Poetic Form and Writers of Color

On the Poetry Foundation blog, Craig Santos Perez has conducted a great interview with John Murillo, who is the author of Up Jump the Boogie, newly released by Cypher Books, whose growing catalog I’ve really been enjoying. Here is a noteworthy excerpt from the interview:

There are several formal poems in your book, and I was especially interested in your sestinas. What draws you to this form?

… In general, form is a way for me to learn. Each form has the potential to teach something about composing that you couldn’t get anywhere else. Sonnets, for instance, teach you how to pace, how to turn and pivot, set up and reveal, an argument or narrative. You learn about line and compression and waste when you have only a few syllables to work with. A set meter. Haiku teaches compression as well, integrity of image. Pantoums and villanelles teach you to respect the line as unit–if you write one bad line, it’ll come back at least once to bite you in the ass–and so on. Finally, I consider it part of the necessary apprenticeship one must serve–that one should feel honored to serve–in order to enter into this guild. I really do consider this a sacred tradition, this being a poet. One should want to study.

These were the kinds of conversations I had with my Mills College students in Creative Writing class. I am glad my students were convinced from the onset; the entire course was dedicated to poetic forms, what specific cultural contexts do specific forms arise in, what forms fit what types of narratives (or is it vice versa). I liken poetic forms to tools. The right tool for the right job, a specific tool for a specific job (If you always use duct tape to hold shit together…).

Another thing I made sure to do for that class was to present very diverse poets writing in form: ghazals by Justin Chin and Agha Shahid Ali, pantoums by Nellie Wong and France Chung, sestinas by Bao Phi and Daphne Gottlieb, sonnets by Jack Agüeros and Claude McKay, haiku by Adrian Castro and Bino A. Realuyo, heroic couplets by Rhina P. Espaillat and Thom Gunn, and so on. I also made sure to discuss both closed and open forms — sonnet, pantoum, ghazal, villanelle, forms with specific formalistic constraints; and then aubade, ode, pastoral, elegy, in which the restrictions are in tone, subject matter, etc. There was never any argument or resistance from my students; the fact is that people of color have written and continue to write in poetic forms. Moreover, poetic forms come from cultures all over the world, and not just from white people.

What I did not discuss in this course, because it didn’t fit in my syllabus, was that some poetic forms are considered “high culture,” to be sung and recited in churches, and some are considered “low culture,” in which “low culture” means of the “common folk,” the kind of bawdy verse you sing in pubs with rounds of whiskey or ale (think of the limerick, for example). And apparently, some of these “low culture” verse forms were appropriated by those of the “high culture,” in order to lure the common folk to church.

At AWP, Tara Betts spoke as a panelist on the Afro American Formalism panel; from the get-go, she and her fellow panelists engaged in debunking the myth that people of color do not write in poetic form, that somehow our experiences as people of color in the USA necessitate the writing of poems solely in free verse. Tara spoke at length about African American poets who have written in poetic form. For example, activist poet June Jordan, taking on the Chinese tang poem, which contains no tenses, pronouns, prepositions — one challenge here becomes how to discuss human relationships, love, power. Who is doing or saying what to whom? How do we do this? As poets, we find a way for the form to work to our advantage. We stretch what we can do with language, with the meanings and sounds of words and the images they elicit, with lines, line breaks, music. As poets, we should welcome these challenges. Tara also spoke of African American poets who have invented poetic forms, such as the bop and the kwansaba. So that’s another thing we are free to do — take on the challenge of creating traditions.

Where did these ideas originate, that poetic form was somehow the tool of the white male hetero oppressor, and that our experiences as people of color could only be communicated in free verse? That if we choose to write in poetic form, we are somehow turning our backs on our own communities, precisely because poetic form and structured verse are too frequently considered white, academic, and archaic (hence, irrelevant to our contemporary experiences). So I refer back to Craig’s interview with John Murillo:

Like a lot of inner city kids, my first experiences with poetry were aural. And the first poets I listened to were rappers. Years of listening to such artists as Big Daddy Kane, Black Thought, Bahamadia, and Big Pun, just to name a few, will do wonders for your ear.

