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Poems in new forms, variations of traditional forms, including notes and formulas and examples.


Introductory Poem

Original Forms

The Moiré

The Quindecima

Poor Johns

Experiments on Traditional Forms


Transformer Sonnet

Potential Sonnet






As my work demonstrates, I have an interest in poetic forms and writing poetry “under constraint”. This has sometimes meant that I have attempted to create my own forms or try more difficult/experimental forms. It is one of my regrets that I have not had the time to explore this more over the years. But as any designer of something new can attest, it takes time to design and prototype. And many designs will not succeed. This chapweb contains some examples of the new forms I have created (or redesigned, in the case of the Poor Johns) that I consider successful, along with “formulas” for those forms. Finally, I discuss some of my experiments with traditional forms, with some examples.


One might expect a poet who works in forms to eventually try to invent some, but I also want to acknowledge the influence of the OULIPO on both my motivation to create new forms and my inventions themselves. I encountered the work of the OULIPO in graduate school at a fairly pivotal moment in my poetic growth, when post-modernism, LANGUAGE poetry, and other ideas and movements were pulling in all sorts of different directions. While all of those had their influences, and I learned a lot from all of them, the work of the OULIPO spoke most strongly to me. For those interested, provides a basic introduction “Into the Maze: OULIPO” which might inspire some readers to learn more.


While I do take some “moves” from the OULIPO playbook, none of my forms is properly Oulipian. I won’t go into the many reasons for that (if you learn about OULIPO, you will understand) except to note that Oulipian poets are comfortable with a level of abstraction that I am not.


Raymond Queneau defined Oulipians as “rats who build the labyrinth from which they will try to escape”. The introductory poem in this chapweb, while not an experimental form (it’s a madrigal), takes its theme from Queneau. And a madrigal, though not an Oulipian form, seems appropriate given the Oulipian interest in medieval forms, especially of the troubadours and trouveres. In truth, any poet writing, in forms or not, is essentially that labyrinth builder and potential escapee.



All Night, the Labyrinths


All night I draft the labyrinths, lay stone,

myself, for every angle, curve and line.

And then I plot escape from each design.


No minotaur awaits; I am alone.

No princess there provides a ball of twine.

All night I draft the labyrinths, lay stone,

myself, for every angle, curve and line.


I strive against myself, the risk my own.

I play: Will I escape? or walls confine?

Both victory and loss at once are mine.

All night I draft the labyrinths, lay stone,

myself, for every angle, curve and line.

And then I plot escape from each design.


Original Forms


The Moiré


The Moiré is composed of three stanzas: a quatrain, an octet, a quatrain. The text of the quatrains is used to construct the octet. My first attempt (“Mnemonic” below) was unrhymed, but others have been rhymed (xaxa in the first quatrain, xbxb in the final quatrain, meaning rhymes will appear internally and as end rhymes in the octet, with a good deal of space between – it is a light rhyme burden given the other complexities). The pattern with which the quatrains lend their lines to the middle octet are specific, and designed to break up the lines into smaller units – either 2 foot or 3 foot segments alternating (the full line length being 5 foot iambic, though syllabic lines or other feet could be used). Note that whether the first segment in the octet is a 3 foot segment or 2 foot is up to the poet (“Mnemonic” and “Spinning” start the octet with a 3 foot segment, while “Undone” starts with a 2 foot segment).


It is easier to show rather than explain the way the lines are interlocked in the octet. In the Moiré below (“Mnemonic”), the first stanza lines are in blue, so you can see them distributed in the second stanza. The lines in the last stanza are black, with those in black in the second stanza.


The Moiré was designed (and I think works best) if the topic/image set of the two quatrains are different: in “Mnemonic” the first quatrain is about neuron activity and its relation to the memory, while the last quatrain is about a monkey swinging through the trees. In “Undone” the first quatrain is about death, the last about sex (to briefly summarize). I have included “Spinning” as my experiment to see what happens when the image set is the same in both quatrains – I felt that would result in a fairly obsessive feel (like pantoums and sestinas can often have), so I chose a topic (a nightmare) that I thought might benefit by that effect. All my other Moirés have quatrains with different image sets (“Annulus” in the Myths and Ballads chapweb is the only other Moiré that appears on this site – I have several others that still need some revision, and which I hope may appear in the future). Finally, another experiment with the Moiré is the poem “Dryad” which appears in Myths and Ballads. I thought it might be interesting to have a third “invisible” stanza contributing material to the middle stanza (the first and last stanzas reduced to tercets to allow more room in middle stanza for the invisible stanza material). Though the experiment failed, the poem that I rescued from the wreckage seemed viable enough.





