How Poetry Works

By: Caitlin Uttley

Poetry Terms and Poetic Traditions

With all of the different tools that poets can use to construct a poem, it's not surprising that poets sometimes like to recreate the structures and themes of other poems.

There are many existing structures and themes to choose from. These structures have rules, such as the number of lines in the poem, the type of meter that is used, the rhyme scheme needed or the subject of the poem. Some of the most popular include:


  • A sonnet is fourteen lines long and has a specific rhyme scheme. Two of the most popular sonnet types are the Petrarchan sonnet (such as "1492" by Emma Lazarus) and the Shakespearean sonnet (such as "Altruism" by Molly Peacock), which each have slightly different rhyme schemes.
  • A ballad is usually written in stanzas of four lines each and has a meter that alternates between iambic tetrameter (four feet) and iambic trimeter (three feet). A famous example of a traditional ballad is Robert Burns' poem "A Red, Red Rose."
  • A haiku is structured based on the number of syllables in each line. A traditional haiku is three lines long, has five syllables in the first line, seven syllables in the second line and five syllables in the third line. A fun example of a haiku is "If Not for the Cat" by Jack Prelutsky.
  • A sestina is unusual because instead of a rhyme scheme, it repeats words. It's broken up into several stanzas, each with six lines. The six words that end each line in the first stanza are then repeated as end-words in every other stanza in a prescribed order. Take a look at how John Ashbery makes the repeated words flow in "Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape."
  • A villanelle is made up of only two end-rhyme sounds that are repeated throughout the poem. To make things more complicated, the first and third lines of the poem are repeated in a specific pattern all through the poem. A great example of a villanelle is Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night."
  • An ode is a poem written to celebrate a person or thing, such as the poem "The Snail," by Richard Lovelace.
  • An elegy is written for or about someone who has died, such as "An Elegy for Five Old Ladies" by Thomas James Merton.
  • An epigram, is a poem that is meant to be funny or satirical. See if you can catch the punch line in Stephen Crane's "A Man Said to the Universe."
  • An aubade is a poem about the arrival of the morning. It's usually a love poem expressing disappointment that an evening rendezvous has ended, such as Schuyler van Rensselaer's "Under Two Windows."
  • An epistle is typically a poem addressed to someone the poet is close to, though many are written as open letters to people the poet may or may not know, such as "Dear Mr. Fanelli" by Charles Bernstein.

Of course, there are many other poetic structures and forms that a poet can follow, if he or she chooses, but these are just a few.

So where did all of these styles and forms and structures and devices come from? Well, they've developed over many centuries. Let's look now at the poets who gave us these tools and how different movements in poetry over the years have both brought rules to poetry and taken them away.