The first question that needs to be addressed before we get into the details, is what is structure? What do we mean when we talking about the structure of a poem? Its quite simple really.
This word refers to what the poem is made up of, how it is presented to the reader and the more technical aspects, like line length and rhyme scheme. As you might be aware, there are some tried and true poetic structures that have lasted throughout the ages. These include sonnets, odes, epics and more. They all have their own rules, or guidelines, some of which poets choose to stick to, and others which they don’t.
This is a good time to mention that the history of poetic writing does not have to influence the structure of your poem. In this article we’re going to provide you with a few tips on the elements you might want to consider in your writing, but, you can do anything you want to! That’s the beauty of writing and the aspect that’s drawn so many diverse perspectives to the art throughout human history.
As you gain more and more practice writing poetry, and reading it as well (which we certainly recommend you do as well!), you’ll steadily develop your own style and structure. Maybe you’ll realize you like short choppy lines, or perhaps you’re a fan of long, sweeping sentences that span multiple stanzas. Do you enjoy a consistent rhyme scheme? Or do you prefer something that’s more surprising or that’s written completely in free verse? These are all aspects of your own style that will come over time, but it all starts here!
Let’s dive into what it takes (usually) to structure a poem.
Structuring a Poem
The Basic Structure of a Poem
One of the most basic elements of poetic writing is the line. This is the amount of text you want to display before you hit the enter key, or jump down to the next “line”. Sometimes it might be a complete sentence, or even two complete, shorter sentences. Other times you might decide to put part of the sentence in one line, and part in another, creating enjambment. Here, a reader will need to move quickly from the first line to the second to finish the thought, conclude an action or find out some important piece of information.
Examples of Different Techniques
The length of your lines, as well as where you choose to begin and end them, can drastically change the rhythm of your text. The same can be said for the mood, which can be made more dramatic or surprising through strategically placed line breaks. Let’s take a look at ‘C.R.E.A.M.’ by Danez Smith as an example of how lines can be used creatively.
In the case of this poem, the sound of the lines of verse and their meaning is of equal importance to how they appear on the page. Smith plays with the indention of lines, their length, and their loose arrangement in stanzas or sections of verse. Here are four lines from the poem to consider:
A prison is a plantation
made of stone & steel
Being locked up for selling drugs = Being
locked up for trying to eat
In order to get a sense of the original indention of these lines, take a look at the full poem here. The poet chose to spread the lines out, with some words and phrases indented halfway across the page. They never line up and therefore force a reader to move back and forth quickly across the page of text. The poem is dynamic as well as physically and emotionally moving, and powerful in its use of enjambment. It delivers powerful phrases like: “what’s a blacker tax than blackness?”
A more traditional example, Katherine Philips’s ‘Orinda to Lucasia’ depicts the norm in poetic writing. The lines begin and end where you expect them to, lending the poem a steady rhythm that’s maintained throughout the stanzas. Take a look at this excerpt below:
Observe the weary birds e’re night be done,
How they would fain call up the tardy Sun,
With Feathers hung with dew,
And trembling voices too,
They court their glorious Planet to appear,
That they may find recruits of spirits there.
In these lines, Philips makes use of iambic pentameter and a very steady rhyme scheme of AABBCC. A reader is supposed to take in each line fully before moving to the next. This works well with the natural imagery the poet describes in beautiful detail.
In one final example, ‘Goblin Market’ by Christina Rossetti, sound is also quite important.
Evening by evening
Among the brookside rushes,
Laura bow’d her head to hear,
Lizzie veil’d her blushes:
Crouching close together
In the cooling weather,
The lines are short and plead with all readers to speak them out loud and take advantage of the rhythm and rhyme the poet has imbued them with.
Once you have a few lines down, it’s time to start thinking about stanzas. They can be utilized in much the same way as lines and line breaks are. Depending on the poem, you might want to separate the lines into sections. These sections, or stanzas, could be one, two or 15 lines long. There are no rules as to how many lines should make up a particular stanza. But, you should be aware of the effect that different lengths have on the reader.
Structure of Longer Stanzas
For example, a poem that is 15 stanzas long and each stanza has 15 lines, is quite lengthy. This format lends itself to narrative poetry or work that is complex, with weaving long lines of detail. You should be aware that long stanzas are usually harder to read than shorter stanzas. There are fewer breaks for the reader’s eye and sometimes the length impacts the drama or forcefulness of your verse. Another way to approach this, if for whatever reason you want to write a poem with long stanzas, is to make each line short. Through the use of choppy, short lines, along with enjambment, you might be able to catch and keep the reader’s attention for a longer period of time. For an example of how longer stanzas can work to the poet’s advantage, take a look at Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘Dream-Land’.
Structure of Shorter Stanzas
On the other hand, there is the option of doing short stanzas. Maybe it is your preference, as it is many writers, to make your stanzas between three and ten lines long. This is a fairly average length and one that is not too intimating for a casual reader of poetry. The benefit of short stanzas is that readers, more often than not, move through the text at a good pace. One thought moves immediately into the next, propelling your writing forward. For an example of how shorter stanzas can benefit a poem, take a look at ‘Crossing the Water’ by Sylvia Plath.
The Subject’s Influence on Stanza Length Structure
Now, how do you decide whether you want short or long stanzas? Well, that decision comes with the development of your personal style but it is also connected to the subject matter. Some writers want each stanza to represent a separate thought or idea. For example, ‘A Prayer in Spring’ by Robert Frost. In this poem, the poet separated his different thoughts, which are in themselves connected, into four stanzas, each of which contains four lines (these are known as quatrains). Take a look at the first two lines:
Oh, give us pleasure in the flowers to-day
And give us not to think so far away
After these two lines, he adds on, asking that they not think so “far away” as the “uncertain harvests”. He hopes that “we” can stay in the simplicity of spring. The next stanzas, individually, address orchards, birds, and then, in conclusion, God’s love. Each one speaks on a different element of spring, and then all are summarized in the final stanza with the overarching themes of God and God’s creation.
Structure of Rhyme and Meter
These two qualities of poetry are foundational, or a least they have been traditionally. Since the Modernist movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, rhyme and meter have fallen out of favour. It is no longer a marker of a superior writing ability if you are able to successfully structure your poem in the rules of trochaic tetrameter or iambic pentameter. Read more about metrical patterns here.
Example of Meter
For your reference, let’s take a look at one example of how metrical patterns can benefit a text. One well-known writer who wrote frequently in meter is John Milton. His piece ‘On Shakespeare. 1630’ is a eulogy for the dead playwright and a perfect representation of what meter can do for a text. Here are the first four lines:
What needs my Shakespeare for his honoured bones
The labor of an age in pilèd stones,
Or that his hallowed relics should be hid
Under a star-y pointing pyramid?
Each of these lines contains five sets of two beats. The first of these is unstressed and the second is stressed. If one wrote out the scansion of one line it would appear like this (the “U” represents unstressed beats and the “/“ represents stressed beats):
U / U / U / U / U /
What needs my Shakespeare for his honoured bones
Because of the structure of the metrical pattern, a reader automatically puts the emphasis on some of the most important words in the sentence: “needs,” “Shakes—,” and “bones”. The next line is also a good example, with the emphasis falling on the “la” in labor and “stones”.
As mentioned above, metrical patterns, as well as rhyme schemes have fallen out of common use. That being said, you shouldn’t discount rhyme entirely. Many contemporary poems written in the last 50 years rhyme perfectly. While many others make use of half-rhyme in order to improve the other rhyme and sound of a poem. Half rhyme, also known as slant or partial rhyme, is seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line or multiple lines of verse. Read more about why poems rhyme here.