The mind is like a monkey swinging from branch to branch through a forest.

 — Thich Nhat Hanh


A memory is not a neuron, but

a pathway through a web of axons, steering

the impulse which contains the sound, the form.

A wild intensity and we're torn from time.


Beneath a wet, gray moon, a memory

is not a neuron but a monkey scuttling

through shadowy branches, a pathway through a web

of axons, steering and leaping from tree to tree.

Boughs bounce and vibrate; each bears the impulse which

contains the sound, the form, the weight and then

discharges with a wild intensity.

And we're torn from time: a snap as crisp as a spark.


Beneath a wet, gray moon, a monkey scuttles

through shadowy branches and leaps from tree to tree.

Boughs bounce and vibrate; each bears the weight and then

discharges with a snap as crisp as a spark.





The news? It's bad: a noose. Mortality

snaps vertebrae, a gravity that drags,

jars throat, the voice and breath. The body dashed,

a naked soul slides out. Flesh flutters, sags.


As fingers skim the news, it's bad: a noose,

mortality the silken bow's loose end.

The loop spirals down, snaps vertebrae,

a gravity that drags to oblivion.

And when the knot jars throat, the voice and breath,

the body, dashed, unravels; the robe falls open.

Like silk through silk slips through, a naked soul

slides out. Flesh flutters, sags. I am undone.


As fingers skim the silken bow's loose end,

the loop spirals down to oblivion.

And when the knot unravels, the robe falls open.

Like silk through silk slips through, I am undone.





Last night I dreamed of power, suffered it,

still point of some vast web. My spider's breath

set the whole net to hum and husks to dance.

In dreams I wake from dreams to my own death.


It's happening again: last night I dreamed

of power, suffered it, the restless ache

that spins round me, still point of some vast web.

My spider's breath spins puppet threads, my shroud.

I struggle, fight snarled sheets, set the whole net

to hum and husks to dance while silk eggs hatch

a million desires in dreams. I wake from dreams

to my own death, devoured alive by the crowd.


It's happening again, the restless ache

that spins round me, spins puppet threads, my shroud.

I struggle, fight snarled sheets while silk eggs hatch

a million desires devoured alive by the crowd.



Quindecima (Incremental and Decremental)


The Quindecima, as its name implies, is a fifteen line poem (quindecima means fifteenth). As far as I could ascertain, the name isn’t currently used for fifteen line poems in general, but it may be a placeholder name if I find something better. The poem is worked around a line of verse from another poem – specifically, an iambic pentameter line. Certainly, though, the procedure of the poem might be generalized to other metered line lengths and feet (though I haven’t explored that).


The poem consists of five three-line stanzas, with each stanza ending with some part of the quoted line. The Quindecima Incremental will build toward the final line, one foot at a time, until the final stanza ends with the full quoted line. The Quindecima Decremental will have a first stanza that ends with the full quoted line, but each stanza after that line will be one foot shorter (cutting from the end of the line). The rhyme scheme is determined by the end word of the quote line or part of the line, proceeding in a terza rima progression; the rhyme for the middle line of the final stanza is the rhyme from the first and third line of the first stanza (thus forming a rhyming loop). The quote line thus does exert control not only over the end of each stanza, but the rhymes. For these reasons, and the need for the line to break into 5 clear feet as the line is incremented or decremented, the line chosen as the base quote should be chose carefully. Of course, the fitness of the base quote is also increased if it has good image words, especially ones that have a rich denotative and connotative range.


Finally, in the case where a foot cuts across a word (unless that cut version is viable as is), one can extend the foot to include the unaccented syllable (as that doesn’t could toward the foot). Since the two examples below do not contain that situation, I refer you to “To Live” in the Awakes My Heart chapweb. The quote line is “To live in hell, and heaven to behold”. Thus at one point, I have an end line that is “to live in hell and heaven” allowing the second, unstressed, syllable of “heaven” to be used. Aside from “To Live” and the examples below, other Quindecima on this site include “To Hear with Eyes” (in Awakes My Heart), “I Count Myself a King of Infinite Space” (in Piezoelectric Piffle) and “Problems with the Conceit” (in Our Outcast State).



Awakes My Heart (quindecima incremental)


awakes my heart to heart’s and eye’s delight

         — William Shakespeare, Sonnet 47


As if on her cue, the rack of my life breaks,

and driven by the momentum her smiles impart,



She's cobalt brushstroke ballet as her greetings dart

like haiku; her perfection of all the arts

awakes my heart.


And all around the room attention starts

to orbit her; the hush of silent sighs

awakes my heart to hearts.


