The Fluidity of Form by Julie Kane

If there is one thing that bothers me about being part of the formalist poetry community, it’s the assumption held by some inside that community and by most outside that community that poetic forms have “rules.” As far back in time as we can trace them, poetic forms have been fluid, not fixed: crossing national, ethnic, and linguistic borders with ease, and picking up variations and innovations from their adaptation in new cultural contexts, or by individual experimenting poets.

As someone who spent several years researching and writing a doctoral dissertation on the villanelle’s transition from a 16th century Italian musical genre to a so-called English-language “fixed poetic form,” I groan when I come across a definition of the form that insists it has to be in iambic pentameter, or that it has to be 19 lines long. The 16th century Italian villanella had a musical form, not a poetic one. Unlike its contemporary, the polyphonic madrigal, which was through-composed, with each word of a “poetic” text set to a unique note or notes, the harmonic villanella was a refrain song with four or more verses. It was sung to three strains of music—a, b, and c—one for the verse, one for the refrain, and one for the bridge line between them. Villanella composers used a lot of black notes, making for livelier rhythms than those of the madrigal, and they imitated musical features characteristic of untrained voices singing peasant songs, such as a limited note range, octaves, and parallel fifths.

Those early villanella lyrics were not lofty authored poems like madrigal texts, but rather, anonymous patchwork compositions loaded with stock phrases, proverbs, and off-color puns. Musicologist Donna Cardamone examined 188 early lyrics published between 1537 and 1539 and found dozens of different rhyme schemes, refrains ranging from one to five lines in length, and no consistency whatsoever to the number of syllables per line1. The fact that each verse after the first had to be sung to the same tune also limited the literary quality of the lyrics, as anyone who has struggled with fitting the syllables of the second or third stanza of a Christmas carol, hymn, or anthem to the melody of the first stanza has discovered on their own.

The 19th century scholar George Saintsbury, who for some reason is still highly regarded for his writings on form, called the villanelle one of the French poetic forms of the thirteenth through fifteenth centuries.2 Likewise, English poet and critic Edmund Gosse dated it as a French fixed form back “at least as far as the fifteenth century.”3 Typical mansplainers, they were both completely sure of themselves and completely wrong. Songbooks of Italian musical villanelle were wildly popular in 16th century France, going through multiple reprintings, and French poets were fully aware of the phenomenon. At the time I wrote my dissertation, eighteen French poems of the 16th and early 17th centuries with the titles “Villanelle” or “Villanesque” had been identified—the convention of the time being to title a poem according to its poetic genre designation. Written by nine different poets, no two of those eighteen poetic villanelles were alike in terms of rhyme scheme, line length, and syllable counts per line. They ranged anywhere from four to nine stanzas in length. What they did have in common was being rustic in feel, with a refrain, like the musical villanella.

One of those 16th century French poetic villanelles was nineteen lines long and in the A1bA2 pattern we recognize as the villanelle’s today. Written by Jean Passerat, it began with the refrain line “J’ay perdu ma tourterelle,” or “I have lost my turtledove,” and was about a turtledove grieving for its lost mate. None of the other French poetic villanelles of the era resembled it even slightly in form—not even the one other villanelle poem written by Jean Passerat himself. And there would not be a second French poetic villanelle written in that pattern until the nineteenth century.

Jean Passerat’s turtledove poem was familiar to 19th century French students because of its inclusion in anthologies. So in the year 1845, when poet Theodore de Banville wanted to satirize the distress of a Parisian journal editor who had lost his best writer, Poulin Limayrac, he seized upon Passerat’s highly recognizable poem for his opening line and rhyme scheme, just as Randy Rainbow today uses familiar showtunes as the basis for his political satires. “J’ay perdu mon Limayrac,” or “I have lost my Limayrac,” was 19 lines long with a four-line final stanza, like the Passerat original. First Banville’s immediate circle of literary friends, and then other French poets, began writing villanelles of their own in what they perceived to be an ancient poetic tradition. But then as now, the number of stanzas in those French poetic villanelles was not fixed, as long as the final stanza fit the abA1A2 pattern. They could go on for pages.

