My Poetry Guide…

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Poem Structure – Lines and Stanzas:

Poem structure – the line is a building block

The basic building-block of prose (writing that isn’t poetry) is the sentence. But poetry has something else — the poetic line. Poets decide how long each line is going to be and where it will break off. That’s why poetry often has a shape like this:

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying.

No matter where it is printed, the first line always ends with the word “may” and the second line with the word “a-flying” because the poet has written it this way. If you print a piece of prose such as a short story, the length of the lines will depend on the font size, the paper size, margins, etc. But in poetry, the line is part of the work of art you have created. The length of the lines and the line breaks are important choices that will affect many aspects of the reader’s experience:

  • The sound of the poem – When people read your poem out loud, or in their heads, they will pause slightly at the end of each line.
  • The speed of reading – Shortening or lengthening the lines can speed up or slow down the way people read.
  • How the poem looks on the page – Does the poem look light, delicate, with a lot of white space around the lines? Or are the lines packed solidly together?
  • Emphasis – Words at the end of a line seem more important than words in the middle.

Poem structure – types of lines

If you are writing a poem in a standard form such as a sonnet, your choices about line length are somewhat restricted by the rules of the form. But you still have to decide how to fit the ideas and sentences of your poem over the lines. When you fit natural stopping points in a sentence to the end of your line, the reader takes a little pause. When a sentence or phrase continues from one line to the next, the reader feels pulled along. If your line break interrupts a sentence or idea in a surprising place, the effect can be startling, suspenseful, or can highlight a certain phrase or double-meaning.

Lines that finish at ends of sentences or at natural stopping points (for example, at a comma) are called end-stopped lines. Here’s an example:

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying:

Lines that in the middle of the natural flow of a sentence are called run-on or enjambed lines. Here’s an example:

But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.

If you are writing in free verse, you have even more decisions to make than a poet writing in a traditional form. You can decide to use short lines or long lines, or to vary the length. You can decide to stack your lines evenly along the left margin, or to use a looser or more graphical form. Some poets even write poems that are in the shape of the thing they are writing about, for example, a circular poem about the moon. You have many options, but these choices should never be made randomly.

Poem structure – stanzas:

In prose, ideas are usually grouped together in paragraphs. In poems, lines are often grouped together into what are called stanzas. Like paragraphs, stanzas are often used to organize ideas.

For example, here are the two final stanzas. In the first of these stanzas, he is explaining that being young is great, but life just gets worse and worse as you get older. In the second one, he is saying: “So get married before you’re too old and have lost your chance.”

That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.

Then be not coy, but use your time,
And while ye may, go marry:
For having lost but once your prime,
You may for ever tarry.

Poem structure – decisions about form:

So many decisions to make — line length, line breaks, arrangement, speed, rhythm. How should you choose? The right form for your poem depends on, and works with, the poem’s content, or what it’s about. If the poem is about flying, you probably don’t want lines that feel slow and heavy. If you’re writing a sad poem, short bouncy lines might not be the way to go.

You may feel overwhelmed by so many issues to think about. How can your inspiration flow freely if you have to keep track of all of these aspects of a poem? The answer is to do the work in two stages.

  1. First, let your ideas flow.
  2. Then, go back to the poem later and work on improving the poem structure and form.

In the second stage, it’s a good idea to experiment a lot. Try breaking the lines and different ways and compare the effects. Try changing the order of things. Try reorganizing things to move different words to the end of the lines so that the reader’s attention goes to them. You’ve got nothing to lose — you can always go back to an earlier version.

As you go through this process, ask yourself:

  • What is my poem about?
  • What feeling or mood do I want the reader to have?
  • Do I want the poem to move quickly or slowly? Are there places I want it to speed up or slow down?
  • What words or phrases do I want to highlight?

There are a lot of things to consider. But the more poetry you write — and read, the more natural and instinctive some of these decisions about poem structure will become to you.

Poetry Meter:

Meter is a way of measuring a line of poetry based on the rhythm of the words. But why should you care?

