assembled descriptions of many formal poetry formats
| (Note: Most of these definitions come from the Encarta Encyclopedia and were assembled by Damia for the Poetry Newsletter in Nov'02.)
An acrostic poem is one where the first word in each line or the first letter in each line, will spell out a secondary message if read in sequence. Another variation is to have the last word or letter of the line spell out a message. Acrostic poetry can be rhymed or unrhymed. Strictly metered or Free Verse.
Ex: "Dancing to Sleep" [E]
A narrative poem usually depicting folk-lore, myth, or legend. Each stanza is either 2 or 4 lines and written in ballad meter, i.e., alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter (Iambic refers to a "foot" of two syllables, the first unaccented, the second accented. Tetrameter refers to four "feet," trimeter refers to three "feet."). This makes the syllable count 8-6-8-6 for each quatrain. Please note however that only the second and fourth lines rhyme, giving a rhyme scheme of a-b-c-b. Although they contain little detail, ballads use simplicity and force. They are often sung and written for that purpose.
A French format with 3 seven or eight-line stanzas and an four line envoi that repeats the last four rhymes of the previous stanza. It uses no more than three rhymes with an identical refrain after each. The rhyme scheme is a-b-a-b-b-c-b-cR a-b-a-b-b-c-b-cR a-b-a-b-b-c-b-cR b-c-b-cR. There is a variation with six stanzas which is called a double ballade.
Simply put, blank verse is meter without rhyme. It is usually written in iambic pentameter (pentameter refers to 5 "feet."). Some believe it to be the pinnacle of poetry as the format must stand alone without rhyme as a reinforcement. Any poetry format may be written as Blank verse.
There are two types of cinquain. The first is a short format with 22 syllables. There are five lines with the syllables arranged like this: 2-4-6-8-2. The second type comes in two styles, unrhymed but themed. The two thematic structures are as follows:
Line 1: one word
Line 2: two words describing the title
Line 3: three words (an action)
Line 4: four words (a feeling)
Line 5: one word referring to the first line
Line 1: subject word (noun)
Line 2: two descriptive words (adjectives)
Line 3: three action words (verbs)
Line 4: a complete sentence
Line 5: synonym for the line 1 word
A humorous format contained in a single quatrain and composed of two rhyming couplets. The rhyme scheme is a-b-a-b with lines of uneven length. Clerihews are usually written as pseudo-biographical pieces about a famous personage. The name of the subject ends the first, or occasionally the second line and the humor is light and whimsical instead of satirical. Edmund Clerihew Bentley (1875-1956) created the format to avoid boredom in school.
Of Japanese origin, the dodoitsu is a fixed form with 26 syllables total across four lines : 7, 7, 7, and 5 syllables. It is not necessary to rhyme or use meter. The subject is often love or humor presented in a folk song.
Ex: "Rubbernecking" [ASR]
Created by Dorris, Simonton, and Braden, this format is three stanzas of four lines each. First stanza is 4 lines of iambic pentameter rhymed abab (like a Shakespearean sonnet). Second stanza is 4 lines of free verse. Third stanza is 4 lines of iambic pentameter blank verse. The very last line repeats the first line, bringing the subject full circle.
Ex: "Among the Broken Trees" [ASR]
Created about twenty years ago by an Arkansas poet named Etheree Taylor Armstrong, this titled form, the Etheree, consists of ten lines of unmetered and unrhymed verse, the first line having one syllable, each succeeding line adding a syllable, with the total syllable count being fifty-five. This concise form is meant to focus on one idea or subject.
Ex: "Balsamic Moon" [E]
Rhyming poetry without a set meter. Rhythm and word-flow decide where to place the rhymes, although they always end the lines. Technically it could be considered free verse. Free form often makes use of feminine rhymes (rhymes ending with an unaccented syllable, i.e., walking and talking, or wanted and daunted. Often feminine rhymes are added as an extra syllable to pieces written in iambic pentameter).
Free verse is cause for some controversy amongst poets and poetry enthusiasts. Poetry makes use of line breaks to accent and break up the words while prose uses punctuation and paragraphing. An easy definition of free verse would be prose written rich in imagery and broken up with line breaks instead of punctuation and paragraphing.
An Iranian format rarely more than a dozen couplets of the same meter. The rhyme scheme is a-a b-a c-a and so on. Ghazal also follows the radif tradition. This means a portion of the first line -- comprising not more than two or three words -- immediately preceding the rhyme-word at the end, should rhyme with its counterpart in the second line of the opening couplet, and afterwards alternately throughout the poem. The last couplet of the ghazal called makta often includes the pen-name of the poet, and is more personal than general in its tone and intent. Each couplet is to be a complete thought. Some ghazal are written with a theme throughout all the couplets, but that is a fringe trend. Ghazal is arabic for "talking to women.
A short, intense Japanese format, nature oriented, and with three lines with a syllable count of 5-7-5. They are usually untitled as good haiku stand alone. Haiku tend to be minimalistic and utilize immediacy. Immediacy refers to the sense of a scene being directly presented to your senses. Haiku tries to capture a specific moment or image in place and time. A season word is usually required in the traditional form to place a poem in a specific season. Several Japanese formats use the 5-7-5 syllable count.
Ex: "Haiku and other small poems" [E]
A short, shaped poem that "illuminates" a specific meaning of a single syllable subject. The first line is the noun which is the abstract idea to be explored. The rest of the poem assumes the shape of a hanging lantern, going from short to longer then short again. Ideally the poem is centered so the shape can be obvious from the start.
Ex: "Indecisive" [E]
A light or humorous verse form of five chiefly anapestic (a metrical "foot" with two unaccented syllables followed by a long or accented syllable) verses of which lines one, two and five are of three feet and lines three and four are of two feet, The rhyme scheme is a-a-b-b-a. Traditionally the first line introduces the person, the second line introduces the problem, the third & fourth lines develop the action, and the last line describes the resolution.
