Jumblers and scrabblers are well-versed in the art of the anagram, a technique that uses the shuffling of a given selection of letters to find new words. Anagrams can be a lot of fun, so it’s no surprise they are used in many popular word games and puzzles.
Key Features of the Anagrammatic Poem
Content: Always titled, and only letters featured in the title can be used
Form: The anagrammatic method can be combined with existing poetic forms (such as the haiku, sonnet, etc.) or used to create new ones.
Quintus Horatius Flaccus–better known to the English-speaking world by the mononym Horace–was a Roman soldier, lyric poet and satirist during the time of Augustus. He was a leading Latin poet of his time and is still celebrated for his odes, satires, and epistles. “Ars Poetica,” or “The Art of Poetry,” (c. 19 BC), his most influential epistle, offers advice on the art of writing poetry and drama.
Horace studied Greek ode forms–works by celebrated Greek poets such as Alcaeus, Anacreon, and Pindar–and adapted them for his own purposes, making them suitable for Latin. He not only changed the formal conventions of the Greek odes (stanzaic patterns, meter, rhyme scheme), but also modified the tone and subject matter to best highlight his own unique artistic sensibilities. While Greek odes tended to be heroic–elaborately glorifying a person or event–Horace’s odes were more personal, contemplative, and philosophical. The odes of Horace are also known for their charm, sophistication, and occasional touches of light humor.
Non-Latin readers are immediately confronted with the challenge of translation. It is widely considered a fool’s errand to attempt to preserve formal conventions such as meter and rhyme when translating poetry, so you’ll need to regard any English translations of Horace’s work as approximating the art and meaning of Horace’s original odes, rather than duplicating their formal conventions.
Although we can’t look directly to Horace to learn the conventions of his signature odes (without first learning Latin, that is), we can, however, look to Horatian odes written in English by English poets, and there are several good examples. Perhaps the most famous of these is Andrew Marvell’s “An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland”.
The forward youth that would appear Must now forsake his Muses dear, Nor in the shadows sing His numbers languishing. ’Tis time to leave the books in dust, And oil th’ unused armour’s rust, Removing from the wall The corslet of the hall. So restless Cromwell could not cease In the inglorious arts of peace, But thorough advent’rous war Urged his active star.
Scanning the first eight lines of Marvell’s Horatian ode reveals several key requirements of the form. Firstly, you’ll notice each two lines feature an end rhyme in an aabbccdd… pattern. Secondly, you’ll notice that while lines 1 and 2 are written in iambic tetrameter, lines 3 and 4 are written in iambic trimeter. Thirdly, you’ll notice that–and this is an important feature unique to the Horatian ode–the pattern set in the first four lines is repeated without variation in each subsequent quatrain.
Requirements of the Form
Any number of stanzas that unvaringly follow the pattern set by the first stanza. Stanzas can be of any length, but Horatian odes usually feature repeating stanzas of two to four lines. Enjambment is allowed.
– Tone tends toward philosophical, contemplative, gently playful, tranquil – Style is sophisticated and formal, but not restrictive
Meter is chosen at the discretion of the poet. Again, the important factor is consistency from stanza to stanza. Iambic meter is commonly used in English.
Rhyme schemes vary, but (again) subsequent stanzas must repeat the pattern set by the first stanza. Lines are always end-rhymed.
An Original Horatian Ode
A Horatian Ode to the World Goddess
The Goddess of the World, I sing– Her many forms and faces bring The light of fertile life, The fear of judgement’s knife.
Like Draupadi of Indian fame, Born of the sacrificial flame– Where she perceives a wall, Illusion’s palace falls.
Or Anath, golden Canaanite, Her retribution fierce and right, She’ll cut you with a word, Then feed you to the birds.
The Minute Poem is a modern form of unknown origin. Despite it’s name–and fortunately for us–the Minute Poem is not a poem that you must write in 60 seconds. Rather, it’s a poem consisting of exactly sixty syllables. Further requirements in length, meter, and rhyme help this form stand out and make for a fun and fairly simple challenge.
Requirements of the Form
– Consists of three quatrains (four-line stanzas) for a total of twelve lines
– Strict iambic (unstressed-stressed)
– Eight syllables in the first line of each stanza – Four syllables in the proceeding lines of each stanza
1-xxxxxxxa 2-xxxa 3-xxxb 4-xxxb
5-xxxxxxxc 6-xxxc 7-xxxd 8-xxxd
9-xxxxxxxe 10-xxxe 11-xxxf 12-xxxf
An Original Minute Poem
I often sleep through summer’s storm
I often sleep through summer’s storm when nights are warm and thick with dreams or so it seems
the quilt pulled high covers my eyes as lightning flies like moon in shroud of creeping cloud
I wake to find the darkened road the flowers bowed the sagging sky the river high
**Special Announcement: This week’s post will feature a bonus original poem from poet and singer-songwriter Brandon Barnett!**
Meet the Décima
The Décima poetic form is widely used in poetry and song throughout Spain and Latin America, though the requirements may vary somewhat by region. People who write and perform décimas are often referred to as decimistas or deimeros. The form is also known as the espinela in Spanish, after the creator of the modern version of the décima, writer and musician Vicente Gómez Martínez-Espinel.
