Poetry Forms | Examples

Poetic form can be defined in different ways, but it is essentially a type of poem defined by the poem's physical structure. Additionally, it defines a specific style or set of rules that must be used for writing that form (Quatrain, couplet, ballad, haiku, sonnet, elegy, and ode are all popular poetry forms). Even the literal shape that a poem takes on a paper can matter when it comes to poetry forms. The line length, number of syllables in a given line, content, the rhyme scheme, the meter, and the rhythm of the lines in a poem are all important parts of poetic form.

Form is often one of the most important parts of writing poetry. For many people, form in poetry is everything. People do still care about the actual subject matter, but poetry is more about the language and structure than the theme in many cases. Most poets are more or less interested in playing around with the sound of words and the way that different words sound in proportion to one another, and poetic form can be a useful way to explore all of that. Pairing words based on their similar sounds, their contrasting sounds, and their complementary sounds can be part of the job of the poet.

See also Poetry Terms

For some types of poems, even a lack of form or apparent form can be an example of form in poetry. A lot of modernist poets are specifically interested in poetic form in this manner. Many of their verses are not written with attention to rhyme, rhythm, or anything involving detailed poetic structure. Their poetry is much more similar to prose in that manner. However, they are still exploring a lot of basic emotions in that regard, and that can make a huge difference for the people who are trying to find a way to communicate what they feel without having to put form before theme.

Popular Forms of Poetry

ABC

See note below: Poetry in which every word begins with a successive letter of the alphabet. The first word begins with A, the second with B, etc. (OR) A poem that has 5 lines that create a mood, picture, or feeling. Lines 1 through 4 are made up of words, phrases or clauses - and the first word of each line is in alphabetical order from the first word. Line 5 is one sentence, beginning with any letter.

Note: ABC as a form has been used to describe anything from an Abecedarian poem (above), to an Acrostic poem, and other things. ABC typically has been used as a catch-all for sequential alphabet poems that may not necessarily use the entire alphabet like an Abecedarian poem. So, in reality, "ABC" is just an acrostic poem using successive letters of the alphabet per line or stanza.


Acrostic

A poem, usually in verse, in which the first or the last letters of the lines, or certain other letters, taken in order, form a name, word, phrase, or motto.



Ballad

A story in a song, usually a narrative song or poem. Any form of story may be told as a ballad (not to be confused with a ballade), ranging from accounts of historical events to fairy tales in verse form. It is usually with foreshortened alternating four- and three-stress lines ('ballad meter') and simple repeating rhymes, and often with a refrain.

A popular kind of narrative poem, adapted for recitation or singing; esp., a sentimental or romantic poem in short stanzas.


Bio

A poem written about one self's life, personality traits, and ambitions.


Blank verse

A type of poetry, distinguished by having a regular meter, but no rhyme. In English, the meter most commonly used with blank verse has been iambic pentameter. The iambic pentameter form often resembles the rhythms of speech. Verse that does not employ a rhyme scheme. Blank verse, however, is not the same as free verse because it employs a meter e.g. Paradise Lost by John Milton which is written in iambic pentameters.


Couplet

Rhyming stanzas made up of two lines. A pair of lines of a verse that form a unit. Some couplets rhyme aa, but this is not a requirement.


COUPLET, a pair of lines of verse, which are welded together by an identity of rhyme. The New English Dict. derives the use of the word from the French couplet, signifying two pieces of iron riveted or hinged together. In rhymed verse two lines which complete a meaning in themselves are particularly known as a couplet. Thus, in Pope’s Eloisa to Abelard:—

“Speed the soft intercourse from soul to soul,

And waft a sigh from Indus to the Pole.”

In much of old English dramatic literature, when the mass of the composition is in blank verse or even in prose, particular emphasis is given by closing the scene in a couplet. Thus, in the last act of Beaumont and Fletcher’s Thierry and Theodoret the action culminates in an unexpected rhyme:—

“And now lead on; they that shall read this story

Shall find that virtue lives in good, not glory.”

In French literature, the term couplet is not confined to a pair of lines, but is commonly used for a stanza. A “square” couplet, in French, for instance, is a strophe of eight lines, each composed of eight syllables. In this sense it is employed to distinguish the more emphatic parts of a species of verse which is essentially gay, graceful and frivolous, such as the songs in a vaudeville or a comic opera. In the 18th century, Le Sage, Piron and even Voltaire did not hesitate to engage their talents on the production of couplets, which were often witty, if they had no other merit, and were well fitted to catch the popular ear. This signification of the word couplet is not unknown in England, but it is not customary; it is probably used in a stricter and a more technical sense to describe a pair of rhymed lines, whether serious or merry. The normal type, as it may almost be called, of English versification is the metre of ten-syllabled rhymed lines designated as heroic couplet. This form of iambic verse, with five beats to each line, is believed to have been invented by Chaucer, who employs it first in the Prologue The Legend of Good Women the composition of which is attributed to the year 1385. That poem opens with the couplet:—

“A thousand times have I heard man tell

That there is joy in heaven and pain in hell.”

