2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Literature types; Poetry & Opera

The Chinese poem "Quatrain on Heavenly Mountain" by Emperor Gaozong (Song Dynasty)
The Chinese poem "Quatrain on Heavenly Mountain" by Emperor Gaozong ( Song Dynasty)

Poetry (from the Greek ποίησις, poiesis, "making" or "creating") is a form of art in which language is used for its aesthetic qualities in addition to, or in lieu of, its of resonance may exist, between individual verses, in their patterns of rhyme or rhythm.

Some forms of poetry are specific to particular cultures and genres, responding to the characteristics of the language in which the poet writes. While readers accustomed to identifying poetry with Shakespeare, Dante and Goethe may think of poetry as being written in rhyming lines and regular meter, there are other traditions, such as those of Du Fu and Beowulf, which use other approaches to achieve rhythm and euphony. In today's globalized world, poets often borrow styles, techniques and forms from different cultures and languages.

Poetics and history

The Deluge tablet of the Gilgamesh epic in Akkadian, circa 2nd millennium BC.
The Deluge tablet of the Gilgamesh epic in Akkadian, circa 2nd millennium BC.

Poetry as an art form may predate literacy Poetry appears among the earliest records of most literate cultures, with poetic fragments found on early monoliths, rune stones and stelae.

The oldest surviving poem is the Epic of Gilgamesh, from the 3rd millennium BC in Sumer (in Iraq/Mesopotamia), which was written in cuneiform script on clay tablets and, later, papyrus. The Epic of Gilgamesh is based on the historical king Gilgamesh. The oldest love poem, found on a clay tablet now known as Istanbul #2461, was also a Sumerian poem. It was recited by a bride of the Sumerian king Shu-Sin, who ruled from 2037-2029 BC. The oldest epic poetry besides the Epic of Gilgamesh are the Greek epics Iliad and Odyssey and the Indian epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. The longest epic poems ever written were the Tibetan Epic of King Gesar and the Mahabharata.

Ancient thinkers sought to determine what makes poetry distinctive as a form and what distinguishes good poetry from bad, resulting in the development of " poetics", or the study of the aesthetics of poetry. Some ancient societies, such as the Chinese through the Shi Jing, one of the Five Classics of Confucianism, developed canons of poetic works that had ritual as well as aesthetic importance. More recently, thinkers struggled to find a definition that could encompass formal differences as great as those between Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales and Matsuo Bashō's Oku no Hosomichi, as well as differences in context that span from the religious poetry of the Tanakh to love poetry to rap.

Context can be critical to poetics and to the development of poetic genres and forms. For example, poetry employed to record historical events in epics, such as Gilgamesh or Ferdowsi's Shahnameh, will necessarily be lengthy and narrative, while poetry used for liturgical purposes in hymns, psalms, suras and hadiths is likely to have an inspirational tone, whereas elegies and tragedy are intended to invoke deep internal emotional responses. Other contexts include music such as Gregorian chants, and formal or diplomatic speech political rhetoric and invective, light-hearted nursery and nonsense rhymes, and even medical texts.

The Polish historian of aesthetics, Władysław Tatarkiewicz, in a paper on "The Concept of Poetry," traces the evolution of what is in fact two concepts of poetry. Tatarkiewicz points out that the term is applied to two distinct things that, as the poet Paul Valéry observes, "at a certain point find union. Poetry [...] is an art based on language. But poetry also has a more general meaning [...] that is difficult to define because it is less determinate: poetry expresses a certain state of mind."

Classical and early modern Western traditions

Classical thinkers employed classification as a way to define and assess the quality of poetry. Notably, Aristotle's Poetics describes the three genres of poetry: the epic, comic, and tragic, and develops rules to distinguish the highest-quality poetry of each genre, based on the underlying purposes of that genre. Later aestheticians identified three major genres: epic poetry, lyric poetry and dramatic poetry, treating comedy and tragedy as subgenres of dramatic poetry. Aristotle's work was influential throughout the Middle East during the Islamic Golden Age, as well as in Europe during the Renaissance. Later poets and aestheticians often distinguished poetry from, and defined it in opposition to, prose, which was generally understood as writing with a proclivity to logical explication and a linear narrative structure. This does not imply that poetry is illogical or lacks narration, but rather that poetry is an attempt to render the beautiful or sublime without the burden of engaging the logical or narrative thought process. English Romantic poet John Keats termed this escape from logic, " Negative Capability." This "romantic" approach views form as a key element of successful poetry because form is abstract and distinct from the underlying notional logic. This approach remained influential into the twentieth century. During this period, there was also substantially more interaction among the various poetic traditions, in part due to the spread of European colonialism and the attendant rise in global trade. In addition to a boom in translation, during the Romantic period numerous ancient works were rediscovered.

