Poetic Forms and the Page
After reading this chapter, you should be able to do the following:
Describe the elements of various poetic forms.
Prepare a work according to the elements of poetic form.
Assess the possible intentions of using various poetic forms.
Discuss contemporary innovations in poetic form.
A conversation about poetry has to acknowledge poetic form. A form is the physical pattern or structure,
the how, of a poem. The form of a poem is dictated by the content of the poem—it is a structure that
re lects an origin, a tradition, and, perhaps more importantly, a purpose. Poetry originated as an oral
tradition—it was sung or performed—so poets had to memorize their poems. To a large extent, forms
began as mnemonic devices to make poems easy to memorize and recite. Over the ages, the purposes of
form began to change. Some forms, such as the sestina, were intentionally developed to be complex.
Others, like the ghazal, were developed to address multiple themes, particularly spiritual love. The most
famous form in English poetry is the sonnet. This form has retained its relevance for centuries, and it
serves as a foundation that allows some writers to break from tradition.
This chapter discusses a number of formal poetic structures, but it also delves into contemporary
traditions that broke from form. In poetry, as in many other arts, some have embraced form for reasons of
order and tradition, but others have viewed form as limiting or rigid. Since the 19th century, signi icant
contemporary literary movements that are partially de ined stylistically raise new considerations about
physical space, typography, methods of composition, and the physical and tactile processes of reading.
5.1 Traditional Forms
Some newer writers seem to suggest a knee‐jerk resistance to the study of traditional poetic forms, as if
they’re stale or have somehow gone bad. However, the stronger case to be made is how an understanding
of time‐tested traditional forms is the foundation for creating a poem that will be able to stand with the
classics. To fall back on a metaphor, a carpenter does not just start nailing wood together and call the
structure a house. Rather, he studies how walls are constructed and where certain pieces must be inserted
to hold the weight of other pieces.
Using poetic forms effectively requires understanding how a poem with certain rules is functioning, why
the form is used, and what the poem does to move a reader. Many poetic forms originated as mnemonic
devices so that poets could memorize and perform their poems. The term sonnet, for instance, comes from
the Italian sonetto, which means “little song.” If a poem is a type of song, it makes sense that there are
certain established structures and features that help guide the work. The rhythms, meters, and rhymes of
poetic forms create a set of expectations that allow both the poet and the audience to anticipate what
sounds will follow. Though poems rely on the musical conventions to a much lesser extent today—most
poems are spoken or read from printed pages—it is these forms, and the mastery of them, that allowed
poets to break from tradition. After all, the knowledge and mastery of a craft is necessary to the innovation
that advances the conversation in literature.
Meter and Rhyme
We cannot discuss poetic form without irst discussing meter and rhyme. The practice of identifying a
poem’s meter and rhyme schemes is called scansion, scanning each line to igure out its metric pattern and
rhyme scheme. Before we discuss scansion, however, we must break down the basic elements of meter
and rhyme. The two elements of meter and rhyme combined are referred to as a poem’s music.
Meter is the measurement of stressed and unstressed syllables in a poetic line. Stress in poetic terms
means the rising or percussive sound in the utterance of a syllable, while unstress means the falling
downbeat in the utterance of a syllable. For instance, the famous phrase from Shakespeare’s (1603/2004)
Hamlet, “To be / or not / to be,” is an example of iambic meter. An iamb is one unstressed syllable followed
by a stressed syllable: “To BE / or NOT / to BE.” The opposite of an iamb is the trochee; it is a stressed
syllable followed by an unstressed syllable. The trochee is prominent in William Blake’s (1789/2015) “The
Tyger”: “Tyger tyger, burning bright.” The words “tyger” and “burning” each form a trochaic foot. The way
of noting a poem’s meter is to use the following diacritical marks: – ^ – ^ (iambic) or ^ – ^ – (trochaic).
