Formal Poetry

Some Poetic Forms.

The Ballad.

If you listen to popular music of almost any genre then you probably listen to songs in ballad form on a daily basis, as most pop songs are in ballad form. In pop music the expression ballad usually refers to a sentimental love song, but the form has an almost universal application.

Ballads usually consist of 4 line stanzas, of which the first and third line are written in iambic tetrameter, and the second and fourth line are in iambic triameter.
The rhyming scheme is usually ABXB or ABAB.
Quick example in anapestic heptameter:

The Strawberry Moon is adrift in the breeze,
Stumbling and fumbling way up in the trees,
It wept Strawberry Moon-milk on meadows and streams
And sprinkled the village with Strawberry Dreams.

Strawberry Moon-dreams are pink, green, and white,
And sometimes they’re crimson, but never at night.
Usually they’re happy, but sometimes they’re bad,
And Strawberry nightmares are sadder than sad.

I once had a nightmare of deep crimson red.
I dreamt that a dragon lived under my bed.
Its eyes were like softballs, it’s teeth were like chalk.
It growled like a steamboat when prompted to talk.


The Hebrew poets who composed the Psalms worked with an interesting verse form. It consisted of distichs. These are two line verses in which the first line makes a statement, and then then second line builds on the idea in the first line. The great thing about this form is that rhyming ideas transcend translation from one language to another, whereas a great deal is usually lost in translating rhyme and meter:

Here is Psalm 19, one of my favorites. It is attributed to King David, but may be much older (it’s also a wonderful example of anthropomorphism, but I digress):

1: The heavens declare the glory of God;
And the firmament sheweth his handywork.

2: Day unto day uttereth speech,
And night unto night sheweth knowledge.

There is no speech nor language,
Where their voice is not heard.

Their line is gone out through all the earth,
And their words to the end of the world.
In them hath he set a tabernacle for the sun,

Which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber,
And rejoiceth as a strong man to run a race.

Here are three ways in which the first line relates to the second:

Sameness: The poet restates the first line by restating it in different way, as in Psalm 102:

The heavens declare the glory of God;
And the firmament sheweth his handywork.

Antithesis: the second line opposes the first line in some way:

Day unto day uttereth speech,
And night unto night sheweth knowledge.

Complement: This balances two halves of the statement as in Proverbs 19:21:

Which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber,
And rejoiceth as a strong man to run a race.

Jesse Owens, 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Try this form: Pick a few lines from a poem you’ve been working on, then write it out leaving a space between each line to fit in the distich in a few minutes time.

Here is an example. This is from my Goodbye Book:

He bid us “Auf wiedersen,” then “Au revoir,”
Then crooned “Adios” with a summer night choir,
From Wind-twisted pines behind crevices deep,
Where whippoorwills lulled the tired mountains to sleep.

Now fill in the distichs, using the same techniques as the psalmists.

He bid us “Auf wiedersen,” then “Au revoir,”
Then prattled in German and French for an hour,
Then crooned “Adios” with a summer night choir,
Then sang the Concerto from “Algernon’s Fire.”
From Wind-twisted pines behind crevices deep,
And olive trees hold fast to precipices steep,
Where whippoorwills lull the tired mountains to sleep,
And snowy owls flutter and frighten the sheep .

The hard part is to create lines that echo the material from the first lines, but also to transform the material.
In the perfect pairing lines 1 and 2 have adjacent ideas, but the combination of line 1 and 2 creates a third idea that is neither completely idea 1 or 2 when taken separately.

You may find you second lines becoming humorous or divergent: go with the flow.


This is a fun one you might be unfamiliar with: A clerihew is a whimsical, four-line biographical poem invented by Edmund Clerihew Bentley. The first line is the name of the poem’s subject, usually a famous person put in an absurd light, or revealing something unknown or spurious about them. The rhyme scheme is AABB, and the rhymes are often forced. The line length and metre are irregular. Bentley invented the clerihew in school and then popularized it in books. One of his best known is this (1905):

Sir Christopher Wren
Said, “I am going to dine with some men.
If anyone calls
Say I am designing St. Paul’s.”

The Sestina:

This one is actually much easier than it sounds. It is a fixed verse form consisting of six stanzas of six lines each, normally followed by a three-line envoi. The words that end each line of the first stanza are used as line endings in each of the following stanzas, rotated in a set pattern. So basically you’re rotating the end words.

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The sixth stanza is followed by a three line stanza now as an envoi.
It consists of three lines that include all six of the line-endings words of the preceding stanzas. This should take the pattern of 2–5, 4–3, 6–1.

September Rain by Elizabeth Bishop.

September rain falls on the house.
In the failing light, the old grandmother
sits in the kitchen with the child
beside the Little Marvel Stove,
reading the jokes from the almanac,
laughing and talking to hide her tears.

