Author Challenge: Writing Formal Poetry

Lesléa Newman was the scheduled to speak at the University of Wyoming the week that Matthew Shepherd was savagely murdered in the small town of Laramie. Lesléa was shaken by the event, so much so she sat down to write a novel about it. October Mourning—a novel in verse—is the story of that horrible night told through a series of poems. Each poem is written in a different poetic format including haiku, sonnet, and pantoum. Lesléa has stopped by Figment to talk about the importance of writing formal poetry and she’s got a writing challenge for you! Read on to learn more.

During my freshman year at college, I took “Introduction to Creative Writing.” The first half of the course focused on writing short stories. The second half of the course focused on writing poetry. But not just any poetry. Formal poetry, or, as the professor explained, poetry that follows certain fixed patterns that use poetic techniques such as repetition, syllable count, and/or rhyme scheme. When the class groaned, the professor chuckled. “You’ll hate me now,” he said, “but you’ll love me later.” I don’t know that I actually hated him then or actually love him now, but I am very grateful to have been forced to write in form, as I grew to love doing so.

I find writing in form great practice because it challenges me to find new ways of saying things. It develops my ear and helps me with sound, rhythm, and the music of language. It reminds me that every word in a poem counts. If I change one word in a formal poem, it tends to have a domino effect and the whole thing falls apart. Then it’s my job to put it back together in a new and exciting way. Writing in form connects me to poets who wrote in form centuries ago. In other words, if it’s good enough for William Shakespeare, it’s certainly good enough for me! And besides, it’s a lot of fun.

“The Fence (that night)” is a pantoum. This is a form that first appeared in Malayan literature in the 15th century and comes from an oral tradition. Because whole lines are repeated in a pantoum, it makes it easy to memorize.

In a pantoum, each stanza is four lines long. The second and fourth line of one stanza becomes the first and third line of the following stanza. This means that every line of the poem is used twice. A pantoum can consist of any number of four-line stanzas. When the final stanza is reached, the first and third line of the first stanza is repeated in reverse order: the third line of the first stanza becomes the second line of the last stanza and the first line of the first stanza becomes the last line of the last stanza. In this way, the poem comes full circle. Don’t panic—this isn’t as complicated as it sounds! The best way to write a pantoum is to have one in front of you so you can use it as a pattern. Here is an example from October Mourning:

“The Fence (that night)”

I held him all night long
He was heavy as a broken heart
Tears fell from his unblinking eyes
He was dead weight yet he kept breathing

He was heavy as a broken heart
His own heart wouldn’t stop beating
He was dead weight yet he kept breathing
His face streaked with moonlight and blood

His own heart wouldn’t stop beating
The cold wind wouldn’t stop blowing
His face streaked with moonlight and blood
I tightened my grip and held on

The cold wind wouldn’t stop blowing
We were out on the prairie alone
I tightened my grip and held on
I saw what was done to this child

We were out on the prairie alone
Their truck was the last thing he saw
I saw what was done to this child
I cradled him just like a mother

Their truck was the last thing he saw
Tears fell from his unblinking eyes
I cradled him just like a mother
I held him all night long

Writing Challenge:

Write your own pantoum using Lesléa’s poem, “The Fence” as a guide. It can be on any topic of your choosing. Tag your writing MourningChallenge

Figment editors will choose our four favorites to feature on the Figment homepage! Tag your entry by 11:59 p.m. ET on Friday, September 28 to enter. Read the full rules and get writing!

 

 

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8 thoughts on “Author Challenge: Writing Formal Poetry

  1. I’m confused. First two stanzas:

    I held him all night long …okay
    He was heavy as a broken heart…okay
    Tears fell from his unblinking eyes
    I cradled him just like a mother

    He was heavy as a broken heart …okay, matches
    His own heart wouldn’t stop beating
    He was dead weight yet he kept breathing No, by the logic of line four=line three, I cradled him just like a mother is the right line.
    His face streaked with moonlight and blood

  2. I cradled him just like a mother is used three times s.1l.4, s.5l.4, s.6l.3

    He was dead weight yet he kept breathing is used only once. s.2l.3

    are any of these typos?

  3. Thank you, you really got me thinking… and I think the product came out to be something that’s really true, I pulled it right from my heart and I really hope, if anything, you can read it at some point in your busy life. It would mean a lot to me…
    ~Rose

  4. I have a question: I’ve already entered in the contest (before the deadline mentioned), but I was wondering: Is the contest still going on? Because it say the deadline is 9/28 and it’s 10/1. I’m just curious.

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