Types of Poems
Poetry, like all art forms, is international: It crosses all borders, language barriers, age groups, and eras. (The British have their sonnets, for example, whereas the Japanese have their haikus, and children have Mother Goose.)
The following sections describe some types of poetry and include excerpts from notable poets who wrote within these genres. There are many more types of poems, but these are among the most common.
A ballad is a story told as a narrative, rhythmic saga of something that happened in the past. Sometimes the themes are heroic, sometimes satirical, and other times romantic. The ballad almost always has an unhappy ending. Ballad and ballade are two different types of poetry. The ballade is a fourteenth- and fifteenth-century French poem written in verse form consisting of three stanzas written in a particular rhythmic format.
Influenced by Japanese poetry, the cinquain was developed by American poet Adelaide Crapsey. It is a short, nonrhyming poem that consists of 22 syllables with a certain number of syllables per line.
An elegy is a poem that is written to mourn the death of someone. It is a reflection either upon death or some other great sadness.
This type of poetry has a very broad definition. An epic is a continuous narrative of the life or lives of a heroic person or persons. These heroes can be fictional, historical, or mythical.
So toward that shrine which then in all the realm
Was richest, Arthur leading, slowly went
The marshalled Order of their Table Round,
And Lancelot sad beyond his wont, to see
The maiden buried, not as one unknown,
Nor meanly, but with gorgeous obsequies,
And mass, and rolling music, like a queen.
—Alfred, Lord Tennyson, excerpt from Idylls of the King (nineteenth-century epic poem)
The first known epic poem is the Sumerian poem Epic of Gilgamesh. The longest is the great Indian mythical poem Mahabharata, which contains more than 100,000 verses—making it four times the size of the Bible.
One of the most important Japanese poetic forms is the haiku. This is a short poem that consists of no more than three lines, with the first line consisting of five syllables, the second line consisting of seven syllables, and the third line consisting again of five syllables.
While the traditional Japanese haiku consists of a strict structure of sounds, when written in English the haiku has taken on all sorts of forms. The artistic value of the haiku exists in simplicity of language that creates images or evokes ideas. Both the contemporary and traditional haiku should consist of only three lines with a total of no more than seventeen syllables—or in the case of Japanese, sounds.
The Haiku Society of America defines the haiku as “A short poem that uses imagistic language to convey the essence of an experience of nature or the season intuitively linked to the human condition.” While this may be the officiai American definition, great liberties have been taken in the art of haiku writing over the years. Here is an example of a traditional Japanese haiku (translated into English) which was written by one of the most notable Japanese poets of the seventeenth century, Matsuo Basho. Note that the structure, in its English translation, does not follow the 5-7-5 syllable rule—but in its original Japanese it would! Translators predict that 17 sounds in Japanese correlate to about 12 syllables in English.
An old pond!
A frog jumps in
The sound of water.
A traditional Japanese haiku should also contain at least one word that will indicate a season. This word is referred to as the “kigo” in Japanese. In English the “kigo” is often omitted and replaced with the concept of juxtaposing two images or ideas— referred to in Japanese as “renso.” Other literary techniques commonly omitted from haiku writing is the use of titles, similes, and metaphors. Here is contemporary haiku written in English by Amy:
Sandcastles wash away
A seagull lingers
Limericks are poems that consist of a strict meter. In fact, without the structure of the lines and the rhyming patter, the limerick would simply be just another poem.
There was a Young Person of Smyrna
Whose grandmother threatened to burn her;
But she seized on the cat, and said, “Granny, burn that!
You incongruous old woman of Smyrna!”
—Edward Lear (otherwise known as the poet laureate of the limerick), untitled
limerick (nineteenth century)
When we think of the word lyric, we often think of a song, which is where the word originates: A lyre is a Greek musical instrument often used to accompany someone singing a song. The common and academic use of lyric, as a poetic form, means a poem that expresses a subjective point of view.
Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?
—John Keats, opening lines of Ode to a Grecian Urn (late nineteenth century)
Although an “ode” is most often a love poem, it is also a type of lyric poetry. The actual definition of an ode is the praise of a person or an object in a poetic form that is not subject to any definitive rhyming scheme or iambic line lengths, as is true with this particular ode and lyric poem by Keats.
Often used for comic effect or as children’s verse, a nonsense poem can be silly and witty—but it can also have a serious meaning beneath the surface.
The Owl and the Pussy-Cat went to sea
In a beautiful pea-green boat;
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
Wrapped up in a five-pound note.
The Owl looked up to the stars above,
And sang to a small guitar,
‘O lovely Pussy! O Pussy my love,
What a beautiful Pussy you are
What a beautiful Pussy you are!
—Edward Lear, The Owl and the Pussycat (nineteenth-century nonsense poem, first stanza)
An ode is a long form poem usually of a serious nature on an exalted subject matter. In Pablo Neruda’s Ode to My Socks, he seems to lightheartedly worship a particular pair of socks. While to most people a pair of socks is not worth any exaltation at all, this poem is an ode, not only because of its structure, but, well, because of his heightened appreciation of his new socks!
Maru Mori brought me a pair of socks knitted with her own shepherd’s hands, two socks soft as rabbits. I slipped my feet into them as if into jewel cases woven with threads of dusk and sheep’s wool.
Audacious socks, my feet became two woolen fish, two long gangly sharks of
lapis blue shot with a golden thread, two mammoth blackbirds, two cannons,
thus were my feet honored by these celestial socks. They were so beautiful that
for the first time my feet seemed unacceptable to me, two tired old fire fighters
not worthy of the woven fire, of those luminous socks.
—Pablo Neruda, Ode to My Socks (1950s)
Look a little deeper and you will notice that, despite its title, the poem is a sort of love poem. Neruda is not really worshipping the socks, but rather, the comfort and beauty and everything else a pair of warm socks in winter means to a couple of cold feet. And although it’s not stated, maybe Neruda was even worshipping the woman who made the socks.
A quatrain is a poem or stanza of a poem that contains four lines of verse.
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
—From William Blake’s “The Tyger” (eighteenth century, first stanza)
A form of poetry that makes use of song-type lyricism. It is based on a strict rhythmic meter and contains refrains repeated in a specific style. A good example of a rondeau is Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields.” As you read it, notice the sing-song quality in its rhyming pattern:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
—Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, M.D., “In Flanders Fields” (1915)
The word sonnet comes from the French word meaning song. It is a poem consisting of fourteen lines within a strict rhyming pattern. One of the most famous sonnet writers was William Shakespeare.
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:
0 no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering 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 proved,
1 never writ, nor no man ever loved.
—William Shakespeare, Sonnet 116 (sixteenth century)