Twentieth-century disputes

Some 20th-century literary theorists, relying less on the opposition of prose and poetry, focused on the poet as simply one who creates using language, and poetry as what the poet creates. The underlying concept of the poet as creator is not uncommon, and some modernist poets essentially do not distinguish between the creation of a poem with words, and creative acts in other media such as carpentry. Yet other modernists challenge the very attempt to define poetry as misguided, as when Archibald MacLeish concludes his ironic poem, " Ars Poetica," with the lines: "A poem should not mean / but be."

Intellectual disputes over the definition of poetry, and over its distinction from other genres of literature, have been inextricably intertwined with the debate over the role of poetic form. The rejection of traditional forms and structures for poetry that began in the first half of the twentieth century, coincided with a questioning of the purpose and meaning of traditional definitions of poetry and of distinctions between poetry and prose. Numerous modernist poets have written in non-traditional forms or in what traditionally would have been considered prose, although their writing was generally infused with poetic diction and often with rhythm and tone established by non-metrical means. While there was a substantial formalist reaction within the modernist schools to the breakdown of structure, this reaction focused as much on the development of new formal structures and syntheses as on the revival of older forms and structures.

More recently, postmodernism has fully embraced MacLeish's concept and come to regard boundaries between prose and poetry, and also among genres of poetry, as having meaning only as cultural artifacts. Postmodernism goes beyond modernism's emphasis on the creative role of the poet, to emphasize the role of the reader of a text, and to highlight the complex cultural web within which a poem is read. Today, throughout the world, poetry often incorporates poetic form and diction from other cultures and from the past, further confounding attempts at definition and classification that were once sensible within a tradition such as the Western canon.

Basic elements

Bust of Homer, one of the earliest European poets, in the British Museum
Bust of Homer, one of the earliest European poets, in the British Museum


Prosody is the study of the meter, rhythm, and intonation of a poem. Rhythm and meter, although closely related, should be distinguished. Meter is the abstract pattern established for a verse (such as iambic pentameter), while rhythm is the actual sound that results from a line of poetry. Thus, the meter of a line may be described as being "iambic", but a full description of the rhythm would require noting where the language causes one to pause or accelerate and how the meter interacts with other elements of the language. Prosody also may be used more specifically to refer to the scanning of poetic lines to show meter.

Methods of creating rhythm

The methods for creating poetic rhythm vary across languages and between poetic traditions. Languages are often described as having timing set primarily by accents, syllables, or moras, depending on how rhythm is established, though a language can be influenced by multiple approaches. Japanese is a mora-timed language. Syllable-timed languages include Latin, Catalan, French and Spanish. English, Russian and, generally, German are stress-timed languages. Varying intonation also affects how rhythm is perceived. Languages also can rely on either pitch, such as in Vedic or ancient Greek, or tone. Tonal languages include Chinese, Vietnamese, Lithuanian, and most subsaharan languages.

Metrical rhythm generally involves precise arrangements of stresses or syllables into repeated patterns called feet within a line. In Modern English verse the pattern of stresses primarily differentiate feet, so rhythm based on meter in Modern English is most often founded on the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables (alone or elided). In the classical languages, on the other hand, while the metrical units are similar, vowel length rather than stresses define the meter. Old English poetry used a metrical pattern involving varied numbers of syllables but a fixed number of strong stresses in each line.

The chief device of ancient Hebrew Biblical poetry, including many of the psalms, was parallelism, a rhetorical structure in which successive lines reflected each other in grammatical structure, sound structure, notional content, or all three. Parallelism lent itself to antiphonal or call-and-response performance, which could also be reinforced by intonation. Thus, Biblical poetry relies much less on metrical feet to create rhythm, but instead creates rhythm based on much larger sound units of lines, phrases and sentences. Some classical poetry forms, such as Venpa of the Tamil language, had rigid grammars (to the point that they could be expressed as a context-free grammar) which ensured a rhythm. In Chinese poetry, tones as well as stresses create rhythm. Classical Chinese poetics identifies four tones: the level tone, rising tone, falling tone, and entering tone. Note that other classifications may have as many as eight tones for Chinese and six for Vietnamese.

