Poets and non-poets, unite!
Whether you have a poet’s soul or you haven’t written a poem since grade school, exploring the world of French poetry can be an excellent way to improve your French skills.
But today you won’t just be observing—you are going to become an active participant in this exciting world!
Using French to create something of your own is a surefire way to strengthen your language skills.
Jazz up your French learning routine today and boost your level by challenging yourself to write one poem this week.
Why French Learners Should Write Poems in Français
Poetry is a great tool for language learners for a variety of reasons.
The first, of course, is French pronunciation. Given that poems are written with a very distinct style and rhythm, reading your own creations aloud can be a great way to get used to pronouncing the unfamiliar words and to learn the appropriate diction of the language.
But learning poetry can also be an exercise in cultural exploration. Think about what it would be like to have no grasp of Shakespeare’s sonnets, for example. While of course sonnets aren’t used all that often in the daily life of a native English speaker, having a familiarity with these famous verses can help both native anglophones and learners of English to get acclimated with the history of this language. It is much the same in French.
Finally, poems give you an outlet to use new words and grammatical structures that you have learned elsewhere. Reading or hearing new vocabulary and structures is the first step, but using them yourself (writing or speaking) will really solidify them into your knowledge.
Like in English, poetry in French exists in a variety of different styles. Each of these styles has something to offer to a French learner, be it an understanding of the rhythm of French, a new way to express yourself or an experiment in rhyming.
4 Types of Poems for All Levels of French Learners
Calligrammes are very visual poems invented by poet Guillaume Apollinaire in the early 20th century. The poems are arranged in such a way as to have the words display the subject of the poem, like in this poem in the shape of a woman wearing a wide-brimmed hat, or this short poem, which is arranged in the shape of the Eiffel Tower:
« Salut monde dont je suis la langue éloquente que sa bouche Ô Paris tire et tirera toujours aux Allemands »
(Hello, world, of which I am the eloquent tongue that its mouth, Oh Paris, sticks out and shall always stick out at the Germans)
Try it yourself: Calligrammes are fun poems for any level of French learner to attempt. Because their actual rhythm is not imposed, you are free to use whatever words you have at your disposal to construct your own very visual poems.
2. Short Poems in Alexandrins
Short rhyming poems written in alexandrins are a great way to test your French rhyming skills. The alexandrin is the French answer to iambic pentameter: It is a rhythmic style of verse wherein each line of poetry has 12 syllables, divided in the middle to make six and six. Often, but not always, alexandrins will rhyme.
Victor Hugo offers some excellent examples of alexandrins in his work. His “Demain, dès l’aube,” (Tomorrow, at dawn) which appears in “Contemplations,” is made up of verses in alexandrins that are arranged in rimes croisées, or crossed rhymes.
What results is a poem of three stanzas, each of which is made up of four lines with the rhyme pattern ABAB:
Demain, dès l’aube, à l’heure // où blanchit la campagne,
Je partirai. Vois-tu, // je sais que tu m’attends.
J’irai par la forêt, // j’irai par la montagne.
Je ne puis demeurer // loin de toi plus longtemps.
Tomorrow at dawn, at the hour when the countryside grows white,
I shall leave. Do you see, I know that you are waiting for me.
I shall go by the forest; I shall go by the mountains.
I cannot remain far from you any longer.
The slashes show the break in the line, known as the césure. As you can see, it often appears at a place that is logical to the meaning of the sentence, as well as to its syllabic constraints.
Try it yourself: This sort of poem is great for a beginner, as its constraints force you to seek out new words. Try writing a poem in alexandrin verse by first picking a theme.
For example, you could choose to write about your backyard. Brainstorm words belonging to the champ lexical (lexical group of words) associated with your backyard: nouns like gazon (lawn) or arbre (tree), but also adjectives like verdoyant (verdent) or lumineux (luminous).
Use a thesaurus to help, if you need to. Here are two of the top French thesauruses:
Once you have come up with a list of words, you can begin to write your verses, paying close attention to the rhyming pattern and syllables as you write:
- This French rhyming dictionary will surely be helpful.
- This French guide to counting syllables (particularly those pesky sometimes silent “e” endings), will be a great aid too.
3. French Sonnet
A step up from the simple rhyming alexandrin is the sonnet, which uses not only alexandrins but a very specific rhyme scheme.
