Poetry as Literary Form: Overview and Examples

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  • 0:01 Poetry or Prose?
  • 0:54 Meter
  • 4:31 Rhyme Schemes
  • 5:14 Stanzas
  • 5:39 Poetic Forms
  • 7:28 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jacob Erickson

Jacob has his master's in English and has taught multiple levels of literature and composition, including junior high, college, and graduate students.

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:

  • Meter
  • Rhyme schemes
  • Stanzas
  • 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:

  • Iambs
  • Trochees
  • Dactyls
  • Anapests

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.

Rhyme Schemes

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.

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