Poetry has been around for almost four thousand years, predating even written language, and it’s still evolving all the time. Let’s explore some of the different forms of poetry you might come across, including rhymed poetry and free verse poetry, and how experimenting with a poem’s structure can make you a better poet.

Why do the different forms of poetry matter?

Poetic forms are important when we write poems for three main reasons:

1. Forms make poetry easier to remember

At its inception, poetry was used as a way to pass down stories and ideas to new generations. Poetry has been around longer than the written word, but even after people started writing things down, some cultures continued telling stories orally. They did this by telling stories as poems. Using set rhyme schemes, metres, and rhythms made it easier to learn those poems by heart.

2. Form shapes the rhythm and sound of a poem

Using poetic structure helps shape the way a poem will sound when it’s spoken out loud. Even though most of our poetry today is written down, it’s still heard at live performances, and we’ll often “hear” a poem in our head as we’re reading it. Different types of poetry will have different auditory moods and rhythms, which contributes to the overall emotional effect.

3. Form challenges our use of language

As writers, we always want to be challenging ourselves to use words in new and exciting ways. Using the constraints of formal poetry is a great way to stretch our imagination and come up with new ideas. The story theorist Robert McKee calls this “creative limitation.” By imposing limits on what we can do, we’ll instinctively look for ever more creative and imaginative ways to use the limited space that we’re given.

Free verse poetry vs. rhymed poetry

These days, rhymed poetry has fallen out of vogue with contemporary poets, though it still has its champions. In the early 20th century free verse poetry was embraced for its fluid, conversational qualities, and dominates the poetic landscape today. It became popular in part because it feels less like a performance and more like you’re talking directly to the reader.

Rhymed poetry, on the other hand, is great for getting a message across to the reader or listener. Most pop songs today are, at least in part, rhymed poetry—that’s why we remember them and find ourselves mulling over the lyrics days later. We’ll look more at different types of free verse poetry and rhymed poetry, and you can see which ones work best for you.

27 Types of Poetry

You might recognise some of these types of poetry from reading poems written in their style in school; others might be new to you. Once you know a little bit more about these different types of poetry, you can even try writing some of your own!

1. Haiku

A haiku is a traditional Japanese poem structure with no rhyme scheme but a specific shape: three lines composed of five syllables in the first line, seven in the second line, and five in the third line.

Occasionally, some traditional Japanese haikus won’t fit this format because the syllables change when they’re translated into English, but when you’re writing your own haiku poem in your native language, you should try to adhere to this structure.

Haiku poems are often explorations of the natural world, but they can be about anything you like. They’re deceptively simple ideas with a lot of poignancy under the surface.

Here’s an example of a haiku poem, “Over the Wintry” by Natsume Sōseki:

Over the wintry Forest,
winds howl in rage
With no leaves to blow.

Learn more about writing your own haiku poetry in our dedicated Academy article.

2. Limerick

A limerick is a short poem consisting of five lines that rhyme AABBA. Usually these are quite funny, and tell a story. The first two lines should have eight or nine syllables each, the third and fourth lines should have five or six syllables each, and the final line eight or nine syllables again.

Limericks are great learning devices for children because their rhythm makes them so easy to remember. Here’s a fun example of a limerick, “There Was A Small Boy Of Quebec” by Rudyard Kipling:

There was a small boy of Quebec,
Who was buried in snow to his neck;
When they said, “Are you friz?”
He replied, “Yes, I is—
But we don’t call this cold in Quebec.”

3. Clerihew

Clerihews are a little bit like limericks in that they’re short, funny, and often satirical. A clerihew is made up of four lines (or several four-line stanzas) with the rhyme scheme AABB, and the first line of the stanza must be a person’s name.

This poetry type is great for helping people remember things (or enacting some good-natured revenge). Here’s a famous example, “Sir Humphrey Davy” by Edmund Clerihew Bentley, the inventor of the eponymous clarihew:

Sir Humphrey Davy
Abominated gravy.
He lived in the odium
Of having discovered sodium.

