what is poetry

What is Poetry- A Brief Insight into the Poetic Vastness

‘furor poetics’ was the term the ancient Greeks used to describe poetry as ‘divine fury’. And through centuries, poetry has continued to bemuse the humankind, by the beauty of its metaphors, symbolizing, the concrete words, or even the abstract sentences. 

Poetry is what comes to a poet without warning, and the poet paints it in polished pieces of art on the paper. What is Poetry? Epics, Ballads, Sonnets, Elegy, Limericks, etc. come to mind immediately when asked this question. 

However, If you ask this question today, you may not find such a straight answer. For each writer/poet, the definition of poetry is different. Poetry is either bound by rules or it is not.

Some may define it as an outlet of your overwhelming feelings and brimming emotions. Some may define it as a coping mechanism for the poets dealing with severe depression. 

Some will insist upon a carefully structured and polished work of art like Shakespeare’s Sonnets. And for some, it is an arrangement of lyrical sentences filled with abstract words and metaphors and meter, like Emily Dickenson’s poetry. Some prefer to read and write free-flowing verses like Walt Whitman’s elegies.

In this article, I will talk about the basic and the most important things about the poetry- meter, rhyme, rhythm, and poetic structure. 

Stanza – What is Poetry 

The basic building block of a poem is Stanza

“Stanzas are to poetry what paragraphs are to prose.”- Susan Dalzell in the book Poetry 101 From Shakespeare and Rupi Kaur to Iambic Pentameter and Blank Verse.

A stanza is a group of lines, that comes in all shapes and sizes. And it is further divided into various other types based on the number of lines a stanza has. 

Common Types of Poetry Stanzas

1.  Monostich: A single line stanza is a monostich. And sometimes, a monostich is the poem in its entirety with nothing else needed to be added. 

2.  Couplet: Two lines grouped in a stanza is a couplet. And it is usually rhyming. 

3.  Terza Rima: An Italian form of a stanza of three lines grouped together, first used by Geoffery Chaucer in English. It follows a rhyming scheme like aba, bcb, cdc, ded, efe, so on and so forth. 

4.  Quatrains: It is a stanza of four lines grouped together. The rhyming scheme may vary but mostly follows- aaaa, aabb, abab, etc. Sometimes, a quatrain is what an entire poem is. 

5.  Cinquains:  (read as SING-keyn), is a verse of five lines grouped together in a stanza. In this too, the rhyming scheme can vary. Adelaide Crapsey, the late 19th-century American poet is said to have invented the Cinquain poem. Her first book of poetry called Verse contained 28 cinquains, and it later inspired many poets like Carl Sandburg. 

Apart from these stanza types, there are stanzas with 6 lines grouped together that rhyme, and the  7 and 8 lines grouped together with a varying rhyming pattern. 

Meter and Measure – What is Poetry 

Meter and Measure work hand in hand to provide the rhythm to a poem. Now, what are all they?

Rhythm is the stressed and unstressed syllables (explaining it in a bit), and meter and measure is the pattern that those syllables create. 

Stress is the emphasis on certain syllables in a word. The syllables with a stress on them are stressed syllables. Like this, the syllables that do not have an emphasis on them are unstressed syllables

EM-pha-sis, 

em-pha-SIS 

Now when you read out loud the first ‘emphasis’ word, you may have automatically said ‘EM’ louder than ‘phasis’. And in the second one, you may have read ‘SIS’ louder than ‘empha’. 

So, the syllable you pronounced louder and for a bit longer duration is the stressed syllable, and the one you read a little less loudly and came out without much stress on it is the unstressed syllable. 

You can learn more about stressed and unstressed syllables here. Now, Back to meter and rhythm. 

Consider the meter as dum and de. (I learned it in the Dan Gilbert’s The Poet’s Cookbook: Details for over 50 Forms, Types of Meter, Structure, Rhyme and over 100 Writing Exercises

Iamb – de-dum (unstressed – stressed) like in- in CASE, forLORN, preSENT, deLAY, inVENT, etc. 

Trochee – dum-de (unstressed – stressed) like PREsent, NOticed,  CHICKen, BAby, etc. 

Spondeedum-dum (stressed – stressed) BOOK-MARK, TOOTH-ACHE, BLUE-TOOTH, HAND-SHAKE, etc. 

Pyrrhic/dibrach – de-de  

Dactyl – dumde-de like- SUD-den-ly, DEV-a-state

Anapaest/antivdactylusde-de-dum

 Amphibrach de-dum-de like- in-TRI-gue

Amphimacer/creticdum-de-dum 

Molossusdum-dum-dum 

Tribrachde-de-de

How these meters are structured to form a rhythm, you shall ask now. Here’s how:

1.  Iambic Pentameter: 5 iambs, 10 syllables 

Example: Holy Sonnet XIV  by John Donne: 

As yet but knock, breathe, shine and seek to mend 

That I may rise and stand o’erthrow me and bend.

