Jump to the examples of inventive poetry forms.
In the past, I’ve been guilty of skipping over poems that are formatted outside the “norms” of stanza and line. I’ve sometimes struggled to find my way into these different types of poems, assuming they required an intellect or brilliance that evaded me. I would have told you I couldn’t understand what they were doing.
But then I found Natalie Diaz’s “My American Crown” (linked in the list below) in which Diaz uses diagrammed sentences in place of sonnets. It clicked for me: These inventive poetry forms are an invitation to participate in the poem in ways that are important and necessary.
Encountering the diagrammed sentences in “My American Crown” takes me back to a very specific place: a sixth or seventh grade classroom in a small paper mill town in northern Maine. Mr. Russell stands at the chalkboard. He wears a V-neck red sweater over a button-down dress shirt. I am sitting in a row of desks, where I try to understand the parts of speech and learn other basics about the world, like how we’re “supposed to” see it. What a perfect space to breakdown American history, as Diaz does in this crown!
As grown-up me worked to piece back together the sentences (and harmful sentiments) Diaz had chosen to deconstruct in this crown of nontraditional sonnets, I struggled to make them make sense. And that’s just one of the many experiential layers of metaphor embedded in Diaz’s inventive form. It also hits home the way history had carefully composed these racist nuggets in the first place. Their authors had labored. The work in this country to “other” indigenous populations was an active crafting and shaping. And now, we are tasked with exposing the structures behind that work.
Through “My American Crown,” I started to understand inventive poems as opportunities for heightened reading experiences, chances for something to travel from my brain (the intellect) to my body (all those cells).
And so since then, I’ve been gathering up examples of different types of poems (inventive poetry forms) that intrigue me. I haven’t gone searching for them. Instead, I’ve been collecting them as I encounter them, and I have to say: I’m astounded by the level of creativity that’s out there.
Take a look at Leila Chatti’s “Cootie Catcher,” for example, which invites readers to participate in the writing of poems using nouns and phrases revealed by the fortune teller.
To participate in the experiment of “Cootie Catcher,” I had to print it, cut it out, fold it and play with it. I love its physicality and the type of involvement it makes possible!
As an invitation for you to give different types of poems a chance — as a reader and/or writer — I thought I’d share examples of inventive poetry forms, along with some of what I’ve learned by digging into these wild, wonderful poems. Note that this isn’t an academic study of these forms but rather observations, things I’ve noticed as I’ve come to admire and respect this type of work.
15 examples of inventive poetry forms
- 109 Bermuda by Kenzie Allen (a concrete poem tracing the outline of a house)
- How Clear the Cut by Anney Bolgiano (an illustration/diagram of something being assembled)
- Cootie Catcher by Leila Chatti (the poetic version of the “fortune teller,” a childhood staple; includes a printable download with folding instructions!)
- Another Name for America Is Time by Ama Codjoe (a timeline of repetitive actions and thoughts, formatted into two columns)
- “Stop. Go put your shoes back on. They’ll know we Okies,” a Lost Image Reclamation by Anthony Cody (numbers one through 10 plotted in various spaces on and around a blank rectangle; each number represents a scene in a narrative)
- My American Crown by Natalie Diaz (a sonnet crown comprised of diagrammed sentences)
- Endtimes Meditation on Mothering Self-Care1 by Jenn Givhan (uses footnotes to create a poem within the poem)
- [A woman wandered into a thicket] by Ava Hofmann (instead of being read left-to-right, the text of this poem spirals down into the center of the page)
- Grandfather by A. Van Jordan (dictionary entries)
- That Loud-Assed Colored Silence: Protest by Douglas Kearney (a stack of newspaper headlines, hashtags and article excerpts)
- The Atom No. 18 by Sarah Mangold (a concrete poem in the shape of an atom)
- The Death of Your Son: A Flowchart by Alex McElroy (a flow chart)
- Feti’s Border Crossing by Alan Michael Parker (a bingo card)
- Welcome to High School Friendships by Alison Tait (a list of “purchases” formatted as a receipt)
- On Loving Midwestern Women by Candace Walsh (a list of qualities and their explanations, formatted in two columns, almost table-style)
challenges of inventive poetry forms
Before I jump into some of the magic of some of these inventive poetry forms, let’s acknowledge a few of the challenges that may accompany them:
- Cleverness / There’s a risk of being clever instead of adding texture and meaning to the poem.
- Reader resistance / As I confessed of myself at the opening of this post, readers can be lazy.
- Publication struggles / Lit mags and websites don’t always have the capability to accommodate nontraditional forms.
I don’t intend these to be deterrents to using or creating inventive poetry forms (not at all!). I share them as obstacles you may be able to capitalize on based upon the themes in your poem. There are topics — “My American Crown” is a perfect examples — that should challenge the reader. There are poems that editors should be inspired to give special attention.
what makes an inventive poetry form successful?
The opportunities are likely as boundless as the imaginations behind inventive forms, but let me share the qualities that make these wild and different types of poems work for me.
They invite engagement.
Inventive forms engage readers in creative ways, enticing them with an experience that’s valuable to the content (not just to be clever). Best example above: “My American Crown”
They give readers agency.
Inventive forms welcome readers as collaborators. Readers actively participate in creating meaning and, in some cases, choose where they enter and how they proceed through the text. “Cootie Catcher” takes this even further by encouraging readers to write their own poems.
They’re eye catching.
Inventive forms amplify the visual experience of poetry. Take a look at “That Loud-Assed Colored Silence: Protest” for a great example.
They inspire a physical response.
To read a poem in an inventive form, readers may angle their heads or rotate the page in order to read vertical, sideways or upside down text. “109 Bermuda” and “[a woman wandered into a thicket]” illustrate this perfectly.
They ask readers to meander and investigate.
Inventive forms ask readers to slow down and meander, to investigate and question. They can’t be rushed. Great examples above: “Endtimes Meditation on Mothering Self-Care1” and “‘Stop. Go put your shoes back on. They’ll know we Okies,’ a Lost Image Reclamation.”
Inventive forms ditch the standard “rules” for a reason and can make readers sweat it out a bit. Think, for example, about cutting “Cootie Catcher” out of Poetry Magazine (Cut?! A Book?!) or using a flow chart to answer questions about your son’s death (as in “The Death of Your Son: A Flow Chart”).
They can bear a lot of weight.
The structure of inventive poems is designed to carry and support the poem’s subject. Since it is built-to-spec, readers trust it to hold.
This includes titles! Inventive forms rely heavily on their titles as the first clue to readers about how they might receive the poem. While that’s also true for poems in stanzas, titles are sometimes the only recognizably “traditional” element in these wildly creative forms. There’s a saying about how a title can’t be just a hat sitting on top of the poem — that they must, instead, add important texture or information. In some inventive forms, there’s another task: They may also serve as anchors, something readers can tug on (check back in with) and be assured.
I’m still collecting examples of inventive poetry forms! If you know of any I should add to my list, let me know. I’d also love to hear about your experience with these kinds of forms, including if you’ve spotted some challenges and aspects of success that I should consider adding to this post.