"Technique is neither identical with form, nor yet wholly independent of it. It is, properly, the skill with which the elements constituting form are managed. Otherwise it is show-off or a virtuosity separated from expression.

Significant advances in technique occur, therefore, in connection with efforts to solve problems that are not technical but that grow out of the need for new modes of experience."

—John Dewey, Art as Experience

"O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
how can we know the dancer from the dance?" 

—W.B. Yeats

"It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing."

—Irving Mills, performed by Duke Ellington



Form and Poetry


Many poems, especially poems in the lyric mode, have a kind of magnified or intensified language. They follow an intuitive and associational logic and tend to be dense with aural, visual, and thematic patterns.  In other words, poems don't usually read or feel like newspaper articles or expository essays or business memos. And they're not TV commercials. They're meant to be savored, enjoyed, re-read, thought about, felt. TV advertisements rarely ask you to actively engage your mind and heart. Poems ask this of your constantly. They're needy little things. They want to be cared about.

Patterns in lyric poems vary considerably, but usually involve either preestablished or "discovered" repetitions of stress, sound, word, line, or groups of lines (stanzas). It's important to know, too, that form isn't something tacked-on to a poem; it's always an integral part of a piece, intentional or otherwise. And most traditional forms in poetry came out of natural tendencies of the language as well as our basic love of sound and rhythm.

[Click here for worst high school figures of speech .]



Robert Pinsky, The Sounds of Poetry, A Brief Guide
Babette Deutsch, Poetry Handbook, A Dictionary of Terms
Miller Williams, Patterns of Poetry, An Encyclopedia of Forms
Jack Myers and Michael Simms, The Longman Dictionary of Poetic Terms
Mark Strand and Eavan Boland, The Making of a Poem, A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms
         (there are some editing problems with this one, though it has its strengths)
Paul Fussell, Jr. Poetic Meter and Poetic Form.
Donald Hall, ed. Claims for Poetry

Metrical Patterns

Fixed line patterns in Western poetry take several forms: 1) accentual, 2) syllabic, and 3) accentual-syllabic. 

Accentual lines are determined/measured by number of STRESSES. Early English verse was heavily accentual and alliterative, and lines tended to be split into two half-lines of two heavy stresses each, with a pronounced caesura (pause) in the middle of each line.

In a summer season      when soft was the sun

I shaped me in shrouds      as a shepherd I were

In habit as a hermit     unholy of works

Went wide in this world     wonders to hear

Notice in the lines above that each half-line has two heavily stressed syllables, and that each line is heavily alliterative—that is, certain initial consonants get obviously and noisily repeated in each line.  The effect tends to be a bit repetitious and unnuanced:  Bonk-bonk—pause.  Bonk-bonk—pause.  And so on.  The simplicity can be somewhat beautiful too, of course. Accentual pattern comes quite naturally to English, of course, since it's a heavily stressed language.


2)      Syllabic lines are determined/measured by number of  SYLLABLES.  One famous syllabic form is the haiku, a three-line poem whose line-syllable count is 5-7-5:

That pale butterfly
Dancing lightly on a branch:
Someone's old condom.

Distant siren screams
Dumb-ass Verne's been playing with
Gasoline again.

For for white trash haiku, click here.

Syllabics are a bit odd when used in English, because English is a heavily stressed, Germanic language.  In other words, syllabics aren’t really integral to the sound of English and don’t get heard or felt the way accents or stresses do.  They are more natural in non-Germanic languages which don’t rely nearly as much on stress for meaning (Romance languages, for example:  French, Spanish, Italian.) Note that, in English, stress really does interact with meaning. Compare these two phrases, for example: White House ("The president today returned to the White House"), and white house ("Turn left on University and you'll see a white house"). If you put the stress on the first word, the phrase means one thing; if you put the stress on the second word, it means something else. Sometimes it's difficult to understand a foreigner who is speaking English in America because, even though pronounciation may be accurate, the proper stresses may be entirely off. This can make a sentence almost completely unintelligible.

3)      Accentual-syllabic lines are determined/measured by counting BOTH stresses AND syllables, and this is the most common pattern found in formal English verse.  Each unit of stressed and unstressed syllables is called a foot.

Types of Feet (samples)

/ – • /  One unstressed /one stressed  = iamb

/ • – /  One stressed/one unstressed = trochee

/ – – • /  Two unstressed/one stressed = anapest

/ • – – /  One stressed/two unstressed = dactyl   

Types of Meter (samples)

Three feet per line = trimeter

Four feet per line = tetrameter

Five feet per line = pentameter

Six feet per line= sextameter  

Seven feet per line = septameter


Types of Lines (samples)

A line with four anapestic feet = anapestic tetrameter

A line with three dactylic feet = dactylic trimeter

A line with five iambic feet = iambic pentameter

A line with six iambic feet = iambic sextameter


One of the more famous lines in English is iambic pentameter. A poem written in nothing but unrythmed, iambic pentameter lines is called blank verse. For samples CLICK HERE.  You’ll notice from looking at, say, Robert Frost’s “Birches” that, even though a poem may have some lines strictly adhering to the metrical count, many lines fall out of the pattern.  That’s because strict adherence to any pattern can become monotonous and even silly-sounding.  Expressiveness and interest is usually achieved through establishing the pattern, and then skillfully breaking it.