The formal patterns of meter used developed in Modern English verse to create rhythm no longer dominate contemporary English poetry. In the case of free verse, rhythm is often organized based on looser units of cadence than a regular meter. Robinson Jeffers, Marianne Moore, and William Carlos Williams are three notable poets who reject the idea that regular accentual meter is critical to English poetry. Jeffers experimented with sprung rhythm as an alternative to accentual rhythm.

Scanning meter

Meters in the Western poetic tradition are customarily grouped according to a characteristic metrical foot and the number of feet per line. For example, " iambic pentameter" is a meter composed of five feet per line in which the kind of feet called iambs predominate. The origin of this tradition of metrics lies in ancient Greek poetry, and poets such as Homer, Pindar, Hesiod, Sappho, and the great tragedians of Athens made use of such a metric system.

Meter is often scanned based on the arrangement of " poetic feet" into lines. In English, each foot usually includes one syllable with a stress and one or two without a stress. In other languages, it may be a combination of the number of syllables and the length of the vowel that determines how the foot is parsed. For example, in Greek, one syllable with a long unstressed vowel may be treated as the equivalent of two syllables with short vowels. In Anglo-Saxon meter, the unit on which lines are built is a half-line containing two stresses rather than a foot. Scanning meter can often show the basic or fundamental pattern underlying a verse, but does not show the varying degrees of stress, as well as the differing pitches and lengths of syllables.

As an example of how a line of meter is defined, in English language iambic pentameter, each line has five metrical feet, and each foot is an iamb, or an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. When a particular line is scanned, there may be variations upon the basic pattern of the meter; for example, the first foot of English iambic pentameters is quite often inverted, meaning that the stress falls on the first syllable. The generally accepted names for some of the most commonly used kinds of feet include:

One of Henry Holiday's illustrations from Lewis Carroll's The Hunting of the Snark, written predominantly in anapestic tetrameter: "In the midst of the word he was trying to say / In the midst of his laughter and glee / He had softly and suddenly vanished away / For the snark was a boojum, you see."
One of Henry Holiday's illustrations from Lewis Carroll's The Hunting of the Snark, written predominantly in anapestic tetrameter: "In the midst of the word he was trying to say / In the midst of his laughter and glee / He had softly and suddenly vanished away / For the snark was a boojum, you see."
  • spondee — two stressed syllables together
  • iamb — unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable
  • trochee — one stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable
  • dactyl — one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables
  • anapest — two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed syllable

The number of metrical feet in a line are described in Greek terminology as follows:

  • dimeter — two feet
  • trimeter — three feet
  • tetrameter — four feet
  • pentameter — five feet
  • hexameter — six feet
  • heptameter — seven feet
  • octameter — eight feet

There are a wide range of names for other types of feet, right up to a choriamb of four syllable metric foot with a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables and closing with a stressed syllable. The choriamb is derived from some ancient Greek and Latin poetry. Languages which utilize vowel length or intonation rather than or in addition to syllabic accents in determining meter, such as Ottoman Turkish or Vedic, often have concepts similar to the iamb and dactyl to describe common combinations of long and short sounds.

Each of these types of feet has a certain "feel," whether alone or in combination with other feet. The iamb, for example, is the most natural form of rhythm in the English language, and generally produces a subtle but stable verse. The dactyl, on the other hand, almost gallops along. And, as readers of The Night Before Christmas or Dr. Seuss realize, the anapest is perfect for a light-hearted, comic feel.

There is debate over how useful a multiplicity of different "feet" is in describing meter. For example, Robert Pinsky has argued that while dactyls are important in classical verse, English dactylic verse uses dactyls very irregularly and can be better described based on patterns of iambs and anapests, feet which he considers natural to the language. Actual rhythm is significantly more complex than the basic scanned meter described above, and many scholars have sought to develop systems that would scan such complexity. Vladimir Nabokov noted that overlaid on top of the regular pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in a line of verse was a separate pattern of accents resulting from the natural pitch of the spoken words, and suggested that the term "scud" be used to distinguish an unaccented stress from an accented stress.