  • As a reader, knowing about meter helps you understand how a poem is put together. You can see what rules the poet was following and how he or she used or went outside those rules. This lets you guess what was going through the poet’s mind.
  • If you want to write poetry, knowing about meter will make you a better poet. First, it helps you understand what poets have done in the past, so that you can learn from them. It allows you to use traditional forms such as sonnets. Even if you prefer to write in free verse, you should learn about traditional forms. Being aware of traditions gives you more flexibility to use aspects of them when you want to, or to “break the rules” in a more interesting way.

Poetry meter – stressed syllables and the iambic foot

Meter measures lines of poetry based on stressed and unstressed syllables. I’ll explain. When we speak, we put the stress on a certain part of each word. For example, take the words “apple” and “fantastic.”

  • When we say the word “apple,” we stress the first syllable, the “ap” part. We say “AP-ple,” how not “ap-PLE.”
  • When we say the word “fantastic,” we stress the second syllable. We say, “fan-TAS-tic,” not “FAN-tas-tic” or “fan-tas-TIC.”

Poetry meter – meter and rhythm:

When you read metered poetry, such as a sonnet in iambic pentameter, you may notice that the meter is sometimes sounds uneven or is hard to hear. Meter is just a form of measurement. The real rhythm of a poem is more complicated than that:

  • None of us talk like robots. We give certain words and sounds more emphasis than others in a sentence, depending on a number of factors including the meaning of the words and our own personal speaking style. So not all of the stressed syllables have the same amount of stress, etc.
  • We pause at the ends of ideas or the ends of sentences, even if these occur partway through a poetic line. So this creates a rhythmically variation. When the sentence ends or has a natural pause in the middle of a line of poetry, that’s called a caesura.
  • Poets vary meter or make exceptions in order to create desired rhythmic effects.

All of these elements combine to give each poem a unique music.

How to Write a Sonnet:

What’s a sonnet?

Sonnets are a kind of rhymed poem written in iambic pentameter.

An iamb is a rhythmic unit that includes an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one. It has the rhythm, as in the words “about,” or “predict,” or “parade.” Iambic pentameter is a line of poetry consisting of five iambs. Here are two sentences in iambic pentameter:

There are different kinds of sonnets, but I’m going to talk about the Shakespearian sonnet, also called the English sonnet. The Shakespearian sonnet has fourteen lines in iambic pentameter that are divided into three groups of four lines and one group of two lines.

When a rhyme scheme is written in this way, each of the letters stands for one line. An “a” line rhymes with another “a” line, a “d” line rhymes with another “d” line, etc. So in a Shakespearian sonnet, the first line (a) rhymes with the third line (also called “a”). The second line (b) rhymes with the fourth line (also called “b”). The final two lines of the poem (gg) rhyme with each other.

Here’s an example of a sonnet by Shakespeare written in this form. I’ll mark each end rhyme with a letter:

Not from the stars do I my judgement pluck, (a)
And yet methinks I have astronomy, (b)
But not to tell of good, or evil luck, (a)
Of plagues, of dearths, or seasons’ quality,(b)
Nor can I fortune to brief minutes tell; (c)
Pointing to each his thunder, rain and wind, (d)
Or say with princes if it shall go well (c)
By oft predict that I in heaven find. (d)
But from thine eyes my knowledge I derive, (e)
And constant stars in them I read such art (f)
As truth and beauty shall together thrive (e)
If from thy self, to store thou wouldst convert: (f)
Or else of thee this I prognosticate, (g)
Thy end is truth’s and beauty’s doom and date. (g)

You may notice that some of the rhymes are not exact. For example, “art” and “convert” have the same final sound, but the vowel sounds (“a” in art and “e” in convert) are different. This is an example of what is called off-rhyme, or slant-rhyme

Rhyme Schemes:

Rhyme schemes and sound effects

Rhyme is an important tool in the poet’s toolbox. Traditional poetry forms such as sonnets often use rhyme in specific patterns. But even if you are writing free verse, you can use rhyme to when it helps you create desired effects.

