
Formalism harnesses the mind, gives it a framework in which to work (cf. a musical key, a painter’s canvas, classical ballet steps, jazz, hip-hop, etc.).

Formalism promotes elegance by causing poets to hone their work 

Rhyme and rhythm assist the poem to stay in the mind of the reader. Shakespeare’s plays are loved by actors because the blank verse (with its dependable rhythm) allows easy learning of the lines, and the words trip off the tongue so well. Performance poetry understands this and has developed formal systems such as rap and other rhythmic devices and rhyme structures, always with a mind to the voice of the poet.

In having to search for the ideal rhyme, the poet is driven to consider words and images in exciting new juxtaposition, and to review alternative ways of expressing ideas to find the most fitting. This process drives the poem forward into unknown, unexplored, or unexpected territory.

Some poets prefer to write a summary, in prose, of the gist of the proposed poem, and proceed to shape the material, as on a potter’s wheel, into a formal structure.

One of the strengths of formalism is that it can be approached by two such different routes.

In a free verse environment, formality gets you noticed! Count how many poems in anthologies have some reference to formal shape e.g. identical length stanzas. “Look at me, I’m fresh and new, but see how much I’ve learned from the masters!” It is debatable whether form is in decline.

Formal poetry connects directly to an unbroken chain going back to antiquity. Each generation of poets has found it useful. Writing in the formal style offers a traditional apprenticeship, a route through the genius and the exemplar poems of the past right up to the present day.

It can be daunting to be faced with blank paper and infinite possibilities of choice. Free verse is hard! The path ahead is rife with unintended rhymes and rhythms and with all the mental wrestling with line endings. Robert Frost famously remarked that writing free verse was like "playing tennis without a net".


Some possible drawbacks of formal poetry writing:

It can be, at its worst, like painting-by-numbers: mechanistic, tedious to achieve, a time-filler, lacking originality and style.

Total immersion in the poetry of the past can stunt one’s own poetic voice or make it sound stilted or antiquated.

It is only too easy to get bogged down in the routine or even to worship the perceived purity and sanctity of a given form.

So much of a poet’s energy can go into struggling with a form that imagination is stifled.

Technical facility actually drains the subject of emotional power and complexity.

Some readers may label you as elitist.

Formalists in America are now a small and somewhat derided group. The UK is much kinder to formalism, but a poet might feel it’s a poor career choice (even though it’s not). 

Let Thom Gunn*** have the last word. “Metrical poetry is ultimately allied to song, and I like the connection. Free verse is ultimately allied to conversation, and I like that connection too.”

* Ezra Pound, The ABC of Reading 1934
**Vladimir Mayakovski, Conversation with an Inspector of taxes about Poetry, 1926
*** Thom Gunn in Paris Review, 1995
**** Edgar Allan Poe, The Bells, 1949



Philip Burton 2011



Poems by Philip Burton: here

Article by Michael Bruce on Formalism (with a capital F)(among other things): Blurring the Signifier








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