Cheat Sheet of Repeating Forms
If, in a previous life, you were an errant minstrel or a court scop, no doubt you trilled many a ballad. They would have been folk ballads of anonymous origin. Had you been a troubadour instead, you would have been the medieval equivalent of today’s singer-songwriter, performing original compositions. (And wouldn’t it be fun to build your own website and see daily compositions?)
Ballad meter refers to poems written in quatrains (i.e., four-line stanzas), the lines alternating between tetrameter (four-beat) and trimeter (three-beat); the rhyme scheme is often abab, bcbc, etc. Over the years, scholars have argued heatedly on the subject of its origins. In fact, The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, employing a perhaps constipated preference for shorthand, states that “the origin and devel. of b.m. is one of the most interesting problems in the geneology of Eng. verseforms.”
As you might expect, many ballads employ ballad meter—but not all. “Ballad” also describes lilting or song-like poems, usually of a storytelling nature. They possess what the aforementioned tome refers to as “balladness.” Only those with refrains will be featured on this site.
From the canon:
The accent goes on the last syllable here—bah-läd’—best uttered with an elevated eyebrow and a crooked pinky-at-the-teacup. Usually a ballade consists of three main stanzas plus an envoi, i.e., a shorter concluding stanza. A refrain appears at the end of each stanza and there is a set rhyme scheme throughout.
Traditionally, ballades have been composed for recitation or the page and not set to music. Nowadays it’s an especially favored form among writers of light verse.
From the canon:
G. K. Chesterton: A Ballade Of An Anti-puritan
Out of the steamy Mississippi delta, sometime in the nineteenth century, arose the blues stanza: a rhyming triplet consisting of an initial two lines of repetition—either exact or slightly variant—and a third line elaborating on that double statement. There is a strong beat throughout, sometimes regular, sometimes more jazzy and syncopated. As must be obvious, it is an African-American innovation originally meant to be sung.
From the canon:
Blind Lemon Jefferson: Rising High Water Blues
The Blues Stanza is sometimes set down in six lines instead of three, such as this kicky contemporary blues song from our sister publication,
Chris O’Carroll: Monotheism Blues
Holy Forms Eternal, Batman! What was originally an Arabic form dating back to the 7th Century, and which then enjoyed various and prolonged renascences in Persia, India and Turkey, has now been taken up by English-language poets in our own time.
At first glance, the ghazal appears to have a simple formal structure made up of couplets, called shers. Look closer and you notice that the second line of all the shers ends with the same word; this repetend is called the radif. Very traditional ghazals also include a monorhyme in that second line, immediately preceding the radif; this gives the poem a nice lilt. This rhyming pattern is called the qafia.
Now look closer still. The first sher of the ghazal uses the radif in both lines, not just the second. This opening couplet is called the matla and sets the poem in motion. The final sher will employ a convention called maqta in which the poet mentions his own name!
The shers are meant to be discrete entities. It is not common for a ghazal to tell a story, build an argument, or move with momentum toward a ringing closure or insight. Probably you could take every sher but the first and last and shuffle them like a deck of cards, with no detriment to the poem. I like the way this structure violates the usual western conventions; writing ghazals is a good way to break old habits and freshen the well.
These rules are often stretched to the breaking point by English language poets. This drove the late Agha Shalid Ali to distraction; he penned a well-known essay enumerating the rules of the traditional ghazal and compiled an anthology of English ghazals that strictly followed the conventions. This editor personally enjoys all types of ghazals, the highly formal and the more free-form; ghazals in English remind her of fusion cuisine, a piquant combination of middle eastern and English traditions.
From the canon:
Agha Shahid Ali: Even the Rain
Gino Peregrini’s The Ghazal Page
Poets have always delighted in writing poems that catalog feelings, actions, and the wonderful, or awful, things of this world. Sometimes a poet will begin each line of the catalog with the same
sequence of words, and this lends an almost prayerful tone. Though often composed in free verse, the repetitions conjure a formal feeling.
From the canon:
Christopher Smart: For I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffry (excerpt, Jubilate Agno)
Basically “nonce” means now, “the present or particular occasion.” To write in nonce form is to create a poem that exhibits an obvious pattern but not one you’ll find listed in any cheat sheet or reference book. The writer of a nonce work is an inventor and a good invention might be so successful that eventually it becomes accepted by other poets and enters the literary zeitgeist. The tritina and paradelle (see below) succeeded in this very way. Tilt-a-Whirl welcomes repeating-form nonces with open arms.
