Discussing Poetry Forms:
Poetry Alive: Reflections
Larry Liffiton and John McAllister (ed.)
Canadian Writer's Companion
Completing this lesson will help you to:
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.
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:
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.
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
( 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.
Two syllables. The stress is on the first syllable.
Three syllables. Two unaccented syllables followed by an accented one.
Three syllables. The first syllable is stressed, followed by two unstressed ones.
Two stressed syllables. Emphasizes part of a line. Usually follows two
unstressed syllables in the previous foot.
The name for the metre in a poem depends on the number of feet in
Monometre: one foot
Dimetre: two feet
Trimetre: three feet
Tetrametre: four feet
Pentametre: five feet
Hexametre: six feet
Heptametre: seven feet
Oxtometre: eight feet
There is one more set of terms you need to know about the structure of
poetry: free verse and formal 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.
Don't confuse free verse with blank verse. Blank verse does not rhyme,
but it does follow a regular rhythm - iambic pentametre.
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:
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.
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
Answer to Guided Practice 3.2A 1
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
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