So when I got to poetry proper, I had a long foreground, much exposure to such sound devices as rhyme, alliteration, rhythm, meter. I was also familiar with–before I had vocabulary for them–such things as metaphor and simile, narrative arc and lyric epiphany.

Credit the battle rhymers.


Barbara Jane Reyes

Author of Gravities of Center, Poeta en San Francisco, and Diwata. Adjunct professor in Philippine Studies at University of San Francisco.


  1. Good post. I don’t want to generalize, and say that writers of color have a fear and resistance to form – but sometimes I feel like we have moved away from writing as something challenging, as something that challenges us to say the right thing in a precise way. Form, among other things, really makes you think of how you’re saying things. I’m not sure free verse always does that – and I’d like to think my free verse is better because I write in form. But I do find myself putting more pressure on the line, more pressure on word choice, more pressure on how the writing enacts the feeling when I write in form and I find myself, in writing free verse, letting revision move me towards moments of rhyme – towards a heightened awareness of the internal rhythms of the line. I think that’s how free verse gets at what form chases – but whatever, thanks for posting this. John’s book is vicious – if you haven’t read it, check out the crown of sonnets Renegades of Funk. He not only works the traditional sonnet, but he makes content and form bind, so that there are moments where the sonnet becomes a blues sonnet, to match the content of the poem. It’s actually pretty fly and a good example of how form can push you to saying something real.

    • Thanks for your comment Dwayne, and as always, it’s good to hear from you.

      So re: “sometimes I feel like we have moved away from writing as something challenging, as something that challenges us to say the right thing in a precise way.” I haven’t heard it articulated this way, but not now that I have, I agree with you. Why do you think this is? And what are we moving towards, and by whom? Is this for poetry in general, or for poets of color?

      I am wondering how much this has to do with a supposedly liberatory practice that I view as a misconception that the “truth” of “our” experiences belongs in free verse and cannot be contained/fettered by poetic form, as well as a general distrust of institutional language.

      Anyway, that’s loaded. But yes, I agree with you on the way practicing form heightens our writing processes, sharpens the ear, our poetic choices, etc. I also believe as Murillo says above, in apprenticeship and that work towards mastery, that we are a part of that great and even sacred tradition. I keep thinking those who are resistant towards literary tradition because of its perceived place in the academy perhaps overlook the fact that even great, non-western oral traditions have very similar structures of apprentices and masters.

      (Finally, we have Murillo’s book here and I haven’t read it yet. I do plan to soon.)

      • BJR,

        Let me see if I can articulate this. But before I do, let me preface the statement. I enjoy reading the blog because you ask interesting questions, raise interesting issues. And yet, I very much look at my blog reading (literary blog reading) as a mechanic talking shop with other mechanics. I don’t count it as something my wife, my friends (who aren’t writers) or the average person would care about.

        This is fine, a good thing. But the problem I see is that some poets have begun to look at writing as shop talk – and far from making the writing more technically nuanced (in the effort to make the poem run better) it’s just been to make it easier to do (because no one is driving the car). So you take form – it’s an evident thing, you have to work it, you have to think about what word comes next, how the words go together and you have to wonder if anyone cares.

        I guess my point is the personal has every right to be in the lyric, but the poet should wonder if anyone cares, wonder why Those Winter Sundays resonates after so many years. It can’t just be because it’s this poem in homage to a father. It’s the internal rhymes, it’s the word choice, it’s the slow building argument – the polished my good shoes.

        Even our free verse (huge generalization) has been watered down, functioning without metaphor, without simile, without the cohesion and music that distinguished poetry from prose. I guess I’m troubled. We live on subject matter or lack of subject matter. The irony is, all of us, are a part of the western literary tradition. We resist, we ignore, and we do it all at our own peril, because this is the tradition we own, the tradition born out of the dialect we speak and write in.

