Poetry comes in many shapes and sizes—sonnet, free verse, haiku, and more. Poets choose the forms for their poetry that will heighten the impact of their words, to challenge themselves to achieve meaning within certain stylistic constraints, and to relate their work to other poems in that form.
Recognizing the form and knowing something of that form’s history and associations can help you better understand and appreciate a poem. But first, it helps to know a few terms used in analyzing poetry.
Some Basic Poetic Terms
Stanza—a group of lines that form a unit within a poem. For example, a quatrain is a stanza of four lines. A stanza is sometimes, but not always, set off by an extra line space.
Rhyme scheme—the pattern of rhyme in a poem. When analyzing poetry, you typically indicate the rhyme scheme with letters. For example, an “abab” rhyme scheme would mean that the first line rhymes with the third and the second line rhymes with the fourth.
Meter—the number of feet in a line of poetry, measured by stressed syllables called “feet”—or “foot” in the singular. In a given line, mark off a foot for every stressed syllable (except when the pattern is a spondee, as described below).
Ex. Sometimes/ too hot/ the eye/ of heaven/ shines (William Shakespeare, “Sonnet 18”) has five stressed syllables and five feet.
The basic English meters are:
- iambs: unstressed/stressed (“Shall I/”)
- trochees: stressed/unstressed (“I shall”)
- spondees: stressed/stressed (“Clang! Clang!”)
- anapests: unstressed/unstressed/stressed (“In the morn/”)
- dactyls: stressed/unstressed/unstressed (“This is the/”)
Meter is usually expressed by the number of feet in the line and the stress pattern: one foot is monometer, two is dimeter, three is trimeter, etc.
Ex. Iambic pentameter has five feet with each one having an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one: daDUM/daDUM/daDUM/daDUM/daDUM as in Shakespeare’s line, “ If MU/sic BE/the FOOD/of LOVE/play ON.”
Free verse offers great latitude. It does not adhere to a particular pattern of metrical feet, syllables, or rhyme scheme; instead, it uses line patterns, stanza patterns, or patterns of imagery to add layers of meaning to the words on the page. The subject of a free verse poem is typically broad in scope:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart: the center 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. (William Butler Yeats, first stanza of The Second Coming)
Blank verse is a poetic form that uses meter, but no rhyme. It’s often written in iambic pentameter, a meter that mimics the rhythm of everyday English speech. Because there is no rhyme scheme, the poet finds other ways to heighten meaning. Sometimes, blank verse is organized into verse paragraphs. There are many famous examples of blank verse, including Milton’s Paradise Lost and Shakespeare’s plays.
Those blessèd structures, plot and rhyme—
why are they no help to me now
I want to make
something imagined, and not recalled? (Robert Lowell, opening lines from Epilogue)
The sonnet is perhaps the most famous of all poetic forms. A sonnet has fourteen lines and typically addresses one subject. Sonnets are thought to be among the most challenging poems to write. There are two main types of sonnets.
The Italian sonnet, also called the Petrarchan sonnet,consists of two stanzas: an octave (eight lines), which introduces a problem or solution, and a sestet (six lines), which completes the thought or answers the problem. The rhyme scheme for the octave is abbaabba. The sestet can be cdecde or cdccdc or cdedce.
I find no peace, and have no arms for war
and fear and hope, and burn and yet I freeze,
and fly to heaven, lying on earth’s floor,
and nothing hold, and all the world I seize.
My jailer opens not, nor locks the door,
nor binds me to hear, nor will loose my ties;
Love kills me not, nor breaks the chains I wear,
nor wants me living, nor will grant me ease.
I have no tongue, and shout; eyeless, I see;
I long to perish, and I beg for aid;
I love another, and myself I hate.
Weeping I laugh, I feed on misery,
by death and life so equally dismayed:
for you, my lady, am I in this state.” (English translation of Petrarch’s Sonnet Number 134)
Shakespearian sonnet, on the other hand has three quatrains (four line stanzas) and a concluding couplet (two line stanza), which provides surprise or irony or sums up what has come before. It is written in iambic pentameter and deals with many images but only one complete thought. The rhyme scheme for quatrain one isabab; for quatrain two, cdcd; for quatrain three, efef; and for the couplet, gg.
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
Oh no! It is an ever fixéd mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved. (Shakespeare, Sonnet 116)
Haiku is a traditional form of Japanese poetry. It is highly structured, consisting of three lines and seventeen syllables. The first line has five syllables, the middle line has seven syllables, and the last line has five syllables. Traditionally, haiku is about nature, especially a particular season; however, the subject matter has broadened as poets from other cultures have embraced the form. The image typically conveys the emotion.
Won’t you come and see
loneliness? – Just one leaf
from the kiri tree. (Matsuo Basho)
The sestina is a traditional form of French poetry that does not rhyme but actually repeats end words according to a set pattern. A sestina has six, six-line stanzas and a tercet (a three-line stanza) at the end.
September rain falls on the house.
In the failing light, the old grandmother
sits in the kitchen with the child
beside the Little Marvel Stove,
reading the jokes from the almanac,
laughing and talking to hide her tears. (Elizabeth Bishop, first stanza from Sestina)
A villanelle is another traditional French form of poetry, connected by rhyme and often treating lighter subjects. It uses a set pattern of line repetitions: five tercets and a quatrain with a rhyme scheme of aba, aca, ada, etc. Line 1 is repeated in lines 6, 12, and 18; line 3 is repeated in lines 9, 15, and 19. The repeated lines carry weight and meaning.
They are all gone away,
The House is shut and still,
There is nothing more to say.
Through broken walls and gray
The wind blows bleak and shrill:
They are all gone away.
Nor is there one today
To speak them good or ill:
There is nothing more to say. (E.A. Robinson, opening stanzas from The House on the Hill)
DiYanni, Robert. Literature: Reading Fiction, Poetry, and Drama (fifth edition). McGraw Hill, Boston, 2002.
Schaefer, Candace and Rick Diamond. The Creative Writing Guide New York: Addison-Wesley Educational Publishers, 1998.