Rhyme schemes – why rhyme

There are many reasons why you might choose to use rhyme:

  • To give pleasure. Rhyme, done well, is pleasing to the ear. It adds a musical element to the poem, and creates a feeling of “rightness,” of pieces fitting together. It also makes a poem easier to memorize, since the rhyme echoes in the reader’s mind afterward, like a melody.
  • To deepen meaning. Rhyming two or more words draws attention to them and connects them in the reader’s mind.
  • To strengthen form. In many traditional forms, a regular pattern of rhymes are at the ends of the lines. This means that even if the poem is being read out loud, listeners can easily hear where the lines end, can hear the shape of the poem.

Rhyme schemes – internal rhymes and end rhymes:

When the last word in a line of poetry rhymes with the last word in another line, this is called an end rhyme. Many traditional poetry forms use end rhymes.

When words in the middle of a line of poetry rhyme with each other, this is called an internal rhyme. Below is part of a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Can you find the internal rhymes and end rhymes?

The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew,
The furrow followed free;
We were the first that ever burst
Into that silent sea.

In this example, “blew”-“flew,” and “first”-“burst” are internal rhymes. “Free” and “sea” are end rhymes.

Rhyme schemes – true rhymes and off-rhymes

“Smart” and “art”; “fellow” and “yellow”; “surgery” and perjury” — these are all examples of true rhymes, or exact rhymes because the final vowel and consonant sounds (or the final syllables in the longer words) are exact matches to the ear.

“Fate” and “saint”; “work” and “spark”; are examples of off-rhymes, or slant-rhymes. In each case, part of the sound matches exactly, but part of it doesn’t. Off-rhymes use assonance and consonance:

  • Assonance is a similarity between vowel sounds (the sounds made by your breath, written with the letters a,e,i,o,u,and sometimes y) “Sing,”lean”, and “beet” are an example of assonance because they all have a similar “e” sound. Another example is “boat,”bone”, and “mole,” which all have a similiar “o” sound.
  • Consonance is a similarity between consonant sounds (consonants are the letters that you pronounce with your lips or tongue, not with your breath: b,c,d,f,g,h,j,k,l,m,n,p,q,r,s,t,v,w,x,z and sometimes y). “Lake,”book”, and “back” are an example of consonance because they all have the same “K” sounds, even though the vowel sounds in these words are different. When the same consonants are used at the beginning of the word (for example, the words “sing” and “sell”), that is called alliteration.

You might choose to use off-rhymes instead of true rhymes, or in addition to them, to create a subtler effect.

Using off-rhymes also gives you more choices of words to rhyme. This often makes it possible to create more original or surprising rhymes. How many pop songs can you think of that rhyme “heart” with “apart?” And when you hear the words “heaven above” in a song, you can bet that the word “love” is lurking nearby. There are only a few words that rhyme with “love,” so they are used over and over again. Off-rhymes can help to remove some of that predictability so that you can come up with more interesting rhyme.

Rhyme schemes:

The pattern of rhymes in a poem is written with the letters a, b, c, d, etc. The first set of lines that rhyme at the end are marked with a. The second set are marked with b. So, in a poem with the rhyme scheme abab, the first line rhymes with the third line, and the second line rhymes with the fourth line. In a poem with the rhyme scheme abcb, the second line rhymes with the fourth line, but the first and third lines don’t rhyme with each other.

Here’s an example of a rhyme scheme:

GATHER ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying.

Here’s an example of an abcb rhyme scheme.

The itsy bitsy spider (a)
Went up the water spout (b)
Down came the rain (c)
And washed the spider out (b)

This one’s aabccb:

Little Miss Muffet
Sat on a tuffet
Eating her curds and whey.
Along came a spider
And sat down beside her
And frightened Miss Muffett away.

Here’s a sonnet by Shakespeare. The rhyme scheme is abab cdcd efef gg.