A few regional variations are listed below. Pick your favorite, or try them all!
Puerto Rico: Consists of a 10-line stanza, with 8 syllables per line (octosyllabic) and an abbaaccddc rhyme scheme
Italy: The decima Italiana is a 10-line poem, with 8-syllable lines and an ababcdedec rhyme scheme
Ecuador: Here the décima is a 44-line poem made up of a quatrain and four ten-line stanzas. It’s nearly identical to the glosa poetic form
Poetry and Song
The song form of the décima usually consists of 44 lines and is often improvised. Much like the “freestyle rap battle” of modern hip-hop, Decimeros often challenge one another with dueling songs as a way to show off the composer’s wit and skill.
Requirements of the Form
The requirements listed below are for the Puerto Rican poetic form:
– Single 10-line stanza
-Subject matter varies widely, but common themes include philosophy religion, and politics. Satirical décimas are often humorous.
– 8 syllables per line
An Original Décima Poem
The cameras flash, Trump fakes a smile; He holds his breath, swallows a growl, And throws a roll of paper towels. Empathy missed by a mile For Puerto Rico, enchanted isle. No concern for the common health of neighbors in the commonwealth; Once slaving for the hacienda, Victims of encomienda, They fight to own a sense of self.
*An Original Décima Poem by Special Guest, Brandon Barnett*
We never knocked on rust-streaked doors but entered like the bums we were with hair so ragged–greased like fur– and alcohol from every pore
The only word we spoke was “more!” with glassy eyes on shining things refulgent suds the evening brings and singing out in harmony
But all that now is far from me Though oft-recalled with mem’ry strings
The Ovillejo is the first form of this challenge with a lineage that can be traced back to a single well-known source: Miguel de Cervantes’ epic comedy (or is it a tragedy?) The Ingenious Gentleman Sir Quixote of La Mancha, better known today simply as Don Quixote (1605).
Untangling the Ovillejo
Ovillo in Spanish means “ball,” usually indicating a ball of yarn or wool. A Poet’s Glossary explains: “The word ovillego refers to a spool of thread or wool, and this complicated Spanish stanzaic form is ‘tied in a little knot’…[which] unravels in ten lines.”
Learning by Example
The Ovillejo is a complex form which can perhaps be best introduced through example. Below you’ll see an excerpt from Paul Archer’s English translation of Miguel de Cervantes’ poem, “Ovillejos” from Don Quixote, followed by the original Spanish version.
Ovillejos (Archer Translation)
What undermines all I attempt? Contempt! What heaps sorrow onto me? Jealousy! And what gnaws me through and through? Missing you!
That’s why nothing will do to make my distress less – I’m killed by hopelessness, contempt, jealousy and missing you!
Ovillejos (Original Spanish)
¿Quién menoscaba mis bienes? ¡Desdenes! Y ¿quién aumenta mis duelos? ¡Los celos! Y ¿quién prueba mi paciencia? ¡Ausencia!
De este modo en mi dolencia ningún remedio se alcanza, pues me matan la esperanza, desdenes, celos y ausencia.
Translation vs Original
It’s an understatement to say that translating poetry in any language is a difficult task. In a form with as many requirements as this has, you’ll likely have to make some compromises. Even a non-Spanish speaker should be able to notice that Archer’s translation has preserved the original’s punctuation (excepting the exclamation in the last line) and rhyme scheme, but not the syllable count. The lesson here is you can’t rely solely on any translation to learn the requirements of a given form.
