Author of 'Hiding Ezra,' 'Her Secret Dream: New and Selected Poems', 'Something Solid to Anchor To' and 'The Mad Farmer's Wife'

Rita Quillen’s novel Hiding Ezra is forthcoming in 2014 from Little Creek Books; it was a finalist in the 2005 DANA Awards competition, and a chapter of the novel is included in the new scholarly study of Appalachian dialect just published by the University of Kentucky Press entitled Talking Appalachian.

One of six finalists for the 2012-14 Poet Laureate of Virginia, her poetry received a Pushcart nomination as well as a Best of the Net nomination in 2012. Her most recent collection Her Secret Dream, new and selected poems, is from Wind Press in Kentucky and was named the Outstanding Poetry Book of the Year by the Appalachian Writers Association in 2008.  Previous works are poetry collections October Dusk and Counting The Sums, as well as a book of essays Looking for Native Ground: Contemporary Appalachian Poetry.

 She lives and farms on Early Autumn Farm in Scott County, Virginia.


 “Figure Skating” in Words!

     Nowadays, most modern poets work almost exclusively in free verse, maybe occasionally in blank verse, but rarely in the kinds of strict forms, such as sonnets, villanelles, sestinas, etc., that poets of the last century might have.  There is, however, a bit of a revival of interest in forms, and there are magazines and contests specifically asking for them.

     Even if you aren’t that enthused by the thought,or aren’t all that pleased with the results of your efforts, I believe you can benefit from the attempt at formal poetry.  I have found attempting to work with forms is very good exercise for our poetry muscles, in the same way that skaters who really hope to be brilliant on the ice must practice hours and hours and cutting perfect figure 8’s and other designs in the ice. Rather than inhibiting them and stifling their creativity and self-expression, it is that discipline and concentration that leads them to their best work. (By the way, Wikipedia has a great little article summarizing everything you ever wanted to know about formal poetry – here’s the link :  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poetry#Forms )

     There are two types of formal poems that are currently enjoying a real revival of interest and publication in major publications: the pantoum and the ghazal.







Pantoum: Poetic Form


September 20, 2004


Poetic Terms/Forms

More Poetic Terms/Forms: 

·         Found Poem: Poetic Form

·         Nature Poetry: From A Poet’s Glossary

·         Tanka: From A Poet’s Glossary

·         The Sonnet: Poetic Form

·         Proverb: From A Poet’s Glossary


The pantoum originated in Malaysia in the fifteenth-century as a short folk poem, typically made up of two rhyming couplets that were recited or sung. However, as the pantoum spread, and Western writers altered and adapted the form, the importance of rhyming and brevity diminished. The modern pantoum is a poem of any length, composed of four-line stanzas in which the second and fourth lines of each stanza serve as the first and third lines of the next stanza. The last line of a pantoum is often the same as the first.

The pantoum was especially popular with French and British writers in the nineteenth-century, including Charles Baudelaire and Victor Hugo, who is credited with introducing the form to European writers. The pantoum gained popularity among contemporary American writers such as Anne Waldman and Donald Justice after John Ashbery published the form in his 1956 book, Some Trees.

A good example of the pantoum is Carolyn Kizer’s “Parent’s Pantoum," the first three stanzas of which are excerpted here:

     Where did these enormous children come from,
     More ladylike than we have ever been?
     Some of ours look older than we feel.
     How did they appear in their long dresses

     More ladylike than we have ever been?
     But they moan about their aging more than we do,
     In their fragile heels and long black dresses.
     They say they admire our youthful spontaneity.

     They moan about their aging more than we do,
     A somber group—why don’t they brighten up?
     Though they say they admire our youthful spontaneity
     They beg us to be dignified like them

One exciting aspect of the pantoum is its subtle shifts in meaning that can occur as repeated phrases are revised with different punctuation and thereby given a new context. Consider Ashbery’s poem “Pantoum," and how changing the punctuation in one line can radically alter its meaning and tone: “Why the court, trapped in a silver storm, is dying.” which, when repeated, becomes, “Why, the court, trapped in a silver storm, is dying!”

