What is a poetic form?
A poem’s form refers to its structure: elements like its line lengths and meters, stanza lengths, rhyme schemes (if any) and systems of repetition. Every poem has a form—its own way of approaching these elements—whether that form is unique just to that poem, or part of a more widely used poetic form.
That brings us to poetry forms: defined poetic structures used across multiple poems and generally by multiple authors. Two well-known poetry forms are the haiku and the limerick. Both forms are defined by their structure in exactly the elements described above: line length, meter, rhyme scheme. And these forms influence how the poetry written in them tends to turn out, from terse and profound (haiku) to singsongy and silly (limerick).
Types of Poetry
From sonnets and epics to haikus and villanelles, learn more about 15 of literature’s most enduring types of poems.
- Blank verse. Blank verse is poetry written with a precise meter—almost always iambic pentameter—that does not rhyme.
- Free verse. Free verse poetry is poetry that lacks a consistent rhyme scheme, metrical pattern, or musical form.
- Free verse – Free verse is a popular style of modern poetry, and as its name suggests there is a fair amount of freedom when it comes to writing a poem like this. Free verse can rhyme or not, it can have as many lines or stanzas as the poet wants, and it can be about anything you like! So, while free verse may sound simple enough, the lack of rules makes this form of poetry tricky to master!
- Lyric poetry. Lyric poetry refers to the broad category of poetry that concerns feelings and emotion. This distinguishes it from two other poetic categories: epic and dramatic.
- Rhymed poetry. In contrast to blank verse, rhymed poems rhyme by definition, although their scheme varies.
- Epics. An epic poem is a lengthy, narrative work of poetry. These long poems typically detail extraordinary feats and adventures of characters from a distant past.
- Haiku. A haiku is a three-line poetic form originating in Japan. The first line has five syllables, the second line has seven syllables, and the third line again has five syllables.
- Haiku – The haiku (or hokku) is an ancient form of Japanese poetry that has become very popular all over the world. Renowned for its small size, haikus consist of just three lines (tercet); the first and third lines have five syllables, whereas the second has seven. Haikus don’t have to rhyme and are usually written to evoke a particular mood or instance. So, you can have a lot of fun with them! You may have written or will find yourself writing your own haiku at some point in school, or you can get creative and try it at home, too.
- Pastoral poetry. A pastoral poem is one that concerns the natural world, rural life, and landscapes. These poems have persevered from Ancient Greece (in the poetry of Hesiod) to Ancient Rome (Virgil) to the present day (Gary Snyder).
- Narrative poetry. Similar to an epic, a narrative poem tells a story. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” exemplify this form. Learn more about narrative poetry here.
- Sonnet. A sonnet is a 14 line poem, typically (but not exclusively) concerning the topic of love. Sonnets contain internal rhymes within their 14 lines; the exact rhyme scheme depends on the style of a sonnet.
- Sonnet – This very old form of poetry was made famous by none other than William Shakespeare, but the sonnet actually originated in 13th century Italy where it was perfected by the poet Petrarch. The word ‘sonnet’ is derived from the Italian word ‘sonnetto’ which means ‘little song’. Traditionally, sonnets are made up of 14 lines and usually deal with love. As a rule, Petrarchan (Italian) sonnets follow an ABBA ABBA CDE CDE rhyme scheme, whereas Shakespearean (English) sonnets are typically ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. But of course, rules are made to be broken!
- Elegies. An elegy is a poem that reflects upon death or loss. Traditionally, it contains themes of mourning, loss, and reflection. However, it can also explore themes of redemption and consolation.
- Elegy – An elegy doesn’t have rules like some of the other forms of poetry but it does have a set subject: death – eek! They are usually written about a loved one who has passed away, but can also be written about a group of people, too. Although they can sound sad, elegies often end on a hopeful note, hooray!
- Ode. Much like an elegy, an ode is a tribute to its subject, although the subject need not be dead—or even sentient, as in John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn”.
- Ode – The ode is one of the oldest forms of poetry and believed to have come from ancient Greece. Yep – yonks ago! The word ‘ode’ is derived from the Greek word ‘aeidein’ which means ‘to sing or chant’, and these poems were originally performed with a musical instrument. An ode is typically written to praise a person, event or thing (you could write an ode to your pet or favourite food!) and they are usually quite short in length.
- Acrostic. Like haikus, you’re likely to encounter acrostic poems at school! But that doesn’t mean they’re boring – in fact, far from it! This type of poetry spells out a name, word, phrase or message with the first letter of each line of the poem. It can rhyme or not, and typically the word spelt out, lays down the theme of the poem. Why not try it with the silliest word you can think of – it can be really fun!
- Limerick. A limerick is a five-line poem that consists of a single stanza, an AABBA rhyme scheme, and whose subject is a short, pithy tale or description.
- Limerick – Limericks are funny (and sometimes rude!) poems which were made popular by Edward Lear in the 19th century. They have a set rhyme scheme of AABBA, with lines one, two and five all being longer in length than lines three and four. The last line is often the punchline. Their sound is very distinctive, it’s likely you’ve heard or read one before!
- Ballad. A ballad (or ballade) is a form of narrative verse that can be either poetic or musical. It typically follows a pattern of rhymed quatrains. From John Keats to Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Bob Dylan, it represents a melodious form of storytelling.
- Ballad – The ballad is another old and traditional form of poetry that typically tells a dramatic or emotional story. They came from Europe in the late Middle Ages and were initially passed down from one generation to another, and often with music. Ballads do have a set form; they are typically four lines (quatrain) and have a rhyme scheme of ABAB or ABCB. However, this form is looser than others so can be modified to suit a writer’s (that’s you!) needs. Most modern pop songs you hear nowadays can be referred to as ballads!
- Soliloquy. A soliloquy is a monologue in which a character speaks to him or herself, expressing inner thoughts that an audience might not otherwise know. Soliloquies are not definition ally poems, although they often can be—most famously in the plays of William Shakespeare.
- Villanelle. A nineteen-line poem consisting of five tercets and a quatrain, with a highly specified internal rhyme scheme. Originally a variation on a pastoral, the villanelle has evolved to describe obsessions and other intense subject matters, as exemplified by Dylan Thomas, author of villanelles like “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.”
- Villanelle – The villanelle is another very old form of poetry that came from France and has lots of rules. It is made up of 19 lines; five stanzas of three lines (tercet) each and a final stanza of four lines (quatrain). As you can see from the rhyme scheme; ABA ABA ABA ABA ABA ABAA, this type of poem only has two rhyming sounds. Plus, there is a lot of repetition throughout the villanelle. Line one will be repeated in lines six, 12 and 18; and line three will be repeated in lines nine, 15 and 19. So although this takes out the extra work of having to write 19 individual lines, the real challenge is to make meaning out of those repeated lines.
A short poetry glossary
Syllable = the single, unbroken sound of a spoken or written word.
Stanza = a set amount of lines in poetry grouped together by their length, meter or rhyme scheme.
Rhyme scheme = the pattern of rhyme that comes at the end of each line or verse.
Meter = the pattern of stressed syllables (long-sounding) and unstressed syllables (short-sounding) in poetry.
Couplet = a two-line stanza.
Tercet = a three-line stanza.
Quatrain = a four-line stanza.
Cinquain = a five-line stanza.
Sestet = a six-line stanza.