An Introduction to Poetry -- The Forms of Poetry


General Terms

Stanza or Verse – two or more lines grouped together / four lines grouped together is most common

Couplet – a unit of two lines that end in perfect rhyme / the basic unit of English poetry

Quatrain – a group of four rhymed lines

Sestet – a group of six lines with a recurring rhyme scheme

Octave – a group of eight lines with recurring rhyme scheme

Tercet – a unit of three lines


Traditional Verse – also called “Closed Forms”

Free Verse – also called “Open Forms”


Rhyme Royal – a seven-line stanza in iambic pentameter with a rhyme scheme of ababbcc

Ottava Rima – an eight-line stanza with a rhyme scheme of abababcc

Spenserian Stanza – eight lines of iambic pentameter and a last line of six stressed feet (an alexandrine); the rhyme scheme is ababbcbcc


NARRATIVE POETRY – most simply, a poem that tells a story

BALLAD – a narrative poem meant to be sung, composed in simple quatrains with meters that are easily followed

Refrain – a repeated line (or lines) which ends every verse in a poem


LYRIC POETRY – a short poem that expresses the emotions and thoughts of the poet – “lyric poetry is highly subjective, deeply personal, and usually intensely emotional”

Persona – another person through whom the poet is speaking / the “I” of the poem if not the poet

ODE – a poem of praise / a long, serious lyric poem, addressed to a person or to an object, that presents philosophic ideas and moral concerns

Terza Rima – a tercet in iambic pentameter, with a sequence of rhymes that crosses from one stanza to the next, binding them together – aba, bcb, cdc …

ELEGY – like an ode, a serious poem / in its usual form it is a long lyric poem written to lament someone’s death or memorialize their life

SONNET – a short lyric, fourteen lines long, in iambic pentameter  / at the heart of most traditional sonnets is an implied argument that muses on the philosophic implications of the sonnet’s main idea

Italian or Petrarchan Sonnet – the fourteen lines consist of an octave of two quatrains that rhyme abba, abba, followed by a sextet with a rhyme scheme that is usually cdecde or cdcdcd

English or Shakespearean Sonnet – the fourteen lines consist of three quatrains with the rhyme scheme of abab, cdcd, efef, and a concluding couplet, gg

EPIGRAM – a short poem, never more than a few lines long, often rhymed, and usually funny or wryly satirical; they are intended to make a sharp comment or witty observation

APHORISM – another kind of short, usually humorous poem / a short, concise statement of a principle or a sentiment

LIMERICK – a short, humorous poem, usually scatological or obscene, that has a fixed five-line verse, and there is only one stanza, rhyming aabba – the rhythmic pattern is two rhyming lines of three strong accents, followed by two lines of two strong accents with a different rhyme, then a final line that returns to the three accents of the first two lines and it rhymes with them (the meter is anapest)

SESTINA – a poem composed of six stanzas, each six lines long, with a concluding verse of three lines called the envoy; it is a complicated word game where the last words of the first six lines are repeated as end words of the lines of the other five stanzas, changing places in a carefully ordered procession; the final three lines must include the words, but in any order

VILLANELLE – a poem composed of five tercets and a final quatrain, written in iambic pentameter; the rhyme scheme for the tercets is aba, and the quatrain repeats the final rhyme, abaa; like the sestina, the poem is an elaborate game in which entire lines appear again and again: the first line of the poem is used as the final line of the second and fourth tercets, and it also becomes the next to last line of the quatrain; the last line of the first tercet becomes the last line for the third and fifth tercets and finally ends the poem

PROSE POEM – a lyric poem that has all the characteristics of a lyric but is written in prose; it presents one image or, like a lyric poem in open form, a response to a single emotion; a prose poem can have some kind of narrative, but the story line is one of the means the poet uses to illustrate the theme of the poem

Parable – a short narrative used to point out a moral

Associative – something which opens the mind to the possibilities of the unconscious; something which leaves us with the sense that what we have just read has made us conscious of something else

HAIKU – a poem written in three lines, with five syllables in the two outer lines and seven in the middle line

IMAGISM – poetry that was “a moment of discovery or awareness, created by effective metaphor which provides the sharp, intuitive insight that is the essence of life”


DRAMATIC POETRY – the use of poetry in the writing of drama

Dramatic Monologue – a poem written in the form of a speech or extended narration that the person who is the subject of the poem delivers to someone else / when the dramatic monologue was popular, it had a definite speaker who was talking to an imaginary person, there was some implied action, and the action took place in the present


(Taken from Chapter 10 – “The Types of Poetry: A Poet’s Forms” – and Chapter 11 – “The Types of Poetry: Other Poetic Forms” – in Literature and Its Writers: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama – by Ann Charters and Samuel Charters, Compact 2nd edition, Boston: Bedford-St. Martin’s, 2001, pp. 648-700)