Then couples pair, each with a look that implies

more than their words; taut hum through lines of sight

awakes my heart to hearts and eyes.


In its cell, a cage of bone, that eremite

of muscle stirs, and all I see aches, slakes,

awakes my heart to heart’s and eye’s delight.




Leaves, Lines and Rhymes (quindecima decremental)


Leaves, lines and rhymes seek her to please alone

         — Edmund Spenser, sonnet “Happy ye leaves!”


The page’s brightness mirrors her skin’s own;

the letters beg her voice to sing and tease:

leaves, lines and rhymes seek her to please alone.


She pauses at the window: frost vortices

in air, and rays on glass; the oak’s reds stir.

Leaves, lines and rimes seek her to please.


Pen poised, the virgin paper will demur

from strokes and tones endeavoring sublimes.

Leaves, lines and rhymes seek her.


On Beauty’s alabaster, this vine climbs;

each curve’s defined as each brushed tendril twines:

leaves, lines and rhymes.


Though she’s unmoved by our devices, signs,

still our discipleship to that unknown

leaves lines.



Poor Johns


I encountered the following poem sometime during my undergraduate college years, and it immediately stuck with me – one of those pieces of verse that I memorized without especially taking any time to do so (this gift of mine apparently limited to silly verses).


Poor John is dead; we see his face no more,

for what he thought was H2O

was H2SO4.


The author was the prolific Anonymous. Some more recent research has turned up that the form has a fairly long history, going back to the late 1800s, with the protagonist going by different names, including Willie and Johnny and even Darby. And the verse form and specifics, except for the H2S04, changed as well. It seems to have been passed around by chemistry students through the generations.


A great many years later, I was reminded of the piece and was struck with the idea of writing my own. As I studied the piece, I realized the form itself (the form I first encountered the verse in) was quite a little machine. In many versions, there is no mention of the face, which is quite essential of course to the grisly comic effect of the piece, the initial meaning being replaced by the more horrible implication at the end. In addition, the 5 foot, 4 foot, 3 foot progression of lines isn’t the way many other versions are set up (many are essentially 4 foot quatrains or ballad stanzas). But the shortening of lines also seemed essential to me to get the slight acceleration toward the end – the short 3rd and 4th lines of limericks operate in similar ways to create acceleration toward the final punch line. And, of course, line 1 and 3 rhyme, accomplishing what rhyme can do in a comic poem, but also providing a fair number of feet between the rhymes to allow for the articulation of the plot. I also saw one way to “improve” on the form. Why not give the subject a name that would increase the irony and humor? All this also helped to differentiate this from other short light verse forms: the limerick, clerihew, and Little Willie (which does share a similar history of dark humor).


The resulting “formula” is then as follows for my own version of the verse, which I have dubbed “Poor Johns”:


The topic of the piece, of course, is some unfortunate (and almost certainly fatal) accident, with some implication that the subject was foolish or careless in some way. Though some ideas came to me based on incidents I recalled on my own, or invented, a skim through the Darwin Awards did provide some inspirations.


Formula: The first five-foot iambic line opens with the “Poor X is dead” and followed by a statement which will have a fairly surface or conventional meaning, but will have a new meaning by line 3. The name of the character should in some way add to the effect and irony (ideally). The second line (4-foot iambic) sets up the situation, while the last line (3 foot iambic) finalizes the plot while altering the meaning of line 1. Line 2 and 3 can be considered a single unit, working together. Given the short span of lines 2-3, the last line can’t always be expected to carry the punch line (though I would consider that the ideal). Though the form seems to move best in iambs, since this is light verse, substitutions are certainly ok if done with craft (in no way muddling the smooth rhythm).


Here are a few representative examples of Poor Johns to demonstrate the form in action; several others appear in the Piezoelectric Piffle chapweb.


Poor Lucy’s dead, a girl who shone so bright,

for smoking while she sprayed her hair,

now gives more heat than light.



Poor Chris is dead; he is forever grounded,

for the Christmas lights were not unplugged

as he earlier propounded.



Poor Blythe is dead, a girl so sweet and light;

she caught the feather on the ledge,

which did not help her flight.

Experiments on Traditional Forms


Some of the poems on this site represent experiments with traditional forms. Below is some description of my experiments, with some additional explanations where that seems useful.




