It may be almost impossible to define poetry as a whole, but we can still define the individual types and styles of poems. This is because the different styles of poetry all have their own distinct sets of rules, parameters and characteristics which a piece of writing has to employ to qualify as being that particular style. You can’t have too many lines and have the poem still be called a Haiku, or abandon rhyme structure and still call it a sonnet – and if you’re not sure what I mean by that, then hopefully this article will be of some help.
There are several common types of poetry, and each has its own conventions and sets of rules for how poems of that type need to be structured. Of course some are more complicated and intricate than others, but each can appeal to readers for different reasons and can create different emotional effects through their forms, rhythms, or other tools that are intrinsic to that style. Others abandon all of these rules and conventions, which is why poetry as a whole is impossible to pin down to a concrete definition, but most styles have very specific characteristics.
General / Overall Categories Of Poetry
Before we even think about the most common styles of poetry, there are three main categories that all of these styles fit into. These are sort of the umbrella terms for groups of styles. Almost like the overall categories that fiction can fit into. Some people prefer novels, others prefer plays, while others prefer short stories. Then within those types of fiction, you find loads of genres and subgenres to fit everyone’s particular taste. Poetry works in the same way, with three overall categories, each with their own subgenres and styles within them.
Epic poetry is a full length story told as a poem. These were essentially the predecessor of the novel, and have been almost completely replaced by novels as the preferred method of longform storytelling throughout the centuries. These poems tend to be much older and follow a strict rhyme structure to make them more memorable and melodic. Notable examples would be ‘Paradise Lost’ by John Milton, or ‘The Iliad’ and ‘The Odyssey’ by Homer.
Dramatic poetry also tends to be a longer form of poetry, which is usually written in the form of a script to be performed by a very limited number of characters. These tend to depict a scene, short story, conversation, or a monologue such as in ‘Ulysses’ by Tennyson. These types of poems are also much more rare these days.
The next general category that most poetry styles fall under is Lyric poetry. These are poems which tend to be short, told from the perspective of a single voice or narrator (who may quote other characters, but it is generally told from a single viewpoint). The poems originated (much like Epic poetry) in ancient Greece, and was generally written to be spoken or sung with the accompaniment of music played on a stringed instrument called a Lyre. Essentially, the vast majority of styles and types of poetry that we know and read today are forms of lyric poetry, because they tend to be in this shorter form, and usually just explore one character, emotion, situation or message.
Because this is by far the most common category, all of the styles that the majority of people are most familiar with in poetry are classed under this umbrella term of lyric poetry. So, while Dramatic and Epic poetry can be classed as their own standalone types, the rest of the styles listed here are different forms of Lyric poetry.
Ballads are one of the oldest forms of lyric poetry and were written originally as literally that – they were song lyrics to be performed by travelling Bards and Balladeers. Modern songs are still written in the same style and form as ballads, with defined rhythm and strict rhyme structure to aid the melody of the words, usually arranged in four line stanzas (quatrains) and often have a chorus or refrain which is repeated throughout. Ballads and songs are usually a self-contained narrative, or concentrate on a single perspective or message.
An Ode is a lyric poem which is designed to praise or celebrate an individual, a thing, or an idea. They usually have a regal or elevated tone, involve a lot of hyperbole and lofty comparisons and often use extensive metaphors and rich imagery. Like ballads, these were historically performed to music, and many would be written in a similar form or structure as a ballad. What makes a poem specifically an ode, and not just a ballad or any other style it might conform to, is the content of the poem and the amount of elevation and praise that it gives the subject. Odes can be about people, places, events, or anything else which the writer is significantly moved to write about, but the aim is always to praise that thing or subject as being the absolute center of the universe.
There are a few traditional styles of ode, which each have their own specific structure. Although they can now be written using any structure, or even in free verse, odes began with their own unique characteristics and conventions. Starting, as many traditions did, in ancient Greece, odes are generally thought to have been invented (or at least popularised) by Pindar, so the oldest style of these poems is called the ‘Pindaric Ode’. These odes were written as elaborate celebrations, with performances by choruses of singers, troops of dancers, orchestras of musicians, and even accompanied by theatrical performances. They were an entire production, and they were written as dramatic three part poems. The first two stanzas (the Strophe and Antistrophe) would each be the same length and follow the same meter and rhyme structure. They would present one side of an argument or debate in the first stanza, and the counterargument or opposing viewpoint in the second. The last stanza (the Epode) would then break the rhythm set in the rest of the poem, standing apart and giving some kind of judgement or conclusion to the problem. This was most commonly just a couplet, where the first line was longer than the second.