The form quickly spread to England, and then America, where the French pattern of making the “a” rhymes feminine and the “b” rhymes masculine did not suit the sounds of English, and got abandoned. And initially, there was no consensus on the number of stanzas. The first anthology of fixed-form poems published in England came out in 1887, edited by Gleeson White4. Of the 32 villanelles in the collection, 26 had six stanzas, like Passerat’s original and Banville’s satire; two had eight stanzas; two had nine; and two more had ten. Most were iambic, but varying from trimeter to tetrameter to pentameter, while others were trochaic in their meter, like Edmund Gosse’s specimen beginning “Little mistress mine, good-bye! / Dig my grave, for I must die!”

For those who insist that the villanelle’s “rules” cannot be broken, I ask you, at exactly what point in time do you mark the imposition of those rules?

Several other of the so-called French fixed forms had their roots in medieval round dances, with verses sung by a soloist and the refrain by a chorus. The shortened refrain of the poetic form we know as the rondeau, consisting of only the first word or phrase of the first line of the poem, is believed to have come about because medieval scribes got sick of writing out the same refrain line again and again, and so abbreviated it after line one5. Ruth Finnegan, an expert on oral poetry across cultures, tells us that in all written versions of oral poetry, repetition “may be more extensive than is realized: just because the same degree of repetition would be tedious and inappropriate in written form, the amount of repetition in actual performance may not be fully represented in many written texts which purport to record it.”6 Are we to treat the accidentally created form of the rondeau as if it dropped down from Mount Olympus?

It is strange how some pure poetic accidents, like the truncation of the rondeau’s refrain or the 19th century parody of Passerat’s villanelle, catch on as new forms. The more practitioners such a new form gathers, the more authentic or reputable it will appear. At the risk of sounding like the Marianne Williamson of poetics, I can’t help thinking of Rupert Sheldrake’s theory of “morphic resonance” here. Sheldrake believes that when a living creature acquires a new behavior that leads to successful outcomes, and others of its species observe and begin to adopt the new behavior—like a bird learning to peck open the top of a milk bottle delivered to a front porch—it generates a “morphogenetic field” that causes subsequent creatures of its kind to learn the behavior faster or to inherit a sort of memory of it.7 Hmmmm…just putting that thought out there.

Snobs about the rules of poetic form are often most snobbish about meter, forgetting that English-language meter is also the result of formal elements that crossed borders and evolved to suit new contexts. Greek poetic meter was based on the duration of syllables, long or short, not stressed or unstressed, as in English. Attempts to write quantitative meter in English have always flopped, since it’s impossible for our ears to register the subtle durational difference between long and short syllables like “pine” and “pin.” But where would English-language literature be without the iamb, which in ancient Greece was the metrical unit associated with invective,8 the poetry of spewed personal hatred and anger? The Greek iamb was actually not even a foot but a metron or pair of two feet: the first foot had a variable syllable followed by a long one, while the only the second foot was short followed by long. The first foot of the iamb disappeared in the transition from Greek to Latin poetry, even though classical Latin poetry was also quantitative.

The metrical tradition native to English was accentual, counting only the number of strong stresses per line, not syllables. It can be seen in Anglo-Saxon strong-stress poetry as well as the rhythms of oral-tradition ballads and nursery rhymes.9 But the artificial patterning of English-language verse based on a reimagining of an imported formal feature is what gave us Shakespeare’s plays, Paradise Lost, and much of Emily Dickinson—in her case, influenced by iambic hymn meters of three or four feet per line, not the “literary” iambic pentameter. Still, iambic meter in English would be mechanical and dull if poets did not vary it when their ears told them it sounded better that way. Marina Talinskaja found that Shakespeare inverted the first foot of his blank verse lines about 42% of the time, and that only the last two feet of his blank verse lines were consistently iambic.10

How did free verse arise in America? Well, the undisputed grandfather of American free verse was Walt Whitman, whose lines are often structured by parallelism—the repetition of the same syntactical structure or semantic sense in two succeeding lines. This was a formal principle of ancient Hebrew poetry and of verse passages in the Old Testament, which is where Whitman encountered it. Whatever other metrical features may have characterized ancient Hebrew poetry have been lost to us over time, but Whitman adapted this element to his own use, putting his own personal spin on it so that the parallelism comes across as an echo but not an exact duplication of syntax or semantics.

