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A haiku is a Japanese three-line poem composed of simple, striking language in a 5-7-5 structure of moras, or rhythmic sound units similar to a syllable. In translating Japanese into English, this rhythm shifts slightly to accommodate for the sounds heard in either language. (To an English speaker, the word “haiku” sounds like two syllables; in Japanese, it is three.) This effect is on display in this example of a classical haiku poem by the masterful Matsuo Basho (1644-1694):
a worm digs silently
into the chestnut.
The ultra-brief Japanese tanka is traditionally presented as a single unbroken sentence containing 31 syllables; when translated into English, the number of lines typically takes a three, or five-line form in order to highlight the turn or twist at the last third of the poem. Contemporary poet Machi Tawara is credited with bringing tanka to modern audiences with poems like this:
Cherry, cherry cherry trees begin to bloom,
and bloom is over —
In the park where nothing (it seems) ever happened.
Sijo is a three-line poem that is believed to have first appeared in fourteenth-century Korea. Sijo poems follow a structure familiar to fans of Japanese haiku and tanka: There are three lines in total, each with about 14–16 syllables, for a total syllable count of 44–46. The rhythm and lilt of each line is determined by its grouping pattern; poets can and do take liberties with how these groups are formed, but the total syllable count for the line remains the same. The oldest surviving sijo is often attributed to U T’ak (1262–1342):
The spring breeze melted snow on the hills then quickly disappeared.
I wish I could borrow it briefly to blow over my hair
And melt away the aging frost forming now about my ears.
Acrostic poems are a type of poem where the first letter of each line (or each paragraph) forms a hidden word or message. Useful for odes to your beloved or forms of dissent—public resignations by disgruntled officials are a particularly popular place to deploy one—acrostics can be very simple and spare, or take a more understated form in full verse, like the below, written by Lewis Carroll as a Christmas present for the Liddell girls, Lorina, Alice, and Edith, in 1861:
Little maidens, when you look
On this little story-book,
Reading with attentive eye
Its enticing history,
Never think that hours of play
Are your only HOLIDAY.
And that in a HOUSE of joy
Lessons serve but to annoy:
If in any HOUSE you find
Children of a gentle mind,
Each the others pleasing ever.
Each the others vexing never-
Daily work and pastime daily
In their order taking gaily-
Then be very sure that they
Have a life of HOLIDAY.
In the early 1900s, an American poet named Adelaide Crapsey, inspired by Japanese haiku and tanka verse, created a simple five-line poetic form. The subject matter is usually nature, in keeping with her inspiration, and the mood is energetic. The first line and the last line mirror one another in sound, and the number of syllables increases by two with each line before abruptly decreasing: 2-4-6-8-2. This technique can be seen in her cinquain “Snow.”
From bleakening hills
Blows down the light, first breath
Of wintry wind…look up, and scent
Think Like a Pro
In his first-ever online class, former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins teaches you how to find joy, humor, and humanity in reading and writing poetry.View Class
A favorite of troublemakers everywhere, limericks are known for their wit and sly humor. Composed of five lines, three long and two short, with the rhyme scheme AABBA, the form owes its popularity to the creative, mischievous mind of the nineteenth-century artist and writer Edward Lear. Rudeness and a naturally sing-songy rhythm is the lifeblood of a good limerick, and Shakespear wrote one for his character Iago to sing in the play Othello:
And let me the canakin clink, clink;
And let me the canakin clink
A soldier’s a man;
A life’s but a span;
Why, then, let a soldier drink.
Sonnets may be the ultimate showcase for iambic pentameter (the most commonly used metric line of alternating stressed and unstressed syllables) in English poetry. Though often associated with love thanks to William Shakespeare, sonnets have been around since the thirteenth-century Italy, where they were known as “little songs.” Sonnets have 14 lines, with 10 syllables apiece, and no set rhyme scheme. Edgar Allen Poe is widely thought to be the first American poet to utilize the form: here’s one he published in 1840, called “Silence.”
There are some qualities—some incorporate things
That have a double life—life aptly made,
The type of that twin entity which springs
From matter and light, evinced in solid and shade.
There is a two-fold Silence—sea and shore—
Body and soul. One dwells in lonely places,
Newly with grass o’ergrown. Some solemn graces
Some human memories and tearful lore,
Render him terrorless—his name’s “No More.”
He is the corporate Silence—dread him not!
No power hath he of evil in himself;
But should some urgent fate—untimely lot!
Bring thee to meet his shadow (nameless elf,
Who haunteth the dim regions where hath trod
No foot of man)—commend thyself to God!
Like the Shakespearean sonnet, the Petrarchan sonnet—which was created first—also has 14 lines. The first eight lines, or octave, follow the rhyme scheme ABBAABBA, but the rule lifts for the remaining six, the sestet. (Italian writer Petrarch was known for his use of the form, and favored CDCCDC or CDECDE). Traditionally, the octave sets up a theme, be it a problem, or question, and the sestet answers. Here’s a Petrarchan sonnet, “When I Consider How My Light is Spent,” from the author of Paradise Lost, John Milton:
When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest He returning chide;
“Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
Either man’s work or His own gifts. Who best
Bear His mild yoke, they serve Him best. His state
Is kingly: thousands at His bidding speed,
And post o’er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait.”
A couplet simply refers to a pair of successive lines in verse. Couplets can rhyme, or not; they can stand alone, or appear as a single stanza in a larger whole.
Take this example of a rhyming couplet from Shakespeare’s dialogue in A Midsummer Night’s Dream:
Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind;
And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.
And this non-rhyming asymmetric structure in Walt Whitman’s standalone “To You:”
Stranger! if you, passing, meet me, and desire to speak to me, why should you not speak to me?
And why should I not speak to you.
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