4. Cinquain

A cinquain is a poem consisting of five lines and twenty-two syllables: two in the first line, then four, then six, then eight, and then two syllables again in the last line. These are deceptively simple poems with a lovely musicality that make the writer think hard about the perfect word choices. Here’s an example of a cinquain poem, “November Night” by Adelaide Crapsey:

Listen. . .
With faint dry sound,
Like steps of passing ghosts,
The leaves, frost-crisp’d, break from the trees
And fall.

5. Triolet

A triolet is a traditional French single-stanza poem of eight lines with a rhyme scheme of ABAAABAB; however, it only consists of five unique lines. The first line is repeated as the fourth and seventh line, and the second line is repeated as the very last line. Although simple, a well-written triolet will bring new depth and meaning to the repeated lines each time. Here’s an example of a classic triolet poem, “How Great My Grief” by Thomas Hardy:

How great my grief, my joys how few,
Since first it was my fate to know thee!
Have the slow years not brought to view
How great my grief, my joys how few,
Nor memory shaped old times anew,
Nor loving-kindness helped to show thee
How great my grief, my joys how few,
Since first it was my fate to know thee?

6. Dizain

A dizain is another French poetry form made up of just one ten-line stanza, and with each line having ten syllables. The rhyme scheme for a dizain is ABABBCCDCD. This poetry type was a favourite of French poets in the 15th and 16th century, and many English poets adapted it into larger works. Here’s an example of a dizain poem, “Names” by Brad Osborne:

If true that a rose by another name
Holds in its fine form fragrance just as sweet
If vivid beauty remains just the same
And if other qualities are replete
With the things that make a rose so complete
Why bother giving anything a name
Then on whom may I place deserved blame
When new people’s names I cannot recall
There seems to be an underlying shame
So why do we bother with names at all

7. Sonnet

A sonnet is a lyric poem that always has fourteen lines. The oldest type of sonnet is the Italian or Petrarchan sonnet, which is broken into two stanzas of eight lines and six lines. The first stanza has a rhyme scheme of ABBA ABBA and the second stanza has a rhyme scheme of either CDECDE or CDCDCD.

Later on, an ambitious bloke by the name of William Shakespeare developed the English sonnet (which later came to be known as the Shakespearean sonnet). It still has fourteen lines, but the rhyme scheme is different. It has four distinctive parts, which might be separate stanzas or they might be all linked together. The rhyme scheme is ABAB CDCD EFEF GG.

Shakespeare is famous for using iambic pentameter in his sonnets, but you can experiment with different rhythms and see what works best for you. Here’s one of his most famous sonnets, Sonnet 18:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st;
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

8. Blank verse

Blank verse is a type of poetry that’s written in a precise metre, usually iambic pentameter, but without rhyme. This is reminiscent of Shakespearean sonnets and many of his plays, but it reflects a movement that puts rhythm above rhyme.

Though each line of blank verse must be ten syllables, there’s no restriction on the amount of lines or individual stanzas. Here’s an excerpt from a poem in blank verse, the first stanza of “Frost at Midnight” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge:

The Frost performs its secret ministry,
Unhelped by any wind. The owlet’s cry
Came loud—and hark, again! loud as before.
The inmates of my cottage, all at rest,
Have left me to that solitude, which suits
Abstruser musings: save that at my side
My cradled infant slumbers peacefully.
’Tis calm indeed! so calm, that it disturbs
And vexes meditation with its strange
And extreme silentness. Sea, hill, and wood,
This populous village! Sea, and hill, and wood,
With all the numberless goings-on of life,
Inaudible as dreams! the thin blue flame
Lies on my low-burnt fire, and quivers not;
Only that film, which fluttered on the grate

9. Villanelle

A villanelle is a type of French poem made up of nineteen lines grouped into six separate stanzas. The first five stanzas have three lines each, and the last stanza has four lines. Each three-line stanza rhymes ABA, and the last one ABAA.