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun; (a)
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red; (b)
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;(a)
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.(b)
I have seen roses damask’d, red and white,(c)
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;(d)
And in some perfumes is there more delight(c)
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.(d)
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know (e)
That music hath a far more pleasing sound; (f)
I grant I never saw a goddess go; (e)
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground: (f)
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare (g)
As any she belied with false compare. (g)

Types of Poems:

Types of poems – how to write an acrostic poem

An acrostic poem is one where the first letters of the lines spell out a word or words if you read them vertically. For example, here is an acrostic poem by Edgar Allan Poe. You can see that if you read the first letters of the lines from top to bottom, they spell out the name “Elizabeth.”

Elizabeth it is in vain you say
“Love not” — thou sayest it in so sweet a way:
In vain those words from thee or L. E. L.
Zantippe’s talents had enforced so well:
Ah! if that language from thy heart arise,
Breathe it less gently forth — and veil thine eyes.
Endymion, recollect, when Luna tried
To cure his love — was cured of all beside —
His folly — pride — and passion — for he died.

Choose a word to be your poem’s topic, and write it vertically, from top to bottom. Then turn each letter into a line of poetry about that topic.

Ideas:

  • Write an acrostic using your own name, or the name of someone you love.
  • Write an acrostic about a month of the year, with the lines spelling out that month.

Types of poems – how to write blank verse

Blank verse is unrhymed poetry written in a regular meter, usually iambic pentameter.

An iamb is a rhythmic unit made of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one. Here are examples of two sentences written in iambic pentameter:

  • Forget the car, I’ll take the train to work.
  • At school today, he caught a nasty cold.

Much of Shakespeare’s dramatic work is written in blank verse. Here’s an example, taken from Hamlet. (You will see that Shakespeare’s use of iambic pentameter is not mechanical — he varies the rhythm for effect).

Good now, sit down, and tell me, he that knows,
Why this same strict and most observant watch
So nightly toils the subject of the land,
And why such daily cast of brazen cannon,
And foreign mart for implements of war;
Why such impress of shipwrights, whose sore task
Does not divide the Sunday from the week;
What might be toward, that this sweaty haste
Doth make the night joint-labourer with the day:
Who isn’t that can inform me?

Below are some lines written in iambic pentameter that you can use in your own poem, if you want, to start you off or give you ideas.

  • Last night I had a dream about a girl
  • Before today I didn’t know your name
  • The leaves were dark against the glowing sky
  • My mother always lied about her age

Types of poems – how to write a sestina

A sestina is a poem with 39 lines. The final words of the first six lines are repeated in the other lines, in a specific pattern. For an example of a sestina, look for Elizabeth Bishop’s famous poem called just “Sestina.” Sestinas can be very haunting to read. The same words keep coming back like echoes. And they are a lot of fun to write, like working out a puzzle.

But in case you prefer to read an explanation: here goes. A sestina is divided into six six-line stanzas, or sections, plus one final stanza of three lines. We’ll call the last word of the first line a, the last word of the second line b, etc. The order of these words in the first six stanzas is like this: abcdef faebdc cfdabe ecbfad deacfb bdfeca. In other words, the last word in Line 1 is also the last word in Line 8. The last word in Line 2 is also the last word in Line 10. Etc. The final stanza, or section of the poem has three lines. Each of these uses two of the words, one somewhere in the middle of the line and one at the end. The pattern of this section is: be dc fa.

Poem Types:

Poem types – how to write a narrative poem

A narrative poem is one that tells a story, true or imagined. It can have all of the elements of fiction, including:

  • A character or characters. The main character may be the same or different from the narrator, the voice that tells the story.
  • A setting – the place where the story happens.
  • A plot – what happens in the story.
  • Dialogue – conversations between the characters.

An example… This poem is a kind of horror story. Here is the beginning of the poem:

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“Tis some visiter,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door
Only this and nothing more.”

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December;
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow; — vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow — sorrow for the lost Lenore
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore
Nameless here for evermore.

And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me — filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
“Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door;
This it is and nothing more.”

Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
“Sir,” said I, “or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you” — here I opened wide the door…

The main character in this poem is a man who has lost a woman he loved named Lenore. This character is also the narrator or the speaker of the poem, so he tells his own story using the word “I.” The setting of the poem is the man’s room on a bleak December night. As the poem continues, a raven, a type of black bird, comes into the man’s room, settles on top of the door frame, and refuses to leave. No matter what the man says, the bird answers with the word “Nevermore,” and the meaning becomes more and more horrifying until the man sinks into despair. This is the plot of the poem’s narrative.

Poem types – write a narrative poem!

Want to try writing a narrative poem of your own? Here are some tips:

1) For there to be a story, something has to happen or change between the beginning and the end. A happy situation is not a story. It becomes a story when a problem arises that interrupts the main character’s happiness. Similarly, a depressed character moping around his room is not a story. It becomes a story when the character decides to improve his situation… or when something happens that threatens to make his situation even worse.

2) Help readers imagine the story. Give details related to the five senses – sight, sound, touch, smell, and even taste. Be specific. Did Maria seem angry at Jeff? Instead of just saying, “she seemed angry at him,” think about what, exactly, this was like. Consider showing the evidence of Maria’s anger, instead of the conclusion. If you say, “Her jaw tightened, and she refused to look at him,” this gives the reader a stronger picture.

Poem starter:

Think of an upsetting fight or argument you had with a family member, friend, or romantic partner. What was it about? Write a poem that tells the story of whatever caused the argument.

If the argument was over a particular event, then you’re all set. You have a characters, a setting, action. If the argument was over an ongoing situation (for example, your partner didn’t participate enough in child-care), then think of or invent a particular instance of this and write about that. Hint: try not to tell readers your opinion or feelings about the situation or the other person. Instead, show all the details (the “evidence”) that will let readers figure this out on their own.

Poem types – How to write a ballad:

A ballad is a rhyming narrative poem written in a form that can be sung to music. Ballads most often use the rhyme scheme abcb. This means that in a group of four lines, the second line rhymes with the fourth one. The first and third line do not rhyme.

Here’s part of a ballad by William Blake (1757-1827). I have written the letters a, b, and c to mark the end rhymes.

The Maiden caught me in the Wild,(a)
Where I was dancing merrily;(b)
She put me into her Cabinet,(c)
And Lockd me up with a golden key.(b)

Poem types – write a ballad!

Topic ideas:

  • A time you fell in love at first sight… or thought you did.
  • A car accident.
  • A time you received bad news. Don’t tell the reader how you felt about the news. Instead, show the details of the place and situation where you heard the news, doing this in a way that expresses your feelings. Think of how, in movies, the camera zooms in on objects to create a mood.

Haiku Poetry:

Haiku is a Japanese poetry form. A haiku uses just a few words to capture a moment and create a picture in the reader’s mind. It is like a tiny window into a scene much larger than itself.

Traditionally, haiku is written in three lines, with five syllables in the first line, seven syllables in the second line, and five syllables in the third line.

Haiku example:
The last winter leaves
Clinging to the black branches
Explode into birds.

The following are typical Characteristics of haiku:

  • A focus on nature.
  • A “season word” such as “snow” which tells the reader what time of year it is.
  • A division somewhere in the poem, which focuses first on one thing, than on another. The relationship between these two parts is sometimes surprising.
  • Instead of saying how a scene makes him or her feel, the poet shows the details that caused that emotion. If the sight of an empty winter sky made the poet feel lonely, describing that sky can give the same feeling to the reader.

Examples:

Sick, though I love her
even though she always lies
cherishing my bones.

Voice of nightingale
Like God’s angels, playing harp
Dwells into our hearts

The pond, blue, round, fresh
The frog jumps, breaking surface
In and wet he is

A dew drop smiles sitting on a leaf
the tree looked indulgently at the juvenile
the Great Oak secretly fumes

That quenches my thirst
Ocean vast and beautiful
But she is salty

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