genre and stanza in poetryReader Expectations

If you're commissioned to write a piece for a popular golfing magazine, the editor will not expect the bland prose of 'corporation-speak', nor to have the piece interlarded with literary quotations. Similarly, a thriller written as a literary novel will probably not be published in either category.

Readers, critics and publishing houses like to know what they are dealing with, and the greater literary skills lavished on the crime setting will not be appreciated — quite the opposite, as they will undermine the cozy conventions of stock characters, plots and endings. Poetry lovers are equally creatures of habit, and their reading is through various conventions. An experimental poem will make no sense to devotees of the New Formalism, and avant garde magazines will reject the rhyming poem as a pointless and inauthentic exercise.

Beginners are therefore advised to study the market before submitting: not simply skim through a few web pages but actually purchase the magazines concerned, studying them carefully. Professionals generally go one step further, and write with a certain magazine in mind. That may seem cynical, but the exercise of crafting to a particular style or format is a valuable one, enabling poets to see their work in contemporary context. For a similar reason, professionals also give up their limited time to workshops, not only to renew contacts, but to trim their work to catch the winds of fresh concerns and enthusiasms.

This page can only be the briefest introduction to what is an immense field, but readers may wish to consult the short list of introductory books below, and to follow the links to Internet sites for explanation and illustration.


A broad classification is still useful.


An epic poem is a long poem narrating the heroic exploits of an individual in a way central to the beliefs and culture of his or her society. Typical elements are fabulous adventures, superhuman deeds, polyphonic composition, majestic language and a craftsmanship deploying the full range of literary devices, from lyrical to dramatic. Nonetheless, the first epics —Iliad, Odyssey, Mahabharata, Ramayana — were created and transmitted orally, a tradition still seen in Serbian guslars and storytellers throughout Asia.

Epic poetry was counted among man's noblest creations. Gilgamesh, Mahabharata, Ramayana, Iliad, Odyssey, Aeneid, Beowulf, Poema de mio Cid, La Chanson de Roland, Divine Comedy, Jerusalem Delivered, Orlando Furiosa, os Lusíadas, Faerie Queen, and Paradise Lost are still read with admiration and enthusiasm. Some long poems are better called mock heroic or satire — The Rape of Lock, Don Juan, — and others are magnificent failures: Prelude, Hyperion, Idylls of the King,Cantos, There is also the pastoral tradition, from Theocritus through Virgil to Milton and others, but the setting is an idealized landscape and the heroic element is missing.

With different objectives, epic poetry continues to be written by a few individuals, e.g. Ruth Mabanglo, and Frederick Turner. Some aspects also appear in proponents of expansive poetry and the long poem — broad perspectives, significant non-confessional content, strong narrative and dramatic elements. Readers may also like to see the various approaches to extended poems that feature in the work of Walt Whitman, Nikos Kazantzakis, St.-John Perse, William Carlos Williams, Robert Pinsky, Ed Dorn, Amy Clampit, Adrienne Rich, James Merrill, Galway Kinnel, Judy Grahn, Derek Walcott and Sharon Doubiago.


Until the nineteenth century, drama was commonly written in verse. Characters in the first Greek plays were gods, kings and heroes, from whom dignified expression was expected. Later playwrights also preferred verse because speech lifted so readily into a poetry by which the deeper realities of human nature could be explored. Indeed, whatever the period, given only intelligence and experience from actors and audience, verse often proved the better medium, providing a more sensitive portrayal of character, emotion and motivation than could be achieved in prose.

Much of dramatic poetry belongs to the literary canon. Verse is the medium of plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, Menander, Terence, Plautus, Seneca, Marlow, Shakespeare, Lope de Vega, Caldéron, Corneille, Racine, Molière, Dryden, Lessing, Goethe, Musset, Hugo, Dumas, Byron, Browning, Tennyson, Pushkin, Ibsen, Claudel, Yeats, Hauptman, Brecht, Eliot —and many others, particularly in non-European languages. Equally wide-ranging are the verse forms: the classical meters of the Greek playwrights, the iambic senarius or trochaic septenarius of Latin playwrights, Shakespearean blank verse, French alexandrine, Spanish redondilla and sonnet, heroic couplets, Claudel's versicles, and so forth, down to contemporary melanges of verse, free verse and rhythmic prose.

A remarkable number of 20th century writers in English have tried their hand at verse plays: James Elroy Fletcher, Lascelles Abercrombie, Lawrence Binyon, John Drinkwater, John Masefield, T.S. Eliot, Christopher Fry, Anne Ridler, Norman Nicholson, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, E.E. Cummings, Richard Eberhart, Archibald MacLeish, Wallace Stevens, Albert Albee and William Carlos Williams. Only plays by Eliot, MacLeish, Albee and Tennessee Williams have enjoyed much of a commercial success, though verse has appeared in many librettos and translations (Anne Ridler, Ronald Duncan and Richard Wilber being the best known).