The other major influence on American free verse was the Imagist movement, which owed a debt to Ezra Pound’s fascination with Ernest Fenollosa’s notes on Chinese poetry. Fenollosa, who did not read Chinese and relied upon Japanese translations, failed to understand that Chinese characters could represent sounds as well as visual images of the thing itself, but without that misunderstanding, would we have Pound’s free-verse translations of classical Chinese poems, which ignored the rhyme schemes and regulated syllable counts of the originals?11 Those free-verse translations foregrounding concrete visual images led to the Imagist Movement, which led to poetic Modernism, which is still influencing American and international poetry today.12

I have been speaking mainly about formal elements from poetic traditions that crossed into English, because that is the literature I know best, but this is by no means a one-way street.

Take, for example, the ghazal, which was a sung genre like the villanelle in its origins in 7th century Arabia, not a poetic form. From there it crossed over into other language cultures including Urdu, Hindi, and Spanish, but it was in medieval Persia that it took on the formal poetic features we associate with it today: couplets, its rhyme scheme, and its refrain at the tail end of the second line of each couplet. The ghazal crossed over into German poetry during the Romantic era of the early 19th century, losing its quantitative meters in the process, and only belatedly into English-language poetry.13

American free verse influenced the poetics of cultures around the world. The means by which it entered Japanese poetics is particularly interesting. An anthology of English-language poems translated into Japanese came out in Japan in 1882, titled, in English translation, A Collection of Poetry in the New Style. Although the poets included, like Longfellow and Tennyson, worked in rhyme and meter, the translations were most often rendered in a Japanese 7-5 syllabic sequence. But the longer lengths of the translated poems and the variations from traditional Japanese syllabic schemes in some of the translations felt revolutionary to then-contemporary Japanese poets.14 This “new style” later spread from Japan to Korea.15

Cultural appropriation has very rightly received much attention of late. It is most offensive when being done by a member of a colonialist or dominant culture to a subjugated or minority culture. In the words of scholar Kjerstin Johnson, the appropriator “who does not experience the oppression is able to ‘play,’ temporarily, an ‘exotic other,’ without experiencing any of the daily discriminations faced by other cultures.”16 Even writing in the voice of a subjugated or minority “other” in a persona poem now raises ethical considerations. As poet Paisley Rekdal, author of the nonfiction book Appropriate (Norton, 2021), writes: “Because what we’re really talking about with cultural appropriation, X, is identity.”17

But I have come across a post on social media recently suggesting that the use of a poetic form by someone not native to its originating context may constitute cultural appropriation. That notion is troubling. Poetic form is a generating principle, not an identity or artifact, and it is the nature of poetic forms and formal features to cross borders that stop languages and poems, adapt to new cultural contexts, and spark further experimentation by individual poets, going as far back in time as we can trace written verse history. Yet I think we should take heed of the fact that this issue could even be raised. Contributing to a colloquium on cultural appropriation in the arts, novelist and translator John Keene wrote:

Cultural borrowing and exchange are central to dynamism in art and life. But taking that goes in only one direction, that occurs with the presumption of privilege and entitlement, and without humility or self-questioning; that happens without respect for the group from which any cultural artifact or trace is being taken; and that is done without attribution or elision of the origins and sources of the cultural artifact, constitute cultural appropriation, especially in the ways it is now regularly and rightly being criticized.18

For me this passage brings to mind Agha Shahid Ali’s introduction to his anthology Ravishing Disunities: Real Ghazals in English, in which he both laments the lack of understanding by American poets of the form’s origins and cultural contexts and acknowledges his admiration for many of the “so-called ghazals” lacking rhymes and refrains as produced by poets like Adrienne Rich and Galway Kinnell.19

Those of us who teach creative writing and who include assignments to write in form owe it to our students to teach the cultural contexts out of which those forms originated as well as the fact that forms undergo change in the transition to new cultural contexts and new practitioners. Along with strict examples of poems in a supposedly fixed form, we need to show examples of poets using forms as jumping-off points for their own improvisations: one of Terrance Hayes’s American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassin together with one of Shakespeare’s, for example. This approach both honors the cultural contexts out of which forms arose and conveys to young writers the concept of form as a living force. The practice of introducing forms as if they have “rules” that dropped down out of the sky is a falsification of history, an erasure of cultural origins, and a disservice to young poets who might otherwise “make it new.”


1 Donna Cardamone, The Canzone Villanesca alla Napolitana and Related Forms, 1537-1570, 2 vols. (Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1981), 67-76.