Several different types of sonnets exist throughout the world, but the types most often used in France are two versions of the model invented by Petrarch, which called for stanzas written in alexandrins in the following rhyme scheme: ABBA ABBA CDE CDE.
Two French poets, Marot and Pelletier, adapted this version, creating versions that called either for ABBA ABBA CCD EED or ABBA ABBA CCD EDE rhyme schemes, respectively. While Pelletier’s version is known as the “French” sonnet and Marot’s the “Italian,” both were quite common in the works of the Renaissance poets in France.
Near the end of his life, Renaissance poet Pierre de Ronsard dictated six sonnets for the “Sonnets pour Hélène,” three of which were in the Marot form and the other three of which were in the Pelletier form. This sonnet, “Quand vous serez bien vieille,” (When you are quite old) is of the Marot form.
Here is the first stanza:
Quand vous serez bien vieille, au soir, à la chandelle,
Assise auprès du feu, dévidant et filant,
Direz, chantant mes vers, en vous émerveillant :
Ronsard me célébrait du temps que j’étais belle.
When you are quite old, and sit in the evening by candlelight
Near the fire, rambling and burning out,
You will say, singing my verses and marveling at them:
Ronsard celebrated me back when I was beautiful.
Another interesting constraint that Ronsard imposed upon himself in these sonnets is the alternation of masculine and feminine rhymes. A masculine rhyme is one where the final syllable is not a silent “e.” You can see the masculine rhymes in bold above.
Try it yourself: Because this form has more constraints than a simple poem in alexandrin, it is great for intermediate learners of French. Many sonnets are love poems, so you may wish to look into your heart for inspiration.
The resources that you already discovered for your short alexandrin poems will be just as helpful now that you have graduated to sonnets.
4. Poèmes en prose
All languages have a style of free-form poem, and that of French, the poème en prose (prose poem), is attempted by many and mastered by few.
One excellent example of a prose poet is Charles Baudelaire, who wrote several different poems as he wandered Paris, compiling them into a book he called “Le Spleen de Paris.” One such poem is “Anywhere out of the world,” (title in English), a poem that explores the wanderlust of the poet via an imagined conversation between the narrator himself and his own soul.
The poem is laid out as though a prose work, complete with dialogue in quotes and prose punctuation and line breaks. Here is how it starts:
Cette vie est un hôpital où chaque malade est possédé du désir de changer de lit. Celui-ci voudrait souffrir en face du poêle, et celui-là croit qu’il guérirait à côté de la fenêtre.
Il me semble que je serais toujours bien là où je ne suis pas, et cette question de déménagement en est une que je discute sans cesse avec mon âme.
« Dis-moi, mon âme, pauvre âme refroidie, que penserais-tu d’habiter Lisbonne ? Il doit y faire chaud, et tu t’y ragaillardirais comme un lézard. Cette ville est au bord de l’eau ; on dit qu’elle est bâtie en marbre, et que le peuple y a une telle haine du végétal, qu’il arrache tous les arbres. Voilà un paysage selon ton goût ; un paysage fait avec la lumière et le minéral, et le liquide pour les réfléchir ! »
Mon âme ne répond pas.
This life is a hospital, where each patient is possessed with a desire to change beds. This one wants to suffer next to the stove, and that one thinks he’d heal better near the window.
It seems to me that I would always be better where I’m not, and this question of displacement is one that I discuss without end with my soul.
“Tell me, my soul, poor, cold soul, what would you think about living in Lisbon? It must be warm there, and you would perk up like a lizard. This city is on the edge of the water; they say it’s built of marble, and that the people there hate plants so very much that they rip up all the trees. That’s a landscape that would be to your liking, a landscape made of light and mineral, and liquid to reflect them!”
My soul does not answer me.
Try it yourself: While it’s easy to see why some believe that prose poetry is the easiest of all four, it can actually be the most difficult, at least to do well. Picking a theme and finding the images that will best illustrate it is a long process and requires extensive vocabulary and mastery of verb tenses.
However, with all of the work you have under your belt, there’s no reason not to give prose poems—or any poem on this list, for that matter—a go.
We’d love to see what you create if you want to share it with us!
And One More Thing…
Of course, French is a whole lot more than writing poems.
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