Structure: – The Ovillejo is a poem consisting of ten lines
– These ten lines are usually made up of a sestet (6 line stanza) and a quatrain (4 line stanza)
– Any number of Ovillejos can be connected to create a sequence (you’ll see here that Cervantes’ “Ovillejos” is a sequence of three Ovillejos)
Content: – Lines 1, 3, and 5 of the first stanza must ask a question, which the preceding line (2, 4, 6) must answer
– The second stanza reflects and amplifies the first stanza
– The last line of the second stanza must be a culmination of lines 2, 4, and 6 of the previous stanza (this is known as a redondilla). The exclamation point on the final line appears to be optional
Rhyming: – The first stanza can either be seen as three couplets, or a sestet with an aa bbcc rhyme scheme
– The second stanza is always a quatrain, with a cddc rhyme scheme
Syllable Count: – In the first stanza, lines 1 ,3, and 5 consist of eight syllables. Lines 2, 4, and 6 consist of two to three syllables
– Lines 7, 8, and 9 consist of eight syllables in the second stanza
– The final line should consist of seven to ten syllables
If all of these rules are leaving your brain feeling like a ball of tangled yarn, here’s a breakdown:
Ovillejo Requirement Breakdown*
Line 1: a rhyme in 8 syllables (question) Line 2: a rhyme in 2-3 syllables (single word exclamation) Line 3: b rhyme in 8 syllables (question) Line 4: b rhyme in 2-3 syllables (single word exclamation) Line 5: c rhyme in 8 syllables (question) Line 6: c rhyme in 2-3 syllables (single word exclamation)
Line 7: c rhyme in 8 syllables Line 8: d rhyme in 8 syllables Line 9: d rhyme in 8 syllables Line 10: (Line 2) (Line 4) (Line 6) (optional exclamation)
Not much is known about the origin of this form, but it’s possible that the Diminishing Verse form that we know today evolved from the classic triplet, and there is some evidence to suggest this (more on that here). All triplets consist of a three line stanza (commonly referred to a tercet), as do many Diminishing Verse poems. But where a classic triplet features a distinct rhyme scheme, the Diminishing Verse form has a more interesting–and challenging–way of creatively manipulating the last word of each line.
The Incredible Shrinking End Word
The key unique feature in a Diminishing Verse poem is the manipulation of the last word in each line, in a diminishing fashion. I did find some variation on where the emphasis should be placed within the end word itself. In one variation, emphasis is placed on the vowel sound of the end word, making the challenge to decrease the number of preceding consonants while maintaining the vowel sound (flair/rare/air). Another variation offers less flexibility, asking the poet to remove initial letters of the word without any other changes to spelling (heat/eat/at). A poem of this kind might read:
If you can stand the heat And you can’t wait to eat The kitchen is where it’s at
Nearly all of the contemporary examples I could find focused on this second emphasis, and this was the basis for my own experiments.
Other Notes On Structure
Beyond the above-mentioned end word requirements, there are very few formal restrictions in this form: – No rules for syllable count, line length, rhyming, poem length, etc. – Stanzas can be of any length, but tercets are most common. This is mostly due to the strict end word requirements and the natural constraints those requirements impose.
Tips and Techniques
Reverse-engineering your poem by starting with a cluster of usable end words may be the most fruitful way to get started in this form.
I began by making a list of possible end words in sets of three (if you can up with more, take it as far as you like!). Starting with the smallest word (usually one consisting of two or three letters) and working backwards by adding one or two letters at the front may make this easier. Even with only 3 lines, you’ll be surprised how limited your options really are.
When selecting your end words, watch out for affixes (kind/un-kind) and compound words (bee/honeybee) that modify the meaning of a word, but signify nearly the same thing. They may not make for good poetry.
Once you’ve made your list, pick out some of your most intriguing word clusters for further development.
Two Original Diminishing Verse Poems
The Riots of Spring
As the thunder churns, as the lightning cleaves, The nestlings cower in the quaking leaves; The spider’s web quivers beneath the eaves.
But soon the red fox will doze in the clover; The monarch will settle on its yellow-petaled lover; The riots of spring will be over.
He dreads The daily news–he only reads The ads.
Bonus Challenge! Diminishing Verse…in Reverse
If you add one or more letters to the beginning of the end word of each previous line (instead of subtracting), you get Diminishing Verse’s opposite: the Culminating Verse poem!
An Original Culminating Verse Poem
The art In eating a tart Is knowing when to start.
Welsh poetry — much like the language itself — often has a musical quality and emphasizes the sound of the words through the use of assonance and alliteration. The Gwawdodyn (gwow-DOD-in) is an old Welsh poetic form made up of a varying number of quatrains with strict syllabic restrictions and rhyme requirements.
Structure of the Gwawdodyn
Requirements of the Gwawdodyn form:
– Comprised of any number of quatrains (four-line stanzas)
– Usually features a 9/9/10/9 syllable pattern for each stanza
– Follows a unique rhyme scheme with matching end rhymes (a) on lines 1, 2, and 4, with a variable internal rhyme (b) on line 3:
1-xxxxxxxxa 2-xxxxxxxxa 3-xxxxbxxxxb 4-xxxxxxxxa
Variations on lines 3 and 4:
– The internal ‘b’ rhyme in the third line can be shifted to the left or right as needed, but is usually found towards the middle of the line
– One possible variation features a matching internal rhyme in lines 3 and 4, with no end rhyme in line 3:
1-xxxxxxxxa 2-xxxxxxxxa 3-xxxxbxxxxx 4-xxxbxxxxa
You may find other variations of this form featuring slightly different syllable counts and rhyming patterns, with the most variation found in lines 3 and 4.