  2. I agree with most of everything said here. I just want to add to the conversation this idea: the fact that, though free verse/free form is often considered the absence of form itself, perhaps it may be better to conceive of it as just another form, complete with its own internal logic, limitations, etc. To me, this helps better in writing. It’s not this vs. that. Do I decide to write “freely” or “formally”? Rather, I’m always involved with form, with specifically, as Dwayne puts it, the line, and so I have to find (whether consciously or not) how that line is to move along the page. A final thought: though I have seen many a free verse poem that would have benefited from the constraints many forms require, I have also read many a sonnet (for example) that would have sung better “free.”

    Good post.


    • Rickey,

      True – free verse is really another form. But, and maybe this is because most writers seem to know all of these things, discussion of poems in free verse seem devoid of discussion of the things that make the poems jump (outside of subject matter). So, I rarely have found discussion of internal rhyme and all the rhyme subsets (assonance, alliteration, consonance), I’ve rarely found discussion of anaphora, of all the other rhetorical devices. And I’m speaking really as a writer, as someone who has found these things to be what makes my good writing good, and what appeals to me in other folks writing. I guess my point is – you can’t discuss a sonnet without engaging in discussion of, at least, rhyme and word choice. You can talk about a free verse poem without that same discussion (not that you should, just maybe free verse doesn’t have a rigid prosody as formal verse does).

      And for me – I don’t think any poem would be better this way or that – I think that the sonnet that seems to sing better if it were free, just isn’t written as well. And the free verse poem that seems to be begging to be a sonnet, just isn’t written as well.

      Thanks for jumping in though. Makes the conversation live. I see now I sound like I’m a formalist.

  3. Hi Dwayne and Rickey, thanks for the great discussion here.

    Dwayne, I like what you say here: “Even our free verse (huge generalization) has been watered down, functioning without metaphor, without simile, without the cohesion and music that distinguished poetry from prose. I guess I’m troubled. We live on subject matter or lack of subject matter.”

    I think we can all agree that at our best, our free verse is indeed informed by formalistic concerns of line, meter, refrain, etc. and then on top of that, figurative language, these poetic devices which indeed make the poem memorable. So we have been making all kinds of generalizations here re: free verse meaning absence of form, and I should then qualify that the poetry to which I’m referring when I discuss being unfettered by poetic constraints is the poetry which is absent of the rigors of the above.

    Related to my thoughts on literary traditions, too often I see poetry taught as that easy anything goes thing, unlike the (thought to be) more rigorous novel, and scholarly writing. But we can be thoroughly rigorously poetic via our various oral traditions in our families and cultural spaces, and I do not think we should teach our students of color to fear literary traditions. I really think we should engage them in serious examination and discussion of these, and hence elevate the traditions in which we place ourselves.

  4. This is news to me. While I have heard the argument that black poets are only taken seriously if they present the politics of “the struggle,” I had not heard anything that implied we can’t write in form or that to do so was to deny our blackness. Interesting. So, I would have had the same question you raised in your post, “Where did these ideas originate, that poetic form was somehow the tool of the white male hetero oppressor, and that our experiences as people of color could only be communicated in free verse?” Could it be that they originated in the same place that sent us the idea that to speak English properly is to “be white”?

  5. The post above sets me off on a number of considerations of form and identity politics that have been with me for a while now. Ms. Reyes asks (at least half rhetorically):

    Where did these ideas originate, that poetic form was somehow the tool of the white male hetero oppressor, and that our experiences as people of color could only be communicated in free verse?

    Clearly there’s no absolute connection between particular cultures and particular forms, though someone could go into “Elizabethan mode” when writing a sonnet, or “turn Japanese” in sensibility to make a tanka–but there’s no need to. In fact, forms translate more readily across cultural & social barriers than languages, and even when a form is altered (say, by the longer, more varied syllables of English vs Japanese, or the shift from 5 rhymes to 7 when the sonnet moves from Italian to the relatively rhyme-poor English) it may be that everyone benefits from the new option(s).

    I love disciplined forms for what they do, in turn, to my wild forms, as Dwayne mentions is true for him. And in the “rush” experienced when a poet switches from sonnet writing to, say, a Whitmanic catalogue poem, there’s felt freedom that I doubt a poet who’s only ever written free verse is versed in.

