Traditionally, poems were defined by their use of rhyme schemes and metrical patterns, but this is not always the case. Contemporary poets often choose to exclude rhyme and rhythm from their verse, opting to write in free verse.
Explore the Poem
Definition of a Poem
A poem is a piece of writing, usually using some kind of rhyme scheme or metrical pattern, that expresses a writer’s feelings (or the feelings of a persona). They can tell stories, record memories, express desire, and share information. The best poems are those that tap into the universality of human experience and appeal to a wide variety of readers. While today most poems are written without a set form, below, readers can explore a few formal possibilities.
Types of Poems
There are numerous types of poems that readers may or may not be familiar with. Some are listed below:
- Free Verse: lines are unrhymed, and there are no consistent metrical patterns. But, that doesn’t mean it is entirely without structure. Used in modern and contemporary writing and is useful when the writer wants to mimic natural speech patterns. Examples include: ‘Historic Evening’ by Arthur Rimbaud, ‘O Me! O Life!’ by Walt Whitman, and ‘What Are Years’ by Marianne Moore.
- Rhymed Poem: there are many different types of rhyme in poetry, such as end rhyme, internal rhyme, and half-rhyme. They give poems a musical feeling, whether they appear at the end or in the middle of a line. Examples of the first can be seen in poems like ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening‘ by Robert Frost, ‘The Tyger‘ by William Blake, and ‘Sonnet 18‘ by William Shakespeare.
- Blank Verse: unrhymed, metered lines. Usually iambic pentameter. Meaning, each line contains five sets of two beats, the first of which is unstressed and the second of which is stressed. These lines do not rhyme. Examples include: ‘Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey‘ by William Wordsworth, ‘Mending Wall‘ by Robert Frost, and ‘Rain‘ by Edward Thomas.
- Narrative: contain all the elements of a story and are normally longer than average. They can use well-rounded characters, plots, and different kinds of conflict. Narrative poems often also have a moral message. Examples include: ‘Goblin Market‘ by Christina Rossetti, ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner‘ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and ‘The Highwayman‘ by Alfred Noyes.
- Epic: a long narrative poem that tells the story of heroic deeds, normally accomplished by more-than-human characters. They show extreme courage and outshine their contemporaries in their bravery. Epic poems are the product of preliterate societies or those in which reading and writing were uncommon. Examples include: ‘Paradise Lost’ by John Milton, ‘The Divine Comedy’ by Dante Alighieri, and ‘The Metamorphoses’ by Ovid.
- Haiku: a popular three-line Japanese poem that follows a syllable pattern of 5-7-5. Haikus are often about the similar subject matter, such as nature, what can be found in it, and the changing of the seasons. There are usually two juxtaposed subjects in the host poem that are contrasted in some way. Examples include: ‘To a Leg of Heron’ by Bashō and ‘A World of Dew’ by Kobayashi Issa.
- Elegy: a poem or song that is written in dedication to someone who has died. They often go into detail about the deceased person’s life, their attributes, what they accomplished, and who they left behind. There is usually an emphasis placed on what the world is going to be like now that they are gone. Examples include: ‘The Truth the Dead Know‘ by Anne Sexton and ‘On My First Daughter‘ by Ben Jonson.
- Soliloquy: a dramatic literary device that is used when a character gives a speech that reveals something about their thought process. Examples include: “To be, or not to be” Soliloquy, Hamlet by William Shakespeare and “Wherefore art thou Romeo” Soliloquy, Romeo, and Juliet by William Shakespeare.
Examples of Poems
Edna St. Vincent Millay’s ‘Renascence’ is a moving poem and the one that brought her writing into the public spotlight. It follows a speaker as she lives, dies, and then is reborn in a newly faithful form. There are powerful images used throughout the lines, despite the fact that Millay wrote this poem when she was only nineteen. The poet explores themes of suffering, time, rebirth, and spirituality. Here are a few lines from the first stanza:
All I could see from where I stood
Was three long mountains and a wood;
I turned and looked another way,
And saw three islands in a bay.
