You might think poetry would be super simple to write, simply because some of the earliest stories we learn are nursery rhymes. But there's a reason we outgrow nursery rhymes. In fact, many poets are adamant that they write poetry and not verse – the former, according to them, being "the serious stuff" while the latter is neither serious nor particularly good. There isn't a hard and fast line between "poetry" and "verse." For some people, the difference amounts to whether the lines rhyme or not. ("Serious poetry" being the kind that doesn't rhyme, of course.)
But the fact is that a lot of "verse" – think Dr. Seuss – is known and loved by more people than a lot of "serious poetry." (I doubt that most people can quote any lines from Beowulf, but almost everybody can quote lines from Green Eggs and Ham. Right, Sam-I-Am?) So don't let that elitist attitude make you feel bad about writing things you enjoy. The trick is learning how to get the effect you want… and get it on purpose, not by accident.
Types of PoetryThere are many different ways to structure a poem. While you don't have to know all of them in order to write poetry, it's easier to find examples to learn from when you know what you're looking for. You'll even find some of these differences between various nursery rhymes.
Many people think that free verse has no structure, but that's not true. Free verse is structured largely with repetition – repeated sounds, words, or phrases. But the lines are usually all different lengths, while "standard" poetry tends to have lines that are all the same length… or, in some cases, verses or stanzas (a group of several lines) that have the same pattern of lengths.
Some languages simply count the number of syllables in each line of poetry. Those are called syllabic poems. That's more common when the poetry is written in languages other than English – French, for example. It can be done in English, but the effect isn't the same. A classic example of this is the Japanese form we call haiku. Most people are taught that haiku are poems of 17 syllables – 3 lines with 5, 7, and 5 syllables respectively. Actually, Japanese haiku typically have 17 onji, which are sounds rather than syllables. It might take 2 or 3 onji to make one English syllable. The 17-syllable English haiku is still a valid form for a poem; it just isn't the same thing as a Japanese haiku.
In some languages syllables aren't all the same length, so those languages often use patterns of long and short syllables. These poems are sometimes called quantitative syllabic poems. The original Greek and Latin epic poems – like the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid – are good examples.
In English we don't necessarily have long and short syllables, but we do use strong and weak stresses on words. For example, we say LAtin and japaNESE, not laTIN or jaPAnese. We call poetry that uses stresses for structure accentual poetry. It might help to think of it like music, with a steady one-two-three-four strong stress rhythm per line, but you can put as many or as few weak-stressed syllables between them as will fit. This is common in Old English poetry, like Beowulf, and in some nursery rhymes and jump rope rhymes.
Imagine jumping rope to this line:
"i WENT to the STORE but then i CAME back HOME."The four words in all caps are "on the beat," equally spaced apart in a steady one-two-three-four rhythm like I mentioned. But look at the unstressed syllables: There's one in front of WENT, then two between WENT and STORE, three between STORE and CAME, then one between CAME and HOME. Still, I bet you had no problem keeping the rhythm, did you? That's accentual poetry at work.
But by far the most common kind of English poetry is what we call accentual-syllabic poetry. That means the number of unstressed syllables between the stressed ones stay pretty much the same all the time. (In practice, we do change them occasionally to keep our poems from becoming singsong, but most the time they stay the same.)
The Terms You Need to KnowAnd this is where it gets complicated for many would-be poets. There are a lot of terms we use to describe how accentual-syllabic poetry is structured. Let me make it really simple for you.
We create patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables that we call feet. A foot usually has two or three syllables. One of those syllables is stressed; the remaining ones are unstressed. And yes, most of these combinations have names, which is why people get so confused. One of the most commonly-used feet is the iamb, which is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one, like this: da-DUM.
Each line of poetry has a certain number of these feet in it. The number of feet is called the meter, and the most common meters are tetrameter (four feet) and pentameter (five feet).
So when we describe the basic form of a poem using accentual-syllabic poetry, we usually give the meter and the most common foot used in that meter. For example, most of Shakespeare's plays, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Milton's Paradise Lost, Spenser's Faerie Queene, and a lot of other classic poems are written in iambic pentameter. That means each line of poetry has 5 feet, and the most common foot is an iamb. The basic rhythm of a line sounds like:
da DUM / da DUM / da DUM / da DUM / da DUM(BTW, those particular poems I just mentioned are sometimes called blank verse, which just means that the iambic pentameter lines don't rhyme… at least, not on purpose. Apparently poets didn't get so upset when people called their poetry "verse" back then.)
One last thing: When we say a poem is written in a specific meter, we mean that most of the lines in the poem fit that rhythm. Most poets vary the lines a little, just to keep their poems from turning into droning singsong that puts you to sleep.
Those are the basics for understanding the structure of poetry. In the next post I'll look specifically at the types of verse that work best for easy readers… at least, according to Dr. Seuss.