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18 poetic forms every poet should know

By BBC Maestro

There are lots of different poetic forms, which come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. From the compact haiku to the novel-length epic, from the freedom of free form to the strictness of the sestina, these different formats each serves their own purpose.

Which poetic form will best allow you to express yourself?

18 different poetic forms

Let’s take a look at some of the best-known and most popular poetic forms used in the English language. Many aren’t British or American in origin, and some are centuries old. We’ve included a few examples as well as links to the longer works (see: Epics).

1. Acrostic

This poetic form spells out a word in a vertical line, most commonly using the initial letter from each line. This popular primary-school exercise dates back hundreds of years, with even the Ancient Greeks and Romans trying their hands at acrostic poetry. The best-known example is An Acrostic by Edgar Allen Poe, which spells out “Elizabeth”, the subject of the poem.

2. Ballad

The ballad tells a story, typically in a series of quatrains with an ABAB or ABCB rhyming scheme. Expect thrills and spills, with a plotline, characters and a ‘proper’ ending. For a great example of a ballad in English literature, read The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Not to be confused with the “ballade”, a French poetic form with 28 lines.

3. Blank verse

Blank verse is best known as Shakespeare’s format of choice. It’s made up from unrhymed iambic pentameter. This is a 10-syllable line with every other syllable stressed (say the opening line from Sonnet 18 in your head to get the idea of the rhythm: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”). Milton also used blank verse in his epic Paradise Lost.

4. Canzone

Canzone means “song” in Italian. This poetic form dates back to medieval Italy, where it was used by writers including Petrarch and Dante before evolving into the sonnet. It has anywhere between seven and 20 lines with ten or eleven syllables each. W.H. Auden wrote a poem simply named Canzone.

5. Cinquain

This is also known as a quintain or quintet, and as its names suggest, it has five lines. It can be an entire short poem or a stanza in a longer work. It was developed into the “American Cinquain” in the early 20th century by poet Adelaide Crapsey, who was inspired by the Japanese tanka poem (more about this shortly). Her revised version is unrhymed and has a set number of syllables per line: 2, 4, 6, 8, 2. Here’s an example by Crapsey, November Night:

With faint dry sound,
Like steps of passing ghosts,
The leaves, frost-crisp’d, break from the trees
And fall.

6. Couplet

A couplet is a pair of rhyming lines, which are usually the same length and have the same metre. Entire poems are written in rhyming couplets, including large sections of Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” (which uses “heroic couplets”, written in iambic pentameter). Shakespearean sonnets finish in a couplet, which serves to emphasise the importance of the message in the final lines. Other famous examples include Blake’s “The Tyger.”

Tyger Tyger, burning bright, 

In the forests of the night; 

What immortal hand or eye, 

Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

7. Elegy

An elegy is traditionally a poem of sorrow and mourning that marks a death. Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” sees the poet reflecting on the many lives and deaths buried there, and finishes with his own imagined epitaph. Walt Whitman’s O Captain! My Captain! was written in memory of Abraham Lincoln, and gained a more recent resonance after featuring in the film, Dead Poets Society.

8. Epic

Settle down comfortably before reading an epic poem, which are often the same length as a novel and just as full of set pieces, plot lines and characters. Classic epics such as Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey launched a thousand other poems, while in early medieval Europe, epics like Beowulf were entrancing the mead halls. Later poems in this tradition include The Divine Comedy, The Faerie Queen and Paradise Lost.

9. Free verse

Free verse has no formal rhyming scheme (although this isn’t to say that it doesn’t have any rhymes) and no set metre. It generally has stanzas, but these don’t have to be regular. This popular modern form of poetry uses “the natural music of the human voice”, as poet Carol Ann Duffy beautifully puts it in her BBC Maestro course. Here’s an excerpt from her poem, The Way My Mother Speaks:

I say her phrases to myself 

in my head 

or under the shallows of my breath,

restful shapes moving. 

The day and ever. The day and ever. 

The train this slow evening 

goes down England 

browsing for the right sky, 

too blue swapped for a cool grey. 

For miles I have been saying 

What like is it 

the way I say things when I think. 

Nothing is silent. Nothing is not silent. 

What like is it

The free verse form perfectly captures her memories of how her mother spoke, naturally and poignantly.

10.  Haiku

This traditional form of Japanese poetry is just three lines long, with 17 syllables arranged in a 5 – 7 – 5 format. The philosophy of the haiku is to capture a specific moment in time, followed by a realisation or feeling that’s expressed in the final line. Traditionally, the haiku[1]  deals with themes of nature, time and the seasons, although this has widened somewhat with modern haikus. This 17th-century Haiku from Matsuo Bashō (“the Master of Haiku”) has a fresh and contemporary feel.

The early summer rain.

Gathering it and fast

Mogami River.

The observation of the rain becomes the reflection about the cycle of water, and how these drops feed the fast-flowing Mogami River.

11.  Limerick

The limerick has to be one of the most famous styles of poetry, made popular by Edward Lear in the 19th century (although arguably dates back to 18th-century Ireland). These five-line poems always have an AABBA rhyming scheme, although their most significant characteristic is their humour. Here’s a witty example from Lewis Carroll:

There was a young man of Oporta,
Who daily got shorter and shorter.
The reason, he said,
Was the hod on his head,
Which was filled with the heaviest mortar.

12. Monostich

If you thought a couplet was short, meet the monostich. This is a single-line stanza, which can even make up the entire poem. Gyles Brandreth’s Ode to a LateLamented Goldfish simply reads “O wet pet!”. However, most monostich poems are more serious, their stand-alone form clearly revealing their message with no excess words to spare. Rabindranath Tagore wrote this single line:

If you shed tears when you miss the sun, you also miss the stars.

