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Introduction: What is poetry?
Poetry has been defined in a truly vast number of ways throughout its history, many of them biased towards a certain form or style to the exclusion of all else. For our purposes, let us just say that poetry is the art of arranging words to create art. Indeed, in Western culture, all creative writing was once considered to fall under the umbrella term "poetry."note However, in the modern sense of the word, poetry tends not to resemble spoken language. Instead, it makes use of creative imagery and unusual or innovative use of language. In most cultures, poetry has traditionally followed arbitrary rules, under the belief that constraints force the poet to be more creative. In English, these rules typically include following a strict accentual meter (pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables) and making lines rhyme in pre-defined patterns. By and large, English poetic forms are inherited from the Greeks and Romans, and, to a lesser extent, the medieval French and Italians. However, English is a Germanic language and has a very different sound compared to Greek, Latin, or any of the Romance languages, so these rules and forms have had to evolve into characteristically English types of poetry. Many English poets in recent times have believed that these rules are too artificial. It is a common opinion among modern writers that a poet can only create true art when he allows the poem to take its own natural form, leading to the development of freer forms of poetry, with fewer rules. However, many critics argue that poets like Shakespeare and Milton wouldn't be remembered as geniuses now if they hadn't forced themselves to follow strict rules of form. Indeed, classical forms of poetry are coming back into style in a movement called "formalist revival," with prominent poets like Howard Nemerov writing modern, relevant poetry with classical forms. But what are these rules? How are they used? Next, we'll look at poetic meter.
English meter (at least, most of it) consists of a set pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. Stress is a concept that some people do not find intuitive: If you have trouble figuring out where stress falls in English words, don't worry, this problem is very common. The best way to tell is to break words down into syllables, like so: ac-cen-tu-ate. Now say the word slowly, paying attention to how long you take to say each syllable. The stressed syllable in English tends to be the longest. Words of two syllables will always have one stressed syllable, and words of four or more syllables tend to have one main stress and a weaker secondary stress, in non-adjacent syllables. In our example, "accentuate" has two stresses (primary in bold, secondary in italics): ac-cen-tu-ate. Because the rhythm of English speech is based on stress, poets can arrange stressed and unstressed syllables in a sentence to, erm, accentuate the natural rhythm. In most systems of meter, the syllables are arranged into two-to-three-syllable blocks known as "feet," terminology we inherit from the ancient Greek and Roman poets. While our meter is based on stress and theirs was based on syllable length, we use the same names for the different feet that can make up a line of poetry. Here's a list of the most common feet:
- The iamb (da-DUM): An unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one. "The man," "agree," and "of course" are all good examples. (Small words like articles and prepositions ("a/an", "the", "in," "at," "to,") tend to be counted as unstressed in poetry, unless the meter demands that they be stressed.) Most poets agree that the iamb is the most common foot in natural English speech, and a sizable majority of English poetry is written in iambic meter.
- The trochee (DUM-da): An inverted iamb. That is to say, a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable. "Sunlight," "working," and "timeless" are all examples. True trochaic meter is quite rare, because of its stilted, "falling" sound in English. Some have tried though, and good examples include "The Song of Hiawatha" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and both the original and most English translations of The Kalevala.
- The spondee (DUM-DUM): A double stressed syllable. Uncommon in English because we tend to perceive one syllable as more stressed than the other, making the foot either an iamb or a trochee. The equivalent with two unstressed syllables is the pyrrhus, which is uncommon for the same reason.
- The anapest (diddy-DUM): A three-syllable foot consisting of two unstressed, and then one stressed syllable. Often used in comedic poetry, but sometimes in serious narrative works as well.
- The dactyl (DUM-diddy): A foot consisting of one stressed and then two unstressed syllables. This foot is bulky and frustrating to write at length in English, but it was the standard epic meter in Greek and Latin. Longfellow also tried these in his Narrative Poem "Evangeline," with some success.