Common metrical patterns

Different traditions and genres of poetry tend to use different meters, ranging from the Shakespearian iambic pentameter and the Homerian dactylic hexameter to the Anapestic tetrameter used in many nursery rhymes. However, a number of variations to the established meter are common, both to provide emphasis or attention to a given foot or line and to avoid boring repetition. For example, the stress in a foot may be inverted, a caesura (or pause) may be added (sometimes in place of a foot or stress), or the final foot in a line may be given a feminine ending to soften it or be replaced by a spondee to emphasize it and create a hard stop. Some patterns (such as iambic pentameter) tend to be fairly regular, while other patterns, such as dactylic hexameter, tend to be highly irregular. Regularity can vary between language. In addition, different patterns often develop distinctively in different languages, so that, for example, iambic tetrameter in Russian will generally reflect a regularity in the use of accents to reinforce the meter, which does not occur or occurs to a much lesser extent in English.

Some common metrical patterns, with notable examples of poets and poems who use them, include:

  • Iambic pentameter (John Milton, Paradise Lost)
  • Dactylic hexameter (Homer, Iliad; Ovid, The Metamorphoses)
  • Iambic tetrameter ( Andrew Marvell, " To His Coy Mistress")
  • Iambic tetrameter (Aleksandr Pushkin, Eugene Onegin)
  • Trochaic octameter (Edgar Allan Poe, " The Raven")
  • Anapestic tetrameter ( Lewis Carroll, " The Hunting of the Snark"; Lord Byron, Don Juan)
  • Alexandrine, also known as iambic hexameter ( Jean Racine, Phèdre)

Rhyme, alliteration and assonance

The Old English epic poem Beowulf is written in alliterative verse and in paragraph form, not separated into lines or stanzas.
The Old English epic poem Beowulf is written in alliterative verse and in paragraph form, not separated into lines or stanzas.

Rhyme, alliteration, assonance and consonance are each methods for creating repetitive patterns of sound. These methods may be used as an independent structural element of a poem, to reinforce rhythmic patterns, or as a merely ornamental element of poem. Rhyme consists of identical ("hard rhyme") or similar ("soft rhyme") sounds placed at the end of lines or at predictable locations within lines (" internal rhyme"). Languages vary in the richness of their rhyming structures, so that Italian, for example, has a rich rhyming structure where it is possible to maintain a limited set of rhymes throughout a lengthy poem. The richness results from having word endings which follow regular forms. English, with irregular word endings adopted from many other languages, is less rich in rhyme. The richness of rhyming structures in a language plays a significant role in determining what poetic forms are commonly used.

Alliteration and assonance played a key role in structuring early Germanic, Norse and Old English forms of poetry. The alliterative patterns of early Germanic poetry interweave meter and alliteration as a key part of their structure, so that the metrical pattern determines when the listener expects instances of alliteration to occur. This can be compared to an ornamental use of alliteration in most Modern European poetry, where alliterative patterns are not formal or carried through full stanzas. Alliteration is particularly useful in languages with less rich rhyming structures. Assonance, where the use of similar vowel sounds within a word rather than similar sounds at the beginning or end of a word, was widely used in skaldic poetry, but goes back to the Homeric epic. Because verbs carry much of the pitch in the English language, assonance can loosely evoke the tonal elements of Chinese poetry and so is useful in translating Chinese poetry. Consonance occurs where a consonant sound is repeated throughout a sentence without putting the sound only at the front of a word. Consonance provokes a more subtle effect than alliteration and so is less useful as a structural element.

Rhyming schemes

In many languages, including modern European languages and Arabic, poets use rhyme in set patterns as a structural element for specific poet forms, such as ballads, sonnets and rhyming couplets. However, the use of structural rhyme is not universal even within the European tradition. Much modern poetry avoids traditional rhyme schemes. Classical Greek and Latin poetry did not use rhyme. Rhyme entered European poetry in the High Middle Ages, in part under the influence of the Arabic language in Al Andalus (modern Spain). Arabic language poets have always used rhyme extensively, most notably in their long, rhyming qasidas. Some rhyming schemes have become associated with a specific language, culture or period, while other rhyming schemes have achieved use across languages, cultures or time periods. Some forms of poetry carry a consistent and well-defined rhyming scheme, such as the chant royal or the rubaiyat, while other poetic forms have variable rhyme schemes.