Villanelles tend to feature a lot of repetition, which lends them a musical quality; usually the very first and third lines become the alternating last lines of each following stanza. This can be a bit like putting a puzzle together. Here’s an example to show you how it looks, “My Darling Turns to Poetry at Night” by Anthony Lawrence:

My darling turns to poetry at night.
What began as flirtation, an aside
Between abstract expression and first light

Now finds form as a silent, startled flight
Of commas on her face—a breath, a word …    
My darling turns to poetry at night.

When rain inspires the night birds to create
Rhyme and formal verse, stanzas can be made
Between abstract expression and first light.

Her heartbeat is a metaphor, a late
Bloom of red flowers that refuse to fade.
My darling turns to poetry at night.

I watch her turn. I do not sleep. I wait
For symbols, for a sign that fear has died
Between abstract expression and first light.

Her dreams have night vision, and in her sight
Our bodies leave ghostprints on the bed.
My darling turns to poetry at night
Between abstract expression and first light.

10. Paradelle

The paradelle is a complex and demanding variation of the villanelle, developed in France in the 11th century… except it wasn’t. It was, in fact, a hoax developed in the 20th century that got drastically out of hand. In fact, American poet Billy Collins invented the paradelle as a satire of the popular villanelle and, like many happy accidents, the paradelle was embraced as a welcome challenge and is now part of contemporary poetry’s repertoire.

A paradelle is composed of four six-line stanzas. In each of the first three stanzas, the first two lines must be the same, the second two lines must be the same, and the final two lines must contain every word from the first and third lines, and only those words, rearranged in a new order. The fourth and final stanza must contain every word from the fifth and sixth lines of the first three stanzas, and only those words, again rearranged in a new order.

11th-century relic or not, this poetry form is a great exercise for playing with words. Here’s an excerpt from the original paradelle that started it all, the first stanzas of “Paradelle for Susan” by Billy Collins:

I remember the quick, nervous bird of your love.
I remember the quick, nervous bird of your love.
Always perched on the thinnest, highest branch.
Always perched on the thinnest, highest branch.
Thinnest love, remember the quick branch.
Always nervous, I perched on your highest bird the.

It is time for me to cross the mountain.
It is time for me to cross the mountain.
And find another shore to darken with my pain.
And find another shore to darken with my pain.
Another pain for me to darken the mountain.
And find the time, cross my shore, to with it is to.

11. Sestina

A sestina is a complex French poetry form (a real one, this time) composed of thirty-nine lines in seven stanzas—six stanzas of six lines each, and one stanza of three lines. Each word at the end of each line in the first stanza then gets repeated at the end of each line in each following stanza, but in a different order.

Some poets use favourite metres or rhyme schemes in their sestina poems, but you don’t have to. The classic form of a sestina is:

First stanza: ABCDEF; each letter represents the word at the end of each line.

Second stanza: FAEBDC

Third stanza: CFDABE

Fourth stanza: ECBFAD

Fifth stanza: DEACFB

Sixth stanza: BDFECA

Seventh stanza: ACE or ECA

Here’s an excerpt from a sestina, the first stanzas of “A Miracle For Breakfast” by Elizabeth Bishop. Looking at the first two stanzas, you can see that the repeated end words match the mixed-up letter guide above.

At six o’clock we were waiting for coffee,
waiting for coffee and the charitable crumb
that was going to be served from a certain balcony
—like kings of old, or like a miracle.
It was still dark. One foot of the sun
steadied itself on a long ripple in the river.

The first ferry of the day had just crossed the river.
It was so cold we hoped that the coffee
would be very hot, seeing that the sun
was not going to warm us; and that the crumb
would be a loaf each, buttered, by a miracle.
At seven a man stepped out on the balcony.

12. Rondel

A rondel is a French type of poetry made of three stanzas: the first two are four lines long, and the third is five or six lines long. The first two lines of the poems are refrains which are repeated as the last two lines of the following two stanzas—although sometimes the poet will choose only one line to repeat at the very last line.

