Significant Uses of Poetry Throughout History

poetry reading


Poetry is one of the oldest literary art forms. The earliest types of poems were often sung or recited to pass on oral histories, law and ancestral information because the rhythmic and repetitive forms made accounts simpler to remember before the development of writing. Poems that exist from ancient civilizations include fiction, historical accounts, love songs and instructions about how to perform everyday activities. The history of poetry is long and multifaceted as every culture used—and continues to employ—the literary form as a means of expression.

History of Poetry


The oldest known surviving written poetry include the Hieratic Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor from around 2500 B.C.E and the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh from about 2000 B.C.E. Other well known ancient epics are the Iliad and Odyssey from Greece, Ramayana and Mahabharata from India, and the Epic of King Gesar from Tibet.

Ancient Greek Poetry

During the 7th to 4th centuries B.C.E., the poetic movement developed by ancient Greek writers was one of the most culturally and intellectually significant in the history of the literary form. These writers developed almost all the classic forms known today. Notable writers included Homer, Sappho, Hesiod, Anacreon and Euripides. Many credit Aristotle with influencing the Middle East’s Islamic Golden Age and the European Renaissance.

Provencal Literature

During the 11th to 13th centuries A.D., the Middle Ages, musicians in France began writing lyrics despite Holy Roman Empire’s stomping down on creative expression. Inspired by Arab writers (e.g., Rumi) and Latin and Greek poets, the troubadours originally performed for royal courts before performing for different communities. The inquisition doomed the Provencal movement, making way for new movements.

Sicilian School

Taking their inspiration from the troubadours, Sicilian poets during the 13th and 14th centuries wrote about courtly love on the cuffs of the Renaissance period. The poets used their unique dialect to create poems into works of art. Poet Giacomo de Lentini further developed the sonnets and canzones, and invented new words, which became part of the Italian language. Instead of playing music with the verses, the poets of this era wrote poems for others to read. Poets like Dante and Petrarch spread the literary form across Europe.

Elizabethan Era

Poets such as Sir Thomas Wyatt and Geoffrey Chaucer helped modernize English literature in the 16th and 17th centuries. Sonnets became wildly popular as William Shakespeare, Edmund Spencer and others added their own touches to create works that are still popular today. Poets during the Elizabethan era used poems to write about everyday life, love and religion.

Metaphysical Era

In the 18th century, poets looked beyond religion and themselves. They often sought to explain their subjects by comparing them to love, philosophy, nature and the afterlife. The works of these poets—such as John Donne, George Chapman, Katherine Philips and Samuel Cowley—paved the way for American transcendentalism and Romantic writers.

Romantic Era

The Romantic era spanned three centuries—from the time of William Blake’s popularity in the late 1790s to Lord Byron’s death in 1824. The movement was one of the most illustrious in literary history. The poets of this era focused on nature, personal feelings, freedom of expression and their relationships. Notable poets of this era included William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelly and John Keats.

American Transcendentalism

Led be Ralph Waldo Emerson at Boston’s Transcendental Club in September 1836, transcendental poets explored spirituality, the arts and utopian values. They rose against their seemingly puritanical culture and sought to form a socialized community. Many writers considered themselves Transcendentalists, including Louisa May Alcott, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Sophia Peabody and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Beat Movement

The latest modern poetic movement, Beat poets created one of the most influential poetic eras within the last century. They expressed life as they defined it. The poetic form blended classical styles with narrative free verse, free-expression jazz and the seeking of spiritual meaning. Beat poets created a renewed appreciation for the writing and study of poetry. Well-known poets of this era included Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Tuli Kepfergerg, Diane Di Prima and Herbert Huncke.

Poetry takes on several forms, painting literary pictures of the cultures and civilizations from which they emerged. Whether they’re telling a story, describing a writer’s innermost thoughts, mocking a government or commemorating a life, poems have had the power to express the heart’s desires, fuel flames and entertain the masses more than any literary or artistic form in history. What will your words say about you?

[Photo from Indi Samarajiva via CC License 2.0]

An In-Depth Look at Meter & Rhyme in Poetry


Words in poems are like dancers; they have rhythm and movement. When you read the words aloud, the words might flow or bounce or halt based on how the poet arranges them. While this arrangement contributes to a poem’s rhyme scheme and metric pattern, they also contribute to its meaning and tone. By understanding poetry rhyme and meter, you’ll have better insight into what the poet communicates and the emotions expressed.

Poetry Meter

A poem’s metric pattern describes the arrangement of feet in a line. A foot is a group of syllables, the natural breaks in a word. To identify a poem’s meter, you must first identify the feet. Types of feet include:

• Iamb: An unaccented syllable followed by an accented syllable (e.g., the word “destroy”)

• Trochee: An accented syllable followed by an unaccented syllable (e.g., the word “double”)

• Anapest: Two unaccented syllables and an accented syllable (e.g., the word “intervene”)

• Dactyl: An accented syllable followed by two unaccented syllables (e.g., the word “merrily”)

• Spondee: Two consecutive accented syllables (e.g., the word “hum-drum”)

• Pyrrhic: Two consecutive unaccented syllables (e.g., the words “to a”)

Identifying the meter in a poem requires identifying the type of line length, the number of feet in a line:

• Monometer: A line with one foot

• Dimeter: A line with two feet

• Trimeter: A line with three feet

• Tetrameter: A line with four feet

• Pentameter: A line with five feet

• Hexameter: A line with six feet

• Alexandrine meter: A line with six iambic feet

To determine the meter, combine the type of foot with the line length. Iambic pentameter, for examples, is a line with five iambic feet. Identifying a poem’s meter helps determine the type of poem it is, such as a ballad, ode or sonnet. Knowing the poetic type, or form, gives you insight into its purpose and the emotions that the poet may express.