Dante and Beatrice gaze upon the highest Heaven; from Gustave Doré's illustrations to the Divine Comedy Paradiso Canto 31
Dante and Beatrice gaze upon the highest Heaven; from Gustave Doré's illustrations to the Divine Comedy Paradiso Canto 31

Most rhyme schemes are described using letters that correspond to sets of rhymes, so if the first, second and fourth lines of a quatrain rhyme with each other and the third line does not rhyme, the quatrain is said to have an "a-a-b-a" rhyme scheme. This rhyme scheme is the one used, for example, in the rubaiyat form. Similarly, an "a-b-b-a" quatrain (what is known as " enclosed rhyme") is used in such forms as the Petrarchan sonnet. Some types of more complicated rhyming schemes have developed names of their own, separate from the "a-b-c" convention, such as the ottava rima and terza rima, discussed below. The types and use of differing rhyming schemes is discussed further in the main article.

Ottava rima
The ottava rima is a poem with a stanza of eight lines with an alternating a-b rhyming scheme for the first six lines followed by a closing couplet first used by Boccaccio. This rhyming scheme was developed for heroic epics but has also been used for mock-heroic poetry.
Dante and terza rima

Dante's Divine Comedy is written in terza rima, where each stanza has three lines, with the first and third rhyming, and the second line rhyming with the first and third lines of the next stanza (thus, a-b-a / b-c-b / c-d-c, etc.) in a chain rhyme. The terza rima provides a flowing, progressive sense to the poem, and used skillfully it can evoke a sense of motion, both forward and backward. Terza rima is appropriately used in lengthy poems in languages with rich rhyming schemes (such as Italian, with its many common word endings).

Poetic form

Poetic form is very much more flexible nowadays than ever before. Many modern poets eschew recognisable structures or forms, and write in 'free verse'. However, major structural elements often used in poetry are the line, the stanza or verse paragraph, and larger combinations of stanzas or lines such as cantos. The broader visual presentation of words and calligraphy can also be utilized. These basic units of poetic form are often combined into larger structures, called poetic forms, such as the sonnet.


Poetry is often separated into lines on a page. These lines may be based on the number of metrical feet, or may emphasize a rhyming pattern at the ends of lines. Lines may serve other functions, particularly where the poem is not written in a formal metrical pattern. Lines can separate, compare or contrast thoughts expressed in different units, or can highlight a change in tone.

Lines may be combined into couplets, a combination of two lines which may or may not relate to each other by rhyme or rhythm. For example, a couplet may be two lines with identical meters which rhyme or two lines held together by a common meter alone. Lines also may be combined into triplets, or sets of three lines. Lines are often grouped into verses or stanzas, which often have related couplets or triplets within them.

Alexander Blok's poem Noch, ulica, fonar, apteka, or Night, street, lamp, drugstore, on a wall in Leiden.
Alexander Blok's poem Noch, ulica, fonar, apteka, or Night, street, lamp, drugstore, on a wall in Leiden.

Stanzas and verse paragraphs

Related lines of poems are often organized into stanzas, which are denominated by the number of lines included. Thus a collection of four lines is a quatrain, six lines is a sestet and eight lines is an octet. Two lines form a couplet (or distich), three lines a triplet or tercet, and five lines a quintain (or cinquain). Other poems may be organized into a verse paragraphs, in which regular rhymes with established rhythms are not used, but the poetic tone is instead established by a collection of rhythms, alliterations, and rhymes established in paragraph form. Many medieval poems were written in verse paragraphs, even where regular rhymes and rhythms were used.

In many forms of poetry, stanzas are interlocking, so that the rhyming scheme or other structural elements of one stanza determine those of succeeding stanzas. Examples of such interlocking stanzas include, for example, the ghazal and the villanelle, where a refrain (or, in the case of the villanelle, refrains) is established in the first stanza which then repeats in subsequent stanzas. Related to the use of interlocking stanzas is their use to separate thematic parts of a poem. For example, the strophe, antistrophe and epode of the ode form are often separated into one or more stanzas. In such cases, or where structures are meant to be highly formal, a stanza will usually form a complete thought, consisting of full sentences and cohesive thoughts.