Poets have long created variations on the sonnet, so I am hardly in small company with my own variations; form-aware readers will no doubt spot such variations (either those rarer sonnet variants others have created, or my own), and there is no need to mark them out. I would note two pieces I call “super stretch sonnets” (like super stretch limos) which have an extra quatrain before the final couplet (so, not Meredith’s stretched sonnets which have an extra quatrain, but no couplet – thus super stretch sonnets have 18 lines, instead of Meredith’s 16). The stretch sonnets are essentially Shakespearean sonnets, with the extra quatrain, but still ending with a couplet. Two of these poems appear in the Our Outcast State chapweb: “Apocalypse Can Be Fun” and “The Dog Years” (though in its final version, I have cut one of the quatrains from "Dog Years" as too dated, though at the time of composition, it did seem necessary). Perhaps it is not incidental that these are comic pieces. I also have a sonnet with a double octet (though many would consider that well outside the sonnet's most liberal definitions). The poem "In Significance" can be found in the Awakes My Heart chapweb.


Transformer Sonnet


One sonnet experiment that is worth explaining here, with the example, is my Transformer Sonnet. It occurred to me that one could write a sonnet that could be arranged as a English sonnet and an Italian sonnet as long as one were careful the rhyme scheme obeyed the requirements of both (i.e. two sets of four rhymes for the Italian sonnet). I did not want to be prescriptive about where the lines end up, as long as the rhyme scheme is obeyed in each version (so the specific placement of lines here should not be taken as the only order, though I did try to separate the sets of 4 rhymes into two pairs with some distance from each other in the English sonnet). If this were a strictly Oulipian project, there would probably be an enforced order, but I value the ability of the resulting sonnets to make sense (which I think would be threatened by that stricture). I wish I had had time over the years to write a few more of these, but this is my only finished/acceptible example.



I: English Sonnet


We draw concentrics out with compass to start:

we map ourselves to other flesh, our face,

ourselves, the central point; the selfsame chart

the child that's learned to lie or trust will trace.


A gem cutter regards each facet's relation

to other faces; point by point we plot

the angles, peer inside to see light's agitation,

intentions like a storm-tossed argonaut.


We calculate and test hypotheses

from some expression we stretch to fit the case,

then we invent our own geometries

to navigate by mostly empty space.


Our feelings, ever our most primal thought,

form constellations as we go from dot to dot.



II: Italian Sonnet


We map ourselves to other flesh, our face

to other faces; point by point we plot

our feelings, ever our most primal thought,

from some expression we stretch to fit the case.


The child that's learned to lie or trust will trace

intentions like a storm-tossed argonaut:

form constellations as we go from dot to dot

to navigate by mostly empty space.


We draw concentrics out with compass; to start

a gem cutter regards each facet's relation;

we calculate and test hypotheses,

ourselves, the central point (the selfsame), chart

the angles, peer inside to see light's agitation,

then we invent our own geometries.


Potential Sonnet

As I’ve noted above, I’ve written a few poems inspired by some experiments by the OULIPO. The ultimate example of one technique is A Hundred Million Million Poems by Raymond Queneau: a book of ten sonnets on ten precisely stacked pages, cut so that each line is separated, allowing readers to create the title’s number of variations by choosing each line from one of the ten sonnets.

I have three qualms.

The first is primary and is a frequent dislike I have with a few Oulipian techniques: meaning is not much of a concern. Understandably, the OULIPO did not place that as the core of their mission, which I will summarize as “find or create as many forms of potential literature as possible and supply one example.” The focus is discovery, experimentation and documentation. The OULIPO are the scientists, the poets the technologists seeking to make use of the knowledge discovered. And I, at least, am not willing to give up meaning, communication, or beauty. In addition, the OULIPO put a premium on “potential” literature (i.e. pieces that remain unactualized). For how ever many people have perused (one hesitates to say “read”) Queneau’s book, most of the sonnets have not been read by anyone and remain only potential. Again, I prefer actual pieces to potential ones (and ones that take somewhat less than several lifetimes to read). The final difference is that some of the ideas are used to make forms that are extremes. This too makes meaning less likely, or even possible. I feel that all these have been barriers to the work of the OULIPO influencing more poets and attracting more readers.


One might thus envision a poem that has many variations (even enough that some might remain potential for many readers) but is not so extreme as to preclude meaning.


The poem below is a sonnet, and one word in each line is a choice between two words that are homophones (which keeps any variation of the poem sonically identical to any other version). The reader can choose which option they want and continue reading. The two-word title allows the reader two choices for each word of the title. Overall these modifications of Queneau's scheme allow flexibility to have a coherent (if dreamlike) arc, some thematic development, etc. I apologize for the rather simple formatting; more elaborate web formatting (like a floating menu when hovering a cursor over the variation word) often did not seem to work as planned in many browsers.


A quick final note about the piece’s workshop history. I originally brought this to my workshop group some years ago as an April Fool’s poem. Each reader had a different printed version of the poem. I read the poem (which sounds the same no matter what words are used). The group was able to figure out the “trick” about halfway through the 15 minute critique session.


