If you have been writing poetry for longer than a few months, you may have experienced this anxiety-inducing scenario: you sit down at the desk, look at the blank page, and nothing happens. You write a line and immediately erase it. You cross out titles. You second guess line breaks. The meter feels off. Simply put, you feel stuck.
Somehow, this limbo moment has been ubiquitously corralled in our minds as a writer's block, but I don't think this is very fair to you, the poet. You (and every human) are a complex person, and I am wholeheartedly opposed to the idea that a writer's block is a full stop. Barring illness, trauma, or all-encompassing life changes, I want to advocate for the constant possibility to write and push against the silly notion that the whole of your writing abilities can be frozen in place.
There is an adage in most monotheistic religions that collectively advises practitioners to pray when you don't want to, and especially when you feel like you can't. I think the act of writing poetry might function the same way; there are points in all our writing journeys when the purposeful trudge is necessary, when the pen feels more like a pick axe than a nimble sword. While this is in no way the only method, I almost always find myself searching out the structure of poetic forms when I feel stuck in those slog-moments.
Below are three forms that, along with their immense value in the traditions of poetry, have invigorated my own writing and acted as invaluable learning moments. I hope these forms will serve you well in those perilous moments of non-writing and encourage you to know that the block is temporary, situational, and completely within your ability to overcome.
1. The Ghazal
What is it? – A ghazal is an Arabic form that is composed of at least five couplets (usually no more than fifteen) and makes interesting, specific use of repetition. In a ghazal, your bread-and-butter will be a repeating word/phrase that appears at the end of the two lines of the first couplet, and then the end of the second line for every couplet thereafter. Another distinctive aspect of a ghazal is that each couplet can and should be narratively independent of the others. A great ghazal makes use of multiple scenarios, speakers, and emotional concerns to reveal the bricolage of a uniting theme that is often held together by that one, repeating word at the end of each stanza.
How can it help? – Do you feel like you have ten different poem ideas but cannot make headway on any of them? You might just have the workings of a ghazal on your hands! This form can act as a vital push toward the deeper concerns of what you are actually trying to write about, and the low-stakes structure of each independent couplet allows for that concern to rise out of the oil naturally.
Give me an example – Patricia Smith's "Hip-Hop Ghazal" perfectly embodies the spirit of the form. Her couplets feel alive but unique, and the repeating phrase connects readers back to the poet in a way that feel immediately intimate. (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/49642/hip-hop-ghazal)
What is it? – The haibun is a traditional, Japanese form that utilizes prose writing and the haiku structure simultaneously. Invented by Matsuo BashÅ in the 17th century, the haibun begins with a prose passage (usually a single paragraph) and end with a single haiku stanza. In its infancy, this form existed almost solely as BashÅ's accounts of travel but has since seen a surge of poems about different thematic concerns.
How can it help? – Don't tell any other poets I said this, but sometimes a healthy dose of prose can help in your poetry writing. Where so many poetic forms excel at the act of condensing, the haibun inversely allows you to open up your writing. In my experience, this freedom to write widely and boldly (without line breaks) forces me out of hiding behind the visual landscape of poetry and makes me address the syntax and language of the poem. That being said, the small haiku stanza at the end of a haibun still fulfills that poetic desire for architecture, reminding us how vital seventeen syllables can be.
Give me an example – There are all manner of haibun being written today, but Aimee Nezhukumatathil's "Summer Haibun" feels especially aware of the form's history. The speaker of her poem occupies a natural space similar to the vistas in BashÅ's writing, but with a fresh take on companionship that feels genuinely contemporary upon reaching the comma-less, capitalization-void haiku stanza. (https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/summer-haibun)
3. Golden Shovel
What is it? – The paint is still drying on this new form, but the Golden Shovel is already cemented in contemporary poetry as complex and intriguing. Invented by Terrance Hayes in honor of Gwendolyn Brooks, a Golden Shovel takes the words of another poem's line or lines (usually but not necessarily from Brooks) and uses them as the last words of its new poem's lines. An acrostic-cum-honorific, this form creates a revered conversation between two poems and, not surprisingly, two poets.
How can it help? – Have you ever read a poem that completely floored you and then thought, I want to write a poem like that! Golden Shovel can accommodate this reverential writing desire in a way that, I think, allows for more personal creativity than a Cento. This form is a great resource for when you are having trouble starting a poem, as it gives you just enough thematic and syntactical tinder to write poetry that can still go in a direction different from the original.
Give me an example – Terrance Hayes created the Golden Shovel, and you would be hard-pressed to find someone doing it better than him. "The Golden Shovel" is a beautiful mix of admiration and inventiveness. (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/55678/the-golden-shovel)
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Jerrod Schwarz teaches creative writing at the University of Tampa and STEM programs at the Glazer Children’s Museum. His poetry has appeared in print/online journals such as PANK, Entropy, Opossum, The Fem, Inklette, and many more. Most recently, his erasure poetry was highlighted on New Republic and Poetry Foundation. His first chapbook was published by Rinky Dink Press in 2016. He lives in Tampa, Florida with his wife and twin daughters.