A Quick Guide to Poetic Forms (And How to Make the Most of Them)

Meter, rhyme, and line breaks are a poet’s playground. Whether writing in free verse or classic couplets, poets use these elements to give a poem shape and structure; this shape is called form. There are countless types of forms poets can choose from (like haikus, sonnets, or prose), and each one can create a special feeling that supports the poem’s content. We can call this “form mirroring content.” 


Take a haiku, for example. This traditional short form of Japanese poetry consists of three lines, first a line of five syllables, then one of seven, then five again. As simple as it is, this minimal structure is perfect for poems that are meant to create a sense of presence, serenity, and pause. “The Old Pond” by Matsuo Bashō is a great example. 


An old silent pond

A frog jumps into the pond—

Splash! Silence again.


On the other hand, a limerick is a short form with an entirely different character. Made up of five lines in an AABBA rhyme scheme, this form creates a light and bouncy mood often found in nursery rhymes. The tale of the man from Nantucket is a classic example of a limerick. 


There once was a man from Nantucket 

Who kept all his cash in a bucket. 

But his daughter, named Nan,

Ran away with a man 

And as for the bucket, Nantucket.


While haikus and limericks have strict forms that guide the writer, there are plenty of forms with fewer rules to play by. Free verse is the most popular example, in which anything goes—but that doesn’t mean form is missing altogether. Poets writing in free verse can often borrow, make, and break rules to create something truly unique. “I, Too,” by Langston Hughes is an excellent example of free verse, employing strategic line breaks and carefully crafted stanzas to create a sense of intensity and pain. 


Depending on the content of your poem, some forms may suit it better than others. Feel free to experiment with different forms that either support the theme of your poem or juxtapose it. The important thing is to be intentional. How can meter, rhyme, and line breaks support the words you’ve chosen to write? 


If you’re not sure where to start, here are five forms of poetry to experiment with. Use some as writing exercises or cut and combine others to create something new. Even though form suggests rules, poetic forms are also an opportunity to push your boundaries. 


The Abecedarian

This ancient poetic form uses the alphabet as its guide. Made up of 26 lines or stanzas (for the 26 letters in the English alphabet), each line or stanza begins with a letter of the alphabet, cascading down from A to Z. “An ABC” by Geoffrey Chaucer is a great medieval example of an Abecedarian, starting each stanza with a new letter. Since the rules of an Abecedarian only guide the first letter of each line (or stanza), the rest of the poem is open for you to explore using free verse, sonnets, or any other forms you like. 


The Cento

A Cento is a great form for paying tribute to your favorite poems or poets. Latin for “patchwork,” centos are made from lines and phrases from other poems. This form allows for a unique exploration of themes and emotions by combining disparate sources. “The Waste Land” by T.S. Eliot is a well-known example of this. 


The Ode

An ode is a lyrical poem expressing strong emotions or praise. It often has a formal structure and is dedicated to a person or thing. See “Ode to a Nightingale” by John Keats. Odes are a wonderful vehicle for expressing profound emotions, admiration, or celebration. They often explore themes of beauty, nature, and the human experience.


The Prose Poem

A prose poem is written in prose but maintains poetic qualities such as rhythm and heightened language. It lacks a traditional line structure. “Bath” by Amy Lowell is a fitting example. Prose poems work well for exploring complex emotions, introspection, and capturing fleeting moments. They often blend narrative and poetic elements seamlessly.


The Sestina

Perhaps the most intricate of the list, a sestina is a structured poem with six stanzas of six lines each. The end words of the lines in each stanza follow a set pattern. Sestinas are effective for exploring patterns and cyclic themes. They often lend themselves to themes of nostalgia, repetition, and the passage of time. “Sestina” by Elizabeth Bishop is an excellent example of this form.