The number of syllables in a given line gives us its line length or feet per line. For instance, if a line is in
iambic pentameter, this tells us two things: that the line uses iambic feet (an unstressed syllable followed
by a stressed syllable) and that the line comprises ive feet (10 syllables). Iambic pentameter is the
standard meter used in the sonnet. But a poem that uses trochaic hexameter tells us that the poem
employs lines of six trochaic feet (12 syllables). See the table below for speci ic metric feet and line
Metric feet and line lengths in poetry
Iambic: da‐DA (unaccented/accented): en·joy
Monometer: one foot
Trochaic: DA‐da (accented/unaccented): ty·ger
Dimeter: two feet
Anapestic: da‐da‐DA (unaccented/unaccented/accented):
Trimeter: three feet
Dactylic: DA‐da‐DA (accented/unaccented/accented):
Tetrameter: four feet
Pentameter: ive feet
Spondaic: DA‐DA (accented/accented): now go
Hexameter: six feet
Heptameter: seven feet
Octameter: eight feet
Rhyme is quite a bit easier to grasp than meter. When we think of rhyme, we most commonly think of end
rhyme, which is when the ends of two words—everything that follows the word’s last stressed syllable—
sound alike, as in rhyme / time and I / sky. The latter example comes from T. S. Eliot’s (1920) “The Love
Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” which begins “Let us go then, you and I, / While the evening is spread out
against the sky.” You’ll notice, however, that there isn’t a consistent meter in these lines. Though many
forms do require the integration of rhyme and meter, the two are not always found together. This is
especially true in free verse or blank verse, poetry without rhyme that uses iambic pentameter.
Rhyme also isn’t just relegated to the end of the line. Internal rhyme is when a word from the middle of
the line rhymes with the last word of the line. For instance, in the line “for image to invade us like a
village,” we hear image and village, words that rhyme. Often, internal rhyme creates a melodious quality—
often referred to as sing‐song—that we associate with ballads and nursery rhymes. You might remember
“Hickory dickory dock, the mouse ran up the clock.” One thing to keep in mind is the nature of rhyme,
which does not have to be direct, as in bat and cat. Slant rhyme, also called near rhyme, is a rhyme that
isn’t exactly “true”: house and sprouts.
In depicting the rhyme scheme of a poem, letters are used to notate the rhymed sounds: A, B, C, D, and so
on. The letters in a rhyme scheme denote lines that rhyme, so “A” rhymes with “A,” “B” rhymes with “B,” and
so forth. For instance, Sir Thomas Wyatt’s (1557) famous sonnet “Whoso list to hunt” is about the poet’s
love for Anne Boleyn—despite her being the mistress, and then wife, of King Henry VIII. Wyatt adopts a
hunting metaphor throughout, but it isn’t a deer (here a hind) that he stalks; it’s his love. The rhyme
scheme of the poem is ABBA ABBA CDDC EE.
“Whoso list to hunt”
Sir Thomas Wyatt
Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind, (A)
But as for me, hélas, I may no more. (B)
The vain travail hath wearied me so sore, (B)
I am of them that farthest cometh behind. (A)
Yet may I by no means my wearied mind (A)
Draw from the deer, but as she leeth afore (B)
Fainting I follow. I leave off therefore, (B)
Sithens in a net I seek to hold the wind. (A)
Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt, (C)
As well as I may spend his time in vain. (D)
And graven with diamonds in letters plain (D)
There is written, her fair neck round about: (C)
Noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am, (E)
And wild for to hold, though I seem tame. (E)
Other common rhyme schemes will be discussed in greater detail as we move deeper into the exploration
of individual forms and examples of them. Language, whether written or spoken, has music in it; it rises
and falls and follows a natural rhythm. This is what we call its cadence. Whether you’re writing a sonnet
or a free verse poem or a short story or an essay, you’ll ind that your language has music, has a cadence.
Understanding poetic form, rhythm, and meter will better enable you to identify and manipulate the
cadence of your work.
Virtual Trip: Rhyming Dictionaries
Entire dictionaries are devoted to rhyme. One online tool you might play around with is
The sonnet is one of the most common poetic forms, with a history that has endured and evolved over the
course of more than 500 years in English. A sonnet is a poem of 14 lines in iambic pentameter that
incorporates a speci ic rhyme scheme. Traditionally, there are three types of sonnets:
The Petrarchan sonnet is the Italian variation, brought to England by Sir Thomas Wyatt, and it is
typically divided into an eight‐line stanza (octave) followed by a six‐line (sestet), with a rhyme
scheme of ABBAABBA, CDCDCD, or CDECDE.