Meter Continued: Other Languages
The kinds of meter described above, called "accentual-syllabic," works because English is "stress-timed." This means that stressed syllables fall at equal intervals, with the unstressed syllables between them compressed to maintain the rhythm. Said another way, natural English prosody tends to sound something like this: "da-DUM-diddy-DUM-da-DUM...DUM-diddy-da-DUM," and so on. The "DUM"s represent stressed syllables and everything else represents unstressed syllables. In a normal sentence, the stressed syllables have a fairly consistent rhythm, while the unstressed syllables expand and contract to maintain the the space between the stresses. It's just an unconscious part of how the English language is spoken. The Germanic languages are pretty consistent about this. German and Dutch poetry, for instance, works much the same way as English poetry, and often sounds quite natural to English-speaker's ears. Most languages, however, are not stress-timed. Japanese, Latin, Italian (to some extent), Ancient Greek, and many others are "mora-timed," where (and this is an oversimplification) words are made up of long and short syllables, and a long syllable always takes up twice the time of a short syllable. The rhythm in these languages tends to be quite different than the rhythm of English speech. Spanish, French, and many others are "syllable-timed," instead, where the syllables are all the same length and always take up the same amount of time. French, in fact, does away with fixed stresses entirely. Phrases and even short sentences in French are pronounced as if they were one long word with stress on the last syllable. So how does poetic meter work in these languages? One of two ways. In Latin and Greek, poets used "quantitative meter." This works much the same way as accentual-syllabic meter. It has the same feet, called the same names (in fact, Ancient Greek and Latin are where English poets got most of their terminology), and they're grouped into lines in the same way as in English. The only difference is, instead of stressed and unstressed syllables, the Greek and Latin feet consist of long and short ones. Thus, a Greek dactyl consists of one long syllable and two short ones, ("duuummm-dum-dum...") rather than one stressed and two unstressed syllables. In Greek and Latin, the highest form of poetry (used in epics) was dactylic hexameter, with liberal substitutions of spondees in certain positions. The other, easier way is just to count syllables. Japanese, Spanish, French and Italian poetry are all based on lines with certain numbers of syllables. In modern Romance languages, a common line of poetry is the Alexandrine, which in this context simply means a twelve-syllable line with a pause in the middle. See below for information about a common Japanese form.
Rhyme, at its very simplest, is when two words contain similar sounds. However, when we talk about poetic rhyme, we usually have a specific type in mind: The "tail-" or "end-rhyme." This is when the last words in two lines rhyme with each other. In songs and informal poetry, this can be an imprecise rhyme, like "singing" rhymed with "ring," but in classical poetry, the rhyme must usually be very precise. In a "perfect" rhyme, the last stressed syllable in each word must have the same vowel sound, and everything after the stressed syllable must sound exactly the same. For example, "moon" and "June" rhyme perfectly, as do "unduly" and "truly," but "bottle" and "scuttle" do not, because the stressed vowel is different, and "bottle" and "coddle" do not, because the part after the stressed vowel has a different consonant ("t" in "bottle", but "d" in "coddle"). (Many poets would consider "bottle" and "coddle" close enough in some contexts, though.) In general, English words don't have too many words each that rhyme with them. Tail-rhyming was originally more of a Romance-language characteristic, whereas early English poetry emphasized alliteration (see below) but by the time of Middle English, the two forms coexisted, and by Shakespeare's day, rhyming was king and alliteration no longer a main element in English poems. It sounds very complicated, but most people can pick it up intuitively with a little listening, and understanding the exact nature of rhyming is rarely important; appreciating the sound is what matters. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to maintain a single tail-rhyme through an entire poem, so most rhymed poems have a pattern or "rhyme scheme" of different rhymed endings. Standard practice is to notate the rhyme scheme like this: "AABB" or "ABBAABBA CDECDE," to name just two examples. In this notation, every letter stands for one rhyme/one line. Every line ending "A" will rhyme with every other line ending "A," and so forth. Rhyming a word with itself is usually not permitted either, although some forms of poetry actually require it. If this explanation isn't clear, here's an example: this is a quatrain with an "AABA" rhyme scheme. Note how each rhymed line ends with a stressed syllable containing the same vowel and the same consonants after the vowel (conspire—entire—desire). This very strict rhyme is typical of poets before the twentieth century.
- Ah, love, could thou and I with fate conspire,To grasp this sorry scheme of things entire,Would not we shatter it to bits — and thenRemould it nearer to the heart's desire!
This is the poetic equivalent of a paragraph. It can be as short as two lines (in heroic couplets and some other forms) or as long as dozens, and some poems aren't broken into stanzas at all. In general, there's a divide in English poetry between verse with fixed stanzas (which usually rhyme), and poems without fixed stanzas, in which the stanza break is used much like a paragraph or section break, to separate the poem into meaningful sections. In the latter type of poetry, stanza breaks can and do happen within a line, so that one stanza ends and the next begins with shortened lines. The stanza is marked in any of the same ways a paragraph is, either by indenting, by inserting a line of whitespace, or both.