Tips and Techniques
The first major challenge of this form is the restricted number of syllables. If you’re aiming to stay true to the original form, count carefully and try to avoid compromises.
I usually begin by searching for a line I’ve previously recorded in one of my notebooks. As I flip through my notebooks, I search for a line that can be molded to fit the syllabic requirement and has an end word that isn’t too restricting.
As with any poem featuring end rhymes, you’ll want to choose these words most carefully. You’ll have some choices to make on the types of rhymes you’d like to use. A poem that uses only true, masculine rhymes (dire/fire) will have a different feel than one that uses only true, feminine rhymes (desire/retire) or one that uses only slant rhymes of either type (moon/doom) or any combination of these.
Once I have what I believe to be a workable first line, I list out my possible end rhyme words, using my first line’s end word as my guide. I almost always explore the possibilities within the true rhymes first. If these options are too limiting (and they often are) I’ll explore slant rhymes, staying as close to true as I can while aiming for maximum resonance. Once I believe I have a sufficient end rhyme word bank to select from, I’ll underline or highlight the words I feel are most resonant with the tone and theme of the first line.
An Original Gwawdodyn Poem
Sons of Abraham
Tell me all you Sons of Abraham Spilling sacred blood for sacred land: Do your daughters weep to see the slaughter Of so many sacrificial lambs?
Commentary on my original poem
While there are no metrical specifications for this form, I often enjoy writing in meter, and you’ll find my poem is mostly written in iambic tetrameter.
Though this poem in its current form consists of a single quatrain, a traditional Gwawdodyn can be made up of as many quatrains as the poet pleases. I’ll no doubt explore options for expanding this work in the future.
I use a mixture of masculine and feminine rhymes. And although my rhymes are often slanted, I still match the sounds closely.
There is a great deal of assonance (long and short a sounds) and alliteration (s sounds) in this piece, which I believe is in keeping with the musicality often associated with traditional Welsh poetry.
Wordsmiths and Versifiers, Rhymesters and Sonneteers, Bards and Balladeers…
Welcome to the Fifty-Two Form Poetry Challenge!
About the Challenge
Over the next year, I’m challenging myself to collect as many unique poetic forms as possible. I’ll randomly select a form and make my best attempt to write an original poem in the selected form each week for the next 52 weeks.
In every weekly post, I’ll provide an overview of the selected form, including a brief history, specific form requirements (meter, rhyme, syllable-count, etc), and some tips and techniques I found useful when composing my original poem. Each post will conclude with an original poem in the selected form, as well as a section with links to further resources.
What you’ll need to play along at home:
– A list of at least 52 unique forms. I suggest collecting as many as you can, because why not? I suggest starting your quest here. Assign a number to the forms you collect.
– A way to randomly select a number from 1 to 52. You can use an online random number generator or fifty-two slips of paper in a 1-gallon hat. Have fun with it!
About the Author
I am not a professional writer or even a published poet. I am not a professor, scholar, or literary historian, and I speak with little authority on the subject of poetry as a whole. I do, however, consider myself an earnest enthusiast and lifelong student of poetry. As an undergrad, I did have the extreme privilege of studying creative writing under former Kansas Poet Laureate Kevin Rabas at Emporia State University, and poetry under another Kansas Poet Laureate, the wonderful Eric McHenry, at Washburn University.
As an amateur songwriter, I’m especially interested in the intersection between music and poetry, and I’m excited to explore all the possible ways I may find to incorporate aspects of what I learn through this process into my songwriting endeavors. I believe all things are enhanced by the clarity, power, and imagination that a poetic perspective can bring.
This is my very first attempt at undertaking such a lengthy challenge, and will also be my first time regularly publishing online. I embark on this adventure on the day of my 36th birthday. Please wish me luck, courage, and fortitude!
References and Acknowledgements
Robert Lee Brewer’s List of 86 Poetic Forms for Poets for The Writer’s Digest served both as an inspiration for the project and an invaluable online source of reference information and examples. An essential resource.
Edward Hirsch’s 700+ page A Poet’s Glossary is an exhaustive and equally indispensable source of both information and inspiration. Hirsch’s How to Read a Poem is highly recommended as well.
Both aspiring and long-practicing poets would do well to keep a copy of Mary Oliver’s concise and gracefully crafted A Poetry Handbook close at hand.
On a more personal note, a special thanks to Eric McHenry for his invaluable guidance and enthusiastic support.