The Shakespearean sonnet, which has become the most widely used, has 3 quatrains (stanzas of
four lines) with a couplet at the end and a rhyme pattern that goes like this: ABAB, CDCD, EFEF,
The Spenserian sonnet, similar to the Shakespearean, uses a different rhyme scheme: ABAB, BCBC,
Poems that are 14 lines regardless of rhyme or meter are sometimes considered “sonnets” but are not
recognized as such by purists or formalists. However, 14 lines of 10 syllables (give or take here or there)
could be reasonably regarded as a blank verse sonnet, provided it contains a volta, which is the “turn” of
the poem, or where the idea or feel of the poem changes between the eighth and ninth line.
English poets Shakespeare, Milton, and Spenser wrote sonnet sequences, or groups of sonnets over time.
Though each sonnet stands as an individual poem, when taken together a narrative emerges. For example,
Shakespeare wrote at least 154 sonnets, identi ied only by numbers. In the case of Shakespeare’s Sonnets,
distinct themes emerge. In the opening 17 sonnets, the speaker addresses a handsome young man and
suggests that he ind a bride and bear a child. The subsequent 109 sonnets seek to capture the beauty of
the beloved—whether it be this same young man, a woman, or a variety of people—and preserve that
beauty within the poems themselves. The sequence inishes with the sonnets to a “dark lady,” whom critics
still argue about. Scholars generally agree that this narrative is present in Shakespeare’s sonnets, despite
the lack of factual details in the poems. Perhaps that’s the best thing about poetry: It’s a useful tool for
expressing emotion while retaining some sense of privacy. All of Shakespeare’s sonnets are available
online and can be found easily. Read several together and try to identify the narrative thread in some of
If my dear love were but the child of state,
It might for Fortune’s bastard be unfather’d,
As subject to Time’s love or Time’s hate,
Weeds amoung weeds, or lowers with lowers gather’d.
No, it was builded far from accident;
It suffers not in smiling pomp, nor falls
Under the blow of thralled discontent,
Whereto th’inviting time our fashion calls:
It fears not policy, that heretic,
Which works on leases of short number’d hours,
But all alone stands hugely politic,
That it nor grows with heat, nor drowns with the showers.
To this I witness call the fools of Time,
Which die for goodness, who have lived for crime.
“Sonnet 7: How soon hath Time, the subtle thief of youth”
How soon hath Time, the subtle thief of youth,
Stol’n on his wing my three‐and‐twentieth year!
My hasting days ly on with full career,
But my late spring no bud or blossom shew’th.
Perhaps my semblance might deceive the truth
That I to manhood am arriv’d so near;
And inward ripeness doth much less appear,
That some more timely‐happy spirits endu’th.
Yet be it less or more, or soon or slow,
It shall be still in strictest measure ev’n
To that same lot, however mean or high,
Toward which Time leads me, and the will of Heav’n:
All is, if I have grace to use it so
As ever in my great Task‐Master’s eye.
“She goes, she is, she wakes the waters”
She goes, she is, she wakes the waters
primed in their wave‐form, a lux of urge
struck into oneness, the solid surge
seeking completion, and strikes and shatters
and is its fragments, distinction’s daughters
and now, unholding, the cleave and merge
the hew and fusing, plundering the verge
and substance is the scheme it scatters
and what it numbers in substantial sun.
Her hands hold many or her hands hold none.
And diving the salt will kiss a convex eye
and be salt fact and be the bodied sky
and that gray weight is both or beggared one,
a dead dimensional, or blue begun.
Karen Volkman, “She goes, she is” from Nomina. Copyright © 2008 by Karen Volkman. Reprinted with the permission of The
Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of BOA Editions, Ltd., www.boaeditions.org.