She thinks that her equinoctial tears
and the rain that beats on the roof of the house
were both foretold by the almanac,
but only known to a grandmother.
The iron kettle sings on the stove.
She cuts some bread and says to the child,

It’s time for tea now; but the child
is watching the teakettle’s small hard tears
dance like mad on the hot black stove,
the way the rain must dance on the house.
Tidying up, the old grandmother
hangs up the clever almanac

on its string. Birdlike, the almanac
hovers half open above the child,
hovers above the old grandmother
and her teacup full of dark brown tears.
She shivers and says she thinks the house
feels chilly, and puts more wood in the stove.

It was to be, says the Marvel Stove.
I know what I know, says the almanac.
With crayons the child draws a rigid house
and a winding pathway. Then the child
puts in a man with buttons like tears
and shows it proudly to the grandmother.

But secretly, while the grandmother
busies herself about the stove,
the little moons fall down like tears
from between the pages of the almanac
into the flower bed the child
has carefully placed in the front of the house.

Time to plant tears, says the almanac.
The grandmother sings to the marvelous stove
and the child draws another inscrutable house.


Okay, here it is, the big one. Write a sonnet.

Just to revise here are the rules:

14 lines of iambic pentameter:



It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match’d with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.

Take a look at the above excerpt from Ulysses.

Why read a poem by a man who died 120 years ago, about another man who died 3000 years ago––if he ever really existed in the first place?

First try to read the excerpt emphasizing the meter, which is iambic pentameter:

In Iambic pentameter each line is ten syllables long, like this:

It lit—tle pro—fits that—an id—le king,

By this—still hearth—among—these bar—ren crags,

Match’d with—an ag—ed wife—I mete—and dole

Une—qual laws—unto—a sav—age race,

That hoard—and sleep—and feed—and know—not me.

The ten syllables are grouped into five pairs (called iambs), like this:

1 2—3 4—5 6—7 8—9 10

The emphasis is placed on the even (2,4,6,8,10) syllables, like this:

1 2—3 4—5 6—7 8—9 10

Finally, the first Syllable of each line is also given a little extra stress, like this:

1 2—3 4—5 6—7 8—9 10


Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? 

(Shakespeare, Sonnet 18).


That’s just the beginning A sonnet is an argument (an essay of sorts), and it presents its argument in a specific way.

First Quatrain (four lines): An exposition of the main theme and main metaphor.

Second Quatrain: Theme and metaphor extended or complicated; often some imaginative example is given.

Third Quatrain: Peripeteia (dramatic reversal––thank you Aristotle––more about that later in the semester), often beginning with ‘but.’ 

Final Couplet (two lines with end-rhymes): Summarises and leaves the reader with a new, concluding image.

Let’s do something other than Sonnet 18.

Sonnets from the Portuguese 43: How do I love thee? Let me count the ways


How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace. 

I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise. 

I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath, 

Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

Look at how the argument develops:

Barrett Browning begins by attempting to physically qualify how much she loves the object of her devotion (Robert Browning, or possibly––shock-horror––Edgar Allen Poe).

She then attempts to compare the quality of her love to other kinds of human emotion like humility and the search for justice.

She then reflects that her erotic love has taken the place of the love she had as a child for her religion and the saints.

She finally speculates that her love can only be improved by death…as long as God permits it.

Here’s another Sonnet:

To John Clare


Well, honest John, how fare you now at home?
The spring is come, and birds are building nests;
The old cock-robin to the sty is come,
With olive feathers and its ruddy breast;

And the old cock, with wattles and red comb,
Struts with the hens, and seems to like some best,
Then crows, and looks about for little crumbs,
Swept out by little folks an hour ago;

The pigs sleep in the sty; the bookman comes—
The little boy lets home-close nesting go,
And pockets tops and taws, where daisies blow,
To look at the new number just laid down,

With lots of pictures, and good stories too,
And Jack the Giant-killer’s high renown.

This is a sonnet as a self portrait by the plowman poet, John Clare––a self taught poet-farmer from the romantic era.

I include this because it seems like an interesting idea to write a sonnet to yourself (in this case at a younger age), which also serves as a self-portrait.

These are the conventions of sonnets. Write a sonnet. Keep all the rules, or throw them out of the window.

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why (Sonnet XLIII)

Edna St. Vincent Millay, 1892 – 1950

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh 

Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry. 

Thus in winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone, 

I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.

From Six Unrhymed Sonnets

Diane Seuss


I drove all the way to Cape Disappointment but didn’t

have the energy to get out of the car. Rental. Blue Ford

Focus. I had to stop in a semipublic place to pee

on the ground. Just squatted there on the roadside.

I don’t know what’s up with my bladder. I pee and then

I have to pee and pee again. Instead of sightseeing

I climbed into the back seat of the car and took a nap.

I’m a little like Frank O’Hara without the handsome

nose and penis and the New York School and Larry

Rivers. Paid for a day pass at Cape Disappointment

thinking hard about that long drop from the lighthouse

to the sea. Thought about going into the Ocean

Medical Center for a check-up but how do I explain

this restless search for beauty or relief?

From 4 sonnets about food:

Adrienne Su


Words can’t do

what bird bones

can: stew

to the stony


of one

small soul, the spent

sacrifice boiled down

to the hard white

matter that nourishes

the mighty

predator, who flourishes

on the slaughtered

animal and water.