Using Forms

Read this excerpt from Honor Moore's essay, "The Walls of the Room," from the book A Formal Feeling Comes: Poems in Form by Contemporary Women

I wasn't going to be incarcerated in "their" forms, was how I saw it in 1970. I was infused with the energies of feminism - we were inventing a new poetry... Then I was seduced, in readings I heard Marilyn Hacker give, by the sestina. The incantatory dramatics of the recurring end-words haunted and challenged me... The poem came, taking dramatic, sequential shape in the sestina form. Its restraint became the walls of the room, the recurrence of end words a verbal equivalent for the relentlessness of the molester's intentions. Embraced in its sure architecture, the violated child, silenced for thirty years, is free to tell her story...

In her poem, "FIRST TIME: 1950" (from Memoir: Poems), Honor Moore takes the unspoken story and frees it by putting it into the "sure architecture" of the sestina form. The sestina is a difficult 39 line poetic form. For every poet who finds the sestina (or form in general) to be restrictive, another finds it freeing. Perhaps, for a difficult subject - one we are too close to - it allows the writer to focus on the form and not on the emotions.

The sestina form: Six 6-line stanzas (sestets) with a concluding 3-line stanza (called the envoy.) The last word of each line in the first stanza must be a last word of a line in each stanza. In the strict following of this form, it would follow a regular order of: 123456 615243 364125 532614 451362 246531. The envoy has three of the 6 rhyme words at the ends of its lines; the other three words should be in the middle of the lines.

Take a difficult subject - one you have not addressed in poetry or one you have avoided. It need not be confessional in nature. Take notes on what you want to say, but begin the poem using a form. A sestina would be challenging, but other forms (sonnet, villanelle, triolet etc.) can also be used. Your form does not have to be "strict" - that is, your sestina might not follow the regular order.

Also by Honor Moore: Darling, (Grove Atlantic, 2001). Her biography of her grandmother, the painter Margarett Sargent, The White Blackbird, was a New York Times Notable Book in 1996.


I am looking for one good ride.
A ride that rouses me, razzles dazzles me.
A sight seeing excursion
when my eyes will be satisfied, making pictures
of how beautiful the way it is people walk,
the weight of their surroundings.

Sitting in paralysis, gleaning seductive Sunday surroundings
time becomes photographic miles.
Light flickers, fabricates passers bye.
Speed increases. Trailing closed car window.
I bless this freedom with my wanderings.
And where I sit immovable with watching eye.

My wrist watch tattoos digital numbers on a purple eye.
This good ride is clocked with driver's minute wages.
I suck in every sight. As tattoos tick.
Brusque stepping sneaky sneakered men, spiked heels
tripping still. Yes, even falling a slow step downward will
feed my inside camera's hungry motion.

Before ridgedness became my many layered emotion
I dreamt of mountain climbing.
Michelangelo and I soared the peaks, lay scaffolded
on clouds in painterly devotion, next to the ceiling of the sky,
brushing walls. Meticulously stroking.
And the heavens aroused, clapped with azure blue gratitude.

Hiking shoes no longer walk. Still there is this act of gratitude,
the weekly ride with camera close. It sweeps the negatives
away into a darkroom. Won't be missed.
As varnished floors the rawness gone, excited,
lifted up above the hills beyond the concrete weight of man,
into a photographic vision that will fascinate all empty walls.

In time the concrete highways will be gone.
No cement walls will separate illuminate the daily acts.
Computer clicks will magnify our inner sight.
And motion will be ingrained in imagination.
Walking will not answer us, except
in the inhalation of each colored breath.

I wait the weekly ride. My limbs gaze into motion's breath.
I've met the surroundings waking walls.
Camera seizes engulfs eyes, I shutter my life full gratitude.

Elizabeth P. Glixman

Estate Sale
(A Pantoum)

There is no order here,
the women shove and grab her things.
There are only bargains
sliding to the floor, being trod upon.

The women shove and grab her things.
Her silky private things
are sliding to the floor, being trod upon,
with linens that she monogrammed.

Her silky private things,
like headless harlots flung out on the bed,
on linens that she called by name
lie ready for strangers to take them.

Headless harlots flung out on the bed,
wilting in their fragile charms,
lie ready for strangers to make them
better lives out there.

Wilting in their fragile charms,
these slim bargains
wait for better lives somewhere.
There is no order here.

Ruth Zimmerman

(A Sestina)

"You know that Daddy stole my wedding ring."
He took it from his mother's memory-store
of his father's things. (The '18s dead-
ly Flu had taken him - so many gone
within that time ). As much too young a man,
he'd left his son behind, and all the love

he could have shared with him became a love
abandoned and neglected, with the ring
of NEVER, echoing. This stranger-man
became a symbol for his son to store
his sadness in - not understanding GONE,
he, only three, just couldn't fathom DEAD.

His present girl , however, wasn't dead.
This ring could be a token of HIS love.
His mother might not even find it gone,
he'd pondered, as he pocketed the ring
and planned to say he'd bought it at a store -
a wedding ring, because he's now a man!.

They say the child is father to the man.
Even though the father-figure's dead
the orphaned child must find some place to store
a memory of - or wished-for - father-love.
So, the boy felt passion for the ring
and knew she wouldn't care if it was gone.

Because she'd always said that gone is gone,
His mother'd found herself another man
whose love had bought a different finger ring.
Only children mourn the precious dead
as someone missed and lost to tender love.
The need for it the children always store

within their empty hearts. This barren store
cannot replenish nourishment. It's gone
forever. Thus, the need for lasting love -
as orphan child turned into orphan man -
became his passion, never really dead;
he said he'd marry with his Father's ring !

"So this, MY wedding ring, has fostered love
our man had never known. And thus the store
of agony is gone , and father dead."