‘Horatian Odes’ are named after another ancient Greek poet, Horace, who wrote much less dramatic, and more personal odes. These would tend to keep their structure throughout and most often were written in quatrains or couplets. The style has been used by many poets since, but usually with longer stanzas than Horace himself had used.
Lastly, there is the ‘Irregular Ode’, which as mentioned earlier, are any odes which don’t fit into these specific styles, or are written with the conventions of another style. It could have no formal structure at all, but would be classed as an ode as long as it praises, glorifies, exalts or elevates the subject with indulgent and hyperbolic language.
A sonnet is a type of poem that has a set structure, which always contains fourteen lines. They are usually about a single subject or person, but quite often present two opposing perspectives or viewpoints of the subject (whoever or whatever the subject of the poem may be). These poems tend to center around themes of love, appreciation of nature, and humankind’s place and purpose in the world.
The sonnet originated in Italy, where the form was popularised by poets such as Francesco Petrach, who was greatly admired and widely read during his lifetime (and long after), but the style was adopted and made popular to English speaking audiences by William Shakespeare approximately two centuries later. The Italian or ‘Petrarchan’ sonnets were divided into two sections, which each presented an opposing argument or viewpoint of the poem’s subject. These sections are called the octave (the first eight lines) and the sestet (the remaining six lines). The octave contains a repeated rhyme structure of ABBA-ABBA, and this presents a problem or one side of an argument, while the sestet has a rhyme scheme of CDE-CDE, and this presents the solution to the problem or an opposing argument.
Shakespearean or Elizabethan sonnets were changed to accommodate the more diverse word-endings found in English as opposed to Italian. With the complexities of the language making it harder for English-speaking poets to adopt the same rhyme structure as their Italian counterparts, Shakespeare created his own rhyme structure, which allowed more variation in the rhymes being used. These sonnets consist of three quatrains (four lines containing alternating rhymes in an ABAB, CDCD, EFEF pattern) which is followed by a rhyming couplet (two lines together which end with a rhyme) at the end (GG).
Both types of sonnet tended to use a convention called a Volta, which was a turning point of some kind in the poem. While the Italian sonnet would present a different opinion or counterargument in the final section (usually at the 8th line), the Shakespearean sonnet usually observes a scene or presents one viewpoint throughout the quatrains, then presents the counterargument or some kind of narrator commentary on the subject of the poem in the final couplet. This is not always the case, and sometimes the quatrains each contain different parts to a story or different opinions, with the couplet making a final judgement at the end, or sometimes the couplet does not differ in voice or tone from the rest of the poem. But then, there are always exceptions to every rule, and Shakespeare was always eager to break conventions, even if they were conventions he himself had popularised.
The tradition also gave rise to the Spenserian sonnet – named after Sir Edmund Spenser, who essentially took Shakespeare’s idea of reducing the number of rhymes in a sonnet, and did the opposite. Although he retained the Shakespearean structure of three quatrains and a couplet, he intensified the rhyme scheme to include overlapping rhymes between the first and second quatrain, and then also between the second and third quatrain. So while Shakespeare changed the format to allow more variety, Spenser chose to make his sonnets more intricate. The rhyme scheme for a Spenserian sonnet therefore follows a pattern of ABAB, BCBC, CDCD, EE. Using the same number of rhymes as the original Italian sonnets, but in a form closer to its English counterpart, this style is essentially a compromise or hybrid between the two.
There are many other styles which have also been invented as variations on the sonnet, but they are far less common than the ones above. Needless to say, the sonnet is one of the most famous and influential styles in western poetry, so there are probably more variants within this style than any other.
