Book Review: ‘How to Write Classical Poetry’

October 2, 2017 12:32 pm Last Updated: October 5, 2017 11:17 am

“How to Write Classical Poetry: A Guide to Forms, Techniques, and Meaning” is a guide I wish I had years ago. The classical forms of poetry, lodestars in our changing cultural landscape, are not often covered in creative writing classes, so this guide is welcome.

Too often, classical poems are considered dry, hard to understand, old-fashioned, or just for scholars—certainly anything but interesting. But this book, written by the Society of Classical Poets, is the type of aid that invites using sticky notes before, during, and after writing and reading, and has practical applications, especially for teachers.

What exactly is a formal poem, and what makes a sonnet differ from, say, a villanelle—and must they have rhyme and/or meter? Or more basically, what is meter?

The book has the best chapter on meter I’ve run across, one that should help even the most timid poet, with easy-to-understand definitions and examples. When I started writing classical poetry, I was using a kind of villanelle that just uses rhyme; I didn’t know the triolet would have been an easier choice for a beginner.

The classical forms covered include the haiku, ondeau, terza rima, limerick, rubaiyat, pantoum, sestina, and rhupunt, with modern and classical examples of each. Outlines for these types of formal poetry are included in the book, along with their origins and background.

Few poets will end up writing in all the classical forms and will settle with those that fit their own needs—whether to include both rhyme and meter as some include, or one or the other. The chapter on the sonnet has steps to follow, whether you are a beginner or ready for the most difficult level. After writing in classical forms, you’ll gain an even greater appreciation for poetry that has stood the test of time, from William Shakespeare to Robert Frost.

Yes, classical poetry is challenging to read and write, but it is completing a successful poem that spurs you on to try another and another, until you end up finding it more satisfying than free verse. After a while, you’ll be able to determine if what you want to say is best suited to formal or free verse, and what specific formal type—that is, a pantoum, rondeau, or others—to choose.

This new guide will break any barrier of fear you may have about writing classical poetry, and inspire you to go deeper. The ending of the introduction gives much to ponder: “Specifically, poetry should strive to be exquisitely beautiful, delightfully entertaining, and boldly engaging. Meanwhile, it also must reinforce, or at least not subtract from those basic moral standards that fortify and enhance rich cultures and lasting civilizations. That is great poetry.”

(The Society of Classical Poets)

The publishers of the book, The Society of Classical Poets, formed in 2012 as a nonprofit organization to foster good poetry. The society accepts poetry, essays, and reviews, and offers competitions, annual journals, and much more on their visually stunning site. The society has members around the world with a physical location in Mount Hope, New York.

‘How to Write Classical Poetry: A Guide to Forms, Techniques, and Meaning’
The Society of Classical Poets
Edited by Evan Mantyk and Connie Phillips
Classical Poets Publishing, 2017
156 pages; $19.99

Carol Smallwood’s recent books include: “In Hubble’s Shadow” (Shanti Arts, 2017), “In the Measuring” (Finishing Line Press, 2017), and “Library Partnerships With Writers and Poets: Case Studies” (McFarland, 2017).