The Relationship Between Poetry & Form

Instructor: Jason Lineberger

Jason has 20 years of education experience including 14 years of teaching college literature.

Like music, poetry has rules that it must follow, and depending on which rules a poet chooses, the effect of the poem can change. In this lesson you'll learn about a few common poetic forms and some ways that poetry and form are linked.

Poetic Form

Imagine this scene - people sit at tables around a stage where a young writer gives an impassioned performance of her poem. Her words have a rhythmic flow, sometimes rhyming, sometimes not, jumping from topic to topic, from serious to funny, before finally bringing home her point in the last line. This type of free verse slam poetry may be common today, but did you know that until the 1900s the majority of poetry in English was constructed using standard poetic forms? These forms, or patterns, are structures that dictate the shape of a poem, how many syllables it might have in each line, the total number of lines, and even the patterns of sounds in the poem. Even in the past 100 years, as poets often appeared to abandon form, they were still referencing traditional structures in their contemporary poetry. In this lesson you'll learn about some poetic forms and how those forms help poems achieve their goals.

The Sonnet

Certain poetic forms are created to achieve specific effects. For instance, one of the most commonly read poetic forms is the sonnet. This 14-line poem composed in iambic pentameter has some strict guidelines, but those rules aren't there just to make things difficult on the poet.

Let's look at one style of sonnet in particular, the Shakespearean Sonnet, also known as the Elizabethan Sonnet:

  • This form has 14 lines of ten syllables each.
  • Further, it's divided into four sections.
  • The first three sections are quatrains, or groups made of four lines each.
  • The last section is a couplet, a pair of rhymed lines.
  • Not only that, but each of the ten-syllable lines follows a pattern of loud, soft, loud, soft for all ten syllables, a pattern is called iambic pentameter. Take a look at the example below. The loud syllables are indicated with a slash (/) mark. The quiet syllables have a U above them.

Line of poetry marked for stressed and unstressed syllables

Why make such difficult rules for a poem? The tightly constrained sonnet serves a particular purpose. Each of the three quatrains presents one part of a problem. Four lines makes a nice, neat bundle for an idea. It is long enough to get across a complicated idea, but it's short enough to be understandable. The writer gets to explore three parts of a complex problem before presenting a solution in the couplet. Since the couplet only has two lines, the solution is usually a clever turn of phrase, and the rhyme scheme functions to make this short phrase even snappier. Here's an example, Shakespeare's Sonnet 18.

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate:

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

And summer's lease hath all too short a date:

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,

And often is his gold complexion dimmed,

And every fair from fair sometime declines,

By chance, or nature's changing course untrimmed:

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,

Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st,

Nor shall death brag thou wander'st in his shade,

When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st,

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

In the first three quatrains Shakespeare explores ideas around beauty and how it fades, and he concludes that the object of his affection will retain her beauty, because in the final couplet he makes the point that by immortalizing her in this poem, she'll have a type of eternal youth.

But what if your problem doesn't have three parts? What if the solution can't be expressed in only two lines? There's a poetic form for that! It's called the Petrarchan sonnet (also known as the Italian sonnet). Instead of four groups, it divides the poem into a set of six lines and a set of eight lines. That gives the poet more room to develop a complex solution befitting a complex problem.

The Villanelle

Another poetic form is the villanelle. This 19-line poem has five tercets (groups of three lines) and a final quatrain. It also contains some lines that repeat throughout the poem. The first and third lines in the poem appear three times throughout the poem. They become a sort of refrain, leading the reader back to these two crucial ideas. Let's look at the first three lines of the well-known villanelle by Dylan Thomas, ''Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night''.

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.

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