This delightful format originated in the Far East. There are no less than 6 quatrains, though you may have more. The twist to it is this; the second and fourth lines of each stanza become the first and third lines in the following stanza, respectively. A vital component is using the first and third lines of the first quatrain/stanza as the fourth and second lines of the last stanza. This brings the poem full circle. The rhyme scheme is this, a1-b1-a2-b2 b1-c1-b2-c2 c1-d1-c2-d2 d1-e1-d2-e2 e1-f1-e2-f2 f1-a2-f2-a1.
More of a word puzzle, the paradelle is a very difficult format to master. A paradelle is a repetition of lines, with each stanza ending in two lines which use all of the words in the previous lines. Also, the last stanza uses all of the words from all previous stanzas.
This is any 14-line poem. While all sonnets are quatorzains, not all quatorzains are sonnets. These days, this is mostly used to specifically describe a 14-line poem which does not follow the rules of sonnets.
Ex: "A Rose in the Darkness" [E]
A renga is a series of linked poems of alternating 5-7-5 and 7-7 syllable stanzas. Traditionally there is no theme as each stanza must relate to the previous stanza and the one below it, yet no three consecutive stanzas are to make sense. The relationship between each stanza and those before and after it is often obscure but is never readily apparent. Renga are written collaboratively with at least two poets who take turns writing each succesive stanza. It is worth noting that most oriental languages are unaccented languages so meter is not used.
Similar to renga, this six stanza format has a theme or common topic. The syllable count is as follows; 3-line stanzas are typically short-long-short (e.g. 5-7-5) and the 2-line stanzas are typically long-long (e.g. 7-7).
Usually reserved for light and witty verse, this fixed form utilizes three stanzas of either 8 or 10 syllables with only two rhymes used. A word or words from the first part of the first line are used as a (usually unrhymed) refrain ending the second and third stanzas. The rhyme scheme is a-a-b-b-a a-a-b-R a-a-b-b-a-R.
This arabic format has a quatrain wherein the first, second, and fourth lines rhyme. The rhyme scheme is thus; a-a-b-a. A single stanza can be a poem in itself or multiple stanzas may be joined to create a larger piece.
Like haiku, this format uses the 5-7-5 syllable count. Unlike haiku subject matter is human emotions and relationships rather than nature.
The sestina is the most convoluted format imaginable. Technically it is free verse as it uses no rhyme and is usually (not always) without meter. First off, six words are chosen for the sestina as end words. The end words rotate their position with each new stanza. As there are six words, there are six stanzas plus a three line end tag. There is a variation using twelve words and is called a double-sestina. Here then is the word scheme (note that the order of the end words will be written across rather then vertically; ABCDEF, FAEBDC, CFDABE, ECBFAD, DEACFB, BDFECA. Following that is a three line end tag or envoi that may be used in two distinct forms, either ECA or ACE, with B, D, and F included within the lines of the envoi respectively.
Ex: "Changing Eyes" [E]
Like haiku the sijo is nature oriented. There are three lines, each averaging 14-16 syllables with a total of 44-46 syllables. Each line has a specific focus; the first line introduces a situation or problem, the second line includes a development, the third line resolves tensions created in the first line or resolves the problem in the first line. Again we must note that Oriental languages tend to be unstressed. Each piece must be self-explanatory, requiring no title
This is probably the most well known and recognized format in the present day. Though made famous by Shakespeare, the format is much older and there are three different popular sonnet formats: Shakespearean, Petrarchan (Italian), and Spenserian. Each has a unique rhyme scheme but all have fourteen lines. The sonnet may be broken into three quatrains with alternating rhyme and a heroic couplet ending it. The petrarchan format has several different possible endings known as tercets (three line stanza). Here then is the rhyme scheme for these three main styles.
Shakespearean: a-b-a-b, c-d-c-d, e-f-e-f, g-g (Ex: "On Losing Gold" [ASR])
Spenserian: a-b-a-b, b-c-b-c, c-d-c-d, e-a-e
Petrarchan: a-b-b-a, a-b-b-a, c-d-c, c-d-e
end tercet variants: d-c-d / d-d-c / e-d-c
Simple and straightforward, it is a stanza of nine lines, all iambic except the last which is an alexandrine. The alexandrine is a line with twelve syllables and written in reverse iambic, which is to say that it begins with an accented syllable and ends with an unaccented syllable. The rhyme scheme for this stanza is as follows; a-b-a-b-b-c-b-c-c.
Either a poem or stanza of eight lines in which the first line is repeated as the fourth and seventh lines, and the second line as the eighth. The rhyme scheme is ABaAabAB. Note that only two rhymes are used within this format.
Ex: "Written Invitation" [13+]
A ten-line poem made of 3 tercets and a closing line. This is basically half a sestina and only half as hard. The end words of each line follow this pattern: ABC, CAB, and BCA. The final line internally contains the same words in ABC order. The key words are not rhymed.
Ex: "Locked in the Dark" [13+]
This format has nineteen lines, 5 stanzas of three lines each and 1 stanza of four lines. The rhyme scheme appears thus; a-b-a a-b-a a-b-a a-b-a a-b-a a-b-a-a. There is one vital twist to the villanelle; the first, then third line of the poem alternate as the last line of stanzas 2, 3, and 4, and then end stanza 5, and the poem itself, as a couplet. The villanelle is usually written in tetrameter (4 "feet") or pentameter.
Ex: "Crinkled Paper" [13+]
This is an ancient French format having stanzas of varying length and number with alternating long and short lines. The rhyme scheme is interlaced; a-b-a-b b-c-b-c c-d-c-d d-e-d-e e-f-e-f ...