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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Poetry forms help re-form a poem as you revise

Poems, like people, come in a variety of sizes, lengths, and styles, so a form that fits one poem may not suit another.

With the poem itself to guide your choice of options, consider these common poetic forms, not necessarily as you write but as you revise:

Free verse – Free of all patterns of rhyme, rhythm, or design

The definition may seem obvious, and yet “Free verse” labeled an entry for the poetry contest I judge each year even though rhyming words ended every other line. You can scatter random rhymes in free verse if you like, but a fixed pattern or a regular design or the constant confines of rhyme and rhythm will not let a poem be free enough to be free verse.

Syllabic verse – Pattern designed with X number of syllables per line

Traditional haiku, for example, counts on five syllables for the first line, seven for the second, and five for the third. So the formula for this ancient but ever-popular three-line poem may be shown as 5/7/5. For modern examples of a variety of syllabic verse patterns set in English by an American poet, look for the collected works of Marianne Moore.

Accentual verse – Poems with X number of beats or accents per line

For this poetic option, study Old English poetry in particular. Generally speaking, accentual verse has the same number of beats per line, regardless of the number of syllables.

Accentual syllabic verse – Often known as metered or traditional poetry

This type of poem counts both accents and syllables, grouped into little units known as “feet.” With the iamb as the foot most often used to measure each line, other common feet of accentual syllabic verse include the trochee, spondee, anapest, and dactyl.

Easily found on the Internet, examples of this popular verse form range from 16th century poems by Shakespeare to the traditional poetry by contemporary poet, Richard Wilbur.

For more information about traditional verse, see previous articles on The Poetry Editor blog, such as “Scan a poem. Catch the beat. Change the rhythm as you revise” and “Scan A Poem. Get The Picture.”

To study and practice writing the forms mentioned above, visit the ads on this page and order the e-book book version of the poetry correspondence course I wrote and used for years in working with students and also the Poetry Dictionary For Children and For Fun for poets of all ages and stages.

(c) 2011, Mary Harwell Sayler


  1. Great information. I also enjoyed the links you provided in your post to other articles on scanning poetry. As a poet myself, I know there is always much more to learn in our craft. What a wonderful wealth of information!

  2. Thanks for the encouraging word, Edward. Yes, being a poet and learning more about poetry are life-long adventures!