Poetry can be intimidating. It’s easy to feel that it’s too difficult to read and too scary to write. You might have been told that you misunderstood the poems you studied in English class or that the poem you wrote in which you poured out your heart was full of clichés. If so, that’s a shame! Because the world of poetry is vast and varied, and I believe with all my heart that there are poems out there you will love and types of poems you will enjoy writing. You might just need a quick introduction to various poetic forms to get you going.
Below is a list of different types of poems, some with complicated rules, some that are very simple. For each one, I’ve given some examples so you can get a sense of what that form is like. Take a look and see what inspires you!
When you think about poetic forms, the sonnet might be the first one to come to mind. It’s an old, old form that originated in Italy in the 13th century. There are two common forms, both of which have lots of rules, should you want to follow the rules: the Petrarchan (or Italian) and the Shakespearean (or Elizabethan). Sonnets traditionally have 14 lines and are often about love—lost love, married love, forgotten love, the longing for love, etc, etc. Petrarchan sonnets typically have an ABBA ABBA CDE CDE rhyme scheme, and Shakespearean sonnets are usually ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. They are written in iambic pentameter.
But always remember that rules are made to be broken! You are welcome to consider these guidelines mere suggestions if you like.
William Shakespeare, “Let Me Not to the Marriage of True Minds.” For a super-traditional Shakespearean sonnet, of course we are going to look to the master!
Edna St. Vincent Millay, “What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why.” Millay messes with the rhyme scheme a bit here, but otherwise, this is a great example of a Petrarchan sonnet:
What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.
Thus in the winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.
Because haiku are very short poems, they make common school assignments and writing exercises, so you may have written one of these before. The haiku is a Japanese form that arose in the 17th century, most famously in the writing of Matsuo Bashō.
Typically a haiku has 17 syllables, arranged in three lines, first five syllables, then 7, then 5. Haiku are most commonly about nature, often containing a seasonal reference. They tend to contain two juxtaposed images or ideas.
Matsuo Bashō, “By the Old Temple”:
By the old temple,
a man treading rice.
Matsuo Bashō, “An Old Silent Pond”:
An old silent pond…
A frog jumps into the pond,
splash! Silence again.
Natsume Soseki, “The Lamp Once Out”:
The lamp once out
Cool stars enter
The window frame.
The villanelle, like the sonnet, is an old form with lots of rules. The good thing about writing a villanelle is that there’s a lot of repetition, so once you have some of the lines chosen, you get to use them again and again. But making meaning out of that much repetition is challenging.
Here are the details: villanelles are 19 lines, organized into five stanzas of three lines each, and one closing stanza of four lines. The rhyme scheme is ABA ABA ABA ABA ABA ABAA. Notice there are only two rhyming sounds here! In addition, line 1 gets repeated in lines 6, 12, and 18. Line 3 gets repeated in lines 9, 15, and 19. So many rules!
Dylan Thomas, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” This is probably the most famous villanelle. It follows the rules of the form perfectly.
Elizabeth Bishop, “One Art.” This one does not follow the rules perfectly, although it’s pretty close. When it breaks the rules, it does so with a purpose. This one is my favorite:
The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.
—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
Here’s another old poetic form, in this case coming out of 12th-century Provence. Like the villanelle, it has a lot of repetition, but unlike the villanelle, sestinas don’t have to rhyme. The sestina has six stanzas of six lines each, and a closing stanza of three lines. The six words that end the lines of the first stanza get repeated at the line endings of each of the remaining stanzas, and all six words appear in the poem’s final three lines. Here is a great description of the order these six words should appear in.
Elizabeth Bishop, “Sestina.”
Alberto Alvaro Rios, “Nani“:
Sitting at her table, she serves
the sopa de arroz to me
instinctively, and I watch her,
the absolute mamá, and eat words
I might have had to say more
out of embarrassment. To speak,
now-foreign words I used to speak,
too, dribble down her mouth as she serves
me albóndigas. No more
than a third are easy to me.
By the stove she does something with words
and looks at me only with her
back. I am full. I tell her
I taste the mint, and watch her speak
smiles at the stove. All my words
make her smile. Nani never serves
herself, she only watches me
with her skin, her hair. I ask for more.
I watch the mamá warming more
tortillas for me. I watch her
fingers in the flame for me.
Near her mouth, I see a wrinkle speak
of a man whose body serves
the ants like she serves me, then more words
from more wrinkles about children, words
about this and that, flowing more
easily from these other mouths. Each serves
as a tremendous string around her,
holding her together. They speak
Nani was this and that to me
and I wonder just how much of me
will die with her, what were the words
I could have been, was. Her insides speak
through a hundred wrinkles, now, more
than she can bear, steel around her,
shouting, then, What is this thing she serves?
She asks me if I want more.
I own no words to stop her.
Even before I speak, she serves.
Here is a fun form: spell out a name, word, or phrase with the first letter of each line of your poem. You can write a love poem using the name of your beloved this way!
Edgar Allan Poe, “An Acrostic.”
Sathya Narayana, “Nuggets“:
Nuggets of gold, money and authority
Ultimate luxury, status and handy men
Gathered he through all bloody means
Giving not a damn to humane feelings
Equipoise is but nature’s patent strategy
Tamed is he by crippling ailments
So sad! Spends life like a frozen vegetable!
This type of poem doesn’t have particular rules for form: unlike the forms above, you can write it however you like. What it is, instead, is a poem about a work of art: a painting, a statue, perhaps a photograph. It’s art about art, written in response to visual art that inspires the poet.
Tyehimba Jess, “Hagar in the Wilderness.”
Rebecca Wolff, “Ekphrastic.”