Lyrical poetry was originally poetry composed to be sung, and lyrical poetry still shows its ancestry by making the musical element part of the intrinsic content. Other forms of poetry — narrative and dramatic — may use musical elements for memorable and pleasing effects, but in lyrical poetry these elements are employed specifically to convey emotion and rational values. Little may be worth calling poetry if these elements are removed or attenuated — as too often happens in 'faithful' translations. Musical terminology has been applied to lyrical poetry, though without great success: poetry seems to have its own (complicated) rules.

The original conception of lyrical poetry is preserved in the lyrics for song, i.e. in what remains when the elements of music are stripped from popular or commercial music. Good poets in France wrote for the nightclub, but the appeal of their British or American counterparts is more in the music than the words. Very different were the songs of the Middle Ages, Renaissance, the Persian world and India. A singing element returned to Europe with the 19th and 20th century composers who set popular poetry to music — Schubert, Brahms, etc. — the musical elements making their own interpretation of the poem. In different ways, and with less sophistication, the writing of lyrics for song continues today in rap, cowboy poetry and poetry slams.

Long before Wordsworth and Coleridges's Lyrical Ballads, lyrical poetry had developed into forms that were not intended to be sung: odes, satire, introspection, sensual longing, religious devotion. By the Renaissance, poets were composing works for publication, not for individual recitation, and they had therefore to adapt the original themes, metres and imagery to a new medium of presentation. Results were marvellously varied. The 16-17th century lyrics of Shakespeare, Marvell and Milton, the Romantic lyrics of Keats, Shelley and Wordsworth, the Victorian classicism of Arnold and Tennyson, the Pre-Raphaelite melancholy of Rossetti and Dowson, the experimentation of Pound, Bishop, Robert Lowell and Wilbur — all developed the medium in new directions and provide abundant study material.


Narrative poetry was a precursor to the modern novel and many of the world's great (and still popular) stories are written in verse: Iliad, Aeneid, Beowulf, Gawain and the Green Knight, The Divine Comedy, The Canterbury Tales, The Fairie Queen, The Rape of Lock, Don Juan, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Browning's Dramatic Lyrics, Idylls of the King,Hiawatha — to mention only European examples. Narrative poetry presents a story or account of events, and must therefore encompass the novel's requirements.

Stories needn't be simple or linear. Half the pleasure comes from digressions, subplots, observations on life and a dozen other inconsequentialities. Narrative poems allow their author to speak with borrowed voice and viewpoint — useful for dealing with painful or novel experiences — but, more importantly, open up new techniques to the poet. Plot, dialogue, conflict, page-turning suspense, characterization, setting, local colour, reader-grabbing openings and so forth: these are not simply requirements but a way of vastly extending the territory and accomplishments of a poem.

The need to represent or bear witness enters into most art, but literary realism usually means a portrayal of life in all its immediately-given ways, good and bad. Crabbe, Kipling, Frost, Hardy and Larkin, for example, wrote a down-to-earth poetry of sobriety rooted in actual perception, one that refused to sentimentalize, idealize or transfigure the everyday, and distrusted mythologizing, heightened emotions or rhetorical flourish.

Isn't story telling natural to humans? No, says the American avant garde. Narratives impose a structure on events, and are therefore repressive. Poets like Charles Bernstein, Jack Spicer, and Catherine French therefore replace characterisation and narrative techniques by free association, mechanical or random selection devices, stress on text only, etc. Results are dada-like but often intriguing. Freedom is not the only aim, moreover: some avant-garde work simply tries to represent the contemporary world honestly, without borrowed trappings.

Stanza Forms

Many stanza forms exist, particularly in borrowings from foreign sources, but here is an incomplete listing of the commonest: just name/structure plus online example. Consult the book references for formal requirements and varieties.

:Rhymed Verse

  • two-line stanzas

    • heroic couplets: The Rape of Lock ( Pope)

    • concluding couplet: Midsummer Night's Dream (Shakespeare)

  • three-line stanzas

    • triplet: Cape Cod (Santayana)

    • terza rima: Divine Comedy (Dante)

  • four-line stanzas

    • aaaa. The Woodspurge (Rossetti)

    • aaab: Hohenlinden (Campbell)

    • abbb: Three Enemies (Rossetti)

    • aabb: The Rose (Carew)

    • abab: Ancient Mariner (Coleridge)

    • abba: In Memoriam (Tennyson)

    • aaxa: Omar Khayyam (FitzGerald)

  • five-line stanzas

    • limerick: Oedilf

    • cinquain:

      • aabba: Night Piece (Herrick)

      • abaab: Daughter of Eve (Rossetti)

  • six-line stanzas

    • aabccb: Mistress Mine (Shakespeare)

    • ababcc: Fear No More (Shakespeare)

    • xayaza: The Blessed Damozel (Rossetti)