Rondels usually use a ABBA ABAB ABBAA rhyme scheme, but they can be written in any metre. Here’s an example of a traditional rondel poem, “The Wanderer” by Henry Austin Dobson:

Love comes back to his vacant dwelling,
The old, old Love that we knew of yore!
We see him stand by the open door,
With his great eyes sad, and his bosom swelling.

He makes as though in our arms repelling
He fain would lie as he lay before;
Love comes back to his vacant dwelling,
The old, old Love that we knew of yore!

Ah! who shall help us from over-spelling
That sweet, forgotten, forbidden lore?
E’en as we doubt, in our hearts once more,
With a rush of tears to our eyelids welling, Love comes back to his vacant dwelling.

13. Ghazal

A ghazal is an old Arabic poetry form consisting of at least ten lines, but no more than thirty, all written in two-line stanzas called couplets. The first two lines of a ghazal end with the same word, but the words just preceding the last lines will rhyme. From this point on, the second line of each couplet will have the same last word, and the word just before it will rhyme with the others.

Ghazals are traditionally a poem of love and longing, but they can be written about any feeling or idea. Here’s an excerpt from a ghazal poem, the first stanzas of “Ghazal of the Better-Unbegun” by Heather McHugh:

Too volatile, am I? too voluble? too much a word-person?
I blame the soup: I’m a primordially stirred person.

Two pronouns and a vehicle was Icarus with wings.
The apparatus of his selves made an absurd person.

The sound I make is sympathy’s: sad dogs are tied afar.
But howling I become an ever more unheard person.

14. Golden shovel

A golden shovel poem is a more recent poetry form that was developed by poet Terrance Hayes and inspired by Gwendolyn Brooks. Though it’s much newer than many of the types of poetry on this list, it has been enthusiastically embraced by contemporary poets.

It’s a bit like an acrostic poem in that it hides a secret message: the last word of every line of a golden shovel poem is a word from another poem’s title or line, or a saying or headline you want to work with.

For example, if you want to write a golden shovel poem about the line, “dead men tell no tales,” the first line of your poem would end in “dead,” the second line in “men,” and so on until you can read your entire message along the right-hand side of the poem.

Here’s an excerpt from Terrance Hayes’s poem that started the golden shovel trend:

When I am so small Da’s sock covers my arm, we
cruise at twilight until we find the place the real

men lean, bloodshot and translucent with cool.
His smile is a gold-plated incantation as we

drift by women on bar stools, with nothing left
in them but approachlessness. This is a school

I do not know yet. But the cue sticks mean we
are rubbed by light, smooth as wood, the lurk

of smoke thinned to song. We won’t be out late.

15. Palindrome

Palindrome poems, also called “mirror poems,” are poems that begin repeating backwards halfway through, so that the first line and the last line are the same, the second line and the second-to-last line are the same, and so on. They’re a challenging yet fun way to show two sides of the same story. Here’s an example of a palindrome poem, “On Reflection by Kristin Bock:

Far from the din of the articulated world,
I wanted to be content in an empty room–
a barn on the hillside like a bone,
a limbo of afternoons strung together like cardboard boxes,
to be free of your image—
crown of bees, pail of black water
staggering through the pitiful corn.
I can’t always see through it.
The mind is a pond layered in lilies.
The mind is a pond layered in lilies.
I can’t always see through it
staggering through the pitiful corn.
Crown of Bees, Pail of Black Water,
to be of your image—
a limbo of afternoons strung together like cardboard boxes,
a barn on the hillside like a bone.
I wanted to be content in an empty room
far from the din of the articulated world.

16. Ode

An ode is a poetic form of celebration used to honour a person, thing, or idea. They’re often overflowing with intense emotion and powerful imagery.

Odes can be used in conjunction with formal metres and rhyme schemes, but they don’t have to be; often poets will favour internal rhymes instead, to give their ode a sense of rhythm.

This is a more open-ended poetry type you can use to show your appreciation for something or someone. Here’s an excerpt from one of the most famous and beautiful odes, written in celebration of autumn–“To Autumn” by John Keats:

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-eaves run;
To bend with apples the mossed 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-brimmed their clammy cells.