In some cases, particularly lengthier formal poetry such as some forms of epic poetry, stanzas themselves are constructed according to strict rules and then combined. In skaldic poetry, the dróttkvætt stanza had eight lines, each having three "lifts" produced with alliteration or assonance. In addition to two or three alliterations, the odd numbered lines had partial rhyme of consonants with dissimilar vowels, not necessarily at the beginning of the word; the even lines contained internal rhyme in set syllables (not necessarily at the end of the word). Each half-line had exactly six syllables, and each line ended in a trochee. The arrangement of dróttkvætts followed far less rigid rules than the construction of the individual dróttkvætts.

Qur'an Fragment, Sura 33: 73–74
Qur'an Fragment, Sura 33: 73–74

Visual presentation

Even before the advent of printing, the appearance of written poetry often added significant meaning or depth. Acrostic poems included clues or meanings in the letters beginning lines or in other specific places in a poem. In Arabic, Hebrew, and Chinese poetry, the presentation of the poems in fine calligraphy has always been an important part of the overall artistic and poetic effect for many poems.

With the advent of printing, poets gained greater control over the mass produced visual presentation of their work. As a result, the use of visual elements became an important part of the poet's toolbox, and many poets have sought to use visual presentation for a wide range of purposes. Some Modernist poetry takes this to an extreme, with the placement of individual lines or groups of lines on the page forming an integral part of the poem's composition, whether to complement the poem's rhythm through various lengthed visual caesuras, to create juxtapositions to accentuate meaning, ambiguity or irony, or simply to create an aesthetically pleasing form. In its most extreme form, this can lead to concrete poetry or asemic writing.

Poetic diction

Illustration for the cover of Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market and Other Poems (1862), by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Goblin Market used complex poetic diction in nursery rhyme form: "We must not look at goblin men, / We must not buy their fruits: / Who knows upon what soil they fed / Their hungry thirsty roots?"
Illustration for the cover of Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market and Other Poems (1862), by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Goblin Market used complex poetic diction in nursery rhyme form: "We must not look at goblin men, / We must not buy their fruits: / Who knows upon what soil they fed / Their hungry thirsty roots?"

Poetic diction describes the manner in which language is used and refers not only to the sound but also to the underlying meaning and its interaction with sound and form. Many languages and poetic forms have very specific poetic dictions, to the point where separate grammars and dialects are used specifically for poetry. Poetic diction can include rhetorical devices such as simile and metaphor, as well as tones of voice, such as irony. Aristotle wrote in the Poetics that "the greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor". Since the rise of Modernism, some poets have opted for a poetic diction that deemphasizes rhetorical devices, attempting the direct presentation of things and experiences and the exploration of tone. On the other hand, Surrealists have pushed rhetorical devices to their limits, making frequent use of catachresis.

Allegorical stories are central to the poetic diction of many cultures, and were prominent in the west during classical times, the late Middle Ages and Renaisance. Rather than being fully allegorical, a poem may contain symbols or allusion that deepens the meaning or impact of its words without constructing a full allegory. Another strong element of poetic diction can be the use of vivid imagery for effect. The juxtaposition of unexpected or impossible images is, for example, a particularly strong element in surrealist poetry and haiku. Vivid images are often endowed with symbolism as well.

Many poetic dictions will use repetitive phrases for effect, either a short phrase (such as Homer's "rosy-fingered dawn") or a longer refrain. Such repetition can add a somber tone to a poem, as in many odes, or can be laced with irony as the context of the words change. For example, in Antony's famous eulogy to in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Anthony's repetition of the words "for Brutus is an honorable man" moves from a sincere tone to one that exudes irony.

Common poetic forms

Historically, very specific and formalized poetic forms have been developed by many cultures. In more developed, closed or "received" forms, rhyming scheme, meter and other elements of a poem are based on sets of rules, ranging from the relatively loose rules that govern the construction of an elegy to the highly formalized structure of the ghazal or villanelle. Below are described some common forms of poetry widely used across several languages. Additional forms of poetry can be found in the discussions of poetry of particular cultures or periods or in the glossary.