2George Saintsbury, A Short History of French Literature (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1882, reprint 1901), 82, 182.

3Edmund Gosse, “A Plea for Certain Exotic Forms of Verse,” Cornhill Magazine 36 (1877), 56-57, 64.

4Gleeson White, Ed., Ballades and Rondeaus, Chants Royal, Sestinas, Villanelles, &c. Selected, with a Chapter on the Various Forms (London, 1887).

5“Rondeau,” The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry & Poetics, 4th edition, Ed. Roland Greene et al. (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2012), 1225.

6Ruth Finnegan, Oral Poetry: Its Nature, Significance, and Social Context (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1990), 130.

7Rupert Sheldrake, Morphic Resonance: The Nature of Formative Causation, 4th edition (Park Street Press, 2009).

8“Invective,” PEPP, 723.

8“Accentual Verse,” PEPP, 4.

10“Meter,” PEPP, 875.

11James Tracey, “The Modernist Revision of a Foreign Culture in Ezra Pound’s Cathay,” Ploughshares blog, blog.pshares.org, n.d.

12“Chinese Poetry in English Translation,” PEPP, 241.

13“Ghazal,” PEPP, 570-571.

14“Japan, Modern Poetry of,” PEPP, 752.

15“Korea, Poetry of,” PEPP, 777.

16Kjerstin Johnson, “Don’t Mess Up When You Dress Up: Cultural Appropriation and Costumes,” Bitch Magazine 25 Oct 2011.

17Paisley Rekdal, “Struggling in Workshop with the Quaestion of Cultural Apropriation,” Literary Hub 16 Feb 2021.

18“Who Owns What? Who Can Speak for Whom?” Colloquium, Frieze 27 Sep 2017.

19Agha Shahid Ali, Ed., Ravishing Disunities: Real Ghazals in English (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2000)


Julie Kane's most recent poetry collection is Mothers of Ireland (LSU Press, 2020), co-winner of the Poetry by the Sea Book Award and a longlist finalist for the Julie Suk Book Prize. Previous collections include Rhythm & Booze, a National Poetry Series winner, and Jazz Funeral, winner of the Donald Justice Poetry Prize. With Grace Bauer, she co-edited Nasty Women Poets: An Unapologetic Anthology of Subversive Verse, and with H.L. Hix, she co-edited Terribly in Love: Selected Poems in English translation by the Lithuanian poet Tautvyda Marcinkevičiūtė. Her poems appear in more than sixty anthologies including Best American Poetry and The Book of Irish American Poets from the Eighteenth Century to the Present, and her essays on poetry and poetics appear in Twentieth Century Literature, Modern Language Quarterly, The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, The Facts on File Companion to British Poetry, The Crafty Poet: A Portable Workshop, and many other journals and reference texts. She has served as a Fulbright Scholar, Louisiana State Poet Laureate, Poets' Prize Committee Chair, National Book Award in Poetry juror, and George Bennett Fellow in Writing at Phillips Exeter Academy. Professor Emerita of English at Northwestern State University of Louisiana, she currently teaches in the low-residency poetry MFA program at Western Colorado University.



The Poetry by the Sea Spring Celebration is available for viewing on Youtube as a permanent memorial and tribute to Mezzo Cammin's founder, Dr. Kim Bridgford (1959-2020). Click here to watch.

The 2022 Poetry by the Sea conference will run May 24-27 2022.

My work contributes to the dialogue among feminist writers, historians, critics, and artists to define a space for creative work and agency for women. Through my figurative paintings, I challenge notions about the female body, redefine myths, and recover the lives of historical women. I draw upon my knowledge of art history, symbolism, and iconography to create rich stories about the women I paint. By projecting my own likeness into many of the portraits I create or by using models, I identify with the women I paint and explore my own sense of being an artist and woman in relation to accomplished women across centuries and cultures.

Here we see the pages from my newest artist book, I Wake Again, based on the life of Pre-Raphaelite artist and poet, Elizabeth Siddal. The poems are written by Kim Bridgford, who was a dear friend for 30 plus years. The pages are printed in lithography and the initial letter of each poem is done in silkscreen. The font of the poems is Morris Font. The ink color is graphite. I have reimagined key moments in Elizabeth’s life, such as her birth, her writing poetry, reading, painting, and her death. Each book contains red hair and has been bound by Maureen Cummins.

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