This lesson will introduce the formal qualities of poetry and the ways that it differs from prose. Among other things, we'll consider meter, rhyme schemes, stanzas, and popular poetic forms.
Poetry or Prose?
You've probably heard someone refer to a song or a novel or a phrase as poetic. But what are the exact qualities of poetry that distinguish it from normal, everyday writing?
The term we use for the everyday writing that you find in letters and novels is prose. When you think about it, meaning in prose comes from the actual definition of the words being used. In contrast, in poetry, additional meaning is found by looking at the layout and formal qualities of the words, such as their sound.
Most of the time, you know when you're reading a poem simply by the way that it looks. Poems tend to be arranged with shorter lines than prose and have other features that make them recognizable, such as rhyming. In this lesson, we'll look at the main formal features of poetry, including:
- Rhyme schemes
- Common poetic forms
In English, all words can be broken up into a word's basic sound, called syllables. The word is, for example has one syllable, while the word to-day has two syllables. The word to-mor-row has three syllables, and the word un-for-got-ten has four syllables.
When speaking in English, we emphasize some syllables in words more than others. To see this, think of the difference between the words pro-duce and pro-duce. Although both words are spelled the same, when we emphasize the first syllable we mean fruit and vegetables, as in pro-duce at the market, and when we emphasize the second we mean creating, as in cars pro-duce pollution.
English poetry is often organized around this emphasis to create patterns of sound. More specifically, meter is the term we use to describe organizing poetry around how words are emphasized to produce a rhythm. Meter is broken down into specific patterns of emphasis that are made up of two or three syllables called feet. Don't worry; this might sound complicated, but it's pretty straightforward.
The four most common feet in poetry are:
An iamb is made up of two syllables, in which the second is more pronounced than the first. Some examples are be-tray and col-lide. A trochee has two syllables and is the reverse of an iamb; that is, the first syllable is emphasized and the second isn't. Examples are: pep-per and strong-er.
A dactyl has three syllables: the first is emphasized and the second two are not. Examples are: buf-fa-lo and scor-pi-on. Finally, an anapest has three syllables: the first two are not emphasized but the last is. Examples are: in-ter-vene and o-ver-come.
So, now you have the basic idea of feet in meter. Lines generally use only one type of foot and repeat each foot multiple times. Although one could write a poem with quite a few feet in each line, most include around three to eight repetitions of the same foot. The numbers we use to count the feet are in Greek, and here are the most common:
- Trimeter = three feet
- Tetrameter = four feet
- Pentameter = five feet
- Hexameter = six feet
- Heptameter = seven feet
- Octameter = eight feet
So, now all we have to do is put the name of the foot used with the number of feet used in each line to describe meter. When a poem has six iambs, for example, we call it iambic hexameter. Or, when we have a line with four spondees in it, we would call that a spondaic tetrameter. There's a lot of terms here, and the important thing to remember is that the meter of a poem is named simply by noting the foot and the number of feet in each line.
One helpful way to remember all these terms is to have a look at Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem titled 'Metrical Feet - A Lesson for a Boy', in which Coleridge writes each line using only the feet that match the name in the line. Here are the first five lines of the poem:
'Trochee trips from long to short;
From long to long in solemn sort
Slow Spondee stalks, strong foot!, yet ill able
Ever to come up with Dactyl's trisyllable.
Iambics march from short to long.
With a leap and a bound the swift Anapests throng.' (1-5)
Although, if you read the poem in its entirety, you'll run across a few very rare feet that we haven't covered in this lesson, the poem is a good resource to hear how the different meters sound.
If you listen closely to rhymes in poems, you'll find that there are actually quite a few ways to arrange them. These specific arrangements of rhymes are called rhyme schemes.
When writing about rhyme schemes, we match a letter to a rhyme. So, if you have 'dead' rhyming with 'said,' we might give the rhyming sound the letter 'A.' If we have 'sun' rhyming with 'done,' we might give the rhyme the letter 'B.' So, the rhyme scheme might be ABAB, or AABB, or ABBA.
We don't use the same letters for different rhymes, so if there is a third rhyme, we would naturally use the next letter in the alphabet. So, if you have more than two rhymes, we might have a rhyme scheme that is AABBCC.
Whereas the rhyme scheme refers to the placement of the rhymes at the end of the line, the term stanza refers to the actual structures of each poem made by placing some lines together. A stanza is created when two or more lines are placed together and set off from other groups of lines. Although stanzas can vary tremendously in length, they're usually anywhere from three to ten lines.
Some poems follow specific formulas for their stanzas, rhyme schemes, and meter. There are a huge amount of forms, so let's look at a few.
You've probably heard of the sonnet. Sonnets are usually written in one stanza and almost always use iambic pentameter, so there are five iambs in each line. There are multiple versions of sonnets; one of the most popular in English is the Shakespearean sonnet, which has a rhyme scheme of ABABCDCDEFEFGG.
Another common poetic form you may have heard of is the couplet. A couplet occurs when one line immediately follows another line and rhymes with it and shares the same meter - usually iambic pentameter. It's fairly rare that an entire poem would separate each couplet into its own stanza, so there usually are multiple couplets in each stanza.
You might have also heard of the haiku. The haiku form comes from Japan and is created by simply placing a specific number of syllables in each of its three lines. The first line has five syllables, second has seven, and third has five. There is no rhyme scheme or meter in the haiku, just a specific number of syllables in each of the three lines.
When we say that a poem is in blank verse, we mean that the poem uses a specific meter but doesn't have any rhyme scheme. This was a particularly common form in the early 1900s.
By the 20th century, much poetry abandoned formal prescriptions. We refer to poetry that does not contain formal meter, rhyme, and stanzas as free form.
In this lesson, we saw that poetry is different from prose in that poetry finds meaning in the spacing and quality of its words, while in everyday writing, or prose, meaning comes from the words themselves. We also looked at meter in poetry, which is the organization of basic sounds or feet, such as iambs, trochees, dactyls, and anapests. We learned that rhyme schemes are illustrated by placing a letter for each rhyme, such as ABAB.
Finally, we looked at stanzas, which occur when lines are separated from one another, and noted some common poetic forms that have fixed stanza lengths, meter, and rhyme schemes, such as sonnets, couplets, and haiku.
When this lesson is complete, you should be able to:
- Identify the features of poetry
- Recognize meter in some work
- Describe what the rhyming scheme may be
- Detail stanzas in certain poetry
- Determine form such as prose or free form