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Forms & Types of Poems

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Acrostic

A poem in which the first letter of each line spells out a word, name, or phrase when read vertically. See Lewis Carroll’s “A Boat beneath a Sunny Sky.”

Alexandrine

In English, a 12-syllable iambic line adapted from French heroic verse. The last line of each stanza in Thomas Hardy’s “The Convergence of the Twain” and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “To a Skylark” is an alexandrine.

Anagram

A word spelled out by rearranging the letters of another word; for example, “The teacher gapes at the mounds of exam pages lying before her.”

Ars Poetica

A poem that explains the “art of poetry,” or a meditation on poetry using the form and techniques of a poem. Horace’s Ars Poetica is an early example, and the foundation for the tradition. While Horace writes of the importance of delighting and instructing audiences, modernist ars poetica poets argue that poems should be written for their own sake, as art for the sake of art. Archibald MacLeish’s famous “Ars Poetica” sums up the argument: “A poem should not mean / But be.” See also Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Criticism,” William Wordsworth’s Prelude, and Wallace Stevens’s “Of Modern Poetry.”

Aubade

A love poem or song welcoming or lamenting the arrival of the dawn. The form originated in medieval France. See John Donne’s “The Sun Rising” and Louise Bogan’s “Leave-Taking.” Browse more aubade poems.

Ballad

A popular narrative song passed down orally. In the English tradition, it usually follows a form of rhymed (abcb) quatrains alternating four-stress and three-stress lines. Folk (or traditional) ballads are anonymous and recount tragic, comic, or heroic stories with emphasis on a central dramatic event; examples include “Barbara Allen” and “John Henry.” Beginning in the Renaissance, poets have adapted the conventions of the folk ballad for their own original compositions. Examples of this “literary” ballad form include John Keats’s “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” Thomas Hardy’s “During Wind and Rain,” and Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee.” Browse more ballads.

Ballade

An Old French verse form that usually consists of three eight-line stanzas and a four-line envoy, with a rhyme scheme of ababbcbc bcbc. The last line of the first stanza is repeated at the end of subsequent stanzas and the envoy. See Hilaire Belloc’s Ballade of Modest Confession and Algernon Charles Swinburne’s translation of François Villon’s “Ballade des Pendus” (Ballade of the Hanged).

Bucolic

See pastoral poetry.

Canto

A long subsection of an epic or long narrative poem, such as Dante Alighieri’s Commedia (The Divine Comedy), first employed in English by Edmund Spenser in The Faerie Queene. Other examples include Lord Byron’s Don Juan and Ezra Pound’s Cantos.

Canzone

Literally “song” in Italian, the canzone is a lyric poem originating in medieval Italy and France and usually consisting of hendecasyllabic lines with end-rhyme. Early versions include Petrarch’s five to six-line stanzas plus an envoi, as well as Dante’s modification: five twelve-line stanzas with repeated end words, finished by a five-line envoi. The canzone influenced the development of the sonnet and later writers such as James Merrill, W.H. Auden, and Ezra Pound took up the form. See Daryl Hine’s “Canzone” and “About the Canzone,” by John Hollander.

Carol

A hymn or poem often sung by a group, with an individual taking the changing stanzas and the group taking the burden or refrain. See Robert Southwell’s “The Burning Babe”. Many traditional Christmas songs are carols, such as “I Saw Three Ships” and “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”

Concrete poetry

Verse that emphasizes nonlinguistic elements in its meaning, such as a typeface that creates a visual image of the topic. Examples include George Herbert’s “Easter Wings” and “The Altar” and George Starbuck’s “Poem in the Shape of a Potted Christmas Tree”. Browse more concrete poems.

Curtal sonnet

See Sonnet.

Didactic poetry

Poetry that instructs, either in terms of morals or by providing knowledge of philosophy, religion, arts, science, or skills. Although some poets believe that all poetry is inherently instructional, didactic poetry separately refers to poems that contain a clear moral or message or purpose to convey to its readers. John Milton's epic Paradise Lost and Alexander Pope's An Essay on Man are famous examples. See also William Blake’s “A Divine Image,” Rudyard Kipling’s “If—,” and Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “In Memoriam.”

Dirge

A brief hymn or song of lamentation and grief; it was typically composed to be performed at a funeral. In lyric poetry, a dirge tends to be shorter and less meditative than an elegy. See Christina Rossetti’s “A Dirge” and Sir Philip Sidney’s “Ring Out Your Bells.”

Doggerel

Bad verse traditionally characterized by clichés, clumsiness, and irregular meter. It is often unintentionally humorous. The “giftedly bad” William McGonagall was an accomplished doggerelist, as demonstrated in “The Tay Bridge Disaster”:

            It must have been an awful sight,
            To witness in the dusky moonlight,
            While the Storm Fiend did laugh, and angry did bray,
            Along the Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay,
            Oh! ill-fated Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay,
            I must now conclude my lay
            By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay,
            That your central girders would not have given way,
            At least many sensible men do say,
            Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,
            At least many sensible men confesses,
            For the stronger we our houses do build,
            The less chance we have of being killed.

Dramatic monologue

A poem in which an imagined speaker addresses a silent listener, usually not the reader. Examples include Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess,” T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and Ai’s “Killing Floor.” A lyric may also be addressed to someone, but it is short and songlike and may appear to address either the reader or the poet. Browse more dramatic monologue poems.

Eclogue

A brief, dramatic pastoral poem, set in an idyllic rural place but discussing urban, legal, political, or social issues. Bucolics and idylls, like eclogues, are pastoral poems, but in nondramatic form. See Edmund Spenser’s “Shepheardes Calendar: April,” Andrew Marvell’s “Nymph Complaining for the Death of Her Fawn,” and John Crowe Ransom’s “Eclogue.”

Elegy

In traditional English poetry, it is often a melancholy poem that laments its subject’s death but ends in consolation. Examples include John Milton’s “Lycidas”; Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “In Memoriam”; and Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd.” More recently, Peter Sacks has elegized his father in “Natal Command,” and Mary Jo Bang has written “You Were You Are Elegy” and other poems for her son. In the 18th century the “elegiac stanza” emerged, though its use has not been exclusive to elegies. It is a quatrain with the rhyme scheme ABAB written in iambic pentameter. Browse more elegies.

Envoi (or Envoy)

The brief stanza that ends French poetic forms such as the ballade or sestina. It usually serves as a summation or a dedication to a particular person. See Hilaire Belloc’s satirical “Ballade of Modest Confession.”
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