Poetry Rhyme

The rhyme scheme in a poem is another tool used create or identify a poem’s form. The scheme identifies which lines rhyme with each other using letters. Common rhyme schemes include:

• ABAB: The first and third lines rhyme, and the second and fourth lines rhyme

• XAXA: The second and fourth lines rhyme, but the first and third do not

• AABB: The first and second lines rhyme and the third and fourth lines rhyme

• AAAA: All the lines rhyme

• AAXA or AXAA: All but one of the lines rhyme

• ABBA: The first and last lines rhyme and the second and third lines rhyme

• AXXA: The first and last lines rhyme, but the middle lines do not rhyme with each other

Rhyme schemes may incorporate more letters as needed. A Shakespearean sonnet, for instance, uses the following rhyme scheme: ABAB, CDCD, EFEF, GG. The number of letters in each section tells the reader the number of lines in each stanza. In a Shakespearean sonnet, the last stanza has two lines.

Some types of rhyme schemes have formal names, such as:

• ABAB: Alternate rhyme

• AABB…: Couplet

• AAABBB…: Triplet

• AAAA: Monorhyme


• ABABB: Cinquian

• AABB: Clerihew

• ABBA: Enclosed

• AABBA: Limerick

• ABABABCC: Ottava rima

• ABABBCC: Rhyme royal

• AABA: Rubaiyat

• ABA, BCB, CDC…: Terza rima

In poetry, the elements within a work contribute to its tone and meaning, making the words multi-faceted. The next time you read a poem, study the rhyme and meter to see what new meanings jump out at you.

[Photo from Valdemar Fishmen via CC License 2.0]

Essential Poetry for Aspiring Poets

emily dickinson

Poetry is one of the most diverse forms of writing. Its long history dates back to the Epic of Gilgamesh in Mesopotamia, and often came from oral epics or folk songs. As poetry evolved with time and cultures, many of today’s poems reflect the elements and voices used in essential poetry as writers play and experiment with words.

Fundamental Poets to Know

The list of must-read poets is long. While dozens of writers are worthy of being on this list, the following provides a good starting point to jumpstart your creativity.

Rumi: A 13th-century Persian poet and scholar, Rumi is one of the best-selling and most popular poets in the U.S. His thoughtful, simple words reflect on love, religion and life, and continue to speak across centuries, cultures, genders and religions.

Pablo Neruda: A Chilean poet, author and diplomat, Neruda was hailed as one of the most influential poets of the 20th He started writing at 10 years old and used a variety of styles and genres throughout his life. Despite being exiled because of his communist ties, Neruda gained worldwide fame for his works and political views.

Emily Dickinson: One of the premier poets of the 19th century, Dickinson’s works are essential poetry to read. Her style was ahead of her time and she filled her notebooks with 1,800 poems (many of which she kept private) that explore the philosophy of existence.

Maya Angelou: A Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Angelou’s works are largely autobiographical, detailing her life as a teen parent, prostitute, dancer and actress. In addition to her works, Angelou was well known for her role as a civil rights activist who worked alongside Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. Angelou’s poems provided insight into the life of a marginalized society, giving a voice to those who could not speak for themselves.

William Shakespeare: After the Bible, Shakespeare’s works are the most quoted in history. His poetry revolutionized the English language, as he invented words such as “zany,” “downstairs,” “watchdog,” “radiance” and “birthplace.” Shakespeare gave lyric poetry an edge and sense of humor, making it continually enjoyable through the centuries.

Essential Poetry Styles

The various poetic forms that developed through the ages give you a sense of what civilizations found important and how they viewed themselves and others.

Epics: Long poems that tell the story of a hero; Beowulf is one of the oldest and most well known

Sonnets: 14-line poems often written in iambic pentameter; Shakespearan and Miltonic sonnets are among the most popular types

Ballads: Written rhythmically in iambic tetrameter and iambic pentameter on alternating lines, ballads often take the form of storytelling poems; they’ve shaped musical lyrics and genres since the 13th century

Pastoral poems: Poems about an idealized, peaceful rural life or setting

Haiku: A traditional form of Japanese poetry, haikus are three-line poems with five syllables in the first and last line, and seven syllables in the second line

Free verse: Developed in the 18th century, free verse does not follow any pattern or rhyme schemes

Studying great writers will make you a better poet. Use essential poetry as guide to shape your words and ideas. When you don’t know what to write, past works serve as great cheat sheets from which to launch your imagination.

[Photo from Amherst College via Public Domain]