12 Essential Types of Poetry
The sonnet, from the Italian sonetto meaning “little song,” is one of the better-known forms of poetry. Made famous by the Italian writer Petrarch, the traditional sonnet consists of fourteen lines divided into two stanzas of eight and six lines each. There is no definitive structure or rhyme scheme of the sonnet, because over time different writers have given it their own poetic spin. Particularly famous is the Shakespearean sonnet, made up of three quatrains and a closing couplet. Perhaps the most recognizable is Sonnet 18, which begins “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? / Thou art more lovely and more temperate…”
The villanelle has humble origins as a rustic Italian song, but over the past few centuries it has developed into a highly structured form of poetry. A nineteen-line poem divided into five tercets (three-line stanzas) and a closing quatrain (four-line stanza), the villanelle is further constrained by a regular rhyming scheme and two refrains that are echoed in each stanza. A classic example of a strict villanelle is Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night,” though the poem’s structure is so particular many poets choose to break its tight confines and compose near-villanelles, such as Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art.”
The word elegy does not describe the form of a poem, but rather its content. Elegies are poems written to lament someone’s death, such as Walt Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!” written in honor of President Lincoln. The long-standing tradition of this type of poem traces back to ancient Greece, when elegies were sung to the accompaniment of an aulos (a double-reed instrument). Styles of funerary expression abound, but elegies are distinct from short epitaphs, laudatory odes, and eulogies, which fall into the category of prose.
The Japanese haiku is a rigidly structured poetic form, consisting of three lines of five, seven, and five syllables. Originally, haikus were the opening stanza of a style of long-form poem called the renga, or linked verse, but the compactness of these introductory lines intrigued Japanese poets of the 17th century. Soon the haiku broke away from its longer context into the profound three-line poems popular today.
Gnomic verse may sound silly, but the essence of this type of poetry is to provide serious, meaningful advice. Before gnome referred to a little, dwarfish man who lives underground and guards treasure, a gnome was an aphorism, or pithy expression of a general truth. The two forms appear to be unrelated: gnome the creature was invented, perhaps arbitrarily, in the 1700s, and gnome the aphorism derives from ancient Greek gnṓmē meaning “judgment.” It was also in Greece that the tradition of filling poems with these judgments and aphorisms—originating the gnomic verse—also began.
The ballad’s lyrical rhythm and rhyme nod to the fact that this poetic form is rooted in song. The traditional ballad was performed at dances in time with the music, and the term ultimately derives from the Latin word ballāre meaning “to dance.” This form of narrative poem is structured with an unspecified number of rhymed quatrains (four-line stanzas). “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and “Annabel Lee” by Edgar Allan Poe are particularly famous examples of ballads.
Much like a ballad, an epic is a narrative poem that spins a tale—a lengthy one—of a hero’s great valor and adventure. Much like the elegy, epics derive from ancient Greece, where epikós meant “speech,” “tale,” or “song,” and applied not only to the subject matter but to a specific type of meter, the Epic meter. The first epics of Western literature are the Iliad and Odyssey by Homer, and in the English tradition we have Beowulf, Spencer’s The Fairie Queene, and Milton’s Paradise Lost.
The noble stature of the epic could not be more at odds with the nonsense verse the limerick. Containing five lines with the rhyming pattern AABBA, the limerick is a brief and bouncy poem ideal for Mother Goose–style nursery rhymes. Named after the Irish town of Limerick, the poem allegedly got its name from the town custom of shouting “Will you come up to Limerick?” after an extemporized performance of nonsense poetry at social gatherings.
The sestina took its name from the Italian word for “six,” the number at the core of the poem’s structure. This usually unrhymed poem consists of six six-line stanzas and a three-line envoy, or a short concluding stanza, at the end. Each stanza repeats the end words of the lines of the first stanza, but in a different order. Then the envoy uses those six words again, three in the middle of the lines and three in the end. This highly complex form of poetry was invented by a 12th-century troubadour, and unlike the sonnet, the sestina’s strict structure has remained essentially unchanged, its complexity a tempting challenge for poets to tackle.
You may have heard of the ode, a lyric poem dedicated to an object of admiration or praise. The palinode is less well-known, but very useful for the poet who later regrets writing an ode. The palinode is a recantation, a poem that withdraws the sentiment of a previous poem. Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, for example, concludes with a palinode in which he apologizes for the sin and “worldly vanitees” of his tales.
The keen abecedarian will take great pleasure in finding an acrostic hidden in the first letters of each line of a poem. Acrostics are words, names, or messages spelled out by particular letters in a series of lines. The term acrostic comes from the Greek roots akro- meaning “outermost, tip,” and stích, “line” or “verse.” Most acrostics are formed by the first letter of each line, read vertically down the poem’s edge. Although the acrostic as a poetic genre may be somewhat scorned, this clever form of wordplay has been used by such well-regarded authors as William Blake, Lewis Carroll, and John Milton.
Concrete poetry is a poetic form in which the crux of the poem lies not in its rhythm or theme, but in its visual shape. A concrete poem is an integration of the written word and visual art, where shape and typeface contribute to a poem’s meaning and effect. For example, a lightbulb-shaped poem about an idea, or a kitten-shaped poem about a kitten. This poetic form was established simultaneously in Germany and Brazil in the mid-1950s, and remains a relatively modern style.
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