No/Know Chants/Chance


Bright cymbals/symbols hover out in space, expectant:

Big Bang an echo still, a note once rung/wrung

from singularity, the real/reel unfurling,

a whole/hole from which the stars and worlds have sprung.


Immense sighs/size – galaxies wide, and space between:

and rapt/wrapped each night in sheets of stars and sky,

we wonder, search and feel for telling phrase/frays

that might bear novas to the naked I/eye.


The wise/whys are asked; they point the way to others.

The cynics tongue will whet/wet each word and spit

that glimmerings of thought can not be mined/mind.

What then our faint sense/scents of the infinite?

Our wonder is the cord/chord that binds again

the sought and seeker — world/whirled without end, amen.



I also have one “stretch villanelle” with an extra line in each stanza (making quatrains instead of the usual tercet): “Décolletage” in Our Outcast State. Villanelles have only 2 lines per stanza to advance an idea, and in that case, I needed more, so I broke the form. I think it is worth considering as a form, though, as it does still seem to have the villanelle’s strength derived from the repetons, but gives a poet a little more room to develop an idea. I would note, however, though I have written a quite a few villanelle’s since, I have never felt the need to write another stretch villanelle. I have an example of an odd villanelle variation, the “villanoid” form devised by Ryan Peeters. In brief, it moves the repetons around the stanza (not always coming at the end of the tercets). I found it a very nice match for a specific idea I had; the form might only be useful for very specific concepts, and would lack the flexibility of most of the traditional forms. It was an interesting experiment. “Upon Her Face Briefly Reflected in my Watch Glass” can be found in the Awakes My Heart chapweb.




I have one experimental alteration of the sestina, what I have called a tercina. There are other variations of the sestina: the shorter quatrina, as well as longer variations with many more lines than the sestina. But I hadn’t encountered a variation rotating around 3 end words. The tercina consists of three stanzas of three lines, with the end word of each rotating as it would in a sestina. A single final line repeats each of the end words (given the pile of 3s, I also wrote it in an anapest dominant line). Here is the example:




From the corner of his eye, he sees three-fifths of a thigh

as a girl in halter and skirt sways past on roller blades;

too awed and tongue-tied to flirt, he’s joined the religion of skin.


He’s been struck dumb as his grin, wanders gardens of skin

under the solstice sun. Blesséd heat bares the thigh,

and to show it’s just begun, unveils the shoulder blades.


A swim-suited girl in shades reclines on grassy blades

like a begging Hindu fakir, her fortune a faith in skin:

so near to touch, so near: a cheek, an arm, a thigh.


Soon the sun’s last blades of light caress the twilight’s skin, the moon a pearly thigh.





The paradelle isn’t exactly a traditional form. Billy Collins created it as a hoax of French forms and the poor poetry of those who attempted those forms without sufficient skill. However, the form then attracted poets, understanding the hoax but wanting to test their skills against the form. Enough interesting paradelles were written to inspire a book of paradelles. I had one of my paradelles accepted for publication in that book. My standard paradelle (“Paradelle: Return”) appears in the Awakes My Heart chapweb on this site. The paradelle that was published in the book was my alteration of the paradelle. In writing my first paradelle, the repeated lines reminded me of blues stanza. I reorganized the paradelle to intersperse the two repeating lines in each stanza with the two non-repeating lines, thus created two blues stanzas (without the rhyme) in each paradelle stanza. It otherwise follows all the paradelle requirements. Here is the result.


Blues Paradelle: Noir


I haunt the empty street that has her name.

I haunt the empty street that has her name,

and I alone but for the corner street light.

Alone but for the corner light and the fog.

Alone but for the corner light and the fog,

the empty fog, the haunt that has her name.


My trench coat like a weary face, I stand.

My trench coat like a weary face, I stand

in a fallacy like my trench coat

in a pathetic fallacy of rain,

in a pathetic fallacy of rain:

A weary face of rain, I stand, pathetic.


Just some true-blue cliché or B-movie,

just some true-blue cliché or B-movie

hero who's down and blue, or just gut shot.

Down and gut shot, so who's big hero now?

Down and gut shot, so who's big hero now?

Some big B-movie cliché, now so true.


So light the shot: a blue. Some movie rain.

The street. That corner. Big trench coat. And a

pathetic hero, weary and alone.

But I just stand, for down true in my gut,

haunt-like, I face the fallacy of has.

Who's B—? her name now empty fog, or cliché.


(First published in anthology The Paradelle ed. Theresa M. Welford, Red Hen Press, 2005.)

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