Concrete poetry, or shape poetry, or visual poetry, is meant to look a particular way on the page: it’s written to form a particular image or shape that enhances the poem’s meaning. In its cheesy form, a concrete poem might be a love poem written in the shape of a heart. But here are some better examples:
May Swenson, “Women.” This poem is about how women are expected be “pedestals moving to the motions of men,” and the poem itself illustrates the swaying women are supposed to do at the will of men.
George Herbert, “Altar.”
Like ekphrastic poetry above, this type of poem doesn’t have to fit a particular form; instead, it’s defined by its subject, which is death. An elegy is a poem of mourning, often for a particular person, but it can be about a group of people or about a broader sense of loss. Elegies often move from mourning toward consolation.
Walt Whitman, “O Captain, My Captain.”
Mary Jo Bangs, “You Were You Are Elegy.”
Kwame Dawes, “Requiem.” The poem begins this way:
I sing requiem
for the dead, caught in that
We have not built lasting
monuments of severe stone
facing the sea, the watery tomb,
so I call these songs
shrines of remembrance
where faithful descendants
may stand and watch the smoke
curl into the sky
in memory of those
devoured by the cold Atlantic.
In every blues I hear
riding the dank swamp
I see the bones
picked clean in the belly
of the implacable sea.
Want to write something short? Try your hand at an epigram. All you have to do is be brilliant and witty in a few lines—easy! Epigrams don’t have to be poems, but they often are. They are short and witty, often satirical, and have a surprising and funny ending.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Epigram“:
Sir, I admit your general rule,
That every poet is a fool,
But you yourself may serve to show it,
That every fool is not a poet.
Emily Dickinson, “‘Faith’ is a Fine Invention“:
“Faith” is a fine invention
For Gentlemen who see!
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency!
On the subject of funny poems, next is the limerick. You’re probably familiar with the limerick form, even if you don’t get the details of it, because its sound is so distinctive: two longer lines, two short ones, and a closing longer line that makes a joke, often a ribald one. If you want the technical details, here you go: limericks have a rhyme scheme of AABBA and use anapestic meter, with three feet in the longer lines and two in the shorter.
Dixon Lanier Merritt:
A wonderful bird is the pelican,
His bill can hold more than his beli-can.
He can take in his beak
Food enough for a week
But I’m damned if I see how the heli-can.
There was a young girl from St. Paul,
Wore a newspaper-dress to a ball.
The dress caught on fire
And burned her entire
Front page, sporting section and all.
If you want to read a story or tell a story in a poem, the ballad is for you. It’s an old, traditional form that used to be passed down orally from one generation to the next. Ballads, if you want to follow the rules of the form strictly, are written in quatrains, groups of four lines, and have a rhyme scheme of ABAB or ABCB. The lines alternate between having eight syllables and six syllables. But the ballad is a loose enough form that you can make of it whatever you want.
Anonymous, “Barbara Allen.” Here’s the first stanza:
In Scarlet town, where I was born,
There was a fair maid dwellin’,
Made every youth cry Well-a-way!
Her name was Barbara Allen.
Edgar Allan Poe, “Annabel Lee.”
The epitaph is like the elegy, only shorter. It’s the kind of poem that might appear on a gravestone, although it doesn’t have to. It’s brief and it pays tribute to a person who has passed away or commemorates some other loss.
Robert Herrick, “Upon a Child That Died“:
Here she lies, a pretty bud,
Lately made of flesh and blood,
Who as soon fell fast asleep
As her little eyes did peep.
Give her strewings, but not stir
The earth that lightly covers her.
Edna St. Vincent Millay, “Epitaph“:
Heap not on this mound
Roses that she loved so well:
Why bewilder her with roses,
That she cannot see or smell?
She is happy where she lies
With the dust upon her eyes.
The tanka (which means “short poem”) is a Japanese form that is five lines. The first and third lines have five syllables (in the English version of the form) and the other lines have seven syllables each. The subject of the poem can be nature, as it generally is for haiku, but this isn’t required.
Sadakichi Hartmann, “Tanka“:
Winter? Spring? Who knows?
White buds from the plumtrees wing
And mingle with the snows.
No blue skies these flowers bring,
Yet their fragrance augurs Spring.
Philip Appleman, “Three Haiku, Two Tanka.”
An ode is simply a poem address to a particular person, event, or thing. It’s often meant to praise or glorify its subject. The ode as a form comes from ancient Greece and there are various ode types available, but basically if you are addressing something/someone directly, you are writing an ode.
Pablo Neruda, “Ode to a Large Tuna in the Market.” Here is how the poem begins:
among the market vegetables,
from the ocean
lying in front of me
Phillis Wheatley, “Ode to Neptune.”
This is the form of poetry where you can do whatever you want! There are no rules! You don’t use regular patterns of rhythm or rhyme, don’t need lines of any particular length, or stanzas of a particular number of lines. This is both liberating and terrifying. Yes, you can do whatever you want…which means it can be hard to know where to start. But give it a try and enjoy the freedom of it!
Nikki Giovanni, “Winter Poem“:
once a snowflake fell
on my brow and i loved
it so much and i kissed
it and it was happy and called its cousins
and brothers and a web
of snow engulfed me then
i reached to love them all
and i squeezed them and they became
a spring rain and i stood perfectly
still and was a flower
Langston Hughes, “Theme for English B.”
This is a fairly lengthy list but it’s only just the beginning when it comes to understanding and appreciating different types of poems. If you want to learn more, I highly recommend the Poetry Foundation website. Or you can read more Book Riot articles on the subject: Click here for an introduction to how to read poetry. To explore more articles on poetry, click here. Have fun!