The parts of the poem and how to recognize them and examples.
There are dozens of poetic forms, each one of them having a separate rhyme scheme and structure. A handful of them are: ballad, chant royal, triolet, roundel, sonnet, virelay, villanelle, ode, epic, haiku, tanka, and monotetra. This is just a slice of the pie: there are many different sub-species of forms as well, like the Petrarchan Sonnet, or the Grande ballade. Some are difficult, like the Crown of Sonnets, or the sestina, while others are a little easier to pull off like the ballad or the regular ode. Needless to say, there is enough resource for the venturing poet to keep busy for the rest of his or her life if he or she wants to be great at each and every form available.
These are forms of poems that belong in the Poem section because even though they do not include a rhyme scheme, they are driven by meter and have a highly rhythmic nature.
Many poets know what blank verse is, having read some of Shakespeare’s plays. Yet, to be sure: a blank verse is a type of metrical writing that can be shown, nine times out of ten, in iambic pentameter (five feet of disyllabic verse where the stress falls on the second syllable of each foot), but which does not incorporate rhyme except on a rare occasion. Blank verse can also be marked by caesura and enjambment.
“It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Matched with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.
I cannot rest from travel; I will drink
Life to the lees. All times I have enjoyed
Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone; on shore, and when
Thro’ scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea. I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known, — cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honored of them all, —
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
The blank poem is an off-shoot of the blank verse idea. This is very tight form of poem, in spite of how it sounds, because even though it has no rhyming pattern, its every word is qualitatively measured right into the poem’s rhythmic structure so that though it has no rhyme, it surely reads like it might at any time. It’s dependence on meter or cadence and the content is obvious the more of it you read.
“Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral;
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.”
In a poem, the structure is like the frame of the car. Rhyme and verbiage can be considered the shiny body of the car. But meter is the engine that drives it. The one thing that every poem needs to be successful, other than appropriate content, is proper meter. But let’s not confuse rhythm with meter; rhythm is brought about by combinations of meter and structure. Rhythm is set by separation of thougts, length of line and stanza, and purpose. So what is meter?
Meter is the cadenced language which flows with the rise and fall of stressed and unstressed syllables. A stressed or accented syllable takes longer to pronounce. An unstressed or unaccented syllable takes a shorter time to pronounce. If you are used to reading faster than a speeding bullet, or if you have not ‘trained your ear’ for words, then you are going to miss the importance of meter. You probably won’t even realize there are such things as stressed and unstressed syllables. Yet, look in any dictionary for pronunciation guidelines, and you will see which is which. The stressed syllable in a dictionary will have a ` or ,) in front or in back of it. Let’s take the word pronunciation for instance. The dictionary tells us (using ` and ,) that it should be said pro-NUN-see-AY-shun, in essence showing that there are two stressed syllables. In poetic dictionaries and guides, the unstressed syllable is shown by a ~ or ^ while the stressed is shown by – or /. In my own notes, I have begun to use the + sign as the stressed syllable and the – sign as the unstressed.
Before we get into the technical details, we must first understand the nature of meter. We must come to know the natural sounds of words and how they are pronounced. Most single syllable words are stressed. Yet, some are not. Most of those that are not are prepositions, pronouns, conjunctions and other smaller articles of speech. But, I don’t want you to worry about all that. Instead, let’s take the time to ‘listen’ to how people stress certain syllables in their every day speech. To make obvious what I mean, I will show you using capitalized letters the natural stresses in the next few lines. IN EVeryDAY LANguage, you can SENSE the WEIGHT of what PEOple SAY. AS they SPEAK, their NATural inFLECtions TELL you exACTly WHAT it IS they WANT you to HEAR and UNderSTAND. YET, there ARE TIMES, with CERtain FORCED proNUNciAtions, when they WANT you to REalIZE and REcogNIZE a parTICular WORD that HE OR SHE MIGHT EMphaSIZE for CERtain efFECT. Do you see what I mean now?