An Elegy is a type of poem which is mainly identified by its subject, rather than its form or other linguistic conventions. They are poems about loss and grief, so they are any poems which are about death, or the losing or leaving behind of beloved objects, places, or other memories. These inevitably have darker emotional tones, use cold or unpleasant imagery, and usually employ a slower, more steady or subtle rhythm.
A Haiku is a type of poem which fits into a very strict structure and is one of the shortest forms of poetry in this list. Although brief, Haiku are a very popular form of poetry which have become even more widespread in recent years. They are a traditional Japanese form of poetry which tend to be highly descriptive, powerfully visual, and most often involve a lot of natural imagery. Each poem (in their English form) is only three lines long, with the first and last being five syllables each, while the middle line has seven. They are most often written in present tense and usually have a word, phrase or image to imply or indicate the season in which the Haiku is set.
This extremely short form has proven to be increasingly popular in the age of social media, as it is a style which is ideal for making eye-catching, snappy posts which are generally the most successful in terms of gaining likes and followers etc.
The original Japanese form of the poem is written in one vertical line, split up into three phrases that each contain a ‘kireji’ or ‘cutting word’. There is no real equivalent to these in English, but they serve a similar function as a comma or line break in some ways, indicating a pause or breath in the line, which can be used to emphasise or subvert the meaning of the phrase compared to how it would be read without the pause.
Haiku evolved from a type of stanza in Japanese poetry called a Hokku (which translates as ‘starting verse’). These were the types of stanzas which were used as the opening section of two popular forms/structures of poetry – Renga and Renku. When people started to write these stanzas as standalone poems in their own right, they were given the name Haiku.
There are several other Japanese forms of poetry which are similar to Haiku, such as the Senryu, which is the same structure and rhythm, but rather than focusing on nature and pleasant imagery, tends to be dark humour based on human nature. There are also Zappai, which have the same seventeen syllables of a Haiku, but are not arranged in the formal structure of Haiku and Senryu.
Epigrams are short, witty statements which usually end in a humorous, satirical or subversive line. These can be as short as a single line or sentence, and it is their brevity which makes them epigrams, as opposed to just being humorous poems. This is a bit of a strange classification, because many famous epigrams would not be considered as poems, but rather just pithy or clever turns of phrase. There are poems which can be considered epigrams, but much like with elegies, it is much more about the content than the actual style or conforming to a specific form other than being short.
Limericks are five line poems, which are usually comical or surprising in some way. Their first, second and fifth lines all rhyme with each other and are structured to be three to five feet long. (A foot is a measurement of rhythm created in poetry by the syllables of the words, with a stressed and unstressed syllable combining to make one ‘foot’.) The remaining lines of the limerick (lines 3 & 4) are shorter – tending to be two to three feet in length. Originally, the first and last lines of a limerick would be the same, using the repetition to bookend the poem or for emphasis. A good example of that is the popular children’s limerick ‘Hickory Dickory Dock’. This practice has faded away over time, and the final line is now more often a punchline or subversion of the expected to create humour or impact at the end.
Blank Verse & Free Verse
Blank Verse and Free Verse poetry are often confused as being the same thing, but they are actually two very distinct styles of poetry. They are both styles which do not employ rhyme schemes (at least, not structured end-rhymes), but they do have an important difference. Blank verse is still written with a deliberate rhythm or meter. This can be a traditional meter, such as iambic pentameter, or conforming to original patterns established by the writer. Either way, the rhythm of the poem will be apparent and consistent throughout the piece.
Free Verse poetry is the only style of poetry which abandons the necessity for rhythm. While it is clear that there are widely different tools and conventions that can be employed by the different styles of poetry, the one thing which is consistent throughout all of the other styles is the need for some sort of rhythm, whether it be a specific meter for that style or just a consistent number of feet throughout the piece. With Free Verse, there are no fixed patterns throughout the poem. This includes structured rhyme, set patterns for the meter, or any other repeated linguistic tools which are common to other styles. While free verse can include things like alliteration and rhyme, it cannot include it in any fixed pattern, or else it then ceases to be free verse, and becomes just a new style that the writer has invented.
I hope that you have found this introduction to these common styles helpful. Please feel free to check out my other articles about poetry or check out some of my own poetry by clicking here.