This discussion is actually about “genre,” not “form.” The term “genre” means “kind” or ”type.” There are three traditional major genres of poetry and any number of minor ones. The major genres of poetry are dramatic poetry, which is poetry written in monologue or dialogue; lyric poetryor songs; and narrative poetry, story poems.
Various traditional minor genres of poetry include bucolics or poems about the countryside, didactics, teaching poems; forensics or rhetorical poems, speeches; liturgics, or poems of religious ritual; occasionals, poems about events, and satirics, poems of mockery.
But there are many other categories of poems possible, and recent popular subgenres are confessionals or poems of remorse, rap, cowboy, and “performance” poetry, to name a few. Some others, however, are poems of the supernatural, ecological poetry, feminist poems, anti-war poetry, comics, poems of social conscience, civil rights, sports, space exploration, and so forth and so on. Regarding this last genre, on Monday, January 4, 2010, I received this e-mail message from Michael Chasar, a member of the English Department faculty at Willamette College in Oregon:
“You may or may not be pleased to know that "Poetry & Popular Culture" (a blog at http://mikechasar.blogspot.com) will soon be remembering the publication of your poem "Excerpts from the Latterday Chronicle" from the February 1962 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.”
On December 2nd, 1959, while I was a grad student in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, I had submitted two poems to Fantasy & Science Fiction, which I had been reading since issue one: “A Great Grey Fantasy” and “Excerpts from the Latter Day Chronicle”; both were accepted, and the first poem mentioned was published almost immediately, in January of 1960:
A GREAT GREY FANTASY
No need to wound
the pride of witches
with dental pumpkins and
cardboard toots one autumnal
eve each year. Why raise the wrath
of wraiths; why rile
the local spook
or banshee? Let them lie there
sucking the blood of dreams.
You stay indoors. If
your id needs its lid lifted, flick
a knob in your parlor. You’ll
hear electronic chains scrape
and rattle, see
the Laramie trail and Mike
Hammer’s image pound dickens
out of rubber jaws. The
Great Gray Phantom rides
again. Or, I
should say, still: Hallowe’en has
been perpetual now
for several years.
I have been here
in my easy chair
a month myself, bewitched
(i.e., made stone) by the runes
incanted by fakirs
greatest of nether lords.
Come, I’m bloodless and it’s what!
already? Out, then,
out of coffins;
out on the porch for air,
zombies! The moon’s full. Sniff.
What’s that wail, werewolves?
No, that window,
and that one, look there,
everywhere one notes tubes
flickering, faces pasted
to squares of grey
glass and gas. The sound!
it’s weird: hooves (cloven?), shots,
songs, shrieks (this Is Your Life) — what
a devilish din. What
are those black masses
against the moon?
Whither bound? Gad, brooms! Goblins,
ghosts, wizards, ogres! What’s
that banner say? “MARS
OR BUST!” In I
go for a good view.
a Mobile Camera
Rocket’s up ahead of them.
— Lewis Turco
This poem is actually in the genre of “supernatural” or “Halloween” poetry, and the poem Chasar mentioned may be found on his blog mentioned above, but here is a much later example of a true “science fiction” genre poem taken from The Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics, Including Odd and Invented Forms, Revised and Expanded Edition, pp. 387-391:
THE DEATH OF THE ASTRONAUT
Flaming, he rose; flaming, he
came down — a circle bent and broken.
Through his dark sight the magnified
world burst upon his senses. In token
of flesh wedded to the wooden tree
with golden spikes, he died,
his carnival face stripped of its hoses,
bright air frothing like bloody
steam from the imaginings of his eyes
and the silences of his body.
Below, folk looked out of their houses —
the night was filled with fireflies.
Before the omen of fire, before
the pillar of my reentry was a sword
splitting the thin sky, and a sound
tailed out behind like a whispered word
that should have been a roar,
I saw darkness standing off the ground.
I had been sent star-probing
one other time. It had been the same —
the instruments, the hard boost;
the man with a man's name
stunned within steel, flung
into too much freedom, kept just
busy enough not to notice
time gibbering in a labyrinth of dials.
The clock-watcher had become the clock
jabbing its hands at incredible numerals.
I was too slow to understand much of this.
I made my brain record, my hands work.
At last I could pause. When
first I looked outward, I saw a clear
green hemisphere, slow as a recollected sea,
beating against the weir
of space, clouds rising like a thin
spume above an inaudible plangency.
It was then, for a moment, I felt
like an idea lost in a bubble —
but just for a moment. Out of a cone
somewhere among the rubble
of data which my mind held,
there came a voice, its tone
urgent and made of earth. My lips
responded: I felt them writhe,
the breath rustle between.
My hands were lithe
and sure on the controls; my eyes were whips
skimming dials, quick and keen.
Time lay catatonic. Below, men went
stumbling and falling while I —
I! a man as well — might never fall,
but remain a strange light in a foreign sky
no longer sky but firmament.
The infinite swallows the infinitesimal.
At this point — no. Strike that. Points dissolve.
A circle moving beneath the prickle of stars
has no mathematics. Nevertheless,
somewhen within that curse
I programmed, I felt the earth revolve.
