A Kick in the Head: An Everyday Guide to Poetic Forms

Edited by Paul Janeczko

I get a kick out of verse

When it comes to poetic form, most of us produce an obligatory haiku in middle school, followed by a few tortured stanzas of iambic pentameter  in sixth form—and stop there.

. . . Is that all there is to poetry?

Think again, says poet, Paul Janeczko.  His exuberant volume, A Kick in the Head:  An Everyday Guide to Poetic Forms introduces 29 different forms of poetry— and features one or two poems, and a brief explanation for each.

The material is intelligently organized – as you would expect in a book that celebrates structure.  He begins with simple forms, such as the couplet, tercet (three rhyming lines),  or quatrain (four lines generally following an abab or aabb rhyme scheme) and then introduces more complex forms that incorporate these basic elements. And so, we learn on page 22 that the “roundel”

is a three-stanza poem of 11 lines.  The stanzas have four, three, and four lines in them and a rhyme scheme of abab bab abab.  Ah, but there’s more.  Line 4 is repeated as line 11–not an easy trick!

Janeczko offers an enjoyable mixture of textbook exemplars and variations or spoofs on the standard forms, such as Steven Herrick’s “Limerick called Steven”

Whose rhyme scheme was very uneven

It didn’t make sense

It wasn’t funny

And who’d call a limerick Steven anyway?

Admittedly, the choice of poems is somewhat limited by Janeczko’s preference for meta-poetry (poems about poetry), and though some of the pieces are memorably poignant, on the whole, he opts for levity at the expense of depth.

Therefore, the chief strength of A Kick in the Head is as a source of inspiration, rather than an anthology. This is a book that invites participation, and I cannot think of a better induction for budding poets than the “Kick in the Head” challenge of writing a poem a week, using each of Janeczko’s forms.

Why wrestle with poetic form in an age when most contemporary poets have abandoned structural rules for the open horizons of free verse?

First, traditional structures often appeal to our innate sense of rhythm and symmetry – and therefore, are frequently adapted and embedded in what appear, at first blush, to be unguided linguistic improvisations.   Working with the various forms helps the writer understand their possibilities and strengths – and adds to our bag of tools.  Second, the challenge of writing to a brief can be a great spur to creativity.  In developing an idea to meet the requirements of a riddle poem or villanelle, the initial inspiration stretches and evolves.

Jaceznco’s text is whimsically illustrated with Chris Raschka’s bright multi-media spreads in pen, watercolour, and rice paper collage.   Raschka’s off-kilter, semi-abstract images have a playful, and even naive feel, but I suspect that the illustrator could not have achieved such a visually satisfying result without sharing  Janeczkos’ passion for the principles of form and structure.

Mums Write! Book Pick, June 2012

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply