If you’re not familiar with a lot of poetry, reading or writing your own poetry can seem a little daunting at first. There are countless poetic forms and styles, and a lot of them have rigid rules and structures to follow, which can feel intimidating.
Maybe you struggled in English class to remember the difference between a sonnet and a haiku, and since leaving school, you’ve distanced yourself from poetry altogether. Or maybe you’re already a poetry fan with a collection of poetry books; either way, we could all benefit from brushing up on our knowledge and learning about the huge array of different types of poems out there, so we can enjoy more of this wonderful art form. Once you’re more accustomed to “the rules,” you’ll be able to enjoy reading poetry a lot more, and you may even feel inspired to put pen to paper and write your own poems.
In this guide, I’ll cover thirteen different types of poems and provide examples of each. It’s by no means an exhaustive list, there are an incredible amount of poetic forms out there, but these are the basics.
1. The Sonnet
The sonnet, literally meaning “little song,” is one of the most famous forms of poetry that people are generally most familiar with. Sonnets originated in 13th Century Italy, in the Sicilian school of court poets. The form quickly gained popularity and spread to Tuscany, where it was made famous by the poet Petrarch.
Traditionally, sonnets have 14 lines and usually contain common themes of love and romance. But to make things a little more complicated, there’s not just one form of a sonnet; there’s two.
The first is the Petrarchan sonnet, sometimes referred to as the Italian sonnet. But there is also the famous Shakespearean Sonnet, otherwise known as Elizabethan sonnets. These originated in the 16th century after they were brought to England from Italy by Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard.
What is the difference been a Petrarchan sonnet and a Shakespearean sonnet?
The main difference between these two types of sonnets is the rhyme schemes. Rhyme schemes are illustrated in coded letters of the alphabet, for example, ABAB. Lines that are assigned the same letter rhyme with each other, so, in the ABAB example, the first line and the third line rhyme with each other, and the second and the fourth line also rhyme with each other.
In a Petrarchan sonnet, the 14 lines are divided into an octet (a group of eight lines) and a sestet (a group of 6 lines). The octlet has a rhyme scheme of ABBA ABBA, and the sestet has variable rhyme schemes, e.g., CDD CEE or CD CD CD. There is a pause between the octet and the sestet, which signifies a shift in the poem’s tone; this is called a volta.
Shakespearean sonnets are designed for English rather than Italian, and so their format was adapted to suit the language. Just like Petrarchan sonnets, they also have 14 lines, but they are split into different groups. There are three quatrains (a group of 4 lines) and a rhyming couplet (2 lines) at the end. The rhyme scheme for Shakespearean sonnets is ABAB CDCD EFEF GG.
Here’s an example of a sonnet written in the traditional Petrarchan/Italian format:
“How Do I Love Thee?” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.
And for a prime example of a Shakespearean sonnet, lets look to the man himself:
My Mistress’ Eyes Are Nothing Like the Sun, by William Shakespeare
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 damasked, 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.
2. The Haiku
You might remember haiku poems from your high school English class. These short poems are popular assignments for students in creative writing, and they can be super fun to play around with, especially if you’re pretty new to writing your own poetry.
Haikus originate in Japan, after being popularized by the famous Edo poet Matsuo Bashō in the 17th century.
A haiku generally consists of just 17 syllables arranged over three lines. The first and the third line each has five syllables, whereas the second line has seven.
Today, there are popular haikus that cover a huge range of subject matters. Still, traditionally the haiku contained themes of the natural world and often spoke of the changes of the seasons and contrasting organic themes.
Here’s a classic example of a traditional Japanese haiku.
“Over the Wintry” by Natsume Sōseki
Over the wintry
Forest, winds howl in rage
With no leaves to blow.
3. The Sestina
The sestina is another popular type of traditional poem which has its origins in 12th century France. These usually unrhyming poems have strong patterns of repetition and a rigid structure that is quite complex. But once you get the hang it, sestinas become easier to identify since they are unlike anything else.
The sestina consists of six stanzas, each six lines long, plus a final 3 line stanza. The last words of the first stanza are then repeated in a different order at the end of each remaining five stanzas. The final three-line stanza contains all of the six repeated words.
Here’s a classic example of a sestina by Algernon Charles Swinburne
I saw my soul at rest upon a day
As a bird sleeping in the nest of night,
Among soft leaves that give the starlight way
To touch its wings but not its eyes with light;
So that it knew as one in visions may,
And knew not as men waking, of delight.
This was the measure of my soul’s delight;
It had no power of joy to fly by day,
Nor part in the large lordship of the light;
But in a secret moon-beholden way
Had all its will of dreams and pleasant night,
And all the love and life that sleepers may.
But such life’s triumph as men waking may
It might not have to feed its faint delight
Between the stars by night and sun by day,
Shut up with green leaves and a little light;
Because its way was as a lost star’s way,
A world’s not wholly known of day or night.
All loves and dreams and sounds and gleams of night
Made it all music that such minstrels may,
And all they had they gave it of delight;
But in the full face of the fire of day
What place shall be for any starry light,
What part of heaven in all the wide sun’s way?
Yet the soul woke not, sleeping by the way,
Watched as a nursling of the large-eyed night,
And sought no strength nor knowledge of the day,
Nor closer touch conclusive of delight,
Nor mightier joy nor truer than dreamers may,
Nor more of song than they, nor more of light.
For who sleeps once and sees the secret light
Whereby sleep shows the soul a fairer way
Between the rise and rest of day and night,
Shall care no more to fare as all men may,
But be his place of pain or of delight,
There shall he dwell, beholding night as day.
Song, have thy day and take thy fill of light
Before the night be fallen across thy way;
Sing while he may, man hath no long delight.
4. The Villanelle
Villanelles are quite similar to sonnets and sestinas in the sense that they have strict rules and rhyme schemes. These structured poems are 19 lines long and just like the sestina, and they feature plenty of repetition. They are generally ordered into five three-line stanzas, followed by one stanza with four lines.
Remember the rhyming schemes we talked about in sonnets? Villanelles also follow a rhyming scheme; in this case, it’s usually ABA ABA ABA ABA ABA ABAA. You’ll notice that there are only two rhyming sounds (A and B) in the rhyming scheme of a villanelle. As I mentioned, there’s a lot of repetition, both in the rhyme and in the lines of the poem. The first line of the poem is repeated in the 6th, 12th, and 18th lines, and the 3rd line is repeated in the 9th, 15th, and 19th lines.
A villanelle is highly structured, which can be challenging at first, but it can also be a blessing when it comes to writing your own poetry; sometimes the constraints of a few rules help to give your creativity more direction.
One of the most famous examples of a villanelle poem is by the Welsh poet 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.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
5. The Acrostic
Acrostic poems spell out a word, phrase, or name with the first letter of each line.
Most people will remember having fun with acrostic poems in school. Kids particularly love acrostic poems as they have simple rules and there’s plenty of room for creativity, but that’s not to say there aren’t plenty of serious writers throughout history who have harnessed the acrostic poem too, such as this example from Edgar Allan Poe:
Elizabeth it is in vain you say
“Love not” — thou sayest it in so sweet away:
In vain those words from thee or L.E.L.
Zantippe’s talents had enforced so well:
Ah! if that language from thy heart arise,
Breath it less gently forth — and veil thine eyes.
Endymion, recollect, when Luna tried
To cure his love — was cured of all beside —
His follie — pride — and passion — for he died.
6. The Elegy
An elegy is a traditional poem with roots that trace back to the ancient Greeks. Elegies generally contain an overriding theme of death, loss, mourning, or reflection. They were and still are, used as a meditative device to mark the passing of a friend or a loved one, or a person of high public standing. There are also occasions where elegies have been used to explore a broader sense of loss, for example, the end of a civilization or era.
Elegies don’t have a rigid structure that they must follow. Instead, the definition of an elegy is derived from the overriding theme of the poem, which in this case, is death.
Here’s a famous example of an elegy by W H Auden:
‘Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone’
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
By noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
7. Concrete Poetry
Concrete poetry is focused not just on the meaning of the words but also on the visual representation of those words on the page and how they are arranged. Concrete poetry is often written in a particular form, shape, or image that adds an extra dimension of meaning to the poem itself.
One very basic example that many people will recognize is a romantic poem that has been written in the shape of a love heart, but there plenty of more meaningful and original examples out there too.
One classic example is Easter Wings by the 17th century Welsh-born poet George Herbert. This poem was originally presented sideways to replicate the organic shape of wings. It’s a wonderful example of how the meaning in words can be reflected visually in concrete poetry. The poem starts out in a dark and somber tone, but as the curve in the shape of a wing starts to widen out, the mood is lightened and hopeful, with the line “O let me rise.”
Lord, who created man in wealth and store,
Though foolishly he lost the same,
Decaying more and more,
Till he became
O let me rise
As larks, harmoniously,
And sing this day thy victories:
Then shall the fall further the flight in me.
My tender age in sorrow did beginne
And still with sicknesses and shame.
Thou didst so punish sinne,
That I became
Let me combine,
And feel thy victorie:
For, if I imp my wing on thine,
Affliction shall advance the flight in me.
8. The Limerick
Limericks are simple five-line poems that have their roots in Ireland and England (the precise location is still disputed by historians). They consist of five lines that form one single stanza and follow the rhyme scheme of AABBA. The first two lines are generally longer, the second two are shorter, and the final line is a summary, often even a kind of punch line that completes the poem.
Although you might not know it, you’re most likely familiar with limerick style poems as they’re used popularly in jovial descriptions, and many of them follow a kind of humorous, nursery rhyme tone. Limericks are also found in a lot of traditional folk songs from the British Isles.
He’s a classic example from the father of the limerick, Edward Lear.
There was an Old Man with a beard,
Who said, “It is just as I feared!
Two Owls and a Hen,
Four Larks and a Wren,
Have all built their nests in my beard!”
9. The Epigram
Epigrams are not always poems, but they often are. An epigram is a clever, witty, wise, or amusing remark delivered in an often satirical way. They’re short by nature and often have a funny ending.
Here are a few famous examples of epigrams:
“I didn’t attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it.”- Mark Twain,
“I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.”— Virginia Woolf
“Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.” —Marcus Aurelius
“We must all either wear out or rust out, every one of us. My choice is to wear out.” —Theodore Roosevelt
“This is not your responsibility but it is your problem.” —Cheryl Strayed
“If you see fraud and do not say fraud, you are a fraud.” —Nicholas Nassim Taleb
10. The Ballad
Many of us are used to hearing ballads in the form of music, but that not always how they’re presented. A ballad is a way of telling a story through poetry. It’s an ancient form of poem that was traditionally passed down from generation to generation, often only orally.
Ballads are typically written in quatrains (four-line groups); however, there are plenty of examples that deviate from this structure. The rhyming scheme is ABCB or ABAB, and lines usually alternate between six and eight syllables, although this is not a hard and fast rule.
Here’s a classic example of a ballad written by Sir Walter Raleigh
As you came from the holy land
Met you not with my true love
By the way as you came?
“How shall I know your true love,
That have met many one,
I went to the holy land,
That have come, that have gone?”
She is neither white, nor brown,
But as the heavens fair;
There is none hath a form so divine
In the earth, or the air.
“Such a one did I meet, good sir,
Such an angelic face,
Who like a queen, like a nymph, did appear
By her gait, by her grace.”
She hath left me here all alone,
All alone, as unknown,
Who sometimes did me lead with herself,
And me loved as her own.
“What’s the cause that she leaves you alone,
And a new way doth take,
Who loved you once as her own,
And her joy did you make?”
I have loved her all my youth;
But now old, as you see,
Love likes not the falling fruit
From the withered tree.
Know that love is a careless child,
And forgets promise past;
He is blind, he is deaf when he list,
And in faith never fast.
His desire is a dureless content,
And a trustless joy:
He is won with a world of despair,
And is lost with a toy.
Of womenkind such indeed is the love,
Or the word love abus’d,
Under which many childish desires
And conceits are excus’d.
But true love is a durable fire,
In the mind ever burning,
Never sick, never old, never dead,
From itself never turning.
11. The Tanka
The tanka is a traditional Japanese poem that literally translates to “short poem” or “short song.” It’s known to be the oldest form of poetry in Japan and has roots extending almost 1000 years before the existence of the haiku.
Despite their age differences, the tanka is similar to a Haiku since there is an emphasis on the syllables in each line, however there are some key differences.
A tanka has thirty-one syllables in total, and it is traditionally written as one unbroken, single line. There are generally five lines; the first is five syllables long, the second is seven, the third is five, and the final two are seven syllables.
Here’s an example of a Japanese tanka by Yosano Akiko. Note that this poem has been translated from its original Japanese format, and so the syllables in English don’t necessarily match up to the traditional tanka format after the translation.
That girl, now twenty,
As seen in the black hair
That flows smoothly through her comb
She is in the arrogant spring
And so beautiful
12. The Ode
The ode is a poem written to address a particular subject, either a person, a place, an event, or a thing. Ode’s have their roots in ancient Greece, and are generally praising in nature, and intended to complement and glorify.
Here’s a famous ode written by the celebrated English poet, John Keats.
Ode to Autumn
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o’er-Brimm’d their clammy cells.
Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watches the last oozings hours by hours.
Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.
13. Free Verse
Free verse poems are exactly what you might imagine; they’re poems without rules, structure, or limitations of any kind! It doesn’t have to rhyme, there’s no need to count syllables, and they can be as long or as short as you like.
Free verse poetry is wonderful as you can really let your imagination get carried away without constraints, but it can be equally daunting since it’s hard to know where to start when the possibilities are literally endless!
Here’s a beautiful free verse poem entitled “From Blossoms” by Li-Young Lee
From blossoms comes
this brown paper bag of peaches
we bought from the boy
at the bend in the road where we turned toward
signs painted Peaches.
From laden boughs, from hands,
from sweet fellowship in the bins,
comes nectar at the roadside, succulent
peaches we devour, dusty skin and all,
comes the familiar dust of summer, dust we eat.
O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into
the round jubilance of peach.
There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.
Though I’ve covered a lot of different types of poetry in this list, this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the sheer variety of poetic styles that are found around the world.
Many of these poetic styles have strict, rigid rules, which can be helpful when penning your own work. But remember, the old saying “rules are made to be broken” is still true. Some of the world’s most revered poets have reveled in throwing out the rule book when it comes to traditional poem structures, so there’s no reason you can’t too.