    • abacbc: Last Night (Dowson)

  • seven-line stanzas

    • rime royal: Troilus and Criseyde (Chaucer)

  • eight-line stanzas

    • ottava rima: Don Juan (Byron)

    • triolet: To a Fat Lady (Cornford)

    • ababcdcd: I Remember (Hood)

    • abcbabcb. Song to Celia (Jonson)

  • nine-line stanzas

    • ababcdcdd: The Fairie Queen (Spenser)

    • aaaabcccb: Lady of Shalott (Tennyson)

    • ababacddc: Intimations of Immortality (Wordsworth)

    • ababbcbcc: Eve of St. Agnes (Keats)

  • ten-line stanzas

    • ababcdecde: Ode to a Nightingale (Keats)

    • abcbcadeed: Scholar Gipsy (Arnold)

    • abcbddceae: To Daffodils (Herrick)

  • eleven-line stanza

    • ababcdecdce: Ode to Autumn (Keats)

    • abbaccdeede: Ave Atque Vale (Swinburne)

    • aabbcddeeec: Last Ride Together (Browning)

  • twelve-line stanza

    • abacdefeghgi: Cloud (Shelley)

  • thirteen-line stanza

    • rondel. AbbaabABabbA: The Castle (Charles d'Orlean)

  • fourteen-line stanza

    • abbaaccadefdef: Sonnet 19 (Rossetti)

    • abbaabbaedfedf: Sonnet 19 (Milton)

    • ababdcdcefefgg: Sonnet 30 (Shakespeare)

  • fifteen-line stanza

  • eighteen-line stanza

    • abbaacddcceefeffgg. Prothalamium (Spenser)

  • nineteen-line stanza

  • pantoum: Eunoch Cat (Court)

  • ballade: Ballade of Fair Ladies (Villon)

  • sestina: Sestina d'Inverno ( Hecht)

:Unrhymed Verse

Many of the above forms can be written without rhyme (and often are today) but keep some echo or expectation of rhyme. Verse specifically unrhymed includes:

  • unrhymed verse

    • haiku

    • tanka

  • blank verse

References and Resources

1. HyperEpos. Jeremy M. Downes. Feb. 2005. Excellent collection of sites focusing on epic poetry: theory and examples.
2. Anecdotes of a jar: the dominion of spatial tropes in recent criticism of the lyric. Jeffreys. Winter 1998.
. Issues in recent literary criticism of the lyric: detailed and technical.
3. Craft of Poetry. Vince Gotera. 1999. 620:108 course notes
4. Glossary of Poetic Terms. Brief but useful definitions, examples and quotations.
5. A Guide to the Theory of Poetry. Manfred Jahn. Aug 2003. Not theory but an excellent brief listing of the elements of versification.
6. Glossary of poetic terms. NNA. Quite extensive.
7. Prosody Guide. Invaluable.

Short List of Books

1. Epic and Romance, Ker, P. (1908)
2. English Epic and Heroic Poetry, Dixon, W.M. (1912)
3. From Virgil to Milton, Bowra, C.M. (1952)
4. The Classical Tradition, Highet, G. (1948)
5. Parnassus Revisited, Yu, A.C. (1973)
6. Traditions of Heroic and Epic Poetry, Hatto, A.T. (1980)
7. The American Epic, McWilliams, J.P. (1989)
8. The Idea of Epic, Hainsworth, J.B. (1991)
9. A History of English Prosody, Saintsbury, G. (190610)
10. The Principles of English Metre, Smith, E. (O.U.P. 1923)
11. Art of Versication and the Technicalities of Poetry, with a New Rhyming Dictionary, Brewer, R.F. (John Grant, 1950)
12. The Poets's Craft: A Course in the Critical Appreciation of Poetry, Scott, A.F. (C.U.P., 1957)
13. The Art and Craft of Poetry: An Introduction, Zillman, L. J. (Macmillan, 1966)
14. Chapters on English Metre, Mayor, J.B. (1968)
15. The Practice of Poetry, Skelton, R. (Heinemann, 1971)
16. Versification, Wimsatt, W.K. (1972)
17. Writing Poems, Wallace, R. (Little, Brown and Co., 1987)
18. The Making Of A Poem: The Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms, Strand, M., and Boland, E. (W.W. Norton and Co., 2000)
19. Versification: A Short Introduction, McAuley, J. (1983)
20. The New Book of Forms, Turco, L. (1986)
21. The Sounds of Poetry, Pinsky, R. (1999)
22. Rymes Reason, Hollander, J. (1989).
23. Rhythm and Meter, Kiparsky, P. and Youmans, G. (1989)
24. The Origins of Free Verse, Kirby-Smith, H.T. (1998).
25. De/Compositions: 101 Good Poems Gone Wrong, Snodgrass, W.D. (2001).


C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013 2015.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if properly referenced.