Pen to Paper: Iambs, Youambs
Youambs isn’t a word. But iambs, as you know, are measures of poetic meter. Practice identifying
the meter in some of the sonnets in this chapter. Read the poem aloud, and then mark the stressed
and unstressed words or syllables in a printed copy. You can ind more sonnets at Poetry Founda‐
tion: Verse Forms (http://www.poetryfoundation.org/browse/#poetic‐terms=25) and scan those. After
you have scanned a few, try your hand at writing a sonnet using iambic pentameter.
For centuries the sonnet has retained its place as the most common poetic form in the English language.
But in the 1960s, young New York poets Ted Berrigan, Bernadette Mayer, and Ron Padgett, among others,
appropriated the form and, taking cues from the visual art movements of the same time, scrapped some of
the formal elements in favor of collage and repetition.
Ted Berrigan published his book The Sonnets in 1964. Like Shakespeare’s Sonnets, each poem is simply
identi ied by a roman numeral, though we often use the numeral and the irst line to identify such poems.
Using the technique of collage, Berrigan wove together lines he overheard, lines stolen from his friends’
poems, and lines he made up and used interchangeably. Many of the lines and images repeat throughout
the book’s 88 sonnets. Alice Notley (2000), poet and Berrigan’s wife, writes in her introduction to the
Penguin edition of The Sonnets, “One of its themes is time, the incorporation of the past into the present
becoming the future, and so each sonnet seems to have invisible arrows point out from it backwards,
forwards, and sideways too, creating a long complex moment” (v). Because these sonnets, like
Shakespeare’s, are part of a whole, they continuously speak to one another; they form a narrative.
“The Sonnets: III”
Stronger than alcohol, more great than song,
deep in whose reeds great elephants decay,
I, an island, sail, and my shoes toss
on a fragrant evening, fraught with sadness
It’s true, I weep too much. Dawns break
slow kisses on the eyelids of the sea,
what other men sometimes have thought they’ve seen.
And since then I’ve been bathing in the poem
lifting her shadowy lowers up for me,
and hurled by hurricanes to a birdless place
the waving lags, nor pass by prison ships
O let me burst, and I be lost at sea!
and fall on my knees then, womanly.
“Sonnet III,” from THE SONNETS by Ted Berrigan, copyright (c) 2000 by Alice Notley, Literary Executrix of the Estate of Ted Berrigan.
Used by permission of Viking Penguin, a division of Penguin Group (USA) LLC.
Bernadette Mayer’s (1968) “[Sonnet] You jerk you didn’t call me up” uses the Petrarchan form as its
starting point. But rather than using the traditionally elevated language we expect from sonnets, she
writes about the traditional subject of the sonnet—love or lust—in conversational language. The concerns
of Mayer’s sonnet are really no different from those of a traditional sonnet. They simply break from
tradition in deliberately avoiding iambic pentameter and using diction suiting a modern time and the
mood. She even makes reference to G.I. Joe, the popular toy and cartoon show, contrasting Cobra
Commander with the Latin poet of the late Roman republic, Gaius Valerius Catullus.
Contrasting this poem with Milton’s “How soon hath Time,” what are some less obvious differences? Do
you prefer one over the other? Which poem are you more readily able to connect to as a reader? Why?
“[Sonnet] You jerk you didn’t call me up”
You jerk you didn’t call me up
I haven’t seen you in so long
You probably have a fucking tan
& besides that instead of making love tonight
You’re drinking your parents to the airport
I’m through with you bourgeois boys
All you ever do is go back to ancestral comforts
Only money can get—even Catullus was rich but
Nowadays you guys settle for a couch
By a sopori ic color cable t.v. set
Instead of any arc of love, no wonder
The G.I. Joe team blows it every other time
Wake up! It’s the middle of the night
You can either make love or die at the hands of the Cobra Commander
To make love, turn to page 121.
To die, turn to page 172.
By Bernadette Mayer, from A BERNADETTE MAYER READER, copyright ©1968 by Bernadette Mayer. Reprinted by permission of New
Directions Publishing Corp.
On a somewhat different note, Ron Padgett’s (2014) memorable sonnet “Nothing in That Drawer”
deconstructs the formal elements, retaining only the ...
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