A metrical ‘foot’ is a measure in poetry of fixed combinations of stressed and unstressed parts of speech. There are many. The iambus or iamb (~ –), one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable, is perhaps the most commonly used in English poetry. The following is a list of 6 of the most widely known and used. There are others, but for now let’s stick to the most commonly known and used.
The iamb is perhaps the most commonly known and used. It has perhaps been used by every poet up until the mid-modern age (1980s) and in fact is still used by many. The trochee, which is the opposite of the iamb, is running a close second place to the iamb’s popularity and usage. The anapest is the foot used in writing limericks, among other forms of Light Verse. Dactyls, though not as sprighty as the anapest, have a similar flair for Light Verse. The pyrrhic and spondee, though not as popular as the iamb and trochee, have had their moments in versification, the former usually cropping up in narrative and the latter sometimes happening with a sound effect.
A poet should take care when using these metrical forms, for they are the engine that spur the flow of any poem, and it is through learning how to recognize the natural inflections of pronounced syllables that we grasp the intention of meter.
When we write a line of verse then break to the next line, and so on, the meter is what carries the beat or flow. So how do we organize these feet to follow a rhythm? Well, let’s take a look at the different metrical lines and figure that out.
Depending on how much we want to say per line, and how we want our basic rhythm to move, we then should choose the type of meter according to that formulation. For instance, if I wanted to start my poem by saying “I love the woods”, then it would fall under iambic dimeter and I would have to choose the next few lines carefully enough to match that first pattern. For instance:
I love the woods, (iambic dimeter)
its shady moods, (iambic dimeter)
and all its verdant patterns. (iambic trimeter)
This is a kind of play on the basic structure of the first two lines of the ballad stanza.
A stanza is a recurring unit of verses or lines in a poem that can range in size anywhere from one to two hundred lines plus. The most common stanza is the quatrain, a four-line set of verses. Much like the paragraph of prose, there are many varieties and many ways to choose which stanzas will suit the content of the poem. The quatrain, for instance, is suitable for most stories, fables, and songs, and most common among the quatrains is the ballad stanza, which has alternating lines of six and eight syllables that rhyme together.
Here is a list of the most common stanzas found in poems.
Larger stanzas are only typical of longer or epic poems, so should be avoided when writing shorter poems.
There are many poems that have a pre-determined metrical pattern, like the sonnet, or villanelle, or haiku, or rondel. However, there are forms of poems that don’t require you to follow an already set pattern or rhyme scheme, like the virelay or ballad.
Haiku and tanka, which are Japanese styles, do not require either a set metric or rhyme scheme, but must follow a strict syllabic pattern. Of course, there is much more to these forms than just syllables. See the link below for the origins and theories of the haiku.
In choosing the size and style of stanza, the poet can create a poem that doesn’t have to match any traditional form such as the roundel or chant royal. The form in itself should be an aid to the content and vice versa, not to mention, you don’t have to stick to a strict formula for creating stanzas. Thomas Hardy is popular for his varieties of stanza forms. Here is an example called “The Walk“:
“You did not walk with me
Of late to the hill-top tree
By the gated ways,
As in earlier days;
You were weak and lame,
So you never came,
And I went alone, and I did not mind,
Not thinking of you as left behind.
I walked up there to-day
Just in the former way:
The familiar ground
By myself again:
What difference, then?
Only that underlying sense
Of the look of a room on returning thence.”
Now that you know all about the integral parts of a poem, you should have no problem, right? Well, I guess that depends on how you view the material here. I can certainly understand that there is much to learn, and I did not touch on everything, only on the basics. If I were to expand on this article by explaining all of the different poetic devices and forms, this would turn into a one hundred page book at least. It can all be quite overwhelming. However, I hope this article in principle helps you to understand the workings of poetry. As you can see from these articles, a free verse is not a poem, a blank verse is not free verse, and not everything can become poetry simply because it was expressed.
I hope this series becomes the spring-board that you use to propel yourself into a deeper understanding of the world of poetry.