Discussing Poetry Forms:
Sound and Structure



Poetry Alive: Reflections

Larry Liffiton and John McAllister (ed.)

Canadian Writer's Companion

Luengo, Anthony


Completing this lesson will help you to:

  • learn about the various forms of poetry


Poetry comes in a wide variety of forms, such as free verse, blank verse,

couplet, sonnet, quatrain, cinquaine, diamante, limerick, haiku, and

ballad. Many forms, such as haiku and sonnet, were originally

developed in other languages but became popular with poets writing in

English. Thus, form in poetry refers to the way words and sentences

are structured in a poem, and the kind of sounds that may come

within a given structure.


In this lesson you will review some of the terms used to distinguish

different forms of poetry. As you are learning these terms, keep in mind

that a poem's form is meant to work with its other elements to create

an underlying theme.


Categories of Poetry

Probably the most basic categories of poetic forms are narrative, lyric and descriptive poems.

Narrative poetry tells a story. It combines poetic techniques, such as rhyme and alliteration, with the elements of fiction, such as characters and a recognizable plot.


One common sub-type of narrative poetry is the ballad. A ballad tells a

story of a particular time and place, usually over many verses. It often

includes a refrain - lines or verses that are repeated at regular intervals. Ballads

were originally chanted or sung, so they are very structured in style.



Don't confuse ballad with ballade. A ballade is a traditional type of

formal lyric originally developed in France.


Lyric poetry, on the other hand, may tell about events, but the focus is on creating a mood or recalling a feeling. Lyric poems express the character, impresssions and emotions of the poet, and are usually short.

There are many different sub-types of lyric poems. Here are a few examples:

  • Love song
  • Patriotic song
  • Hymn
  • Elegy (a mournful poem or lament, sometimes rather long)
  • Ode (usually addressed to a person, thing, or routine)
  • Sonnet (a special type having fourteen lines)


Thus, a major division in poetry is between story telling and personal emotion.

For example, "Coaster-Waggon on Indian Grove", Poetry Alive: Reflections, p. 30,

is most clearly a narrative poem because it describes events as they occurred.

"Childhood" (Poetry Alive: Reflections, p. 25) is definitely a lyric poem. Although

some events are mentioned, the focus is on recalling childhood images and feelings

rather than specific events.


Sometimes you might find it difficult to distinguish between lyric and

narrative poems. 'Those Winter Sundays", Poetry Alive: Reflections,

p. 27) tells you about the father getting up and warming the house,

so you might think this is a narrative. But look more closely and you'll

see that there isn't a plot structure of "beginning, middle, and end."

The focus is on recalling images and the feelings associated with them.

That makes it a lyric poem.


Today, anthologies of poetry are likely to contain more lyric poems

than narrative poems.


A third major type of poem is the descriptive poem. A descriptive "looks outward" and describes the world as seen by the poet. As you can imagine, it involves a great deal of imagery and uses many adjectives to describe a scenery or a building or an event. Because it tends to lack an inner, emotional psychology, it is not as popular as the other two types. The Romantics, like Wordsworth, were the last to consistently use descriptive poetry in their descriptions of the sublime elements of nature.

Features of Lyric Poetry

Lyric poems are often divided into stanzas or verses. Stanzas are

usually separated by a single blank line. Stanzas within a poem may

have the same form or may vary. The poet also tries to develop

interesting forms based on variations of rhyme, rhythm and metre

(i.e. "sound play").



Rhyme is the repetition of sounds in different words. Rhyme can occur

within lines (internal rhyme) or - more usually - at the end of lines (end rhyme).

A rhyme scheme is a short formula for describing the pattern of rhyme

in a poem. End words that rhyme are assigned the same letter.

For example, the rhyme scheme for this poem is aabb.


"Thoughts on Poetic Terms"

English 11, it seems to me                 
Has plenty of terms for poetry,              
I've made lots of notes and done my best,    
I'm betting these terms are on the test.       


Obviously, not all poems follow the "aabb" rhyme scheme. If the word

at the end of a line does not rhyme with either "a" or "b" it is labeled

"c," and so on. The guided practice will allow you to identify the rhyme

scheme for several poems. Be aware that much modern poetry has no

rhyme scheme at all.




If you have ever studied music, or played an instrument, you will know

that music is broken into time units or a certain number of beats in a

bar or a line. This creates rhythm. Most poetry is broken up into units

or beats in a similar way.


To show a poem's rhythm, you divide the words into syllables then

decide which syllables are stressed and which are not. A stressed

syllable makes you raise your voice somewhat and linger over the

accented syllable. By reading a word aloud you will hear the natural

stress on the strong syllable.


Say the following words aloud. Notice where you place the stress or


depart    Did you hear the emphasis on "part":

remain    Did you hear the emphasis on "main":

hemlock  Did you hear the emphasis on "hem":


Indicating Stressed and Unstressed Syllables

( / ) stressed (you might like to know that the technical term for this

is ictus)

( u ) unstressed



Metre refers to the particular rhythm or pattern of stressed and

unstressed syllables in a poem.