17. Elegy

An elegy is similar to an ode in that it celebrates a person or idea, but in this instance is the poem centers around something that has died or been lost.

There’s a tradition among poets to write elegies for one another once another poet has died. Sometimes these are obvious memoriams of a deceased person, and other times the true meaning will be hidden behind layers of symbolism and metaphor.

Like the ode, there’s no formal metre or rhyme scheme in an elegy, though you can certainly experiment with using them. Here’s an excerpt of an elegy written by one poet for another, “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” by W. H. Auden:

He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
And snow disfigured the public statues;
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

Far from his illness
The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests,
The peasant river was untempted by the fashionable quays;
By mourning tongues
The death of the poet was kept from his poems.

18. Ekphrasis

Ekphrastic poetry is a little bit like an ode, as it is also written in celebration of something. Ekphrasis, however, is very specific as it’s used to draw attention to a work of visual art. Sometimes these two poetry types can overlap, like in John Keats’ “Ode to a Grecian Urn”—an ekphrastic ode.

Ekphrastic poetry is most often written about paintings, but it can also be about sculptures, dance, or even theatrical performances.

Ekphrasis has no set metre or rhyme scheme, but some poets like to use them. Here’s an excerpt from an ekphrastic poem, “The Starry Night” by Anne Sexton, in celebration of Van Gogh’s painting:

That does not keep me from having a terrible need of—shall I say the word—religion. Then I go out at night to paint the stars.

—Vincent Van Gogh in a letter to his brother

The town does not exist
except where one black-haired tree slips
up like a drowned woman into the hot sky.
The town is silent. The night boils with eleven stars.
Oh starry night! This is how
I want to die.

19. Pastoral

Pastoral poetry can take any metre or rhyme scheme, but it focuses on the beauty of nature. These poems draw attention to idyllic settings and romanticise the idea of shepherds and agriculture labourers living in harmony with the natural world.

Often these traditional pastoral poems carry a religious overtone, suggesting that by bringing oneself closer to nature they were also becoming closer to their spirituality. They can be written in free verse, or as poems structure. Here’s an excerpt from a famous pastoral poem, “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” by Christopher Marlowe:

Come live with me and be my love,
And we will all the pleasures prove
That valleys, groves, hills, and fields,
Woods, or steepy mountain yields.

And we will sit upon the rocks,
Seeing the shepherds feed their flocks,
By shallow rivers to whose falls
Melodious birds sing madrigals.

20. Epic

An epic is a grand, overarching story written in verse–they’re the novels of the poetry world. Before stories were written as novels and short stories and then, later, screenplays, all of our classic tales were written as epic poems.

Experimenting with epic poetry, such as writing a short story all in verse, is a great way to give your writer’s muscles a workout. These don’t have a specific rhyme scheme or metre, although many classic epic poems do use them to give a sense of rhythm and unity to the piece.

Here’s an excerpt from one of our oldest surviving epic poems, “Beowulf,” translated from old English by Frances B. Gummere:

Lo, praise of the prowess of people-kings
of spear-armed Danes, in days long sped,
we have heard, and what honor the athelings won!
Oft Scyld the Scefing from squadroned foes,
from many a tribe, the mead-bench tore,
awing the earls. Since erst he lay
friendless, a foundling, fate repaid him:
for he waxed under welkin, in wealth he throve,
till before him the folk, both far and near,
who house by the whale-path, heard his mandate,
gave him gifts: a good king he!

(Irish poet Seamus Heaney has also completed an even more modern translation for the layperson.)

21. Ballad

A ballad is similar to an epic in that it tells a story, but it’s much shorter and a bit more structured. This poetry form is made up of four-line stanzas (as many as are needed to tell the story) with a rhyme scheme of ABCB.

Ballads were originally meant to be set to music, which is where we get the idea of our slow, sultry love song ballads today. A lot of traditional ballads are all in dialogue, where two characters are speaking back and forth.

Here’s an excerpt from a traditional ballad poem, “La Belle Dame sans Merci” by John Keats:

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
And the harvest’s done.