Among the most common form of poetry through the ages is the sonnet, which, by the thirteenth century, was a poem of fourteen lines following a strict rhyme scheme and logical structure. The conventions associated with the sonnet have changed during its history, and so there are several different sonnet forms. Traditionally, English poets use iambic pentameter when writing sonnets, with the Spenserian and Shakespearean sonnets being especially notable. In the Romance languages, the hendecasyllable and Alexandrines are the most widely used meters, although the Petrarchan sonnet has been used in Italy since the 14th century. Sonnets are particularly associated with love poetry, and often use a poetic diction heavily based on vivid imagery, but the twists and turns associated with the move from octave to sestet and to final couplet make them a useful and dynamic form for many subjects. Shakespeare's sonnets are among the most famous in English poetry, with 20 being included in the Oxford Book of English Verse.


The jintishi (近體詩) is a Chinese poetic form based on a series of set tonal patterns using the four tones of the classical Chinese language in each couplet: the level, rising, falling and entering tones. The basic form of the jintishi has eight lines in four couplets, with parallelism between the lines in the second and third couplets. The couplets with parallel lines contain contrasting content but an identical grammatical relationship between words. Jintishi often have a rich poetic diction, full of allusion, and can have a wide range of subject, including history and politics. One of the masters of the form was Du Fu, who wrote during the Tang Dynasty in the 8th century. There are several variations on the basic form of the jintishi.


The Villanelle is a nineteen-line poem made up of five triplets with a closing quatrain; the poem is characterized by having two refrains, initially used in the first and third lines of the first stanza, and then alternately used at the close of each subsequent stanza until the final quatrain, which is concluded by the two refrains. The remaining lines of the poem have an a-b alternating rhyme. The villanelle has been used regularly in the English language since the late nineteenth century by such poets as Dylan Thomas, W.H. Auden, and Elizabeth Bishop. It is a form that has gained heavier use at a time when the use of received forms of poetry has generally been declining.


The Tanka is a form of Japanese poetry, generally not possessing rhyme, with five lines structured in a 5-7-5 7-7 patterns. The 5-7-5 phrase (the "upper phrase") and the 7-7 phrase (the "lower phrase") generally show a shift in tone and subject matter. Tanka were written as early as the Nara period by such poets as Kakinomoto no Hitomaro, at a time when Japan was emerging from a period where much of its poetry followed Chinese form. Tanka was originally the shorter form of Japanese formal poetry, and was used more heavily to explore personal rather than public themes. It thus had a more informal poetic diction. By the 13th century, Tanka had become the dominant form of Japanese poetry, and it is still widely written today.


Odes were first developed by poets writing in ancient Greek, such as Pindar, and Latin, such as Horace, and forms of odes appear in many of the cultures influenced by the Greeks and Latins. The ode generally has three parts: a strophe, an antistrophe, and an epode. The antistrophes of the ode possess similar metrical structures and, depending on the tradition, similar rhyme structures. In contrast, the epode is written with a different scheme and structure. Odes have a formal poetic diction, and general dealing with a serious subject. The strophe and antistrophe look at the subject from different, often conflicting, perspectives, with the epode moving to a higher level to either view or resolve the underlying issues. Odes are often intended to be recited or sung by two choruses (or individuals), with the first reciting the strophe, the second the antistrophe, and both together the epode. Over time, differing forms for odes have developed with considerable variations in form and structure, but generally showing the original influence of the Pindaric or Horatian ode. One non-Western form which resemble the ode is the qasida in Persian poetry.


The ghazal (Arabic: غزل) is a form of poetry common in Arabic, Persian, Urdu and Bengali poetry among others. In classic form, the ghazal has from five to fifteen rhyming couplets that share a refrain at the end of the second line (which need be of only a few syllables). Each line has an identical meter, and there is a set pattern of rhymes in the first couplet and among the refrains. Each couplet forms a complete thought and stands alone, and the overall ghazal often reflects on a theme of unattainable love or divinity. The last couplet generally includes the signature of the author. Like other forms with a long history in many languages, many variations have been developed, including forms with a quasi-musical poetic diction in Urdu. Ghazals have a classical affinity with Sufism, and a number of major Sufi religious works are written in ghazal form. The relatively steady meter and the use of the refrain produce an incantatory effect, which complements Sufi mystical themes well. Among the masters of the form is the Persian poet Rumi.

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