What Herbie Hancock Taught Me About Formal Poetry

Dante Di Stefano

In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 189.

When I first began seriously writing poetry in the late 1990s, I was immediately drawn to formal poetry. Nineteenth-century poet and Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins was, is, and will forever remain my North Star in poetry. When I first read his poems at nineteen, I was smitten, overwhelmed by his sprung rhythms and by the way he marshalled his daringly ebullient alliterations within traditional formal patterns. I spent the next few years writing curtal sonnets—an eleven-line variation of the traditional sonnet invented by Hopkins, exemplified by his poem “Pied Beauty”—then branched out into Elizabethan sonnets, villanelles, sestinas, and thousands of lines of blank verse. None of this poetry was very good. My teachers in creative writing classes responded more favorably to my rawer, freer work (inspired by my other poetry crush, Allen Ginsberg). My teachers also made me aware of the conservative political charge surrounding neoformalism at the time. The poets my teachers admired (James Wright, Stanley Kunitz, James Dickey) had followed a trajectory shared by many American poets of the twentieth century; they began their lives in poetry by writing technically virtuosic formal poetry and eventually broke into a free verse of tremendous power. It’s a compelling arc: from formality to freedom. But in each of these cases, and in almost any writer’s journey, the arc is not as straightforward as it might appear at first glance.

In the twenty-first century, the arc described above has been atomized and absorbed into the bloodstream of countless poets. MFA graduates and amateurs, local poets and performance artists, poets laureate and professors are living through a golden age of American poetry, in which any given poetry collection displays an astonishing variety of forms. Look no further than the proliferation of American sonnets, pantoums, golden shovels, and so on, peacocking through the digital ether and across the pages of your favorite literary magazine. Recently, while reading Tim Seibles’s Voodoo Libretto: New and Selected Poems (Etruscan Press, 2022), my opinion was confirmed that his command of the villanelle equals that of Theodore Roethke, Sylvia Plath, and Dylan Thomas. Zeina Hashem Beck’s crown of sonnets, “Poem Beginning & Ending With My Birth,” in her recent collection O (Penguin Poets, 2022), is a formal tour de force. Terrance Hayes, through the intercession of Wanda Coleman, has reinvigorated the sonnet form as radically as anyone since Shakespeare. Seibles, Beck, and Hayes aren’t exceptions to the rule; most poets today shuffle through a multiplicity of forms and techniques.

In my early twenties, I had mostly abandoned my apprenticeship to form. I was working as a bellhop at a Holiday Inn and writing notebook after notebook full of bad poetry. One day I found out that jazz musician Herbie Hancock was staying at the hotel. I love jazz, and so, when I found out he was staying there and would be checking out during my shift, I made my way up to his room to collect his bags and the bags and instruments of his group members. I asked for his autograph, and he was surprised that a young bellhop in the middle of upstate New York knew his discography, from Empyrean Isles to The New Standard. I told Hancock at one point that I was really into “free jazz”(Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra, late Coltrane). He chuckled and said, in the gentlest way, “You know, all jazz is free.” When he said this, I immediately thought of poetry. Saying “free jazz” is as redundant saying “formal poetry.” Just as jazz is contingent upon improvisation, so pattern is essential to poetry. Every choice we make in a poem, from diction to syntax to line length to enjambment, is a formal choice. The bottom line for beginning poets, and for poets who are anxious about formal poetry, is this: Don’t be afraid of inherited forms because all writing is an engagement with form. Not only was Hancock a generous tipper, but he offered me the gift of a new insight into poetry, which I’ve carried with me for over two decades.

Since this conversation with Hancock, I have continued my experimentation and romance with form. Much of my formal work has revolved around the ten-syllable line, writing in a kind of Miltonic blank verse and deploying those lines in sonnets, sestinas, and short lyric poems broken into quatrains or tercets. In my recent book-length poem, Midwhistle (University of Wisconsin Press, 2023), I invented a stanzaic pattern I call the “stepped septasyllabic cinquain,” which is a fancy way of saying a five-line stanza built with seven syllable lines indented in a fashion that recalls a spiral staircase. Here are a few stanzas from a section titled “in the manner of Proust & Tolstoy” from Midwhistle:

            I am & was a deckle

                        edge, a drawing room, an iris

            blossoming distance under

                                    the eyelids of my unborn

                        child, who is & is not me.


            & blooming, thus: I gather

                        my radiant manias

            & sweet regrets & hold them

                                    out for you, these details that

                        deepen into fond symbol.

For me, composing by counting syllables as I go forces me further into the rhythms of the individual lines and steers me into syntactical and dictional choices that I wouldn’t otherwise make. The felicitous enjambments in the first stanza above (“deckle / edge,” “iris / blossoming,” “unborn / child”) owe themselves to syllable count, as does the phrase “radiant manias” in the second stanza.

Formal constraints are almost always generative stimulants. If you find yourself resistant to experimenting with form because you find the constraints limiting, I suggest seeing the limitations of any formal stricture as hurdles to soar over, as diving boards to corkscrew off, as papier mâché walls to careen through. Also remember that much of the joy and work of writing comes from what jazz musicians call “woodshedding,” or practicing. You might take inspiration from saxophonist Sonny Rollins, who famously honed his craft on the Williamsburg Bridge, playing for the East River and the J train until he became a legend. For me, much of the excitement of a life in poetry comes from this kind of woodshedding: composing without hope of publishing, exploring the wrong notes, looking for the grace notes, dwelling in the music of lyric saying, tapping out melodies on an old piano in an empty room with a window open and no audience in sight for hour upon hour—like Herbie Hancock surely has done.

Nota Bene: Three books that have been incredibly useful to me over the years in deepening my understanding of form are The Poem’s Heartbeat: A Manual of Prosody by Alfred Corn (Story Line Press, 1997), Poetic Meter and Poetic Form (McGraw Hill, 1965) by Paul Fussell, and Patterns of Poetry: An Encyclopedia of Forms (Louisiana State University Press, 1986) by Miller Williams.


Dante Di Stefano is the author of four poetry collections, including the book-length poem Midwhistle (University of Wisconsin Press, 2023), Love Is a Stone Endlessly in Flight (Brighthorse Books, 2016), Ill Angels (Etruscan Press, 2019), and Lullaby With Incendiary Device, which was published in an anthology titled Generations (Etruscan Press, 2022) that also includes poetry collections by William Heyen and H. L. Hix. Di Stefano’s poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared in The Best American Poetry 2018Prairie Schooner, the Sewanee Review, the Writer’s Chronicle, and elsewhere. With María Isabel Alvarez he coedited the anthology Misrepresented People: Poetic Responses to Trump’s America (NYQ Books, 2018). He holds a PhD in English from Binghamton University and teaches high school English in Endicott, New York. He lives in Endwell, New York, with his wife, Christina, their daughter, Luciana, their son, Dante Jr., and their goldendoodle, Sunny.

Art: Rokenstreet