John Donne uses the unstressed and then stressed syllable construction with five stressed syllables in the line of the poetry. Read the underlined words out loud and for a bit longer duration. And you’ll then understand how unstressed and stressed construction works. 

That is called Iambic Pentameter rhythm in the poetry. 

2.  Trochaic Tetrameter: 4 trochees, 8 syllables

Sorrow by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Sorrow like a ceaseless rain

Beats upon my heart.

People twist and scream in pain,—

Dawn will find them still again;

This has neither wax nor wane,

Neither stop nor start.

People dress and go to town;

I sit in my chair.

All my thoughts are slow and brown:

Standing up or sitting down

Little matters, or what gown

Or what shoes I wear.

The underlined words in each line of the poem are the stressed syllables and the syllables without an underline are the unstressed ones. And mostly each line contains 4 trochees and 8 syllables. Try reading it out loud and see if you understand the meter in this poem. 

3.  Anpestic Trimeter: 3 anapests, 9 syllables 

Example: Verses Supposed to Be Written by Alexander Selkirk  by William Cowper

I am monarch of all I survey,

My right there is none to dispute;

From the centre all round to the sea,

I am lord of the fowl and the brute.

Oh, solitude! where are the charms…

Better dwell in the midst of alarms…

I am out of humanity’s reach,

I must finish my journey alone,

Never hear the sweet music of speech…

They are so unacquaintted with man,

Their tameness is shocking to me…

You may be confused as to why I added pentameter, tetrameter, trimeter after the meters. Those are the metrical feet. 

“Meter can be identified by the number of feet per line.”

Susan Dalzell in Poetry 101

The metrical feet are made up of stressed and unstressed syllables and are the solo distinct unit of measurement that is repeated in a line of poetry. All the feet used in English poetry and verse have one STRESSED syllable and one or two unstressed syllables.   

If you still haven’t understood it (I don’t blame you; I had a hard time getting used to it, too), then here are some tips on how to know the meters in the poem:

  • Read the poem out loud. And listen to the syllables you are emphasizing.
  • Mark the stressed syllables (dum) with an accent i.e. à
  • Mark the unstressed syllables (de) with a breve i.e. ă
  • Break the syllables into feet with a slash.
  • Identify and then count the number of feet per line. 

Now, this process can be difficult, hence making the scanning of a poem difficult. Stay patient, try again. If you still cannot figure out, read the poem out loud again. 

Poetic Forms – What is Poetry & Types of Poetry 

Now in an answer to the question ‘what is poetry’, I want to talk about the poetic forms. And there are plenty. But I shall touch upon some of the most common ones. Let us begin with

Sonnets

14 line poetry written mostly in iambic pentameter typically associated with the theme of love is Sonnet. The Italian poet of 13th century Giacomo da Lentini is accredited with the invention of Sonnet, and the 16th-century poet Thomas Wyatt introduced Sonnet into English poetry. 

However, the best we know about the Sonnets is via Shakespeare but it is actually an Italian form of poetry. Their rhyme scheme may vary depending upon which form of the sonnet you are reading. The main ones are:

1.  Italian or Petrarchan-

The most influential sonneteer was the Italian scholar – Petrarch, hence, the Petrarchan form. The rhyme scheme of a Petrarchan sonnet is: 

a b b a a b b a c d e c d e 

2.  Spenserian-

Attributed to Edmund Spenser, the rhyme scheme of these sonnets is:

a b a b b c b c c d c d e e 

3.  Shakespearean-

a b a b c d c d e f e f g g 

When it comes to Sonnets, John Milton’s poetry will never go unspoken. The following example is John Milton’s Sonnet  When I Consider How My Light is Spent  which was retitled in 1761 by Thomas Newton. 

The sonnet does not have the typical theme of love and 14 lines, instead, it speaks about how the has to use his talent to serve God after losing his eyesight in the octave (8-line poetry).  The sonnet’s rhyme scheme is Petrarchan. 

When I consider how my light is spent

Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,

And that one talent which is death to hide

Lodg’d with me useless, though my soul more bent

To serve therewith my Maker, and present

My true account, lest he returning chide,

“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”

I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent

That murmur, soon replies: “God doth not need

Either man’s work or his own gifts: who best

Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state

Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed

And post o’er land and ocean without rest:

They also serve who only stand and wait.”

Elegy as a Type of Poetry

A mournful and melancholic poem, most often written for funerals is an Elegy. Elegy is not to be confused with Eulogy which is a speech given in the honor of the deceased. Elegies are mostly about the themes like loss of a loved one, redemption, mourning, and reflection. 

