Poetic Forms and Their Definitions

A poetic form is a set of rules that dictate the rhyme scheme, structure, rhythm, and meter of a poem. The form may also guide the purpose and tone of a poem. When the message and form fit together, you can produce a poem that is truly powerful. Poet Matsuo Basho once said, "In my view a good poem is one in which the form of the verse and the joining of its parts seems light as a shallow river flowing over its sandy bed." 

When browsing this list of poetic forms, there are a couple of things to keep in mind:

• There are even more forms: This is not an exhaustive list of poetic forms, but it does cover a wide range of forms, from popular to niche, ancient to modern. For more poetry forms and term definition, you may refer to our article "Essential Poetry Terms and Devices."

• Rules are often broken: The list of poetic forms describes the traditional rules for the form. However, poets commonly bend or break these rules. Seek out examples of the form to see how much wiggle-room you have when writing your poem.

List of Poetic Forms

Abecedarian: In this ancient poetic form, the first letter of each line or stanza follows alphabetical order until all letters of the alphabet have been expressed. Once used for writing sacred texts, this form is now more commonly used as a mnemonic device. Poets can also write a double abecedarian, in which the first word and last word of a line begin with the correct letter of the alphabet. Examples include "An ABC (The Prayer of Our Lady)" by Geoffrey Chaucer, and Jessica Greenbaum's, “A Poem for S."

Acrostic: An acrostic poem spells out a word, name, or phrase in a vertical line within the poem. Commonly the first letter of each line spells a word, but the word may also be found in the middle or end of a line. An example is "An Acrostic" by Edgar Allan Poe.

Ballad: A ballad poem is written like a narrative, including plot, characters, and a dramatic conclusion. The typical form uses quatrains (four-line rhyming stanzas) that follow the abab or abcb rhyming pattern. Each line follows a rhythm, alternating three- and four-stresses per line. This form can easily be set to music. Examples include "Barbara Allen," and "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Ballade: The ballade is comprised of four stanzas—three eight-line stanzas with the same rhyme scheme of ababbcbc, and a final shortened four-line stanza (called an envoy) with a bcbc rhyme scheme. The last line of each stanza is the same (a refrain). An example is "Ballade of the Ladies of Times Past," by François Villon.

Blank verse (or heroic verse): Poems written in unrhymed iambic pentameter are called blank verse. Iambic pentameter consists of ten syllables per line in the pattern of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable (such as the word "upon"). Shakespeare commonly used blank verse and often added an extra, unstressed syllable, or "feminine ending." Examples of blank verse include Shakespeare's Hamlet, and John Milton's Paradise Lost.

Blues: Blues poems take on themes of despair, pain, and struggle, but also can tell tales of resilience to overcome hardships and even use humor. Routed in the musical tradition of the blues, blues poetry often sound lyrical. Blues poems don't have to follow a strict structure, but the traditional structure of a blues poem is four stanzas of three lines, and a final stanza with four lines. The first line of the stanza is repeated in the second line, or a variation of the first, then the third, rhyming line offers a new twist or comment on the first two lines. Blues poem examples include "Sence You Went Away," by James Weldon Johnson, and "The Weary Blues" by Langston Hughes.

Bop: The bop is a new form of poetry introduced by poet Afaa Michael Weaver. It is an argumentative form, like the sonnet, with three stanzas, each with a purpose in the argument. The first six-line stanza introduces the problem, the second eight-line stanza expands upon it, and the final six-line stanza explains the solution or failed attempts. There is a repeated refrain line after each stanza. Read an example of bop poetry, "Rambling," by Afaa Michael Weaver.

Canzone: The canzone, which means "song" in Italian, led to the later development of the sonnet. A canzone can range from seven to twenty lines long, with ten or eleven syllables per line, and a variety of rhyme schemes. Examples include "Canzone" by Daryl Hine.

Cento (collage poem): A cento poem is a patchwork poem made up of lines from other poets' published poems. The form may pay homage to a great poet, or create a clever juxtaposition of images and ideas. Examples include “The Dong with the Luminous Nose," by John Ashbery.

Cinquain (quintain or quintet): A cinquain is a poem with five lines and a rhyme scheme of ababb, abaab, or abccb. A cinquain may also refer to a stanza within a poem. Some cinquains also follow a pattern of two, four, six, eight, and two syllables per line. Examples include "To Helen" by Edgar Allan Poe and "November Night" by Adelaide Crapsey.

Conceit: When metaphor is used in an unexpected, clever way for the length of the poem, then it is a conceit poem. A metaphysical conceit uses unconventional, obscure metaphor. The petrarchan conceit uses a more conventional metaphor on the topic of love.  An example of conceit poetry is "The Flea," by John Donne.

Couplet: A couplet is two rhyming lines of poetry, usually of the same length and meter. Entire poems may be written in couplets. An example of a couplet poem is "Nothing Gold Can Stay," by Robert Frost.

