Useful Notes / Poetry Forms

Poetry can be a confusing medium. A lot of different terminology is thrown about when poetry is discussed, much of it to do with the many different forms poems can take. Some rhyme, some do not. Some have a set meter, some do not. 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 a few words about poetic form and style in general:

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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."

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. English poetry has traditionally followed arbitrary rules, under the belief that constraints force the poet to be more creative. 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. However, many critics argue that poets like Shakespeare and Milton would not now be remembered as geniuses if they hadn't forced themselves to follow strict rules of form. Indeed, nowadays, classical forms of poetry are coming back into style.

But what are these rules? How are they used? Next, we'll look at poetic meter.

    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, it's 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 stress, 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.

The most common line in English poetry is "iambic pentameter", which consists of five iambs, adding up to a rhythm that sounds roughly like this "da-DUM-da-DUM-da-DUM-da-DUM-da-DUM." In an actual line of poetry, this would look something like this (stressed syllables in caps for the sake of demonstration):

"Have AT you THEN, a-FFEC-tion's MEN at ARMS," (from Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost.)

Note how, even spoken naturally, the line has a strong iambic rhythm; strong enough, in fact to be tap-danced to, as Kenneth Branagh helpfully showed us in his film adaptation of Love's Labour's Lost.

Types of meter are named by the number and type of feet in each line. Thus, iambic pentameter has five iambs in each line, and "anapestic tetrameter" has four anapests. Other common meters are iambic hexameter (or "Alexandrine"), which has six iambs, usually with a pause or "caesura" in the middle, and iambic heptameter (or "Fourteener"), which has seven, with a pause after the fourth.

These patterns are usually more like guidelines, since English speech doesn't normally follow these patterns exactly. In all but the strictest poetry, some feet will not match the overall pattern. These are called substitutions. For example, many (indeed, most) poets will intersperse trochees into iambic meter, to make the rhythm sound more natural. The first foot has a very strong tendency to become a trochee, to the point that some poets substitute it more often than not. However, too many substitutions destroy the rhythmic feel of the poem, and many poets restrict the number and type of substitutions they'll make. A common rule is that the last foot in a line cannot be substituted, to maintain the feel of the meter. note 

    Rhyme 

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-rhyme." This is when the last words in two or more lines rhyme closely 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.)

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 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.

Here's 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 then
Remould it nearer to the heart's desire!
(Quatrain 99, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Khayyam, trans. Edward Fitz-Gerald)

Other forms of rhyme exist, including assonance (where a single vowel is repeated through many words), alliteration (where a single consonant is repeated), and "internal rhyme," where words inside a line or lines rhyme. There are too many, in fact, to cover here.

    The Stanza 

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 identically to a paragraph, either by indenting, by inserting a section break, or both.

Types of Poetry:

    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.

Examples include: Nearly everything by T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, or any of The Beat Generation of poets, as well as a large percentage of serious poetry written since the 1920's and 30's, although more classical types of poetry are coming back into vogue now.

A famous example is the beginning of Eliot's "The Waste Land". Note the natural, speech-like rhythms, without a fixed meter:

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

Due to the type of poets that tend to write it, free verse is often some of the most incomprehensible and difficult poetry. For instances, the above T. S. Eliot poem contains untranslated phrases in multiple foreign languages, and incredibly obscure cultural and religious references. To top it all off, the poem is supposed to be a modern retelling of the Arthur legend, specifically the episode about the Fisher King. A modern edition of The Waste Land is likely to be a Doorstopper, not because the length, but because of all the footnotes and commentary necessary to understand it.

    Blank Verse 

Once considered the default form of English poetry, analogous to the dactylic hexameter of the Greek and Roman poets. If you take any older Narrative Poem or other long, serious poem from before about 1910, odds are near even that it'll be in blank verse. Shakespeare and many subsequent playwrights used it for both dialogue and dramatic monologues in their plays, and John Milton was considered an absolute master of it, having written Paradise Lost in very, very strict blank verse. Other famous examples include Tennyson's Ulysses (and many others), Yeat's The Second Coming, and many English verse translations of Greek and Latin epics.

Blank verse is almost always iambic pentameter, although blank tetrameter exists. It is normally un-rhymed (but one-off, incidental rhymes can and do happen), and there are no fixed stanza breaks.

Here's an example, from Yeat's The Second Coming. Note how most lines (like the first) begin with a trochee (DUM-da) and then proceed in iambs (da-DUM-da-DUM-da-DUM):

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The 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 everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

    Quatrains, Couplets etc. 

The Quatrain

A 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.

The Couplet

A stanza (or rarely, a complete poem) of two rhymed lines. Found at the end of 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.

Common Meter

A type of quatrain stanza that alternates between iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter, usually rhyming ABAB. Extremely common for ballads, Christian hymns and popular songs, as well as 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 morphed into two unequal lines over time.

The Haiku

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" 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.

Perhaps the most famous Japanese-language Haiku is the following, by Bashou (translated literally):
An old pond;
A frog jumps in—
Water's sound

While English-language haiku do not have the rhythmic meter of most English poetry, they are still appreciated for their brevity and impressionistic qualities. Jack Kerouac was one of the earliest English-language writers to seriously compose haiku at length, although Ezra Pound wrote a pseudo-haiku as early as 1913. The honour of being the first Westerner to write a haiku, however, must go to a Dutch trade comissioner named Henrik Doeff, who wrote several in Japanese in the early 19th century. One of his (thanks to Wikipedia), translated into English:
Lend me your arms;
Swift as thunderbolts
For a pillow on my journey.

    The Sonnet 

Sonnets, broadly speaking, are rhymed poems with fourteen lines, usually on a single subject or topic.

There are two main types of sonnets in English: the Petrarchan (or Italian) sonnet, and the later Shakespearean (or English) sonnet. Both can be written in English, but the Shakespearean is far more 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.

Petrarchan Sonnet

The Petrarchan Sonnet is associated one of the chief humanists and poets of the Italian Renaissance, Francesco Petrarca. It isn't often used by English writers today, because the rhyme structure works somewhat better in Italian. 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.

Shakespearean Sonnet

The Shakespearean sonnet has a slightly more rigid rhyme scheme than the Petrarchan, with a rhyme scheme of four quatrains and one couplet, ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. The couplet usually takes the place of the volta and sestet in a Petrarchan sonnet.

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, many 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.

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 couplet at the end, 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?
Thou 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,
And 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,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor 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, and this gives life to thee.

Other types exist, and many modern sonnets follow similar dramatic structure, but have less regular rhyme schemes. Percy Bysshe Shelley's Ozymandias is one of the best known examples.

    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 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.

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 

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, but they would take pages of their own to explain.

    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 amphibrachic meter, note  with an AABBA rhyming scheme.
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