Tilt-a-Whirl’s editor is very pleased to include the ovillejo among her list of repeating forms, for it is not to be found yet in the major reference works. The definition comes from Rhina P. Espaillat, a practitioner of the form and an enthusiastic proponent of it:
“This old Spanish ten-line form, whose name means “little ball of yarn,” and by extension “small, tight bundle, tricky puzzle or tangle,” was popular in my country, the Dominican Republic, until the nineteenth century. There are no specific line lengths required, but the short lines (numbers 2, 4, and 6) are usually no more than five syllables long, and the other seven lines no more than eight syllables long. The rhyme scheme gives away the secret of the form: a, A, b, B, c, C, c, d, d, A+B+C
A warning for users, to be printed on the label: The writing of ovillejos is habit-forming. And a word of advice to those eager to risk it anyway: compose the tenth line first, in such a way that it divides roughly into thirds.”
The pantoum has changed quite a bit since it originated as a short folk poem in Malaysia in the 15th C. In terms of length, nowadays anything goes, but the form is very tight: four-line stanzas in which the second and fourth lines of each stanza serve as the first and third lines of the next stanza. As a result, the poem seems to double-back on itself, or braid. Hence the pantoum is a perfect form for conveying such things as the experience of puzzling through, stuckness, or contemplation.
Typically, too, the last line of a pantoum is the same as the first, making this a form of what your editor dubs the “ouroboros” type, the ouroboros being a snake consuming its own tail; the poem ends where it begins, a never-ending circle. How cool is that?
From the canon:
Donald Justice: Pantoum of the Great Depression
A Lovely Contemporary Pantoum:
A.E. Stallings: Another Lullaby for Insomniacs
Billy Collins wrote “Paradelle for Susan” with his tongue firmly in cheek. Mocking the whole notion of fixed forms, he added a bogus footnote: “The paradelle is one of the more demanding French fixed forms, first appearing in the langue d’oc love poetry of the eleventh century. It is a poem of four six-line stanzas in which the first and second lines, as well as the third and fourth lines of the first three stanzas, must be identical. The fifth and sixth lines, which traditionally resolve these stanzas, must use all the words from the preceding lines and only those words. Similarly, the final stanza must use every word from all the preceding stanzas and only these words.” The poem itself was intentionally and egregiously bad. Paradelle = parody. Get it?
Some earnest readers didn’t get it. And some poets, as if in protest against a perceived slander on fixed form, began to pen their own versions; as a result, paradelles have been written that are quite fine. This is one of the stranger episodes in recent literary history!
The one that started it all:
Billy Collins: Paradelle for Susan
A Successful Contemporary Paradelle:
Annie Finch: Paravaledellentine: A Paradelle
The quatern is written in syllabics: each line employs eight syllables but otherwise there are no strict metrics with which to conform. As you might guess from the name, a quatern contains four stanzas of four lines each. The refrain may be conceived of as
walking down steps: the first line of Stanza 1 repeats as the second line of S2, the third of S3, and the final line of S4.
The rondeau evolved from early folk-dance rounds in France. It consists of three stanzas of five, four, and six lines, respectively. Most of the lines have eight syllables, but a refrain, or rentrement, of four syllables give a terse ending to the second and third stanzas. Morever, the rentrements consist of the same four-syllable set of words that open the rondeau! The rhyme scheme is a-a-b-b-a, a-a-b-c, a-a-b-b-a-c.
The form fell out of fashion for a while but was restored in 17th Century France by a group known as the précieux poets. But there need be nothing precious or affected about the rondeau form; indeed its pattern of repetition keeps a rondeau’s focus razor sharp.
From the canon:
John McCrae: In Flanders Fields
Allison Joseph’s The Rondeau Roundup
The rondeau redoublé consists of five quatrains followed by a five-line stanza, or quintet. The lines of the first quatrain are each repeated, in turn, as the final line of each of the following quatrains. The final quintet sums things up and its only repetend is its short last line, an echo of the poem’s first words. Only two rhymes are employed throughout. It’s a lovely form and a perfect one for the poet who wishes to explore a theme with variations.
The rondel is similar to the rondeau but its syllabic structure is simpler and it stanzaic structure is commonly 4/4/6 rather than 5/4/6. It too relies on the repetition of lines: the first two lines of the first stanza repeat as the final two lines of the remaining stanzas. Variants abound. One can get a headache riding the Tilt-a-Whirl too many times in a row; those who try to sort through some of these roundabout forms may need aspirin too!
The sestina is almost mind-bogglingly complex, a poem of 39 lines comprised of 6 six-line stanas and a three-line envoi. Rhyme is unimportant and meter may vary; the six stars of this poem are the six words which end each line. The same six end words, or teleutons, repeat in a set pattern in each stanza, to wit:
Stanza One: 123456
Stanza Two: 615243
Stanza Four: 532614
Stanza Five: 451362
Stanza Six: 246531 followed by an Envoi: 531 or 135
The numbers here refer to the teleutons.
According to Lewis Turco, the pattern derives from numerology but no one knows what it actually means. It’s a teleutonic mystery.
