Useful Notes: Poetry Forms

Poetry can be a confusing medium, and one of the key reasons for this is the many different forms poetry can be written in. Some rhyme, some don't. Some have a set meter, some don't. Below is, hopefully, a handy little guide to the most popular forms, a cheat sheet to help you navigate the field of poetry easier.

Let's start with the basics.

Free Verse
The most common form of poetry used by contemporary poets, and oftentimes the easiest to deal with.

Free verse is what it sounds like: unlike the other forms in this note, there basically are no rules. Free verse poetry conforms to no specific meter, rhyme scheme, or other pattern.

The Sonnet

There are two types of sonnets: the Petrarchan (or Italian) sonnet, and the Shakespearean (or English) sonnet. The English sonnet is much more common nowadays. The forms share some basic similarities: all sonnets have fourteen lines, all have a rigid rhyme structure,

Petrarchan Sonnet
The Petrarchan Sonnet isn't often used by English writers today, because the rhyme structure works way better in Italian.

Shakespearean Sonnet
The Shakespearean sonnet has a much more rigid structure than the Petrarchan, which is weird, considering how laid back of a dude Shakespeare was.

Shakespearean sonnets are written, like most of his work, in iambic pentameter (with one exception). The rhyme scheme of a Shakespearean sonnet is abab cdcd efef gg.

Shakespearean sonnets usually also, in the last two lines, have sort of a Twist Ending, or something that sheds new light on the rest of the poem.

The Ode

An ode is usually written in praise or dedication of someone or something (for example, "Ode on a Grecian Urn"). Originally, the ode was a Greek thing, but the English cribbed it in the 17th century.

Odes have three parts: the strophe, the antistrophe, and the epode. Basically a fancy Greek way of saying beginning, middle, and end. Though the specific line length of odes varies greatly, all odes will have these parts.

The rhyme scheme of odes can vary, but the most common for English odes is ABABCDECDE.

The Haiku

A Japanese form of poetry. We have a whole wiki on 'em.

The Villanelle

Villanelles are built around refrain, which means entire phrases get repeated throughout the poem. This makes them more song-like than most other poems, but also more repetitive. Successful villanelles are extremely rare due to the immense weight placed upon the refrains, which must therefore be strong enough to carry an entire poem on their own.

The Sestina

The Sestina is a 'difficult' form of poetry in which the words at the end of lines are repeated. Like the villanelle, this places an enormous amount of weight upon a very few words, meaning that the choice of these words must be perfect or the poem will fail. Generally, homophones are acceptable. The easiest form of Sestina to explain works in this way:
  • The first verse ends its lines with the words '1', '2', '3', '4', '5', '6'.
  • The second verse ends its lines with the words (1) '6', (2) '1', (3) '5', (4) '2', (5) '4', (6) '3'.
  • So the third verse ends with the words (6), (1), (5), (2), (4), (3).
  • Hopefully you can detect the pattern by now - the sixth word in the preceding verse comes first, then the first, then the fifth, then the second, then the fourth, then the third. This continues throughout the fourth, fifth and sixth verse - if a seventh was added, it would circle back on itself and begin again!

There are more complex types of Sestina, such as the double, exploded and imploded Sestina.

The Limerick

Limericks are lighthearted poems that frequently contain bawdy lyrics, although by no means is risqué humor necessary in order to write a good limerick. Single verse, written in five-line anapestic meter, with an aabba rhyming scheme.