Be a Shape-Shifter: Four Poetic Forms to Try

Jess for BlogPoems have existed much longer in formal structures than they have in the free-form structures that many modern poets favor. If your well of inspiration has run dry, or you’ve been struggling to revise a poem and it just isn’t working with a free-form structure, your choices are anything but limited. There many forms to choose from when it comes to poetry, but if you need a boost I challenge you to try any (or all!) of these four poetic forms.

  • Haiku

The haiku form is of ancient Japanese origin, and usually concerns some facet of nature or the sublime. Traditionally written in Japanese, the American approximation of the form is three lines, the first with 5 syllables, the second with 7 syllables, and the third with 5 syllables. Read more about haiku here. An example of a (translated) Japanese haiku is one by Masaoaka Shiki (found here):

“Consider me

As one who loved poetry

And persimmons.”

  • Sonnet

Sonnets can be difficult to revise due to their iambic pentameter and changing rhyme scheme, but are very rewarding to puzzle together. This website explains sonnets well, so you can try them yourself! Some of the best known sonnets include Shakespeare’s love sonnets. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 (found here) is a good example of an English (Shakespearean) rhyme scheme within a sonnet:

“Let me not to the marriage of true minds

Admit impediments. Love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove.

O no! it is an ever-fixed mark

That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

It is the star to every wand’ring bark,

Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.

Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks

Within his bending sickle’s compass come;

Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,

But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

If this be error and upon me prov’d,

I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.”

  •   Rhyming couplets

Rhyming couplets can be a lot of fun! They are simply a stanza of two lines which each end in the same type rhyme. You could even take the rhyming couplet from the end of your sonnet, and use it so spark a while new poem written in couplets. Robert Frost has a great example of a poem written in rhyming couplets. Here are the first five stanzas:

The Tuft of Flowers

“I went to turn the grass once after one
Who mowed it in the dew before the sun.

The dew was gone that made his blade so keen
Before I came to view the levelled scene.

I looked for him behind an isle of trees;
I listened for his whetstone on the breeze.

But he had gone his way, the grass all mown,
And I must be, as he had been,—alone,

`As all must be,’ I said within my heart,
`Whether they work together or apart.'”

(Read the rest of “The Tuft of Flowers” here.)

  • Villanelle

Like the sonnet, the villanelle has a complex structure, involving repeating lines and rhymes. A villanelle has nineteen lines organized into five tercets and a quatrain. The repeating lines (refrains) will change position depending on which stanza they’re in, and the rhyme scheme will as well. This website explains the villanelle in more detail and the history of the form as well. Despite sounding very complicated, villanelles are quite fun. Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night” is a well known villanelle (also found here):

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

There are many more poetic forms to learn and to try, it doesn’t stop here. Formally structured poems can be a great way to break out of your normal writing routine. Some are simple and some are puzzles. Maybe one of these forms will speak to you and you’ll decide to submit your work. Our Submittable is always open and we’d love to see what you come up with. Happy writing!

– Jessica Born

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