Writing

Poetry 101: What Is Poetic Form? Learn About 15 Different Types of Poems

Written by MasterClass

May 17, 2019 • 4 min read

Human poetry dates back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. Since that time, the artform has continued to evolve, taking on different forms to serve a wide range of artistic intentions. From sonnets and epics to haikus and villanelles, here are some of history’s most enduring poetic forms.

Here you’ll find the 15 most common types of poems with examples.

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Blank Verse

Blank verse is poetry written with a precise meter—almost always iambic pentameter—that does not rhyme. William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, and John Milton are among the most famous purveyors of blank verse. Learn more about blank verse poetry here.

Rhymed Poem

In contrast to blank verse, rhymed poems rhyme by definition, although their scheme varies. Learn more about rhymed poetry here.

  • Couplet-based poetry contains pairs of rhyming lines. Learn more about couplets here.
  • Quatrain-based poetry contains four-line groupings where alternate lines typically alternate. Learn more about quatrains here.
  • Tercet-based poetry contains three-line groupings. Sometimes all three lines rhyme with one another. Learn more about tercets here.

Free Verse

Free verse poetry is poetry that lacks a consistent rhyme scheme, metrical pattern, or musical form. While free verse poems are not devoid of structure, they allow enormous leeway for poets, particularly when compared to more metrically strict forms like blank verse. Much of contemporary free verse traces its influences back to Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass anthology. Learn more about free verse poetry here.

Epic

An epic poem is a lengthy, narrative work of poetry. These long poems typically detail extraordinary feats and adventures of characters from a distant past. The word “epic” comes from the ancient Greek term “epos,” which means “story, word, poem.” Learn more about epics here.

Narrative

Similar to an epic, a narrative poem tells a story. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” exemplify this form.

Haiku

A haiku is a three-line poetic form originating in Japan. The first line has five syllables, the second line has seven syllables, and the third line again has five syllables. Haikus frequently explore nature as a topic. Learn more about haikus here.

Pastoral

A pastoral poem is one that concerns the natural world, rural life, and landscapes. These poems have persevered from Ancient Greece (in the poetry of Hesiod) to Ancient Rome (Virgil) to the present day (Gary Snyder). Learn more about pastoral poetry here.

Sonnet

A sonnet is a 14 line poem, typically (but not exclusively) concerning the topic of love. Sonnets contain internal rhymes within their 14 lines; the exact rhyme scheme depends on the style of sonnet. The word “sonnet” itself stems from the Italian word “sonetto,” which itself derives from the Latin “suono,” meaning “a sound.” The commonly credited originator of the sonnet is Giacomo da Lentini, who composed poetry in the literary Sicilian dialect in the thirteenth century.

  • The Petrarchan Sonnet is named after the Italian poet Francesco Petrarch, a lyrical poet of fourteenth-century Italy. Its 14 lines are divided into two subgroups: an octave and a sestet. The octave follows a rhyme scheme of ABBA ABBA. The sestet follows one of two rhyme schemes—either CDE CDE scheme (more common) or CDC CDC. Learn more about Petrarchan sonnets here.
  • The Shakespearean Sonnet is a variation on the Italian sonnet tradition. The form evolved in England during and around the time of the Elizabethan era. These sonnets are sometimes referred to as Elizabethan sonnets or English sonnets. They have 14 lines divided into 4 subgroups: 3 quatrains and a couplet. Each line is typically ten syllables, phrased in iambic pentameter. A Shakespearean sonnet employs the rhyme scheme ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. Learn more about Shakespearean sonnets here.

Elegy

An elegy is a poem that reflects upon death or loss. Traditionally, it contains themes of mourning, loss, and reflection. However, it can also explore themes of redemption and consolation. Learn more about elegies here.

Ode

Much like an elegy, an ode is a tribute to its subject, although the subject need not be dead—or even sentient, as in John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn”. Learn more about odes here.

Limerick

A limerick is a five-line poem that consists of a single stanza, an AABBA rhyme scheme, and whose subject is a short, pithy tale or description. Most limericks are comedic, some are downright crude—and nearly all are trivial in nature. Learn more about limericks here.

Lyric

Lyric poetry refers to the broad category of poetry that concerns feelings and emotion. This distinguishes it from two other poetic categories: epic and dramatic. Learn more about lyric poetry here.

Ballad

A ballad (or ballade) is a form of narrative verse that can be either poetic or musical. It typically follows a pattern of rhymed quatrains. From John Keats to Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Bob Dylan, it represents a melodious form of storytelling. Learn more about ballads here.

Soliloquy

A soliloquy is a monologue in which a character speaks to him or herself, expressing inner thoughts that an audience might not otherwise know. Soliloquies are not definitionally poems, although they often can be—most famously in the plays of William Shakespeare. Learn more about soliloquies here.

Villanelle

A nineteen-line poem consisting of five tercets and a quatrain, with a highly specified internal rhyme scheme. Originally a variation on a pastoral, the villanelle has evolved to describe obsessions and other intense subject matters, as exemplified by Dylan Thomas, author of villanelles like “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.”

Learn more about reading and writing poetry in US Poet Laureate Billy Collins’s MasterClass.