Catherine M. LeGault


I don't know how to say no
to these ravenous pleas for my milk.
Nearly 3 - no longer a babe in arms,
Yet so strong is your need
to linger at my breast,
that I have let weaning wait.

Some days I cannot wait
for nursing to end, to no
longer have you clawing my breast,
pinching and pulling to draw the milk
down. How long will you need
to nestle, still a nursling in my arms?

Other days, I welcome you with open arms.
Nursing soothes a tantrum, a hurt, a long wait.
On days you want only hot dogs, I know you need
The nutrients I provide. Clearly, there is no
substitute for the immunities in my milk
or for the bond we forged at my breast.

Only minutes old, you put eager lips to my breast.
I held your new body in just one arm.
We learned the soft feel of each other, even before milk
filled us, flowing like warm nectar. I never made you wait
when you needed me. I smiled and said, "No
way," when people said to ignore your need

for this. It seems the most basic of needs.
Day by day now, our bliss at the breast
is less--but not your despair at hearing "no."
"Yummy milk," you plead, eyes wet, arms
raised. Too hard a denial. It is not in you to wait.
So I relent and console you, again, with my milk.

Why hurry really? These are the last days my milk
can be enough to fill your deepest needs.
We were once an island, letting the world wait.
Sometimes it's still enough: drifting to sleep at my breast,
my soft lullaby, your head cradled on my arm.
It's a security we spend our lives trying again to know.

So how can I say no? Weaning can wait
a little more. I'll go on giving milk from my breast
until you need to push free from my arms.

Lauren Cerruto


The shades of evening enfold a withering sight.
While dying day exhales and sinks to vapors
the poet dips her pen into the ink of night.

The winds about the house conflict in flight
as if to magnify her hour of labor.
The shades of evening enfold a withering sight

pouring their purple wherever they alight,
as though of royalty bestowing favor.
The poet dips her pen into the ink of night.

The little hours tick and grow toward light,
and churning winds ruffle the flickering taper.
The shades of evening enfold a withering sight.

The moon sends sleep to heap the poet's plight.
But she dare not face another dawn's disfavor.
The poet dips her pen into the ink of night

to defy again her faltering fate, not quite
aware of prosaic demons that haunt her chamber.
The shades of evening enfold a withering sight.
The poet dips her pen into the ink of night.

Gaetana Cannavo

a sestina

The frosty man throws out a challenge,
Give me form, sonnet, quatrain, sestina.
Are you bold enough to venture in the sea
Or carry back the moon as a wet parcel.
You have complained there is no touching
But you weren't afraid to go on sand, love.

You look back in disdain at our love
Yet other plain spirits know the challenge
You call sad, bathetic and untouching.
That's you, with your cold in our sestina.
Love's short breathe carries an empty parcel,
The sand in your crotch needs a stiff sea.

Now your poetics. " I, Venus of the sea,
Botticellian dancer of big O, love.
Once your hand gave me a pearl parcel
That you fetched me to answer my challenge,
Then lines and words were strung in sestina.
Now here, we tough it out, it is touching."

Your grand gestures in wind is touching
To the doomed sailors on the sea
Who chant a grim rhymeless sestina
To mermaids who untouched, long so, for love.
The awkward dancer Andersen did challenge
Them to take his exaggerate parcel.

The Robert Frosty postman has a parcel
To give to us, and I think it touching
That it contains plain thoughts but old challenges
Who coming on chaste snow, drifts away to sea.
Once touching laughter pulled back our love
So we sang out but not in sestina.

D the hand of God in Capella Sistina
Stretches forth in a cloud, a wrapped parcel.
Can one doubt our awe, at furious love
When we have been eye closed, lost in touch,
Our frightened hands avoid this blackest sea
Unwilling to grasp a fluid challenge.

If this sestina has been touching
Think of a sea weed parcel, all we see
Of a long drowned love and an odd old challenge.

Edward N. Halperin

a modified sonnet

My world abounds with competition for my love’s attention.
Most amongst them is his second wife.
There is between them not much of a connection,
They see each other a few times a year in our current life.
But should they see each other more it would not matter,
For warm welcomes which greet her at family gatherings
Mock my importance, diminish my status; I cannot be heard above the chatter.
From her I have heard no mutterings
That she feels wronged by her ex spouse or me.
Alas, life’s spark is gone. I need excitement that will go my way.
I want to see if I am able to control the family,
Exclude her from everything by all I say.
My husband loves a fight; we will both enjoy this one.
Though they may all ignore us, the fight will speak to us, hon.

Ellen Kaplan

(sort of sestina)

There's so much more to love,
she thought, sorting her sex
like dirty laundry, old
clothes in a basket, blood
stains on panties, tissue
forgotten in pockets - dryer mess,

lint of life's mess -
can't clean that up, love,
don't bother - sticks like brain tissue
blown on a wall from a gun's sex,
gun's semen, blood
congealed, hiding its face, old

cells, secret, dead, ashamed, old
dirty panties, someone's mess.
Jesus left His blood
out of love,
they said, but He never had sex -
if He did, would it blow Him away? Like tissue?

Grandma warned, 'use a tissue,
not your sleeve.' What did she know? Old
lady talked about sex
in whispers - 'don't make a mess' - he said, 'love.'
Love go away - too much blood.

Ketchup looks like blood -
wipes off with tissue
forgotten in your pocket, love -
a mess, old
sticky mess - 'clean that up!' 'Sex

revives the dead,' I said, 'but the dead don't have sex
or ketchup for their hot dogs.' Blood
is a transfusion - think of that without the mess,
useful like a new box of tissue.
Throw out the old -
don't leave it in your pocket, love.

'So much more to love than sex,'
her old, dead head, brain tissue
stuck, dried blood making a mess, forgotten in a pocket, a pocket.








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