But less of a mystery, perhaps, than it used to be. Tilt-a-Whirl is the proud publisher of an essay which boldly goes where no one has gone before: it unravels the mystery of the sestina’s numeric system and offers a theory of why some of the sestina derivative forms work or don’t work. The Tilt-a-Whirl is a wild ride, and this essay is one of the wildest rides in this magazine:
Sara Gwen Weaver: A Numbers Theory of the Sestina and Similar Repeating Forms
The sestina was a great favorite among the early bards of courtly love; the moderns resuscitated it and broadened the scope of its subject matter. In your editor’s view, this is one of the most difficult forms to master; many a sestina gets crushed under the weight of its repetends. The best practitioners choose their end words carefully, for their intrinsic impact, their fittingness as emblems for the subject matter, and for their ability to work as different parts of speech (as both verbs and nouns, for example).
As if the form weren’t devilish enough, some practitioners have written double sestinas comprised of twelve stanzas plus a six-line envoi. See the next listing for other sestina variations.
From the canon:
Elizabeth Bishop: Sestina
Ezra Pound: Sestina: Altaforte
A kicky contemporary sestina:
Jonah Winter: Sestina: Bob
A kicky contemporary double sestina:
Gary Keenan: Hardboiled Poem
Sonnetina and Tritina
Anyone who doubts the contemporaneity of poetic forms could be persuaded otherwise by the robust form-inventing of contemporary poets. For example, the tritina is a form of very recent vintage, one invented by the living poet Marie Ponsot. Essentially, it’s a truncated sestina: instead of 6 six-line stanzas plus a three-line envoi we find 3 three-line-stanzas plus a one-line envoi. Ten lines vs. 39! Rather more reader-friendly, that. The teleutons repeat in the following pattern:
Stanza One: 123
Stanza Two: 312
Stanza Three: 231
Contemporary poets have also been experimenting with a sestina derivative called a sonnetina: a fourteen-line poem (three quatrains plus a couplet-envoi), with teleutons in this pattern:
Stanza One: 1234
Stanza Two: 4123
Stanza Three: 3412
A contemporary tritina:
Helen Frost: Grandma Keeps Forgetting (pdf file)
A sonnet crown is a 7-sonnet sequence in which the last line of each sonnet is repeated in the first line of the next. The first and last lines of the sequence are also strict repetends; this gives the sequence its crown-like circularity. It should go without saying that this is a very ambitious form; a good sonnet crown is a tour-de-force.
From the canon:
John Donne: La Corona
A terzanelle is a happy hybrid of terza rima and villanelle. The favored meter is iambic pentameter and the second line of one stanza repeats as the third line in the stanza following.
The treinte-sei is another repeating form of recent vintage, invented by John Ciardi in the 20th Century. It consists of six 6-line stanzas, each beginning with a successive line of the first stanza, a pattern of repetition which inverts, more or less, the type used in rondeau redoublé where the refrains occupy the final line of the stanzas, rather than the first. Pentameter is the meter, and the rhyme scheme is ababcc.
Pronounce it “tree-o-lit” or “tri-o-lay”—either way, this is an economical little poem of only eight lines, three of which repeat in a set pattern, ABaAabAB, where the capital letters signify the replicated lines. In the most skillfully constructed triolets, the repetends shift in tone or meaning. Punctuation and enjambment are just two of the tricks that can add a note of surprise as the lines repeat. For a while this form was co-opted by hobbyist writers of sentimental verse, but since the eruption of New Formalism a few decades ago, it has enjoyed a revival.
The triolet is a resilient form and full of surprises. As the British poet Sir Edmund Gosse (1849-1928) wrote: “. . . nothing can be more ingeniously mischievous, more playfully sly, than this tiny trill of epigrammatic melody, turning so simply on its own innocent axis.”
From the canon:
Thomas Hardy: How Great My Grief
G.K Chesterton: A Comforting Reflection
A kicky contemporary triolet sequence:
Antonia Clark: Gilda & Johnny
A villanelle consists of nineteen lines: five tercets followed by a quatrain. The classic villanelle uses only two end rhymes. Also, at the end of the tercets, two lines alternate in exact or near-exact repetition; these are the refrains, which also appear sequentially at the end of the quatrain.
The rhyme scheme is as follows, with the repetends denoted as R1 or R2:
The description may sound clinical but the villanelle is arguably the yummiest of the repeating forms; a good one has a mesmerizing, incantatory effect.
Though it originated in France, it is the English language poets who have adopted the villanelle as a favored form. Its swirling repetitions make it an especially apt choice when one wishes to convey a sense of enclosure, duality, indecisiveness or obsessive thought.
Samples from the canon:
Dylan Thomas: Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night
Theodore Roethke: The Waking
Elizabeth Bishop: One Art
A lovely contemporary villanelle:
Marilyn Hacker: Villanelle for D.G.B.
Thanks to the following resources:
The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, eds. Alex Preminger and T. V. F. Brogan, Princeton University Press (Princeton, New Jersey), 1993
The Book of Forms by Lewis Turco, Third Edition, University Press of New England (Hanover and London), 2000.
The Academy of American Poets