Double Dactyl (or higgledy-piggledy): A dactyl is one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables, for example, the words "poetry," and "classical." The double dactyl poem is light-verse, meant to be nonsensical or humorous. The form has strict rules. It's made up of two four-line stanzas, and each line is two dactyls, except for the last line of each stanza, which is a rhymed choriamb (four syllables, long-short-short-long). The first line must be a nonsense jingle or phrase, the second line a name, and somewhere in the poem (preferably the second stanza) must be a single, six-syllable word that has never been used before in a double dactyl. A self-referential example is "Double-Dactyl" by Roger L. Robison.

Dramatic Monologue (or persona poem): This form is much like a theatrical monologue, written through the voice of a character or persona who is addressing a silent audience. An example is T.S. Eliot’s "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.

Elegy: An elegy is a serious poem that expresses deep sorrow typically to mourn someone who has died. In a traditional elegy, there are three stages of loss represented in the poem, including lament, praise of the deceased, and finally solace. An example of an elegy is "You Were You Are Elegy," by Mary Jo Bang.

Epic: Epic poems often fill the length of a book and tell of heroic adventures and journeys, often involving extraordinary abilities, muses and gods, and high drama. Classic examples include Homer's Odyssey and Virgil's Aeneid.  

Epigram: An epigram is a concise yet forceful and often witty and satirical poem. Epigrams are usually written in verse. An example is "What Is an Epigram?" by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Epitaph: An epitaph poem is written to honor and remember someone who has died. The poem is intended for inscription on a tombstone. Examples include "Upon Ben Jonson," by Robert Herrick.

Free Verse: In free verse, there are no regular rhyme schemes or patterns of meter. However, the poem does have intentional line breaks and may rhyme. Examples include "After the Sea-Ship" by Walt Whitman and "This Is Just To Say" by William Carlos Williams.

Haiku: Originally, the haiku was the opening of a Japanese renga, a longer poetic form. Over time the haiku became its own form, typically capturing a single image or moment in time. Haikus are short—just seventeen syllables in all. They are usually unrhymed and are arranged in three lines of verse: the first line has five syllables, the second line has seven, and the final line has five. While modern haikus may not adhere to the strict 5-7-5 pattern, the heart of the haiku remains unchanged. Examples include "The Snow is Melting," by Kobayashi Issa, and "The Bottoms of My Shoes," by Jack Kerouac.

Limerick: A form of light verse, a limerick is often funny, nonsensical, or even lewd.  A limerick is five lines and follows a rhyme scheme and rhythm. The rhyme scheme is aabba, and the meter is generally anapestic, with lines one, two, and five consisting of one iamb (one unstressed followed by one stressed) and two anapests (two unstressed followed by one stressed syllables), the third and fourth lines are made of one iamb and one anapest. Examples include many of the Mother Goose nursery rhymes, and "There Was an Old Man with a Beard," by Edward Lear.

Sapphic: A sapphic poem is comprised of four-line stanzas. There's no specific number of stanzas; however, there are rules regarding meter. The first three lines are made up of two trochees (a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable), one dactyl (one stressed syllable and two unstressed), and two more trochees.  The fourth line of the stanza is shortened to only one dactyl and one trochee (this five-syllable pattern is called an adonic). An example is "Ode to Solitude" by Alexander Pope.

Sonnet: Sonnets are fourteen-line poems traditionally written in iambic pentameter with a rhyme scheme and meter that varies based on the type. There are several types of sonnet, including Shakespearean, Petrarchan, Miltonic, and Spenserian. The Petrarchan sonnet is made up of two stanzas: the octave (the first eight lines), which presents an argument or question, followed by the answering sestet (the last six lines). The rhyme scheme is abbaabba for the octave, and cdecde or cdcdcd for the sestet (or further variation, including cddece, cddccd or cdeede). An example of the Petrarchan sonnet is "Sonnet 19: When I consider how my light is spent," by John Milton. The Shakespearean sonnet uses a different rhyme scheme of abab, cdcd, efef, gg. The final couplet holds great power in this sonnet, forming the conclusion or a surprising negation of the previous lines in the poem. An example of the Shakespearean sonnet is "Sonnet 130: My Mistress' Eyes Are Nothing Like the Sun" by William Shakespeare.

Villanelle: The villanelle is comprised of five tercets (three-line stanzas) and one quatrain (four-line stanza). While there are many lines to the poem, there are only two variations in the rhymes, plus there are two refrains, creating a repetitive rhythm to the form. Poets.org describes the form: "Using capitals for the refrains and lowercase letters for the rhymes, the form could be expressed as: A1 b A2 / a b A1 / a b A2 / a b A1 / a b A2 / a b A1 A2." The form can best be seen by looking at an example, such as "Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night," by Dylan Thomas.

There's a Form of Poetry for Everyone

Poetry offers so much to readers and writers. Forms are always being invented and redefined, loved or left behind. Leave it to poets to constantly reinvent how to best express the human experience, from the most poignant, deep emotion, to the silliest, light-hearted humor.

Did we miss your favorite poetic form from this list? Share your favorite in the comments.

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