So with my eyes I traced the line
Of the horizon, thin and fine,
Straight around till I was come
Back to where I’d started from;
And all I saw from where I stood
Was three long mountains and a wood.
In this stanza, she demonstrates several poetic techniques, like enjambment, imagery, rhyme, and more. She describes what she sees when she looks around her, eventually settling on the mountains, keeping her from seeing any farther than what was directly in her line of sight.
Read more of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poetry.
In ‘The Raven,’ Poe’s most famous poem, the speaker details a harrowing night in his life that includes incessant knocking and a talking raven that only says one word – “Nevermore.” It is a popular narrative poem written in the first person (perspective and point of view are other important elements of poems). This allows the poet to emphasizes the main character’s grief and loss. The famous opening lines read:
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
Only this and nothing more.”
These are dramatic and theatrical lines, setting up a fairly long poem filled with dark images and strange occurrences. It is a great representation of how poets achieve darker atmospheres in their work.
Explore Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry.
This is one of Sexton’s best poems. In it, she elegizes her parents, both of whom died a few months apart. Her mother from cancer and her father due to alcoholism. She speaks about her feelings and beliefs about death and describes the poet’s own emotions in reaction to the death of her parents and the actions she chose to take afterward. She begins the poem at a funeral she has no desire to participate in. Here are the last lines of the poem:
And what of the dead? They lie without shoes
in their stone boats. They are more like stone
than the sea would be if it stopped. They refuse
to be blessed, throat, eye and knucklebone.
Discover more Anne Sexton poems.
What Isn’t a Poem?
When trying to understand exactly what a poem is, it’s helpful to determine what isn’t a poem. Poetry is just one of a few major genres of literature. The others include:
- Prose: is a written and spoken language form that does not make use of a metrical pattern or rhyme scheme.
The types of prose include:
- Prose poetry: is a social kind of prose that exhibits some qualities of poetry. The imagery and sensory experience of the reader is more important than it would be otherwise but the lines are structured as they would be in a novel.
- Fictional prose: includes novels and books read and written for pleasure. It is a literary work that includes imagined elements. These elements might be based in fact, such as in the genre of historical fiction, or they might be completely fantastical, such as in fantasy novels.
- Heroic prose: includes legends and tales. These are imagined stories that were once told only orally.
- Nonfictional prose: includes biographies and reports. It is based primarily in reality. There are many fewer imagined elements, if any. It is usually written to inform before entertain.
- Drama: a form of writing for theatre. It is divided into acts and scenes.
The types of plays include:
- Tragicomedy: contains elements of both comedies and tragedies. The play might be series, with some comedic moments and a happy ending.
- Melodrama: emotions are more important than details in melodramas.
- Tragedy: dark, sorrowful, and dramatic. Tragedies are usually based around human suffering, disaster, and death. They usually end traumatically for most characters involved. Sometimes there is a traditional tragic hero. Ex. Romeo and Juliet
- Comedy: light in tone, intended to make the audience laugh. They usually have a happy ending with offbeat characters doing absurd things. Comedy might be sarcastic, fantastical, or sentimental. Farce is a sub-genre of comedy. Ex. A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
- History: focuses on actual historical events. Can have elements of both tragedies and comedies. They were popularized by William Shakespeare. Ex. King John.
Related Literary Terms
- Connotation: the feeling a writer creates through their word choice. It’s the idea a specific word or set of words evokes.
- Denotation: the literal definition of a word. It is the meaning that’s most commonly found in dictionaries and other academic sources.
- Intertextuality: a feature of a text that references another text. It reflects upon the latter and uses it as a reference for the new written work.
- Read: 10 Incredible Edgar Allan Poe Poems
- Read: Top 10 Greatest Love Poems
- Read: Everything You Need to Know About Rhyme Schemes in Poetry