22. Acrostic

An acrostic poem is one in which certain letters of each line spell out a word or message. Usually the letters that spell the message will be the first letters of each line, so that you can read the secret word right down the margin; however, you can also use the letters at the end or down the middle of the lines to hide a secret message. Acrostic poems are especially popular with children.

Here’s an example of an acrostic poem, “A Boat Beneath a Sunny Sky” by Lewis Carroll. The lines spell out “Alice Pleasance Liddell,” who was a young friend of Carroll’s and the inspiration behind Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

A boat beneath a sunny sky,
Lingering onward dreamily
In an evening of July—

Children three that nestle near,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Pleased a simple tale to hear—

Long has paled that sunny sky:
Echoes fade and memories die:
Autumn frosts have slain July.

Still she haunts me, phantomwise,
Alice moving under skies
Never seen by waking eyes.

Children yet, the tale to hear,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Lovingly shall nestle near.

In a Wonderland they lie,
Dreaming as the days go by,
Dreaming as the summers die:

Ever drifting down the stream—
Lingering in the golden gleam—
Life, what is it but a dream?

23. Concrete

A concrete poem, sometimes called a shape poem, is a visual poem structure where the shape of the poem resembles its content or message. These are another favourite with children, although they can be used to communicate powerful adult ideas, too.

When writing concrete poetry, you can experiment with different fonts, sizes, and even colours to create your visual poem. Here’s an example of a concrete poem, “Sonnet in the Shape of a Potted Christmas Tree” by George Starbuck:

*
O
fury-
bedecked!
O glitter-torn!
Let the wild wind erect
bonbonbonanzas; junipers affect
frostyfreeze turbans; iciclestuff adorn
all cuckolded creation in a madcap crown of horn!
It’s a new day; no scapegrace of a sect
tidying up the ashtrays playing Daughter-in-Law Elect;
bells! bibelots! popsicle cigars! shatter the glassware! a son born
now
now
while ox and ass and infant lie
together as poor creatures will
and tears of her exertion still
cling in the spent girl’s eye
and a great firework in the sky
drifts to the western hill.

24. Prose poem

A prose poem combines elements of both prose writing and poetry into something new. Prose poems don’t have shape and line breaks in the way that traditional poems do, but they make use of poetic devices like metre, internal rhyme, alliteration, metaphor, imagery, and symbolism to create a snapshot of prose that reads and feels like a poem. Here’s an example of a prose poem, “Be Drunk” by Charles Baudelaire:

You have to be always drunk. That’s all there is to it—it’s the only way. So as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks your back and bends you to the earth, you have to be continually drunk.

But on what? Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be drunk.

And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace or the green grass of a ditch, in the mournful solitude of your room, you wake again, drunkenness already diminishing or gone, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, everything that is flying, everything that is groaning, everything that is rolling, everything that is singing, everything that is speaking. . . ask what time it is and wind, wave, star, bird, clock will answer you: “It is time to be drunk! So as not to be the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be continually drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue as you wish.”

25. Found poetry

Found poetry is a poem made up of a composite of external quotations, like quotations from poems, beloved works of literature, newspaper articles, instruction manuals, or political manifestos. You can copy out pieces of text, or you can cut out different words to make a visual collage effect.

Another form of found poetry is blackout poetry, where words are crossed out and removed from an external source to create a new meaning.

These can be a great way to find new or contrasting meaning in everyday life, but always be sure to reference what sources your poem came from originally to avoid plagiarism. Here’s an example of a found poem, “Testimony” by Charles Reznikoff, cut up from law reports between 1885 and 1915:

Amelia was just fourteen and out of the orphan asylum;
at her first job—in the bindery, and yes sir, yes
ma’am, oh, so anxious to please.
She stood at the table, her blond hair hanging about
her shoulders, “knocking up” for Mary and Sadie,
the stichers (“knocking up” is counting books and
stacking them in piles to be taken away).