This is an absolutely correct example of the heroic couplet, which ultimately reached such majesty in the hands of Dryden and such brilliancy in those of Pope. It has been considered proper for didactic, descriptive and satirical poetry, although in the course of the 19th century blank verse largely took its place. Epigram often selects the couplet as the vehicle of its sharpened arrows, as in Sir John Harington’s

“Treason doth never prosper: what’s the reason?

Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason.”


Dramatic monologue

A type of long lyric poem, developed during the Victorian period, in which a character in fiction or in history delivers a lengthy speech explaining his or her feelings, actions, or motives.


Dramatic Verse

Any drama written as verse to be spoken; another possible general term is poetic drama.


Epic

An extensive, serious poem that tells the story about a heroic figure. A broadly defined genre of poetry, and one of the major forms of narrative literature. It retells in a continuous narrative the life and works of a heroic or mythological person or group of persons.


Free verse

A term describing various styles of poetry that are not written using strict meter or rhyme, but that still are recognizable as 'poetry' by virtue of complex patterns of one sort or another that readers can perceive to be part of a coherent whole.


Haiku

HAIKU (plural: haiku, from archaic Japanese): The term haiku is a fairly late addition to Japanese poetry. The poet Shiki coined the term in the nineteenth century from a longer, more traditional phrase, haikai renga no hokku ("the introductory lines of light linked verse"). To understand the haiku's history as a genre, peruse the vocabulary entries for its predecessors, the hokku and the haikai renga or renku.

The haiku follows several conventions:

(1) The traditional Japanese haiku consists of three lines. The first line contains five syllables, the second line contains seven, and the last line five. In Japanese, the syllables are further restricted in that each syllable must have three sound units (sound-components formed of a consonant, a vowel, and another consonant). The three unit-rule is usually ignored in English haiku, since English syllables vary in size much more than in Japanese. Furthermore, in English translation, this 5/7/5 syllable count is occasionally modified to three lines containing 6/7/6 syllables respectively, since English is not as "compact" as Japanese.

(2) The traditional subject-matter is a Zen description of a location, natural phenomona, wildlife, or a common everyday occurrence. Insects and seasonal activities are particularly popular topics. If the subject-matter is something besides a scene from nature, or if it employs puns, elaborate symbols, or other forms of "cleverness," the poem is technically a senryu rather than a haiku. The point was that the imagery presents a "Zen snapshot" of the universe, setting aside logic and thought for a flash of intuitive insight. The haiku seeks to capture the qualities of experiencing the natural world uncluttered by "ideas." Often editors will talk about "the haiku moment"--that split second when we first experience something but before we begin to think about it. (In many ways, this idea might be contrasted usefully with the lyric moment in the English tradition of poetry; see lyric).

(3) The haiku is always set during a particular season or month as indicated by a kigo, or traditional season-word. This brief (and often subtle) reference to a season or an object or activity associated with that time of year establishes the predominant mood of the poem.

(4) It is striking a feature of the haiku that direct discussion of the poem's implications is forbidden, and symbolism or wordplay discouraged in a manner alien to Western poetry. The poet describes her subject in an unusual manner without making explicit commentary or explicit moral judgment. To convey such ideas, the genre often relies upon allusions to earlier haiku or implies a comparison between the natural setting and something else. Simplicity is more valued than "cleverness." Again, if the poet is being clever, using puns or symbols, the poem again is technically a senryu rather than a haiku.

(5) The poet often presents the material under a nom de plume rather than using her own name--especially in older haiku.

(6) Additionally, the haiku traditionally employ "the technique of cutting"--i.e., a division in thought between the earlier and later portions of the poem. (It is comparable to the volta of a sonnet). These two divisions must be able to stand independently from the other section, but each one must also enrich the reader's understanding of the other section. In English translation, this division is often indicated through punctuation marks such as a dash, colon, semicolon, or ellipsis.

Here is an example of a haiku by a Western writer, James Kirkup:

In the amber dusk
Each island dreams its own night--
The sea swarms with gold
.

The following poem serves as an example very loosely translated from Japanese:

Yagate shinu
Keshiki wa miezu
Semi no koe
[O cricket, from your cheery cry
No one could ever guess
How quickly you must die.]

