Writing good poetry can be incredibly challenging, and sometimes just trying to understand it can be tiresome. But if you think writing poetry requires a minor in rocket science, think again.
There are so many different types of poems, and many have very few rules. All you have to do is select a style that appeals to you and let your creativity flow!
The Different Types of Poems
Below is a list of some of the most common types of poetry, their main characteristics, and famous examples of each. Familiarize yourself with these different styles and see if any spark your imagination!
Sonnets are practically synonymous with Shakespeare, but there are actually two different kinds of this famous poetic form. Having originated in 13th century Italy, the sonnet usually deals with love and has two common forms: the Petrarchan (named for its famous practitioner, the poet Petrarch) and the Shakespearean (also known as the English sonnet). Each type contains 14 lines but comes with its own set of rules.
Characteristics and Rules:
- 2 stanzas
- Presents an argument, observation, or question in the first 8 lines
- Turn (or “volta”) between 8th and 9th lines
- Second stanza answers the question or issue posed in the first
- Rhyme Scheme: ABBA, ABBA, CDECDE
- 3 quatrains (4 lines each) and a couplet (2 lines)
- Couplet usually forms a conclusion
- Rhyme scheme: ABAB, CDCD, EFEF, GG
Example of a Sonnet
Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask’d, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.
Villanelles have even more specific rules than sonnets. Luckily, many of the lines are repetitions, but this means you’ll have to take care to make those lines meaningful.
Villanelle Characteristics and Rules
- 19 lines
- 5 stanzas of 3 lines each
- 1 closing stanza of 4 lines
- Rhyme scheme: ABA, ABA, ABA, ABA, ABA, ABAA
- Line 1 repeats in lines 6, 12, and 18
- Line 3 repeats in lines 9, 15, and 19
Examples of Villanelles
You might remember writing a few of these back in grade school, because not only are these poems short, but they can be very fun to write.
The haiku originated in 17th century Japan. Although they usually refer to nature, the only real rule applies to the number of syllables in each line, so you can let your imagination run wild with this one.
Haiku Characteristics and Rules
- 3 lines
- Line 1 contains 5 syllables
- Line 2 contains 7 syllables
- Line 3 contains 5 syllables
Example of Haiku
Matsuo Bashō, “By the Old Temple”:
By the old temple,
a man treading rice.
4. Ekphrastic Poems
Ekphrastic poems don’t really have specific rules, but they do speak of another work of art.
Ekphrasis comes from the Greek word for “description,” and that’s exactly what this poem should do: vividly describe a painting, statue, photograph, or story. One famous example is found in the Iliad, where Homer refers to Achilles’ shield.
Examples of Ekphrastic Poetry
5. Concrete Poems
Concrete poetry is designed to take a particular shape or form on the page. Poets can manipulate spacing or layout to emphasize a theme or important element in the text, or sometimes they can take the literal shape of their subjects.
Example of Concrete Poetry
“The Altar” by George Herbert was intended to resemble a church altar:
A broken ALTAR, Lord, thy servant rears,
Made of a heart and cemented with tears;
Whose parts are as thy hand did frame;
No workman’s tool hath touch’d the same.
A HEART alone
Is such a stone,
As nothing but
Thy pow’r doth cut.
Wherefore each part
Of my hard heart
Meets in this frame
To praise thy name.
That if I chance to hold my peace,
These stones to praise thee may not cease.
Oh, let thy blessed SACRIFICE be mine,
And sanctify this ALTAR to be thine.
The elegy is another type of poem that lacks particular rules, but it usually is written in mourning following a death. They can be written for a particular person, or treat the subject of loss more generally.
Example of an Elegy
One famous example of an elegy is Walt Whitman’s “O Captain, My Captain,” which Whitman wrote following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln:
O Captain! My Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills;
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding;
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head;
It is some dream that on the deck,
You’ve fallen cold and dead.
My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done;
From fearful trip, the victor ship, comes in with object won;
Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells!
But I, with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
Epigrams are short, witty, and often satirical poems that usually take the form of a couplet or quatrain (2-4 lines in length).
Example of an Epigram
An example of this wit is provided by Samuel Taylor Coleridge:
Sir, I admit your general rule,
That every poet is a fool,
But you yourself may serve to show it,
That every fool is not a poet.
Epigrams are not exclusive to poetry. They are also commonly used as literary devices and in speeches. John F. Kennedy’s famous quote, “Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind” is one such example.
Limericks are humorous poems that have a more distinct rhythm. Their subject matter is sometimes crude, but always designed to offer laughs.
Limerick Characteristics and Rules
• 5 lines
• 2 longer lines (usually 7-10 syllables)
• 2 shorter lines (usually 5-7 syllables)
• 1 closing line to bring the joke home (7-10 syllables)
• Rhyme scheme: AABBA
Examples of Limericks
There once was an old man of Nantucket
Who kept all his cash in a bucket
His daughter, called Nan,
Ran away with a man,
And as for the bucket, Nantucket.
A wonderful bird is the pelican,
His bill can hold more than his beli-can.
He can take in his beak
Food enough for a week
But I’m damned if I see how the heli-can.
—Dixon Lanier Merritt
Ballads usually take a narrative form to tell us stories. They are often arranged in quatrains, but the form is loose enough that writers can easily modify it.
Ballad Characteristics and Rules
• Typically arranged in groups of 4 lines
• Rhyme scheme: ABAB or ABCB
Examples of Ballads
“Annabel Lee” by Edgar Allan Poe (first two stanzas):
It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of Annabel Lee;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me.
I was a child and she was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea,
But we loved with a love that was more than love—
I and my Annabel Lee—
With a love that the wingèd seraphs of Heaven
Coveted her and me.
Some songs fit the ballad definition and have been passed down today. See this excerpt from the Irish ballad “Danny Boy”:
Oh Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling
From glen to glen, and down the mountain side
The summer’s gone, and all the flowers are dying
‘Tis you, ‘tis you must go and I must bide.
An epitaph is much like an elegy, only shorter. Epitaphs commonly appear on gravestones, but they can also be humorous. There are no specific rules for epitaphs or their rhyme schemes.
Examples of Epitaphs
From William Shakespeare’s gravestone:
Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare,
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blessed be the man that spares these stones,
And cursed be he that moves by bones.
“Epitaph” by Edna St. Vincent Millay
Heap not on this mound
Roses that she loved so well:
Why bewilder her with roses,
That she cannot see or smell?
She is happy where she lies
With the dust upon her eyes.
Odes address a specific person, thing, or event. The ode is believed to have been invented by the ancient Greeks, who would sing their odes. Modern odes follow an irregular pattern and are not required to rhyme.
Example of an Ode
“Ode to the West Wind” by Percy Bysshe Shelley
Scatter, as from an unextinguish’d hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawaken’d earth
The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?
12. Free Verse
Free verse is exactly what its name implies. There are no rules, and writers can do whatever they choose: to rhyme or not, to establish any rhythm. Free verse is often used in contemporary poetry.
Example of a Free Verse Poem
“A Noiseless Patient Spider” by Walt Whitman
A noiseless patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.
And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.
Tips for Writing Poetry
Still need a little extra nudge to get started? There’s no better way to learn than by reading some great poetry.
You can also check out our post offering 10 Ways to Write Better Poetry so you can get inspired to start writing.
Do you have a favorite poem? Feel free to share it with us in the comments below!