Welcome to the Wide World of Poetry

6 min read

Poetry can be transformative, both for the reader and poet. One of the great things about poetry – like other forms of art – is there’s no wrong way to approach it. If you prefer structure, certain types of poems with clear patterns (such as haiku or villanelle) may resonate with you. If you are looking for poetry that addresses specific themes, such as love or grief, check out sonnets and elegies. If you can’t think of a rhyme, try free verse. Here are some of the most common forms of poetry for you to explore — either as a reader or a poet.

Haiku

A haiku is a three-line, non-rhyming poem that originated in Japan. Typically written about nature or a season, it has a specific pattern of syllables: five syllables in the first line, seven syllables in the second line, then five syllables again in the third line.  

Matsuo Bashō, a 17th century Japanese poet, wrote some of the most famous haiku. In the English translation of “This Old Pond,” he demonstrated the power of the haiku to colorfully portray nature in an extremely limited form.

An old silent pond

A frog jumps into the pond—

Splash! Silence again.

Sonnet

Some of literature’s most famous sonnets came from William Shakespeare’s pen. A sonnet  (taken from the Italian word sonetto, meaning “little song”) consists of 14 lines in iambic pentameter, which means there are 10 syllables with alternating stress. A “stretched” sonnet might have 15 or 16 lines, but that’s advanced level poetry.

Shakespearean sonnets follow the rhyme scheme “ABAB CDCD EFEF GG,” but other styles of sonnets may vary the internal rhyme structure. Beyond the rules of a sonnet’s structure, this form is most often used for a love story, such as in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18.

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.

Villanelle

If the rules of a sonnet aren’t strict enough, try out a villanelle. From the Italian word villano, or peasant, a villanelle is a highly structured, 19-line poem. It begins with five three-line stanzas, followed by a four-line stanza. There are also specific rules about repeating lines and rhymes, which are demonstrated in Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.”

The lines “Do not go gentle into that good night” and “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” are repeated several times in the poem, and all of the lines end in either an “-ight” or an “-ay” sound.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Acrostic

Often used as a lesson in early grade school, an acrostic poem can be more sophisticated. It might contain a hidden word or message, spelled with the first letter of each line. The intent is to reveal a message, while attempting to conceal it within the lines of the poem.

An example of an acrostic poem by Edgar Allen Poe spells out the name “Elizabeth”:

Elizabeth it is in vain you say
“Love not” — thou sayest it in so sweet a way:
In vain those words from thee or L.E.L.
Zantippe’s talents had enforced so well:
Ah! if that language from thy heart arise,
Breath it less gently forth — and veil thine eyes.
Endymion, recollect, when Luna tried
To cure his love — was cured of all beside —
His follie — pride — and passion — for he died.

Ballad

The word “ballad” might bring to mind slow-dance love songs, but this term doesn’t just apply to music. Ballad poems are a type of narrative verse, often containing stanzas of four or two lines. They typically tell a story in a direct manner with vivid imagery, and can often easily be set to music. Songwriter Bob Dylan has a large catalog of ballads, including “Tangled Up in Blue,” “Hurricane,” and “Highway 61 Revisited.” Examples of non-musical ballads include “Annabel Lee” by Edgar Allen Poe, “Ballad of Birmingham” by Dudley Randall, and “Casey at the Bat” by Ernest Lawrence Thayer.

Ode

An ode is a lyric poem that praises a person, place, thing, idea, or event. The three types of odes have different rhyming schemes and structures.

The Pindaric ode, named for the ancient Greek poet Pindar, was traditionally performed by dancers and a chorus, often to celebrate athletic victories. They have a very strict structure, but a more modern example of a Pindaric ode is Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood by William Wordsworth.

The Horatian ode, named for the Roman poet Horace, has stanzas of two or four lines with a consistent meter, length, and rhyme scheme. These are less formal than Pindaric odes and are often more contemplative pieces that address topics from daily life. An example of a Horatian ode is On Cromwell’s Return from Ireland by Andrew Marvel.

The irregular ode does not have the three sections of a Pindaric ode, or the stanzas patterned after a Horatian ode. Each stanza of an irregular ode has its own rhyme scheme, length, and pattern. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind is an example of an irregular ode.

Elegy

Elegies are poems expressing sorrow, reflecting on death or loss. Traditional elegies contained four lines and followed an ABAB rhyming scheme, but more modern elegies have no special format. Walt Whitman’s O Captain! My Captain! is a famous elegy about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln just as the Civil War was ending. The first stanza reads:

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

An elegy is not the same as a eulogy, which is primarily associated with funerals. An “elegy” refers to a song or poem lamenting someone who is dead, while a “eulogy” is a speech of praise for someone who is living or dead. “Elegy” is taken from the Greek word elegos (“song of mourning”) and “eulogy” is formed from the Greek roots eu (“good”) and logos (“speech”).

Free Verse

Free verse poetry is cut loose from the constraints of specific rhyming schemes, lines, and structure. The poet can decide how to use natural pauses and cadence, alliteration, length, rhythm, rhymes, and other devices to create the poem they desire.

American poet Walt Whitman is considered the father of contemporary free verse poetry. He often wrote without strict rhyme or meter. One example is A Noiseless Patient Spider, which is famous for its universal themes of struggle and isolation.

A noiseless patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.
And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

These are but a fraction of the types and styles of poetry in the world, but if the poetic spirit moves you, start by expressing yourself in one of these forms of poetry.

Featured image credit: finwal/ iStock

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