This example illustrates the haiku's lack of authorial commentary or explanation--the desire merely to present the experience of nature:

Samidare wo
Atsumete hayashi
Mogami-gawa
[Gathering all
The rains of May
The swift Mogami River.]

Many Japanese poets have used the form, the two acknowledged masters being Bashó (a nom de plume for Matsuo Munefusa, 1644-94); and Kobayashi Issa (a nom de plume for Kobayashi Nobuyuki). The Imagist Movement in 20th century English literature has been profoundly influenced by haiku. The list of poets who attempted the haiku or admired the genre includes Ezra Pound, Amy Lowell, Robert Frost, Conrad Aiken, and W. B. Yeats. Contrast haiku with the tanka and the senryu. See also hokku, below, and haikai, above. See also kigo and imagism. You can click here to download a PDF handout summarizing this discussion of haiku, or you can click here to download PDF samples of haiku.


Light Poetry

Light poetry, also called light verse, is poetry that attempts to be humorous. Poems considered "light" are usually brief, and can be on a frivolous or serious subject, and often feature wordplay, including puns, adventurous rhyme and heavy alliteration.


Limerick

A limerick is a five-line, often humorous and ribald poem with a strict meter. Lines 1, 2, and 5 of have seven to ten syllables (three metrical feet) and rhyme with one another. Lines 3 and 4 have five to seven (two metrical feet) syllables and also rhyme with each other. The rhyme scheme is usually "A-A-B-B-A".

Limerick Rhythm

Limericks have a distinct rhythm. The rhythm is as follows:

da DUM da da DUM da da DUM   7-10 syllables   A
da DUM da da DUM da da DUM   7-10 syllables   A
da DUM da da DUM                       5-7 syllables    B
da DUM da da DUM                       5-7 syllables    B
da DUM da da DUM da da DUM    7-10 syllables  A


Lyric

A poem that expresses the thoughts and feelings of the poet.


Monoku

A haiku in a single horizontal line.


Narrative

Narrative poetry is poetry that tells a story. In its broadest sense, it includes epic poetry; some would reserve the name narrative poetry for works on a smaller scale and generally with more direct appeal to human interest than the epic.


Personification

A form of poetry in which human characteristics are attributed to nonhuman things. Personification offers the poet a way to give the world life and motion by assigning familiar human behaviors and emotions to animals, inanimate objects, and abstract ideas.


Prose Poetry

Prose is writing distinguished from poetry by its greater variety of rhythm and its closer resemblance to the patterns of everyday speech. The word prose comes from the Latin prosa, meaning straightforward. This describes the type of writing that prose embodies, unadorned with obvious stylistic devices. Prose writing is usually adopted for the description of facts or the discussion of ideas. Thus, it may be used for newspapers, magazines, novels, encyclopedias, screenplays, films, philosophy, letters, essays, history, biography and many other forms of media.

Prose poetry is usually considered a form of poetry written in prose that breaks some of the normal rules associated with prose discourse, for heightened imagery or emotional effect, among other purposes. Arguments continue about whether prose poetry is actually a form of poetry or a form of prose (or a separate genre altogether). Like poetry (intense, sculpted) but without line breaks.


Quatrain

A stanza or poem consisting of four lines. In the basic form, Lines 2 and 4 must rhyme while having a similar number of syllables.


Rhyme

A rhyming poem has the repetition of the same or similar sounds of two or more words, often at the end of the line.


Romanticism

A poem about nature and love while having emphasis on the personal experience.


Senryu

A short Japanese style poem, similar to haiku in structure, however, senryû tend to be about human foibles while haiku tend to be about nature, and senryû are often cynical or darkly humorous and satiric while haiku are serious.


Sonnet

Lyric poems that are 14 lines that usually have one or more conventional rhyme schemes.


Tanka

A Japanese poem of five lines, the first and third composed of five syllables and the others seven. In Japanese, tanka is often written in one straight line, but in English and other languages, we usually divide the lines into the five syllabic units: 5-7-5-7-7.

Each tanka is divided into two segments. The first three lines are the upper phrase, and the last two lines are the lower phrase. The upper phrase typically contains an image, and the lower phrase exposes the poet's ideas about that image. 

Tanka poems are similar to a haiku but have two additional lines and usually feature as its subject very strong emotion or love. Conversely, Haikus are typically about nature. 


Verse

Verse is a single metrical line of poetry, or poetry in general (as opposed to prose which uses grammatical units like sentences and paragraphs). "Verse" is also used as a general term for metrical composition. Not all verse is poetry and sacred books such as the Holy Bible are divided into small verses.