13. Ode

An ode is type of lyric poem, which in turn is a poem that expresses emotions, usually written in the first person. The ode usually addresses a person, place, event, object or idea and is quite formal in its tone. John Keats wrote two of the best-known odes in English literature, Ode to a Nightingale and Ode on a Grecian Urn.

14. Prose poem

This sounds like an oxymoron; however, a prose poem is most definitely a poetic form. It simply doesn’t have conventional line breaks but does use other poetic devices such as elaborate figurative language. If you read the opening lines of Amy Lowell’s Bath`, you’ll soon be immersed in the poetic language and forget that it doesn’t ‘look like’ a poem:

The day is fresh-washed and fair, and there is a smell of tulips and narcissus in the air.
       The sunshine pours in at the bath-room window and bores through the water in the bath-tub in lathes and planes of greenish-white. It cleaves the water into flaws like a jewel and cracks it to bright light.

15. Sestina

If you enjoy trying your hand at different types of poetry and like following rules, think about penning a sestina. This is a seven-stanza poem comprising six sestets and a final tercet. It rotates the same six words at the line ends in a strict pattern, with two of the words featuring in each of the three lines in the last stanza. Here’s a complete sestina by Algernon Charles Swinburne, just Sestina, which demonstrates how a complex-seeming scheme actually creates something of beautiful simplicity:

I saw my soul at rest upon a day

      As a bird sleeping in the nest of night,

Among soft leaves that give the starlight way

      To touch its wings but not its eyes with light;

So that it knew as one in visions may,

      And knew not as men waking, of delight.

This was the measure of my soul’s delight;

      It had no power of joy to fly by day,

Nor part in the large lordship of the light;

      But in a secret moon-beholden way

Had all its will of dreams and pleasant night,

      And all the love and life that sleepers may.

But such life’s triumph as men waking may

      It might not have to feed its faint delight

Between the stars by night and sun by day,

      Shut up with green leaves and a little light;

Because its way was as a lost star’s way,

      A world’s not wholly known of day or night.

All loves and dreams and sounds and gleams of night

      Made it all music that such minstrels may,

And all they had they gave it of delight;

      But in the full face of the fire of day

What place shall be for any starry light,

      What part of heaven in all the wide sun’s way?

Yet the soul woke not, sleeping by the way,

      Watched as a nursling of the large-eyed night,

And sought no strength nor knowledge of the day,

      Nor closer touch conclusive of delight,

Nor mightier joy nor truer than dreamers may,

      Nor more of song than they, nor more of light.

For who sleeps once and sees the secret light

      Whereby sleep shows the soul a fairer way

Between the rise and rest of day and night,

      Shall care no more to fare as all men may,

But be his place of pain or of delight,

      There shall he dwell, beholding night as day.

Song, have thy day and take thy fill of light

      Before the night be fallen across thy way;

Sing while he may, man hath no long delight.

Swinburne has made this even harder for himself than it has to be, as there’s no requirement for the end words in a sestina to rhyme. The use of iambic pentameter is typical of more traditional sestinas.

16. Sonnet

If you ask anyone to name different types of poetry, “sonnet” must be one of the top five answers. This much-loved poetic form was popularised by William Shakespeare in the 16th and 17th centuries, although they originally date from far earlier than that (they were called “little songs” in medieval Italy).

These poems always have 14 lines, with different types of sonnet having slightly different structure. The Shakespearean sonnet, for example, is made up from three quatrains and a final couplet. The change in structure towards the end is significant. This is called the “volta” in a sonnet, and it’s a turning point in the narrative where an idea is explained or the poet has a change of perspective. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129 has a famous volta in its final couplet:

Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame

Is lust in action; and till action, lust

Is perjured, murd’rous, bloody, full of blame,

Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,

Enjoyed no sooner but despisèd straight,

Past reason hunted; and, no sooner had

Past reason hated as a swallowed bait

On purpose laid to make the taker mad;

Mad in pursuit and in possession so,

Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;

A bliss in proof and proved, a very woe;

Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.

All this the world well knows; yet none knows well

To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

The first section of the sonnet deals with lust in no uncertain terms – it’s “savage, extreme, rude, cruel” among other things, and any pleasure is fleeting. However, in the closing couplet, the poet is resigned that everyone knows this, but nothing will change.  

17. Tanka

The tanka poem  is another traditional Japanese poetic form, which is slightly longer than the haiku. The tanka has 31 syllables over 5 lines, with a 5 – 7 – 5 – 7 – 7 structure. Like the haiku, the first part of the poem is descriptive, while the second section (usually the last two lines) is a reflection or realisation about the earlier part. For a modern take on this classic poetic form, try June Jordan’s powerful poem, On Time Tanka.

18. Villanelle

The villanelle follows a strict format. It consists of five tercets and concludes with a quatrain, with a rigid pattern of repetition. The first and third lines of the first stanza are repeated, alternately, as the last line of the following four tercets. Then, the lines appear as a concluding couplet in the final quatrain. Dylan Thomas’ Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night is a perfect villanelle.

Which poetic form appeals to you, as a writer? Carol Ann Duffy advises to play around with forms and see what happens.

In her BBC Maestro  course, she says, “Experimenting with form is part of your apprenticeship. We should certainly have a go, as I did, at a villanelle. We should certainly have a go, as I have, at a sestina… These are necessary exercises for a poet and will come out of your own reading.” 

For more wise words from Carol Ann Duffy, explore her BBC Maestro poetry course. She covers all sorts of poetic forms, as well as taking you through a range of different poetry techniques.

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