Browse Reading Guides


Reading Group Guide

  1. Book ImageThe Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms

    Eavan Boland, Mark Strand

    "Concise, learned, revisionary... should enrich the passionate conversation about poetic forms for years to come."— Edward Hirsch, author of How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry

In the words of its editors, Mark Strand and Eavan Boland, The Making of a Poem “looks squarely at some of the headaches and mysteries of poetic form.” Here, two of our foremost poets provide a lucid, straightforward primer for those who have always felt that an understanding of form—sonnet, ballad, villanelle, sestina, etc.—would enhance their appreciation of poetry. By example and explanation, the anthology traces “the exuberant history of forms,” a history that unites poets as manifold as John Keats and Joy Harjo (the Ode) or Geoffrey Chaucer and Jean Toomer (the Stanza). Each chapter is devoted to one form, offering explanation, close reading, and a rich selection of exemplars that amply demonstrate the power and possibility of the form.

In the end, Boland and Strand write, “we hope that the reader will agree that these forms are—as we believe—not locks, but keys.” In linking the expressive potential of a poem to its architecture of syllable and rhyme, this collection is as instructive for the novice as it is inspiring for the practiced poet.

Discussion Questions

  1. Try reading a poem from each section out loud. Which forms are closer to the cadences of contemporary speech? How are these forms used by contemporary poets?
  2. On the other hand, certain forms are governed by a sense of how they look on the page. How do you reconcile this with the fundamentally oral roots of poetry?
  3. Both the villanelle and the sestina have clearly defined rules. They were devised hundreds of years ago in France and Italy. Their repetitions and patterns are demanding and, at first sight, restrictive. Yet these forms have been enormously popular with contemporary poets. From Dylan Thomas to Elizabeth Bishop they have found new life in modern times. Obviously, they speak to a contemporary situation of thought and feeling. Can you define what it might be about these repetitive and closely structured forms which has made them seem such an appropriate vehicle for today’s poets?
  4. Why do poetic forms change over time? The sonnet for instance began in a time of courtly power and flattery of the powerful. Now it is more often the form for a compressed narrative or a throwaway address. What is responsible for the change?
  5. Forms function as a sort of punctuation, determining the pace and rhythm of how we read. How doe poets use more traditional forms of punctuation?
  6. One interesting approach to poetic form might be to look at the way form is changed by society because society has already changed the identity of the poet. The clearest example is the balladeer. In earlier societies the balladeer was almost a journalist: a source for melodrama and information, a purveyor of drama and sometimes lurid detail. But media has replaced many of the functions of the balladeer. The contemporary ballad is much more private and sorrowful, less taken up with public address than private feeling. Are there other examples of this?
  7. The pantoum began in Malaysia. It became popular in Britain and France in the nineteenth century. Then its slow rhythms and offbeat repetitions began to appeal to poets in the twentieth century. Does this kind of journey seem strange or familiar? Is it possible that a form is adopted by contemporary poets because it offers a way of expressing a new perception of time?
  8. The poet’s voice is a key element of form. Some forms change it so much that they almost seem to be voice filters. The villanelle resists narrative for instance: but the ballad highlights it. The sestina thrives on fragmented speech: blank verse resists it. How do you see the poetic voice in relation to form?
  9. Mark Strand’s introductory essay doesn’t mention any of the forms discussed in the anthology. How, however, does his discussion of Archibald MacLeish’s “You, Andrew Marvell,” incorporate aspects of form as discussed in the body of the book?
  10. Find examples of what Eavan Boland describes in her introduction as using the voice “against the line, rather than with it.” Is this practice merely subversive or does it expand the possibilities of form? If so, how?
  11. What do the editors mean when they write in the introduction that “form and formalism are associated, but not interchangeable terms”?
  12. Again and again the editors return to the power dynamic implicit in many of the forms discussed. Find evidence of this in the poems themselves. In what ways to poets who speak for the formerly disenfranchised challenge this power dynamic?
  13. What exactly do the editors mean by “shaping forms”? What is their relationship to metrical forms? Are there certain metrical forms that seem better matched to certain shaping forms?
  14. At first glance, it would appear that many of the selections in the “Open Form” section differ very little from the forms described in the preceding sections. Close inspection, however, reveals changes in both the letter and the spirit of the rules of form. How, for example, does W.B. Yeats bend the stanza to his needs?

About Eavan Boland

Eavan Boland is the author of more than a dozen volumes of poetry and nonfiction. A professor and the director of the creative writing program at Stanford University, she is the winner of a Lannan Foundation Award. She lives in Stanford, California, and Dublin, Ireland.

Books by Eavan Boland

  1. Book CoverAgainst Love Poetry: Poems

    A collection of poems about marriage by one of our most celebrated poets.More

  2. Book CoverDomestic Violence: Poems

    A celebrated collection from "one of the finest and boldest poets of the last half century" (Poetry Review).More

  3. Book CoverIn a Time of Violence: Poems

    The publication of Eavan Boland's previous book, Outside History: Selected Poems 1980-1990, established Boland as a significant presence in the contemporary American poetry world.More

About Mark Strand

Mark Strand won the Pulitzer Prize for Blizzard of One and was Poet Laureate of the United States. He teaches on the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago.

Books by Mark Strand

  1. Book Cover100 Great Poems of the Twentieth Century

    The last century's 100 most enduring poems, selected and introduced by former Poet Laureate Mark Strand.More

  2. Book CoverThe Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms

    "Concise, learned, revisionary... should enrich the passionate conversation about poetic forms for years to come."— Edward Hirsch, author of How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with PoetryMore