Understanding Poetry Forms & Structure

reading poetry


Poems are like maps. All poetry styles have some type of form, a physical structure that makes it markedly distinguishable from prose. Reading poetry is about more than taking in the words. It’s also about using the arrangements of lines, sounds and rhythms to get to the meaning of the words. The relationship between sounds, repetition and movement push words beyond their literal meanings, making a work larger than the sum of its parts.

Common Poetry Styles

Acrostic: A poem that uses the first letter in each line to spell a word or phrase

Ballad: A poem that tells a story

Cento: A poem that uses lines from other poems

Double-dactyl: An eight-line poem in which each line contains two dactyls, a long syllable followed by two shorter syllables (e.g. Roger L. Robinson wrote in “Double-Dactyl”: “Long-short-short, long-short-short/ Dactyls in dimeter/…One sentence (two stanzas)/Hexasyllabically/ Challenges poets who/ Don’t have the time.”)

Elegy: A sad and thoughtful poem, often about an individual who died

Epic: Long narrative poem

Ghazal: A type of classical Middle Eastern poetry with 5 to 15 rhyming couplets and a shared refrain at the end of the second line

Haiku: Traditional Japanese poem with three lines; the first and third lines have five syllables, the second line has seven syllables

Lyric: A poem about the speaker’s feelings, moods or thoughts

Narrative: A poem that recounts a story

Ode: A three-part poem about a serious subject

Pantoum: A poem with two or more four-line stanzas; the second and fourth lines in one stanza are also the first and third lines of the next stanza

Sonnet: A 14-line poem written in iambic pentameter; common forms include English sonnets and Italian sonnets

Shi: Classical Chinese poems in which the even lines rhyme

Tanka: Similar to a haiku, but follows a 5-7-5-7-7 syllable pattern

Terza rima: A poem with stanzas that follow an aba, bcb, cdc, ded… rhyming pattern

Structural Elements in Poetry Styles

Stanza: A group of lines in a poem

Line: Individual line in a poem; it does not have to complete a sentence or thought

Couplet: Stanzas with two lines

Quatrain: Stanzas with four lines

Enjambment: When an idea in one line carries on to the next

Caesura: Punctuation that doesn’t occur at the end of a line

Feet: The type of two- or three-syllable unit on which a meter is based; a foot is the number and type of syllables in a meter; an iambic foot, for example, has an unaccented syllable followed by an accented syllable (e.g. the word “destroy”); types of meters include iamb, trochee, dactyl, anapest, spondee and pyrrhic

Meter: Patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables, or feet, in a poem; types of meters include monometer, dimeter, trimester, tetrameter, pentameter, hexameter, heptameter and octameter

Metrical patterns: The type of dominant foot in a poem and the number of times it appears in a line, such as iambic pentameter, a line with five iambic feet

Rhythm: The rhythmical sounds in a poem because of accented and unaccented syllables in words

Rhyme schemes: The pattern of rhymes at the end of the lines in a poem, indicated using letters; lines with the same letters rhyme with each other

Knowing about different poetry styles and the elements that make up a work is like having the legend to a map. Incorporate these elements into your own work to give yourself a challenge and to diversify your writing.

[Photo from Metropolitan Transportation Authority of the State of New York via CC License 2.0]

How to Inspire the Creative Process

colorful chalk

Creativity is the driving force behind every writer. It’s what motivates you, gets you excited and gives you the nerve to bare your soul. Without creativity inspiration, your work goes flat, like an open can of soda that sat on the counter for too long. Inspiring the creative process is about finding insightful ways to spark your imagination. It’s about allowing yourself to think differently and taking a break from your usual process to make room for the new and unexpected.

Creativity Inspiration: Invite the Process

Be Curious

If there is a subject that interests you, no matter what it is, learn more about it. Explore it even if it doesn’t seem relevant to your current project or life. Exploring your interests, new and old, exercises the mind, gives you a new way to look at the world, and allows you to build a new vocabulary.

Leonardo da Vinci’s famous notebooks were filled with to-do lists about items that interested him and people who could provide the information that he sought. Tasks on his list included drawing Milan after calculating its measurements, finding a book about Milan’s churches, examining crossbows, talking to a hydraulics master about lock repairs, asking a professor about the sun’s measurements, and more.

Build Your Bank of Ideas and Facts

Never stop learning and asking questions. Allow your mind to find patterns in the information that you learn so you can have those breakthrough moments where an analogy sings from the tip of your pen (or from your fingertips on a keyboard). Keep in mind that these breakthroughs can happen when you least expect, so never pooh-pooh those seemingly useless facts that your brain acquires.

Work on the Mystery, Not Just the Puzzle

Once you solve a problem, you’re done. Mysteries have longer shelf lives. Television shows, for example, solve puzzles in 45-minute packages. You watch the show, get a thrill and feel a sense of resolution at the end. The woman who inspired the Mona Lisa, on the other hand, is a mystery. Centuries later, people continue to ponder the story behind the curious smirk.

Take a Break

Every writer experiences this: suddenly getting a brilliant idea while falling asleep or in the shower. Depart from your usual routine to give your brain a chance to process, and keep your writing tools nearby. Don’t take a break with the intention of getting a genius idea. Do it to stimulate your mind. Ideas to try include:

• Meditation
• Trying new foods
• Working on puzzle book
• Going on a walk (If you regularly walk, take a new route or reverse your current one.)
• Listening to new, complex music


Exercising allows your brains to develop new neurons in the hippocampus, which allows you to form new thought patterns. Exercising your body exercises the brain, which exercises your creativity.

Practice Mindfulness

Give yourself a chance to notice everything around you: how you feel and why, how your back feels as you sit in the chair, your breathing pattern, the sensation of blinking, the color of the leaves outside, the smell in the room, the sounds you hear through the walls, and so on. Give yourself a moment of awareness to unlock creativity inspiration.

While it may seem fleeting, creativity is an ongoing process. Pursue it, exercise it and welcome it. Give it a kick-start as needed. The important thing is to never let it go.

[Photo from Dean Hochman via CC License 2.0]