An incantation is created by a pantoum’s interlocking pattern of rhyme and repetition; as lines reverberate between stanzas, they fill the poem with echoes. This intense repetition also slows the poem down, halting its advancement. As Mark Strand and Eavan Boland explained in The Making of a Poem, “the reader takes four steps forward, then two back," making the pantoum a “perfect form for the evocation of a past time.”

In his book A Poet’s Glossary, former Academy Chancellor Edward Hirsch writes, “The Western pantoum adapts a long-standing form of oral Malayan poetry (pantun) that first entered written literature in the fifteenth century. The most basic form of the pantun is a quatrain with an abab rhyme scheme. Each line contains between eight and twelve syllables. Like the ghazal, it is a disjunctive form, since the sentence that makes up the first pair of lines (ab) has no immediate logical or narrative connection with the second pair of lines (ab).”




Audubon's Flute

Audubon in the summer woods
by the afternoon river sips
his flute, his fingers swimming on
the silver as silver notes pour

by the afternoon river, sips
and fills the mosquito-note air
with silver as silver notes pour
two hundred miles from any wall.

And fills the mosquito-note air
as deer and herons pause, listen,
two hundred miles from any wall,
and sunset plays the stops of river.

As deer and herons pause, listen,
the silver pipe sings on his tongue
and sunset plays the stops of river,
his breath modeling a melody

the silver pipe sings on his tongue,
coloring the trees and canebrakes,
his breath modeling a melody
over calamus and brush country,

coloring the trees and canebrakes
to the horizon and beyond,
over calamus and brush country
where the whitest moon is rising

to the horizon and beyond
his flute, his fingers swimming on
where the whitest moon is rising.
Audubon in the summer woods.


Robert Morgan

in The Language They Speak Is Things to Eat; 
poems by fifteen contemporary North Carolina Poets, 
University of North Carolina Press, 1994, pages 192-193.

This poem has a formal structure repeating the last line from each stanza as the third one in the next stanza. This is so deftly done that I didn't notice it on my first reading. There are other repetitions as well; look for them.

Robert Morgan has also written biography and fiction. He has a new novel, The Road from Gap Creek that has received excellent reviews, most of which mention the quality of the writing as well as the excellence of the subject material. Morgan is another writer who was introduced to me by this regional anthology.










We tell the story every year—

how we peered from the windows, shades drawn—

though nothing really happened,

the charred grass now green again.


We peered from the windows, shades drawn,

at the cross trussed like a Christmas tree,

the charred grass still green. Then

we darkened our rooms, lit the hurricane lamps.


At the cross trussed like a Christmas tree,

a few men gathered, white as angels in their gowns.

We darkened our rooms and lit hurricane lamps,

the wicks trembling in their fonts of oil.


It seemed the angels had gathered, white men in their gowns.

When they were done, they left quietly. No one came.

The wicks trembled all night in their fonts of oil;

by morning the flames had all dimmed.


When they were done, the men left quietly. No one came.

Nothing really happened.

By morning all the flames had dimmed.

We tell the story every year.


Natasha Trethewey, “Incident” from Native Guard. Copyright © 2007 by Natasha Trethewey. Reprinted by permission of Natasha Trethewey.

Source: Native Guard (Mariner Books, 2007)



Notice how this form elevates and becomes a kind of incantation, hypnotic and powerful, so it easily becomes a very elegiac or liturgical poem.


But it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. It can also lend itself to playful poetry.


Hip-Hop Ghazal


Gotta love us brown girls, munching on fat, swinging blue hips, 

decked out in shells and splashes, Lawdie, bringing them woo hips. 


As the jukebox teases, watch my sistas throat the heartbreak, 

inhaling bassline, cracking backbone and singing thru hips. 


Like something boneless, we glide silent, seeping 'tween floorboards, 

wrapping around the hims, and ooh wee, clinging like glue hips. 


Engines grinding, rotating, smokin', gotta pull back some. 

Natural minds are lost at the mere sight of ringing true hips. 


Gotta love us girls, just struttin' down Manhattan streets

killing the menfolk with a dose of that stinging view. Hips. 


Crying 'bout getting old—Patricia, you need to get up off

what God gave you. Say a prayer and start slinging. Cue hips.


Source: Poetry (July/August 2007)













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