Types of Poetry:
The most common form of poetry used by 20th-century and contemporary poets. Free verse is what it sounds like: unlike the other forms on this page, there basically are no rules. Free verse poetry conforms to no specific meter, rhyme scheme, or other pattern. The poet has complete discretion over these aspects of the poem, and may well decide not to use any or all of them. Some free verse resembles classical poetry very much, and other examples may easily look like un-punctuated prose without paragraph breaks. Stranger forms exist: free verse is essentially a blanket term. It evolved from various sources, such as increasingly free blank verse in English, French Vers Libre (in which the number of syllables per line began to matter less), and Gerard Manley Hopkins' "sprung verse." Sprung verse is a system of poetic diction that Hopkins invented more or less out of whole cloth to allow his poetry to take on the rhythms of speech without abandoning form altogether. No one else really used it, but his poetry did influence T. S. Eliot and others. Examples include: Nearly everything by T. S. Eliot and many of his contemporaries, as well as any of The Beat Generation of poets. Free verse makes up a large percentage of serious poetry written since the 1920's and 30's. note A famous example of free verse is the beginning of Eliot's "The Waste Land". Note that the poet breaks the poem into regular lines and employs repetitive structure, but maintains natural, speech-like rhythms instead of a fixed meter:
- April is the cruellest month, breedingLilacs out of the dead land, mixingMemory and desire, stirringDull roots with spring rain.Winter kept us warm, coveringEarth in forgetful snow, feedingA little life with dried tubers.
- "..Rhime being no necessary Adjunct or true Ornament of Poem or good Verse..." note
- Turning and turning in the widening gyre noteThe falcon cannot hear the falconer;Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhereThe ceremony of innocence is drowned; noteThe best lack all conviction, while the worstAre full of passionate intensity.
Quatrains, Couplets etc.
The QuatrainA stanza or complete poem of four lines. The most common rhyme schemes for quatrains are ABAB and AABB, and the most common meter is iambic pentameter. Examples include Edward Fitz-Gerald's loose translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, as well as many elegies and narrative poems that use the quatrain as a stanza. Most English sonnets contain three quatrains.
The CoupletA stanza (or rarely, a complete poem) of two rhymed lines. Found at the end of most English sonnets, and as the regular stanza in a kind of verse called "heroic couplets" or "elegiac couplets." Heroic couplets were used for narrative poems from at least Chaucer's time. They were considered dated by the late 1800's. The basic form was couplets of iambic pentameter, with a rhyme scheme of AA BB CC DD... and so forth. Overlaps with the AABB or "heroic" quatrain. Alexander Pope's famous translation of The Iliad is a noted example of a work entirely in heroic couplets. Emily Dickinson's favorite meter. Famously, any poem or song written in common meter can be sung to the tune of any other song written in common meter. The Gilligan's Island theme song, Amazing Grace, and House of the Rising Sun are popular melodies for tune-swapping, but there are too many examples to list here. See the trope page, above. Common meter is thought to have come from lines of fourteener (iambic heptameter) that broke into two unequal lines over time.
A Japanese form of very short poem. We have a whole wiki written in them. The goal is to boil a moment of time or a whole scene down to three short phrases that can be said in one breath. Standard form is three lines, with 5, 7 and 5 syllables, respectively. note In a true Japanese-language haiku, two poetic images are juxtaposed, and a seasonal word, like "midsummer" or "autumn leaves" (there are actually lists of words that count for this) must be mentioned. Some English haiku adhere to these rules strictly, but most use them loosely and some disregard them completely. Originally, haiku were the first verse of a longer poem (sometimes written in collaboration between multiple poets), but the importance of the haiku increased and overshadowed the rest of the poem. A fifteenth-century poet named Matsuo Bashou was among the first to treat haiku as complete poems, although he used them more as flavoring in his travelogues and diaries and less as stand-alone units. His haiku are still some of the most renowned in Japanese history. Perhaps the most famous Japanese-language Haiku is the following, by Bashou (translated literally):
- An old pond;A frog jumps in—Water's sound
- Whitecaps on the bay:noteA broken signboard bangingIn the April wind.note
- Lend me your arms;Swift as thunderboltsFor a pillow on my journey.