A pentacle of solitude was drawn; the press
of distances was nearly tangible.
I listened. In my ear
a static crackle grated its beetle note.
All I could hear
was the mouth of silence approaching like the mandible
of a mantis. Slate
is the color of fear; its scent is dust.
The chill the Caesars know in their sepulchres
began to breech
the armor I wore in that Circus
Maximus. My phones were dead. Just
filament and wire stood within reach
of my stilled hands — nothing sentient.
I saw sunrises fade and burn
among fleets of sparks. The moon blossomed
like a lily carved of bone: the vast urn
which nourished it went
arching coldly about stars. Sterile, chasmed,
my catafalque of steel
reeled through tracks the ancient
gods are said to have harrowed
among the planets. But there was only trenchant
emptiness there, a wheel
of silence; wheels within wheels, darkness arrowed
with blue light.
I probed fiery axes with eyes
gone stark, grown calm as immobility:
I watched the sun rise
for the final time. My sight
flamed out; nevertheless, I could see:
The Earth receded. It became small,
and I saw that it was flat,
borne by an enormous turtle
waddling down a jet road. The plate,
our planet, was fastened to the beast's shell
with golden wire that looked like sunlight. A kettle
containing darkness and angels hung suspended,
upside-down, above the burden
and the burdened. There was commerce
between Earth and Heaven.
a great ladder shaped like a cross
whose base was rooted in the rim
of the world; its crossbar bore
the kettle's lip. The ladder was of wood
fastened with golden nails. One star
topped the emblem.
I watched the carnival recede
till a monstrous serpent formed of mist
rose by the wayside, looped its coils
about the universe and swallowed.
Vast emptiness. The blood boils.
I feel my cave of steel tossed
by furious winds. I am a wick tallowed
and ignited. Darkness is lurid
with voices hissing prayers, songs —
a litany of absence.
It is I who sing!
This is my torrid
hymn. Who listens?
Below, the folk in their houses quietly
heard the public announcement,
went out to their yards to search the skies.
They stood and waited there. Summer was silent,
save for the crickets. Suddenly,
the night air burned with plunging fireflies.
— Lewis Turco
P. J. O'Brien was a pupil of mine at SUNY Oswego when he wrote "Cartoon Show," which I published in Poetry: An Introduction through Writing in 1973. The assignment was to write a series of related poems on a particular subject. O'Brien took as his model a Saturday morning children's television cartoon show such as most Americans will recall from their or their offspring's childhood. The first poem in this set of poems in the genre of “comics” was "The Old Skipper," the local host of the show, who spoke the prologue:
The Old Skipper
I announced every episode of
knowing just what would happen;
that you would love, lust,
fight, go mad and a thousand other
And I sat on my film with my fake beard
looking like Zeus and feeling like an
oldtimer in a Greek chorus.
The mode of the poem is clearly prose, not verse, and all that O'Brien did was to disperse the prose lines according to phrases, one phrase to a line. Some people like to call this method "free verse." I call it "line-phrasing," and others call it "lineating."
The second poem in the set, "Brutus" — later called "Bluto" — moves us directly into the cartoon:
In my lumbering ox obscurity
I lusted over you, Olive Oyl.
With my thick lipped bearded mouth
I wanted your flesh, to take it by
force and never let it go.
I had not the strength of vegetables
nor white clothes and noble ideals,
only the desire of animals.
With the cunning of beasts
I tracked you until, each time,
that runt kicked me silly, and
running with my tail between my legs
my hatred filled the land like poison.
Why couldn't that bastard have left his
spinach at home just once?
Although we recognize the character and the situation, we have never heard this language from the cartoon itself. This is a "confessional" poem spoken by Brutus, and we detect a serious purpose behind the lines, even though we smile or even guffaw while we read. The next character to enter is "Popeye":
I have tasted the spinach of victory,
transforming matter with my bare fists
turning bulls into packaged meat
and alligators into shoes and purses.
I have fought every creation of man and God
on every battleground from Alaska to Mars
to prove my love, Olive Oyl.
But still you questioned it,
flirting with that lummox
with the "nyah nyah" in your voice,
the challenge in your eyes.
And yes to protect your chastity
after you had aroused the animal,
I swallowed my spinach and became
your white knight again and again.
Each time hoping I would lose,
to escape your prison.
But when films flashed in my biceps
and tattoos danced across my chest;
I loved you more than the sea,
I loved you more than spinach.
And "Olive Oyl," the object of contention, who turns out to be a human being also:
I am Helen of Troy.
I am Deirdre.
I am all the women men
have died for.
I am all the women men
have made fools of themselves over.
But I asked to be no Goddess,
and I asked to be no object.
All I simply asked for was
One of the overtones that O'Brien worked with was created from simple allusion — to the Greek chorus in a classical tragedy, to Zeus, to Helen of Troy and Deirdre. Although this is a humorous poem, it takes a solemn dimension from such epic land tragic referents.
"Sweet Pea" provides an element of mystery and unease:
My parentage was never explained.
