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, and in fact most rap songs are in ballad form too––as are hymns, county music, and folk music.
In pop music the expression ballad is sometimes used to refer to a sentimental love song, but ballad form is a traditional poetic form. To be sure, sentimental love songs are in ballad form, but then so are furiously paced punk songs.
This is Julie’s Working for the Drug Squad, by the Clash.

It’s lucy in the sky and all kinds of apple pie
she giggles at the screen ‘cos it looks so green
there’s carpets on the pavements
and feathers in her eye
but sooner or later, her new friends will realise
that Julie’s been working for the drug squad…

Well, okay. The Clash are not exactly Lennon and McCartney, but it’s easy to see why ballad form is used for songs. Most songs are in 4/4 time, which means there are 4 beats to a bar, and four bars to a line (stave).
Ballad form has four beats (which are known as feet in poetry) to a line, and usually four lines to a verse.
Which came first? The poem or the song? It’s probable that ballad form poetry is based on song, especially folk music and hymns, which preceded popular music.

Of course, we can easily find much better poets than the Clash in the field of pop music, and where better to look than the golden age of singer songwriters, which was the late 1960’s to the mid 1970’s, and in my opinion the greatest songwriter of that era was Joni Mitchell––who was in many respects the first real female singer songwriter.
There was a handful of great female singer-songwriters during that era, such as Carole King, Laura Nyro, and Janis Joplin, but Joni Mitchell was the first to really try to show her audience what is was like to be a woman at that time––or at any time.
This is a snippet from one of her early songs: Circle Game.

Yesterday a child came out to wonder
Caught a dragonfly inside a jar
Fearful when the sky was full of thunder
And tearful at the falling of a star
And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return we can only look behind
From where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game
Then the child moved ten times round the seasons
Skated over ten clear frozen streams
Words like, when you’re older, must appease him
And promises of someday make his dreams
And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return we can only look behind
From where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game.
(Here is a link to a video:
If you watch the video it will be easier to follow my explanation of the meter.

Ballads stanzas or verses are usually 4 lines.
The first and third line have 4 beats, and the second and fourth line have 3 beats.
The rhyming scheme is usually ABXB or ABAB.

Let’s look again at the first stanza of The Circle Game.

Yesterday a child came out to wonder (3 beats with a caesura)
Caught a dragonfly inside a jar (3 beats period)
Fearful when the sky was full of thunder (3 beats with a caesura)
And tearful at the falling of a star (3 beats period)

Note end rhymes (wonder-thunder/ jar-star), so the rhyming scheme here is ABAB.

We can go back a couple of decades to the legendary African American Jazz vocalist, Billie Holliday. This is a song she wrote in around 1949.

God Bless the Child.

Them that’s got shall get
Them that’s not shall lose
So the Bible said
And it still is news

Mama may have,
Papa may have

But God bless the child that’s got his own
That’s got his own.

Here is an actual Poem in ballad form:

Ballad of the Triangle Fire

By Ruth Rubin

In the heart of New York City, near Washington Square
In nineteen eleven, March winds were cold and bare.
A fire broke out in a building ten stories high,
And a hundred and forty-six young girls in those flames did die.On the top floor of that building, ten stories in the air
These young girls were working in an old sweatshop there;
They were sewing shirtwaists for a very low wage.
So tired and pale and worn-out! They were at a tender age.The sweatshop was a stuffy room with but a single door;
The windows they were gray with dust from off that dirty floor;
There were no comforts, no fresh air, no light to sew thereby,
And the girls, they toiled from early morn till darkness filled the sky.

Then on that fateful day – dear God, most terrible of days!
When that fire broke out, it grew into a mighty blaze.
In that firetrap way up there with but a single door,
So many innocent working girls burned, to live no more!

A hundred thousand mourners, they followed those sad biers.
The streets were filled with people weeping bitter tears.
Poets, writers everywhere described that awful pyre,
When those young girls were trapped to die in the Triangle Fire.

Here’s another by Edna St Vincent Millais, who was from Maine.


Edna St. Vincent Millay – 1892-1950

I’ll keep a little tavern
Below the high hill’s crest,

Wherein all grey-eyed people
   May set them down and rest.

There shall be plates a-plenty,
   And mugs to melt the chill
Of all the grey-eyed people
   Who happen up the hill.

There sound will sleep the traveller,
   And dream his journey’s end,
But I will rouse at midnight
   The falling fire to tend.

Aye, ’tis a curious fancy—
   But all the good I know
Was taught me out of two grey eyes
   A long time ago.

When I am dead, my dearest

When I am dead, my dearest,
Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
Nor shady cypress tree:
Be the green grass above me
With showers and dewdrops wet;
And if thou wilt, remember,
And if thou wilt, forget.
I shall not see the shadows,
I shall not feel the rain;
I shall not hear the nightingale
Sing on, as if in pain:
And dreaming through the twilight
That doth not rise nor set,
Haply I may remember,
And haply may forget.

A Musical Instrument

WHAT was he doing, the great god Pan,
    Down in the reeds by the river ?
Spreading ruin and scattering ban,
Splashing and paddling with hoofs of a goat,
And breaking the golden lilies afloat
    With the dragon-fly on the river.
He tore out a reed, the great god Pan,
    From the deep cool bed of the river :
The limpid water turbidly ran,
And the broken lilies a-dying lay,
And the dragon-fly had fled away,
    Ere he brought it out of the river.
High on the shore sate the great god Pan,
    While turbidly flowed the river ;
And hacked and hewed as a great god can,
With his hard bleak steel at the patient reed,
Till there was not a sign of a leaf indeed
    To prove it fresh from the river.
He cut it short, did the great god Pan,
    (How tall it stood in the river !)
Then drew the pith, like the heart of a man,
Steadily from the outside ring,
And notched the poor dry empty thing
    In holes, as he sate by the river.
This is the way,’ laughed the great god Pan,
    Laughed while he sate by the river,)
The only way, since gods began
To make sweet music, they could succeed.’
Then, dropping his mouth to a hole in the reed,
    He blew in power by the river.
Sweet, sweet, sweet, O Pan !
    Piercing sweet by the river !
Blinding sweet, O great god Pan !
The sun on the hill forgot to die,
And the lilies revived, and the dragon-fly
    Came back to dream on the river.
Yet half a beast is the great god Pan,
    To laugh as he sits by the river,
Making a poet out of a man :
The true gods sigh for the cost and pain, —
For the reed which grows nevermore again
    As a reed with the reeds in the river.

Lullaby For the Cat

by Elizabeth Bishop.
Minnow, go to sleep and dream,
Close your great big eyes;
Round your bed Events prepare
The pleasantest surprise.

Darling Minnow, drop that frown,
Just cooperate,
Not a kitten shall be drowned
In the Marxist State.

Joy and Love will both be yours,
Minnow, don’t be glum.
Happy days are coming soon —
Sleep, and let them come…


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.