Sonnets, broadly speaking, are rhymed poems with fourteen lines, usually (read: always) on a single subject or topic. They're sometimes considered the poetic equivalent of the high-school five-paragraph essay, although this glosses over the sonnet's potential to be a passionate, emotional work of poetry. However, like the five-paragraph essay, sonnets have a specified formula: part of the sonnet introduces the subject, another part elaborates on it, adding complications, a third part resolves the tension or casts new light on the subject, and the conclusion adds one last comment on the subject. There are several main types of sonnets in English: the Petrarchan (or Italian) sonnet, the Spenserian (or English) sonnet, and the later Shakespearean sonnet. All three can be written in English, but the Shakespearean is probably the most common. Indeed, the sonnet is part of a general pattern of English poets adopting poetic forms from the Romance languages, but due to the differences in sound between English and, say, Italian, very few have been as successful as the Sonnet. Rarely, sonnets of some kind can be parts of larger poems. Percy Bysshe Shelley gives us the "Ode to the West Wind," which consists of five cantos of fourteen lines, each of which could be considered as a sort of loose sonnet, although the layout of these cantos actually originates in a different Italian form, the Terza Rima. Shakespeare also used sonnets within dialogue or monologue in his plays, notably at times in Romeo and Juliet.
Petrarchan SonnetThe original form of the sonnet, the Petrarchan is associated one of the chief humanists and poets of the Italian Renaissance, Francesco Petrarca, though the very basics of the form predate him significantly. It isn't often used by English writers today, because the rhyme structure works somewhat better in Italian. note Consists of 14 lines rhymed ABBAABBA CDECDE or some slight variant. The first stanza of eight lines is called the octave, and it introduces and discusses the subject, often setting up a dramatic conflict or problem. The second, which has six, is called the sestet, begins with a line called the "volta" ("turn), which casts new light on the subject. The sestet normally solves or resolves the problem set up be the octave, although sometimes it presents the problem from a different angle, without resolving it.
Spenserian SonnetThe Spenserian sonnet has a more typically English rhyme scheme than the Petrarchan, with a rhyme scheme of four quatrains and one couplet, ABAB BCBC CDCD EE. The first quatrain is the introduction, and the second is the elaboration. The volta typically comes at the top of the third quatrain, but sometimes the real "turn" is found in the couplet instead.
Shakespearian SonnetDeveloped from the Spenserian, with the variation that the quatrains do not share rhymes between them, thus simplifying the composition enormously. The rhyme scheme is, therefore, ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. The dramatic structure is the same as the Spenserian. It's predominantly associated with Shakespeare. He wrote 154, which he published in one volume. One group of sonnets was addressed to a man known as the "Fair Youth," and another to a woman known as the "Dark Lady." While the extent to which Shakespeare had sexual feelings for either (assuming they were real people) is debatable, a (seemingly large) number of controversial scholars take the sonnets as proof of Shakespeare's bisexuality. Like most of his work, Shakespeare wrote his sonnets in iambic pentameter, with only one exception. His meter varies from quite strict to rather loose and (dare we say it?) sloppy, but many of his famous lines are strict pentameter with only one or two substitutions, if that. Perhaps the best known of Shakespeare's sonnets is the eighteenth, one of the "Fair Youth" poems. Note the strict rhyme scheme and meter, and the change of tack in the third quatrain, when Shakespeare stops comparing the Youth to a summer's day and starts talking about immortalizing him with the poem itself:
- Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?noteThou art more lovely and more temperate:Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,noteAnd often is his gold complexion dimm’d;And every fair from fair sometime declines,By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimm’d:But thy eternal summer shall not fade, noteNor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st; noteNor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,So long lives this,note and this gives life to thee.
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.
Villanelles are built around one or more refrains, 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. One of the most famous modern examples of the English-language villanelle is Dylan Thomas's Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night, in which the title and the line "Rage, rage, against the dying of the light" each appear four times in a poem of only six stanzas. The emphatic weight placed on those two refrains is quite enormous, and the fact that Thomas pulls it off is a testament to his lyrical skill.
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 ABCDEF
- The second verse ends its lines with the words FAEBDC
- The third verse ends with the words CFDABE
- 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.
Of things most fragile in their loveliness;Because the sky hath wept all this long dayAnd wrapped men’s hearts within its cloak of greyness,Because they look not down I sing the stars,Because ’tis still mid-March I praise May’s flowers.Also I praise long hands that lie as flowersWhich though they labour not are worthy praise,And praise deep eyes like pools wherein the starsGleam out reflected in their loveliness,For whoso look on such there is no greynessMay hang about his heart on any day.
- There comes upon me will to speak in praise
Limericks are lighthearted poems that often (but not always) contain sexual humour.note They consist of five lines of roughly anapestic meter (diddy-DUM diddy-DUM et cetera), but missing syllables often cause them to look "amphibrachic" (da-DUM-da da-DUM-da da-DUM-da ...) instead. The first, second and fifth lines have three feet, and the third and fourth have two each. The rhyme scheme is AABBA.