Saturday, November 13, 2010
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Poetry 101: The Basics of Poetic Form

The first of a series of light history and tutorials on the basic principles of traditional English poetry, by Michele Cameron Drew.

Turning the pages of any poetry collection, you may notice many different patterns and styles of verse. Some patterns fit so well to express specific ideas or emotions that they have become standard poetic forms. Most experienced poets have used some or all of them at one time or another.

Ballad Form
Probably the most common, easily emulated and oldest forms of poetic expression is the ballad stanza form.  A basic example of the ballad form can be seen in this stanza excerpted from my poem The War.

You may have lost this battle,

But you have not lost the war.

This demon with which you struggle,

Is one that you’ve known before.

This is a quatrain, a four-line stanza. The first and third lines of a ballad stanza are generally tetrameter, while the second and forth lines are generally trimeter.  Only the second and fourth lines rhyme.
Ballad form is used to tell a simple story, often silly or sad. This form lends itself well to variation and is often varied by the poet, experienced or not, but the ballad form is quite easily recognized.


What is iambic pentameter?

Iambic pentameter is how the meter of certain poetic works is described.  An iamb is a metrical foot assigned in formal poetry. The accent is placed on the second syllable of each foot making the iamb sound something like: daDUM. Pentameter tells us that there are 5 iambs to a line(pent meaning 5). This means that a line of iambic pentameter would stress something like this: daDum daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM.
The opposite of an iamb would be called a trochee and sounds like DAdum, placing the stress on the first syllable as opposed to the second.
Although the accent can be varied throughout the lines of a sonnet, it is the traditional, preferred and IMHO best way to follow the above guideline when writing a formal piece of poetry. The quatrain below from my Petrachan  Sonnet XV is an excellent example of iambic pentameter.
Still waters of thine eyes call out to me,

Tranquility in sapphire pools of light.

As skyward angels illumine the night,

Melodic splendor emanates from thee.


Rime Royal

First used by Chaucer in English works, Rime Royal is an old French pattern. Used by many classic poets, including Shakespeare, Rime Royal is made up of seven iambic pentameter lines, generally rhyming (ababbcc). One example of Rime Royal would be Thomas Wyatt's They flee from me that sometime did me seek.
They flee from me that sometime did me seek

With naked foot, stalking in my chamber.

I have seen them gentle, tame, and meek,

That now are wild and do not remember

That sometime they put themself in danger

To take bread at my hand; and now they range,

Busily seeking with a continual change.


Terza Rima(tercet rhyme)

Originating from the Italian, terza rima and ottava rima were introduced into English poetry hundreds of years ago. Tercets are an amazing and beautiful way of weaving a work. Lines of about ten syllables are grouped together in three line stanzas. The second line of the first stanza rhymes with the first and third line of the second stanza, repeating the pattern(aba,bcb,cdc,ede, etc.) to end. This provides an amazing effect when reading, sort of one step forward, two steps back. A good example of this would be Shelley's Ode to the West Wind.
O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being,

Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead

Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing

Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red.

Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou,

Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed...


Ottava Rima

Ottava rima consists of an eight line stanza in iambic pentameter, rhyming (abababcc). Byron provides us with a great example of this form in his work Don Juan.
Go, little book, from this my solitude!

I cast thee on the waters – go thy ways!

And if, as I believe, thy vein be good,

The world will find thee after many days."

When Southey 's read, and Wordsworth understood,

I can't help putting in my claim to praise –

The four first rhymes are Southey's every line:

For God's sake, reader! take them not for mine. 

Stop and breathe in some classic poetry.  As you read over time and reference back to these articles(now that you know a little something more about form), you will begin to notice that you hear and see the patterns jumping from the page more than ever before.
I'm looking forward to bringing you more on poetic form in the future, so stay tuned for the next piece in the series, Poetry 101: How to Write a Proper Sonnet

I have recently added a resources page here on Poetic Expression to highlight my tutorials on poetry and creative writing. You will find this article included in the links as well as a continuation of this series and other articles on creative writing and promotion as they become available.     —M

Copyright © 2010 Michele Cameron Drew. All Rights Reserved.


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