Continually crawling in my
Doctor Dentons, a doubt.
A doubt that kept me young,
never dreaming of puberty or
responsibility, cut off from
the forbidden vegetable,
I wanted your breast, mother.
I wanted your piggyback, father.
So I continued to creep away
from those strange sailors and
their lady friend, looking for
answers in circuses and construction yards,
missing lions' jaws and
iron girders by inches. "Saved"
ad nauseam by the muttering bowlegged
warden with green teeth.
“Alice the Goon" is the spurned woman, the pariah:
Alice the Goon
I have been fed on the dog-food of despair
and in my raging bitterness I saw your
foolishness, my lungs filling with hysterics,
my mouth rabid with foam.
And because you could not understand
my madness you thought yourselves sane
and ran from my outstretched arms,
trying to impress that wench Olive Oyl.
Because I am tired of screaming alone,
tired of crying in the hills,
I will ask you why?
Why, in a world of ugliness, was mine so
repulsive, my flesh so leprous?
"Wimpy" comes bringing up the rear, as he always did. He provides the poem with an architectural symmetry, for he speaks the epilogue as "The Old Skipper" spoke the prologue. Both are observers more than participants:
I'm not bitter, nosireebob.
While you have talked of love and lust
I have devoured the hamburgers of fulfillment,
tasted the cheeseburgers of tranquility
and supped off the fat of the land.
You who laughed at Alice the Goon,
You who laughed at me, the roly-poly sponge,
I have watched your petty wars
waged for the smile of the ugliest
woman in the world.
I have watched you all chew your loco weeds.
And carrying my omniscience quite unobtrusively
I watched the cartoon roll by,
picking my teeth with celluloid
and farting noisily.
— P. J. O’Brien
Here are some titles of poems that are examples of various genres other than science fiction and comics; most of them can be found on the Web by using a search engine or simply by hitting these links:
Baseball: Herbert Coursen, “National Pastime,” from The Book of Forms cited above on pp. 151-152:
I hereby establish my own Baseball Hall of Fame.
For alliteration, for example, I enshrine
Frankie Frisch, the Fordham Flash.
For future fame in other areas:
Albert Schweitzer (St. Louis, AL, 1908-1911).
They called him “Cheese,” so with him
I further honor Clarence Beers and Sweetbreads Bailey,
Hot Potato Hamlin and Noodles Hahn, Ginger Beaumont,
Sugar Cain and Honey Walker
(from Beeville, Texas). Also, Bob Sturgeon,
Oyster Burns, Catfish Hunter, Sea Lion Hall, and
George Haddock, whose locker was next to Davy Jones,
sure-fingered Tom Butters,
Luke Appling, Eddie Bacon, and Puddin’ Head Jones,
George Bone, and Stew Bolin, Rabbit Maranville and
Bunny Brief, Dave Brain, and Dodo Bird,
Turkeyfoot Brower, Deerfoot Bay, and Reindeer Killefer.
Since one must be mad or built like a Bench
to play catcher, immortalized also
are Earl Battey and Matt Batts.
A special velvet-lined niche for the man
who led the Senior Circuit in hits
in 1928 (with 201), Glassarm Eddie Brown.
I add another Brown: Mordecai Peter
Centennial (born, of course, in 1876), also
known as “Three Finger” Brown, because that’s
how many he had on his throwing hand (229-13l).
But M. P. C. “T. F.” must yield a share of his
huge gallery in my special Hall of Fame
to Christian Frederick Albert John Henry David
Betzel, whom they called “Bruno” for some reason.
My Hall will house an armory, as some museums do,
for the display of weapons, like
Shotgun Shuba and Gunboat Gumbert,
Boom Boom Beck, Roxy Snipes, Ray Blades, and
Poison Ivy Andrews, who will be endowed
with a glass case all his own. And, of course,
a chapel for Preacher Roe, Deacons Scott
and MacFayden, Howie Nunn, Johnnie Priest,
Maurice Archdeacon, Max Bishop, and Dave Pope.
By Herb Coursen
Battle of the Sexes: Carolyn Kizer, “Semele Recycled”
Braggadocio: Gwendolyn Brooks, “We Real Cool”
Creation: A. D. Hope, “imperial Adam”
Exaggeration: W. H. Auden, “As I Walked Out One Evening”
Funerals: Kenneth Fearing, “Dirge”
Parentage: Weldon Kees, “For My Daughter”
Perception: Wallace Stevens, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”
Popular Music: Dana Gioia, “Cruising with the Beachboys”
Racial prejudice: Langston Hughes, “Go Slow”
Recurring dreams: Wesli Court, “The Obsession”
Riddles: Daniel Hoffman“As I Was Going to St. Ives”
Science Fiction: Lewis Turco, “Excerpts from the Latter-Day Chronicle”
Trash: Richard Wilbur, “Junk”
Warfare: Henry Reed, “Naming of Parts”
Witchcraft: Robert Frost, “The Witch of Coös”
Woodslore: David Wagoner, “Staying Alive”
Suggested Writing Exercise:
Choose an unusual genre in which to write a poem, and then write it in a form of your choice.