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An Overview of the Different Forms of Poetry

Understanding Forms of Poetry

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Poetry can be written using any number of set forms, structures which govern the number of lines, the number of syllables per line, how rhymes (if any) are organized, and where breaks between lines occur. Poetry can also be written in free verse, in which no set structure is adhered to. While the standard form for contemporary poetry is free verse, there are many poets who still work in some variation of the traditional forms. For the developing poet, experimenting with form can be a fascinating and educational way of developing skill and facility with words. Following are examples of popular poetic forms from the English language, and beyond.

The Sonnet

Sonnets date back to the Renaissance. They were first used by Italian poets, and then a later English version was developed. The most famous writer of English sonnets was William Shakespeare. An English sonnet consists of fourteen lines, all written in iambic pentameter. The first twelve lines are arranged in quatrains, groups of four lines in which every other line rhymes. The last two lines are a couplet, a set of two rhyming lines.

Exercise: After studying the Shakespearian Sonnet via the link above, try writing a sonnet of your own. It is said that nearly all of Shakespeare's sonnets were on the subjects of love, death, or time. Try one of these subjects for yourself, or pick any subject you like. Write a sonnet to your cat or dog, or capture a summer day in your back yard.

The Haiku

The haiku is a three line poem that originated in ancient Japan and is still widely composed today. Traditional Japanese Haiku required a set number of syllables per line. The first and third lines had five syllables, the second had seven. As English translations of Japanese haiku began to emerge, the strict sequence of syllables was often abandoned in favor of translating the meaning of the Japanese words. In modern English haiku, some practitioners adhere to the traditional form, while others vary it as they see fit.

Haiku are very often concerned with events in nature, descriptions of animals, plants, or weather. There is very frequently an element of movement or surprise between the second and third lines.

Exercise: After studying several examples, try writing some haiku of your own. Work within the traditional 5-7-5 syllable format, and then try varying this a little to give yourself more freedom of expression. Try also to write a series of four or five haiku that share a common theme or location.

Blank Verse

A precursor to free verse, blank verse adheres to the rhythmic guidelines of traditional poetry, but ignores the use of rhyme. It retains the sing-song quality of the older forms, but allows for more freedom of expression without the strict use of rhyme. In some blank verse, a rhyming couplet is included at the poem's end, for added emphasis, and perhaps as a nod to the rhyming verse that made up so much of poetry's history.

Free Verse

Many modern poets ignore any semblance of traditional poetic form in favor of free verse, which carries no rules whatsoever regarding rhyme, rhythm, meter, stanza, etc. Free-verse poets are free to concentrate on the images they wish to convey without the constraints of fitting words into a set pattern. A poem can have two lines or two thousand. Line lengths vary according to what needs to be said. Stanzas can be as short as one word. After working within the stricter poetic forms, free verse can be, well, quite freeing! You can say anything you want, fitting words together organically, as the emotions and images of your poetry demand. While this is the form most working poets today adopt, don't ignore the traditional forms when you write your poetry. If nothing else, they can be phenomenal teachers in the use of language and experimenting on its aural effects.

"Slam" Poetry

During the past few decades, a new form of poetry has grown to become one of the most popular poetic forms in history. Poetry slams were first held in Chicago in the mid-80s, and turned staid poetry readings into performance art. A poetry slam is a competitive reading in which poets are judged by a team of judges chosen from the audience. Poems are often required to last three minutes or less. There is often a series of elimination rounds, so some poets may read several times before the field of competitors is whittled down to one winner.

Slam poetry is written exclusively for the ear. Not only that, the style in which it is delivered is as important as the poem itself. While costumes and props are generally not allowed, the slam poem is a form of dramatic reading using the poet's voice and words to achieve the desired effect on the audience.

Other Forms

There are countless poetic forms beyond the few listed here. For more on writing poetry, check out one of the following books, but above all, read widely. Expose yourself to different poets through a magazine or anthology, and read the collected works of the poets that attract you the most.

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