    It seems to me that the most immediate answer to why we would feel that formality (understood usually as following British prosody) is analogous to “white hetero oppression” is one that’s pretty stale, now. T.S. Eliot was something of a prude, something of an anti-semite, and after about 1927 was a thoroughgoing Britophile who would deny an independent American literature. He was, of course, the most influential poet-critic of the 30′s and 40′s, at least in the universities. The prudish, somewhat oppressive, white male poet critics he inspired taught scansion and highly analytical close reading and wouldn’t admit minority poets or feminist voices into their journals (I recall John Crowe Ransom rejecting a poem he’d initially accepted for the Partisan?Kenyon? Review by the amazing Robert Duncan once he discovered that Duncan was gay). So by the 50′s and 60′s, when counter-culture was arriving and more and more non-mainstream (not even sure what I could mean by that) voices were publishing themselves outside the university lit-culture, it must have seemed that the divide was stark: Square vs. Beat, Populist vs. Elite, Formal vs. Free. Such was the polarity of those times, and a lot of splendid energy for composition was unleashed, especially when formally adept poets “defected” into free-verse (Adrienne Rich, Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Lowell–even Ginsberg, whose early work when he was at Columbia was in staid quatrains and such until W.C.Williams talked him into his American-idiom-means-free-verse idea), energy that seemed part and parcel of a moral and spiritual expansion.

    But–as much as I hate admitting it–we’re a long way from the polarities of the 60′s, and free-versers fill the academies now (and have for 40+ years!). It’s interesting to reflect on how, in the 1920′s, when almost every white-male-hetero poet who wanted to write contemporary verse was breaking from iambs, most of the Harlem Renaissance poets were finding the prosody of the British Romantics adequate to their purposes.

  6. Hi folks, thanks for your thoughts and historical considerations here. Yes Tyson, the question is really rhetorical, so my answer to Nordette would be yes, it would be the same folks who say that to speak “proper” English is to be white. What I have been most interested in is the racialized stigma against formal study of poetry, whether this can be communicated as a “spoken word vs academic poetry” or “street versus academy” argument, in which academic poetry is overgeneralized as conformist, forwarding the values of the structures of power, and not only not relevant to the members of our communities, but serve to counter the community’s needs and interests (Form and conform, of course, but battle rhymers are not formless). This is communicated to me, but not this articulately, in academic settings by people with as many or more degrees than I have, and who hold professorial positions, and I don’t get it.

    (Quraysh Ali Lansana has an essay in the Black Issues Book Review, “Sibling rivalries: literary poetry versus spoken word: why does the divide exist and what does it mean?” which I need to get a copy of.)

    • I’d agree with you that the idea that formal poetry (almost a redundancy to my ear) is “merely academic” and that “following rules” in a technical way is always already following the rules of conservative (and hence non-white–but then Zora Neale Hurston was politically conservative) culture, is something commonly presumed in our present academia. It is not presumed by everyone: Marilyn Hacker, whom I’ve had the pleasure to study with at City College, has been demonstrating since the late 60′s that radical social perspective and the most disciplined forms can work together. This ideological stigma on form strikes me as along the lines of politicians who are always on their way to Washington to clean up government…until they fit in as new cogs in the old machinery of unfair advantages. The academies have been priviledging identity politicians for generations now, and no one who is comfy in their position wants to pull out the foundation of formal looseness if it would disrespect the elder revolutionaries-in-verse, from whom the new revolutionaries need tenure votes. On a purely aesthetic level (which the identity politicians claim we can never be on) there’s no real problem with form. By this I mean that a poet’s formal choices can have multiple relationships to that poet’s content (analogous, complementary, adversarial, etc.). Form IS something more than an extension of content.

    • Thanks Dwayne. I also just downloaded a PDF of the Sibling Rivalries essay (I’m on campus today). Would love to see the Nelson article. Pls do email bjanepr at gmail dot com.

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