The unit of metre in poetry is the foot. A foot contains one stressed

syllable and one or more unstressed syllables. Here are the most

common types of feet that poets can use:



Two syllables. The stress is on the second syllable.

be gin



Two syllables. The stress is on the first syllable.

lone ly



Three syllables. Two unaccented syllables followed by an accented one.

con tra dict



Three syllables. The first syllable is stressed, followed by two unstressed ones.

g/   guggu
lone li ness



Two stressed syllables. Emphasizes part of a line. Usually follows two

unstressed syllables in the previous foot.

rain cloud


The name for the metre in a poem depends on the number of feet in

each line.

Monometre: one foot

Dimetre: two feet

Trimetre: three feet

Tetrametre: four feet

Pentametre: five feet

Hexametre: six feet

Heptametre: seven feet

Oxtometre: eight feet


Free Verse and Formal Verse


There is one more set of terms you need to know about the structure of

poetry: free verse and formal verse.


Free Verse

Free verse is lyric poetry that doesn't follow a particular rhyme pattern

or metre but varies in its rhythm according to the mood the poet wants

to create. "Childhood" in Poetry Alive: Reflections, p. 25 is an

example of free verse.

Free verse poetry has:

- no set rhythm that is very obvious.

- no set rhyme scheme.

- lines of irregular length.



Don't confuse free verse with blank verse. Blank verse does not rhyme,

but it does follow a regular rhythm - iambic pentametre.


Formal Verse

Formal verse is poetry that follows one of the traditional, named

patterns for rhythm, rhyme, and stanzas. Formal verse includes

sonnets and haikus.






Scansion: Putting It All Together

The analysis of the patterns of rhythm in poetry is known as scansion

(i.e. to "scan"). When you are asked to scan a poem, follow these steps:


1. Determine the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in

the poem.

2. Draw a line separating each foot, then count the number of

feet per line.

3. Using the information from steps 1 and 2, name the type of

metre for the poem (e.g. tetrametre).


Have a look at the example below, which is from Thomas Gray's "Elegy

Written in a Country Churchyard." The first stanza of the poem has

been written for you so you can see its metre and foot pattern.

guggg/ggguggg/    guggg/    ggug/gggguggg/
The cur / few tolls / the knell / of par / ting day

guggg/ggguggg/     gguggg/ggggug/ggggugg/
The low / ing herd / wind slow / ly o'er / the lea,

guggg/    ggugggg/gggggugggg/gggguggg/gggugg/
The plow / man home / ward plods / his wear / y way

gu   g /gggggugggg/ggguggg/gggguggg/gggugg/
And leaves / the world / to dark / ness and / to me.


As this poem follows a pattern of one unstressed syllable and one

stressed syllable, the name of the metre is iambic.


Now, count how many feet there are. Count the number of units

divided by the vertical lines. You will see that there are five feet per line,

making it pentametre. So, the name and number of the metre of the

poem is iambic pentametre.


When you interpret a poem, you should always pay attention to the

metre. Your description of the form should describe the rhythm as

regular rhythm (following a general pattern), or irregular rhythm (no

general pattern). Where there is a regular rhythm, describe the metre

in as much detail as you can.






Guided Practice 3.2A 1:


Below are stanzas from five different poems. Identify the rhyme

scheme for these stanzas by writing the correct letter at the end of each

line. (1 mark for each question)


1.      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.

"Do not go gentle into that good night" by Dylan Thomas


2.      When I consider how my light is spent

Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,

And that one Talent which is death to hide,

Lodg'd with me useless, though my Soul more bent

"On My Blindness" by John Milton


3.     Had he and I but met

By some old ancient inn,

We should have sat us down to wet

Right many a nipperkin!

'The Man He Killed" by Thomas Hardy


4.      Let me take this other glove off

As the vox humana swells,

And the beauteous fields of Eden

Bask beneath the Abbey bells.

Here, where England's statesmen lie,

Listen to a lady's cry.

"In Westminster Abbey" by John Betjeman


5.      With loitering step and quiet eye,

Beneath the low November sky,

I wandered in the woods, and found

A clearing, where the broken ground

Was scattered with black stumps and briers,

And the old wreck of forest fires

"In November" by Archibald Lampman


Answer to Guided Practice 3.2A 1

1. aba
2. abba
3. abab
4. abcbdd
5. aabbcc




Guided Practice 3.2A 2:


Analyze (scan) these lines of poetry by doing the following:


1. Determine the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in

the poem.

2. Draw a line separating each foot, then count the number of

feet per line.

3. Using the information from 1 and 2, name the type of metre

for the poem.


1.      I wandered lonely as a cloud

That floats on high o'er vale and hill

"I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud" by William Wordsworth

2.      It is a beauteous evening, calm and free,

The holy time is quiet as a Nun

"It is a Beauteous Evening, Calm and Free" by William


3.      That time of year thou mayst in me behold

When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang

"Sonnet LXXIII: That Time Of Year Thou Mayst In Me Behold"

by William Shakespeare

4.      Double, double, toil and trouble

Fire burn and cauldron bubble

"Macbeth" by William Shakespeare

5.      The Miller was a chap of sixteen stone,

A great stout fellow big in brawn and bone.

"The Canterbury Tales" by Geoffrey Chaucer (Translated by

Nevil Coghill)


Answer to Guided Practice 3.2A 2

1. Iambic tetrametre

2. Iambic pentametre

3. Iambic pentametre

4. Trochaic tetrametre

5. Iambic pentametre