Poetry Forms: Haiku and Free Verse
Nature Poetry Forms
Today we’re going to focus on two poetry forms in this article: the haiku and free-verse. I discuss them briefly, as well as give some ideas as how to implement them in nature poetry.
This is part 2 of a continually evolving, multipart article. If you’re looking on the methodology of how to start working with nature to craft poetry, click on the link here.
The haiku has been done and redone to death, but it’s still no less powerful when it’s employed correctly. It has a reputation for a strict adherence to three lines, syllable counts (5-7-5), and being something that’s “profound” or “enlightening.” All of these are valid points, but there is so much more to the haiku.
Finding its origin in Japan as part of renga poems, the haiku is also a nature poem. What many don’t realize, however, is that even the masters bend the rules of haiku when it makes sense. Read this translated haiku:
Matsuo Basho (1643-1694):
The wind of Fuji
I’ve brought on my fan
A gift from Edo.
You may notice that it does not stick to the 5-7-5 syllable pattern (in this translation it’s 5-5-5). Since it is a translation, try counting the syllables in Japanese:
Fuji no kaze ya
ōgi ni nosete
It still doesn’t follow the pattern (it’s 6-7-5). This is because the most important part of the poem is the content. While many haiku do stick to the syllable count, the world isn’t going to split in half when it doesn’t exactly follow the pattern. Hell, some haiku keep the 17 total syllables, but have them all over the place.
Consider another by Basho:
The cry of the cicada
Gives us no sign
That presently it will die.
This one does follow the syllable pattern (when read in Japanese), but more important is the image. A haiku creates a snapshot, and then takes that image and twists it with an “ah-ha!” moment. In this case, the “ah-ha” moment rips us away from the lively (and annoying) cicada sound to the sobering reality that it has in fact spent most of its life silent and underground. The cry is actually the cicada near the end of its life. (Fun fact: Basho wrote this haiku just a few short years before his own death.)
For your own haikus, start by trying to stick to the 5-7-5 syllable pattern (remember what you learned in grade school about “tapping out” syllables). While haiku don’t necessarily have to adhere to these syllable patterns, it’s helpful to keep your poem tight. Consider your power lines and search for an image or a single moment in time. Tighten down syllable count by cutting away the adverbs and eliminating adjectives. Searching for better nouns and verbs is an artform, so don’t beat yourself up if you can’t think of better words.
The “ah-ha!” moment usually occurs after a line break, making the image 1-2 lines long, with the remainder being the “ah-ha!” moment. Think of it like the punchline of a joke, or a plot twist in a story. It’s usually somewhat unexpected, but relative to the subject.
In the example of Basho’s haiku above, the first line is the image (or sound), the second line warns of an “ah-ha!” moment, and the third line snaps us back to the reality of death. Taking two lines for his “ah-ha!” moment is effective (despite it being about death) because it slows down the thought. Basho effectively lulls us out of the crying call of the cicada into the harsh reality of death.
You should think about what does this image mean? What happens next? If you’re good at it, think about your snapshot as a metaphor. If you’re using figurative language, though, use a metaphor rather than a simile. Metaphors generally create more impact than similes (similes use “like” or “as”).
Of these two poetry forms, free verse is exactly what it sounds like: free. Free verse means a type of poetry that doesn’t constrain itself to any sort of rhythm, rhyme pattern, or a meter (the syllable hard/soft counts plus number of counts). Free verse can have as many lines as you want, and lines can be as long as you want.
It sounds easy, right?
Slow down there, cheetah. Free verse is actually hard. It’s part of the reason poetry got a bad rap as something anyone could write on-the-fly. (Which they can do, actually, but that doesn’t make it good poetry.)
The poet needs to pay attention to how the words sound, often composing over and over until they sound right. The subject matter of the poem is often mimicked in the sound of the poem, and sometimes that requires using the things free verse doesn’t “need.”
“The Pool” – H.D.
Are you alive?
I touch you.
You quiver like a sea-fish.
I cover you with my net.
What are you—banded one?
“When I Heard the Learned Astronomer” – Walt Whitman
When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
See the difference?
H.D.’s poem (Hilda Doolittle) is done with short lines and written in the present-tense. There are no patterns, nor are there rhymes. The only thing approaching a pattern is the continued use of you. She does this to keep pointing the poem back at the reader. All of these short lines convey the idea of quick, rapid questioning.
Walt Whitman’s poem has long lines, makes use of repetition, and has no rhyme pattern. It has a more dream-like quality that sort of rolls from line-to-line. What’s really effective here is how he used much longer lines at first to convey complexity. He switched to slightly shorter lines to convey more simplicity.
Free verse doesn’t have to stick to patterns but it has to pay attention to what and how it’s said. Sometimes the poem needs devices.
It’s all about making it sound right.
For your poem, consider your power lines and arrange them on the paper in the order that makes the most sense. It doesn’t have to tell a story, but it should form some sort of image.
Now begins the hard part. Read the words out loud and note where you naturally pause. If it’s a long pause, that’s the end of a sentence or a place for a period, question mark, or exclamation point. If the stop is shorter, it might be a comma, dash, colon, or semicolon. When the pause is only for you to catch your breath, that’s just a line break without any other marks. Read it out loud and change any words that sound off.
Also, you don’t have to put long pauses only at the end of a line. Sometimes you need to stop in the middle of a line. This is called enjambment.
I know…I said it’s hard, right?
The length of the lines and the sound of the words should be the first things you practice with free verse. Short lines speed up the poem, longer lines slow it down. Choose words that reflect the mood of the poem. For example, jabs and whispers connotate two different feelings, but both could be used to describe the movement of wind.
If it’s not a masterpiece on your first edit, you failed.
I’m kidding. Sometimes poems need reworked hundreds of times until they sound right. Other times (rarely), it’s right from the start. And, of course, there are the times you have to play with different forms to get the poem you want.
A Final Word
That’s just two of many forms. Nature poetry can take forms generally used for other subjects (like odes or dodoitsu). Do a little research and try other forms.
Note: The crafting of poetry may be beyond your youngest writers. That’s okay! Journaling is therapeutic in its own right. Here are a few extra ideas based on the ages and skills of your young ones:
- Pre-writing kids can journal with images alone. Sketching is an awesome activity for a hike!
- Grade school kids may get cramped hands. Also okay! Have them write and sketch.
- Older grade school kids might want to start with haiku. You’ll have to work with them, but they should know how to count syllables.
- Save free verse poems for middle school kids and beyond. Once they’ve practiced counting syllables and reading their lines out loud, they’ve started to develop an ear for poetry. Time to let the words work for themselves!
- Older kids may want to work on other forms of poetry. Do a little research with them and try things like villanelles, rondels, ghazals, and triolets.
So whatever the skill level, anyone can benefit from on-the-trail journaling and the crafting of nature poetry.
And, again, if you need a little more help with how this all goes down, check out my example link on how I do it.
Want more? Here is a list resources to help you write your own nature poetry. Some of them are all about poetry forms, some of them are all about devices. Give them a look when you’re ready to take your nature poetry to the next level!
- List of 100 Poetic Forms for Poets – Writer’s Digest
- A Beginner’s Guide to the Different Types of Poems – Book Riot
- Glossary of Poetic Terms – Academy of American Poets
- Nine Different Types of Poems (for kids) – Penguin
- 55 Types of Poetry Forms – Poem of Quotes
- The 20 Poetic Devices You Must Know – PrepScholar
- Elements of Poetry – Literacy Ideas