ELegies do not have a set structure to them. One of the best examples of famous elegies is: 

O Captain! My Captain!  by Walt Whitman (Excerpt)

O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells; 

Rise up–for you the flag is flung–for you the bugle trills; 

For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths–for you the shores a-crowding; 

For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning; 

Here Captain! dear father! 

This arm beneath your head; 

It is some dream that on the deck, 

You’ve fallen cold and dead.

Walt Whitman

  Ode as a Type of Poetry

An Ode is a lyric poetic and formal address to someone or something. In ancient Greece, odes were most often supplemented with music (ode is originated from Greek work- aeidein which means to sing). Typically, there are three types of Ode: Pindaric (attributed to the form and style of the ancient Greek poet Pindar’s poems), Horatian (Form of Horace’s poems), and Irregular (with no set structure or rules). Let’s take a look at an example of Odes:

Ode to A Nightingale by John Keats (Excerpt) 

Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades

Past the near meadows, over the still stream,

Up the hill-side; and now ’tis buried deep

In the next valley-glades:

Was it a vision, or a waking dream?

Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep

John Keats

Limericks as a Type of Poetry

A poem with a stanza consisting of five lines, and usually humorous, Limerick often follows a rhyme scheme of AABBA and anapestic meter (I’ve explained it earlier). 

Limericks are mostly popular amongst amateur poets. Take a look at an example limerick from A Book of Nonsense (1846) by Edward Lear, who is famous for his limericks compositions: 

There was a Young Lady of Hull,

Who was chased by a virulent bull;

But she seized on a spade,

And called out, “Who’s afraid?” 

Which distracted that virulent bull.” 

Edward Lear

Blank Verse as a Type of Poetry

Blank verse is poetry with a meter but no rhyme scheme. It often follows iambic pentameter so each line has 10 syllables, 5 iambs. If it sounds familiar then, yes, you have guessed it right. Shakespeare wrote in Iambic pentameter. The difference here is, that a blank verse does not rhyme. 

Take a look at this example- Portrait of A Lady  by William Carlos Williams 

Your thighs are appletrees whose blossoms touch the sky. 

Which sky? The sky where Watteau hung a lady’s slipper. 

Your knees are a southern breeze–or a gust of snow. 

Agh! what sort of man was Fragonard? –as if that answered anything.

Ah, yes–below the knees, since the tune drops that way, 

it is one of those white summer days, 

the tall grass of your ankles flickers upon the shore– 

Which shore?– the sand clings to my lips– 

Which shore? Agh, petals maybe. How should I know? 

Which shore? Which shore? I said petals from an appletree.

Free Verse as a Type of Poetry

Blank verse and free verse may sound similar but there is a slight difference. Where blank verse follows the iambic pentameter meter and no rhyme, Free verse follow neither of those. There is no set structure for the free verses, as they flow- free. 

Its popularity began in the 19th century and has continued to date. Modern poets may write poems in free verse but there can be some lines that follow a certain metrical structure or rhyme scheme. 

Look at the example of free verse:

Your thighs are appletrees whose blossoms touch the sky. 

Which sky? The sky where Watteau hung a lady’s slipper. 

Your knees are a southern breeze–or a gust of snow. 

Agh! what sort of man was Fragonard? –as if that answered anything.

Ah, yes–below the knees, since the tune drops that way, 

it is one of those white summer days, 

the tall grass of your ankles flickers upon the shore– 

Which shore?– the sand clings to my lips– 

Which shore? Agh, petals maybe. How should I know? 

Which shore? Which shore? I said petals from an appletree.

Portrait of A Lady  by William Carlos Williams 

I know I have used the same example because like in the blank verse, this is also an example of free verse because it shows some rhythmic flashes and slant rhymes (semi-rhymes). Even though it follows its own rules and structure, Portrait of A Lady is an eminent example of free verse. 

Epics as a Type Of Poetry

While talking about poetry, we cannot omit to take Epics on the list. The formally written lengthy narrative poems that talk about a brave hero and his journey to resolution, Epics have become less fashionable in today’s world. 

Epics usually take place in settings and terrains of the era that no longer exist in the living memory. However, Homer’s Odyssey remains one of the most popular epics to date. Besides this, Mahabharata, the Indian Epic was composed in Sanskrit. 

Let us take a look at a translated excerpt from Odyssey by Homer: 

Men are so quick to blame the gods: they say

that we devise their misery. But they

themselves- in their depravity- design

grief greater than the griefs that fate assigns.

Odyssey by Homer

I will be writing a few more articles touching upon the poetic forms with examples. This is a brief idea of what is poetry. Feel free to check out our other articles dedicated to poetry and imagery in poetry

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