E-book to help you research, write, revise, and get ready to publish in all genres

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

A Little Book On Form by Robert Hass

A Little Book on Form: An Exploration Into The Formal Imagination Of Poetry, which HarperCollins kindly sent me to review, is the culmination of years of studying, teaching, and writing poetry done by Robert Hass. Besides being a former U.S. Poet Laureate, he’s also won a National Book Award and a Pulitzer for poetry.

That information alone lets us know we can surely learn something about poetry from this book, and, since it’s still National Poetry Month, it’s an ideal time to begin.

Although my bookshelves testify to scores of well-written books about poetry from accomplished poets, this book differs in that it doesn’t just discuss the exterior architecture of poems but what forms the form – as in, what causes its formation, resulting in form?

In the opening chapter, for instance, Hass calls attention to the one-line poem, rarely found in English, but common in the “…haiku, a one-line form with a three-part prosodic structure, (which) usually consists of two images. And so you’ll notice that inside what is apparently a single line, there is a play of one, two, or three elements, balanced or unbalanced in various ways that are expressive in relation to what the poem is saying.”

The poet then gives ten examples in English translations of Basho, such as “First snow falling on a half-finished bridge,” which presents the first picture in the early snow and the second in an incompleted bridge. See! We haven’t even gotten beyond the first chapter, and I’ve already learned something!

I’d never given thought to the two images occurring in haiku, but if you’re writing haiku, as I often do, that’s very good to know! Looking over haiku I’ve written, I see each has two images, but now that I know to look for this when I revise, I can.

What we write instinctively without knowing becomes more useful when we do know. With the knowledge of a technique or the words to describe it, we’re more aware and then equipped to incorporate the information into our work – not during the writing process so much as when we revise.

Take the number “three” again, for example. In chapter three, Hass says:

“Two often regarded as an aspect of one, so that with three number as such, the many, begins. And is infinite. Oddness. Not divisible. So that – trinity, for example – mystery begins here.”

During the years in which this book came together, the poet often jotted notes to himself in quick phrases, many of which he scattered throughout these pages. This unique aspect of the book lets us in on his actual thoughts in real time as though we’re passionately engaged in the discussion.

Similarly, Haas’ explanations of forms include more than the “what” but also the “why” or “how.” In a discussion of “Three-Line Stanzas,” for example, the poet says this about the uncommonly used three-line verse, the triplet:

“There is something of imbalance and excess in threes. Especially where rhyme is concerned. About two-based forms something hovers of natural complementarities: binary systems, the bi-lateral symmetries in nature, male and female, lover and beloved. Hence the closing down of two-based rhyme. It seems to secure a completion and emphasizes at once the orderliness of rhyme....”

A passage in a much later chapter “How To Scan A Poem” picks up that thread of orderliness and emphasis in these words:

“Often you will hear what feel like strong irregular emphases in metrical poems. The irregularities are strong, because once a pattern is established, you notice departures from the pattern. So, of course, poets learned that one of the best ways to get emphasis is to establish a meter and then vary it.

But, how can poets establish a meter unless they know what meter is, why it works as it does, and what it can accomplish?

How can poets emphasize anything in their poems if all parts have the same treatment or monotonous tone?

And, how can poets establish a meter unless they know what meter is, why it works as it does, and what it can accomplish? You can play it by ear and rely on a sense of musicality – as long as nothing goes wrong! If it does, it’s difficult to shape up something nameless.

This book names names. It talks about sonnets and sestinas, genre and georgics, organic form and prose poems. Much more than what might be found in a poetry dictionary, however, this highly recommended book invites us to accompany the poet on “An Exploration Into The Formal Imagination Of Poetry.”

If you care to join Robert Hass and me in this adventure, you’ll find entry through the clickable Amazon ad below.

Mary Harwell Sayler, © 2017, poet-writer reviewer

A Little Book on Form: An Exploration into the Formal Imagination of Poetry, hardback


  1. What a beautifully written review, Mary. This book sounds wonderfully written and remarkably useful.

  2. Thanks, Laurie. It's definitely a book poets would do well to read. :)