Writing & News

Notes on Form by Stuart Barnes

Given the extraordinary attention to different poetic forms displayed so thrillingly in Stuart Barnes’s forthcoming volume Like to the Lark (February 2023), he has added this note at the end of the book. We are reproducing it here alongside Stuart’s conversation with Meesha Williams in the brand-new Upswell Podcast series.

Notes on Form

Stuart Barnes

Like to the Lark’s working title was ‘Form & Function’, after Photek’s drum & bass record of the same name. Music and sound, form and transformation underpin the collection; its cornerstone is the sonnet (‘from Italian sonetto, “little song,” from Latin sonus “sound”’). ‘Form’, writes Felicity Plunkett, ‘is concerned with de- and re-arranging, working between what has gone and what is to come. It is about connection and generation.’ Form is Gwen Harwood’s ‘trellis’ and ‘fine pumpkins’. It is stave and symphony, wooden last and Ferragamo Rainbow Sandal, scaffold and Golden Gate Bridge. Every form flaunts its uniform, kaleidoscopic or otherwise.  

The phrase ‘like to the lark’ is from Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 29’, a poem important to Sandy Mitchell, one of my book’s dedicatees, and to me. My ‘Sonnet 29’, an elegy for Sandy, is also a terminal, a form invented by John Tranter. ‘Terminals borrow the end-words of each line of their source poems,’ explains David McCooey. ‘By employing fragments of pre-existing texts to generate new texts, [they are] by definition endlessly shape-shifting, and therefore paradoxically “formless”.’

My poem ‘The Pardoner’ is a terminal from Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Jailer’. Two lines from the latter—‘I have been drugged and raped. / Seven hours knocked out of my right mind.’—echo crimes I experienced in the mid-1990s. This date-rape and the later gang-rape I survived are illuminated in other poems, e.g., ‘Sestina: Rape’. The traditional sestina has six end-words but ‘Sestina: Rape’ has only one—‘rape’ (or a true rhyme of, e.g., ‘crêpe’, ‘scrape’, ‘drape’). My intention in writing the poem was to desensitise myself to the word that tormented me for decades, without diminishing its power.

The Lawrence Schimel-designed Decaying Sestina sheds a line a stanza and was the ideal form for my Decaying Sestina ‘Agave americana’, in which the plant witnesses its own flourishing and fading. Conceived by Marie Ponsot and Rosemary Deen, the tritina comprises three tercets and a one-line envoi. The form is urgent—in ‘Daphne’s Tritina’ my feminist revision of the myth of Daphne and Apollo collides with my account of a Rockhampton woman’s love of her meth-addicted son. The titles of some of my favourite songs, books and poems are woven as end-words into other tritinas (e.g., The Cure’s ‘It’s Not You’ into ‘Tritina after The Cure’, Timothy Conigrave’s Holding the Man into ‘At Seven Mile Beach’) and sestinas (e.g., Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Moon and the Yew Tree’ into ‘Luna, Taxus baccata’, Belinda Carlisle’s ‘Heaven Is A Place On Earth’ into ‘Sestina after B. Carlisle’).

In the pantoum, lines echo spell-like between stanzas, simultaneously contracting and expanding the form’s energies (‘Persian Love Cake’, ‘Moon Speaks during Pasur’), and subtle changes to one line’s spelling and punctuation can radically reshape meaning (‘In the navy’, ‘A Night Like This’). Similarly, the incantatory rhymes and refrain of the rondelet (‘diminutive of rondel, “short poem with a refrain,” literally “small circle”’) narrow and widen the form’s focuses (‘Central Queensland Rondelets’).

Duplex architect Jericho Brown describes his creation as ‘a ghazal that is also a sonnet that is also a blues poem’—three forms I adore. ‘Resilience in the face of hardship is one of the hallmarks of the blues poem’ (poets.org)—and, accordingly, the duplex. Of Like to the Lark’s eight duplexes, four are about tenacious plants from their own points of view, one an acquaintance living with HIV, one a duplex that used to be a church, one about otherworldly emperor penguins and one my reporting my first rape to a detective.

Writing these duplexes encouraged me to make two new forms. My poems ‘Sketching Aids’—which blends three memories of an ex-boyfriend—and ‘Dinner with S. M. at Tandoori Den’—which depicts our final meal together three years before his death—are terse-sets. The first four and a half lines of the former poem sprung up while I was looking at old photographs. The arrangement of ‘queen’ and ‘between’ suggested the ABC rhyme scheme and tercets. An eruption of grief insisted on the need for concision in the form of trisyllabic lines. The terse-set—my pun on tercet—is made up of a minimum of three tercets. Its form is playful but its content sober. Its language is precise, clear and simple, like the Imagists’.

‘Killing Bill or Whatever the Hell His Name Is (“Battle Without Honor or Humanity”)’, which describes the cruelty encountered by an acquaintance following his disclosing his HIV+ status to a lover, is a flashbang—a synonym of an explosive named in the poem. The flashbang is composed of a minimum of four unrhymed, uneven couplets bisected by a bullet (•). The first set of couplets presents a crisis, the second a solution, if there is one. Every couplet’s first line—the flash—consists of two or more words, every second line­—the bang—of only one. The flash mirrors a thrown explosive’s arc, the bang its detonation. The flashbang’s form is disorientating but its content unambiguous. Its language corresponds to the terse-set’s.

The terse-set and the flashbang concern adversity but are at heart declarations of resilience. Making them was crucial not only to the development of my writing but also to the deepening of my ability to sit with grief and to articulate anger. I needed new language—new forms—in order to try to comprehend this loss of life, this prejudice. Meditating on elegy, responsibility and respect was key. 

For me, writing in form, ‘flexing the form’—a phrase from Sandra Beasley’s essay on the sestina—and creating forms are fascinating, exhilarating and liberating. Forms are ‘instruments of discovery,’ said Marie Ponsot, who was fond of writing in tritinas, sestinas and villanelles. ‘[They] create an almost bodily pleasure in the poet. They are not restrictive. They pull things out of you.’ Forms are microscope and telescope, stethoscope and seismometer, Fantastic Voyage’s Proteus and NASA’s Voyager 1.

Bon voyage!  


Sandra Beasley, ‘Flexing the Form: Contemporary Innovation in the Sestina’, poets.org, October 1, 2018.

‘Blues Poem’, Glossary, poets.org.

Jericho Brown, ‘Invention’, poetryfoundation.org, March 18, 2019.

Gwen Harwood, ‘At Mornington’, Collected Poems 1943–1995, St Lucia: UQP, 2013.

David McCooey, ‘Review Short: John Tranter’s Heart Starter’, Cordite Poetry Review, August 25, 2015.

Felicity Plunkett, ‘True to Form: A.E. Stallings, Jenny Xie, Ada Limón’, Sydney Review of Books, October 30, 2019.

‘Roundelay’, Online Etymology Dictionary.

Dinitia Smith, ‘Recognition at Last for a Poet of Elegant Complexity’, The New York Times, April 13, 1999.

‘Sonnet’, Online Etymology Dictionary.