26. Nonce

A nonce poem is a DIY poem structure intended for one-time use, to challenge yourself as a writer, or just to try something new. It’s a formal, rigid, standardised poetry form that’s brand new to the world.

For example, you might say, “I’m going to write a poem starting with a three-line stanza, then two four-line stanzas, then another three-line stanza, and each line is going to be eight syllables except the first and last line of the poem which are each going to have eleven syllables, and the last word of every stanza will be true rhymes and the first word of every stanza will be slant rhymes.” And then you do it, just to see if you can.

Nonce poems are a great way to stretch your creativity and language skills to their limit. Then, like Terrance Hayes’s “Golden Shovel,” or Billy Collins’ “Paradelle,” your nonce poem might even catch on! Here’s an excerpt from a nonce poem, “And If I Did, What Then?” by George Gascoigne:

Are you aggriev’d therefore?
The sea hath fish for every man,
And what would you have more?”

Thus did my mistress once,
Amaze my mind with doubt;
And popp’d a question for the nonce
To beat my brains about.

27. Free verse

Free verse is the type of poetry most favoured by contemporary poets; it has no set metre, rhyme scheme, or structure, but allows the poet to feel out the content of the poem as they go.

Poets will often still use rhythmic literary devices such as assonance and internal rhymes, but it won’t be bound up with the same creative restraints as more structured poetry. However, even poets that work solely in free verse will usually argue that it’s beneficial to first work up your mastery of language through exercises in more structured poetry forms.

Here’s an example of free verse poetry, an excerpt from “On Turning Ten,” by Billy Collins:

The whole idea of it makes me feel
like I’m coming down with something,
something worse than any stomach ache
or the headaches I get from reading in bad light—
a kind of measles of the spirit,
a mumps of the psyche,
a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.

3 ways poem structure will make you a better writer

Maybe you’ve fallen in love with formal rhymed poetry, or maybe you think that for you, free verse is the way to go. Either way, it’s good training for a writer to experiment with poetry structure for a few different reasons.

1. Using poetic form will teach you about poetic devices

Using poetic form will open up your world to a huge range of useful poetic devices like assonance, chiasmus, and epistrophe, as well as broader overarching ideas like metaphor, imagery, and symbolism. We talk about these poetic devices a lot in poetry forms, but just about all of them can be used effectively in prose writing, too!

Paying attention to poetic form takes your mastery of language to a whole new level. Then you can take this skill set and apply it to your writing in a whole range of mediums.

2. Writing poems with structure teaches you how to use rhythm

Rhythm is one of the core concepts of all poetry. Rhymes and formal metre are two ways to capture rhythm in your poems, but even in free verse poetry that lacks a formal poetic structure, the key to good poetry is a smooth and addictive rhythm that makes you feel the poem in your bones.

Once you start experimenting with poetry forms, you’ll find that you’ll develop an inner ear for the rhythm of language. This rhythmic sense translates into beautiful sentence structure and cadence in other types of writing, from short stories and novels, to marketing copy, to comic books. Rhythm is what makes your words a joy to read.

3. Formal poetry helps you increase your vocabulary and refine your word choice

No matter what you’re writing, specificity is a game changer when it comes to getting a point across to your reader. With the English language being well-populated with nice, easy near-syllables, many new writers fall into the bad habit of choosing words that are just kind of okay, instead of the exact right word for that moment.

Writing formal poetry forces you to not only expand your vocabulary to find the right word to fit the rhyme scheme or rhythm, but to weigh each word and examine it from all angles before awarding it a place in your poem. This way, when you move into other forms of writing, you’ll carry good habits and a deep respect for language into your work.

Try different types of poetry

Learning about types of poetry for the first time can be a bit like opening a floodgate into a whole new way of living. Whether you prefer free verse poetry, rhymed poetry, romantic Shakespearean sonnets, short philosophical haikus, or even coming up with your own poetry structure, you’ll find that writing poetry challenges your writer’s muscles in ways you never would have expected. Next time you’re in a creative rut, trying experimenting with poetry forms to get the words flowing in a whole new way.