For a good poem in iambic tetrameter, CLICK HERE. 


Rhythm in poems is usually understood as distinct from meter. Meter is more quantifiable; rhythm is a constellation of effects which are felt but hard to schematize. Factors which contribute to a poem's rhythms include duration of syllables, whether lines are enjammed or end-stopped, the "vocal realities" of the lines (see Robert Pinsky's The Sounds of Poetry, A Brief Guide), the syntax of the sentences and also how that syntax interacts with lineation, and so on. (E.g., do a poem's line breaks reinforce, resist, or oppose the syntax of its sentences?)

Stanza Patterns or Verse Forms


Types of lines can in turn be grouped into types of stanzas with specific rhyme schemes.  Four traditional stanza forms are the sonnet, the villanelle, the sestina, and the pantoum. For samples of these forms, CLICK HERE.  


Note: the definition of "stanza" varies somewhat depending on what handbook or theorist you consult. Some, as in Strand and Boland's The Making of a Poem, consider it a form in itself (137), whereas others (I would say most) consider it an element of form. Strand and Boland's main definition is "[a]ny unit of recurring meter and rhyme—or variants of them—used in an established pattern of repetition and separation in a single poem" (136). More often than not, however, its definition is just "verse paragraph" or, as Pinsky puts it in The Sounds of Poetry, "A division of a poem, set off typographically by white space above and below it" (127).

See also Modern American Poetry's discussion of forms.


"[R]hyme is a copulation of sounds" (Octavio Paz, qtd. by Eric Selinger)

Lyric poems tend to be rich in sonic patterns and echoes of many kinds. All of these patterns are sometimes just referred to as rhyme.

True Rhyme = middle vowel and final consonant sounds are identical (e.g. cat/hat). Or: final vowel sound, if there is no final consonant, are identical (e.g., bee/see).

Slant, Partial, or Near Rhyme = initial and/or final consonant sounds may be the same, but the primary middle vowel sound is "slanted" or off (e.g. hat/heat; bee/bay; tar/pay).

Assonance = repetition of vowel sounds (e.g., "How sweet that Spring will soon be creeping into our green screaming jeans and neatly redeem us.")

Alliteration = repetition of initial consonant sounds (e.g., "Can the cute clucking; it's cracking me up.")

Consonance = repetition of final consonant sounds (e.g., "Shun the darn run; we won't win.")

Hard rhyme = the rhyming syllables are stressed (e.g., cat/hat; careen/serene)

Light rhyme = the rhyming syllables are followed by unstressed syllables (e.g., mumbling/fumbled)

End rhyme = the rhyming words appear at the end of lines

Internal rhyme = the rhyming words appear inside of lines:

"Love lingers in the air; sticky fingers and a fading stare.
I don't know what to say to you; unaware, subdued." (Dan Helm, student)


Free Verse or Discovered Form

Poems written without strict or predetermined metrical, stanzaic, or sound patterns are said to be in "free verse" or "open form." This is something of a misnomer, however, because most free verse lyric poems are nonetheless heavily patterned and are shaped, loosely or strictly, according to implicit, often unconscious formal principles. That is, their patterns of rhyme, stress, or syllable count are simply less regular than poems written "in form," and these patterns are likely discovered or happened onto in the course of being written (rather than determined in advance). Most lyrical free verse poems have lots of internal and/or rough patterns of rhyme; repeated sounds, phrases, and images; and a loose but observable pattern of line breaks. The length of free verse lines tends to be determined (if not actually measured or consciously chosen) according to the following principles:

  • gramatical phrasing;
  • musical phrasing;
  • aural, visual, or rhetorical emphasis (the last word and first word of a line often get heard, seen, felt, or understood in an especially emphatic way, and lines are broken to achieve those emphases);
  • rhythms of breath (breath units or cadence);
  • rhythms of thought (repeating, contrasting, or listing of ideas);
  • end-stopping or enjamment.

As the poet Charles Olson would say, the line in free verse "comes from the breath, from the breathing of the man who writes, at the moment that he writes..." Or we might say such a line is a close unity of language and breath, breath and thought.

"the HEAD, by way of the EAR, to the SYLLABLE
the HEART, by way of the BREATH, to the LINE" ("Projective Verse")

Most rock lyrics are written in free verse. Problems arise, however, when song lyrics are written down in different ways, and by different people. It's not always possible to tell how their authors intended the lines to be broken, for instance, and breaking lines in different ways can quite dramatically alter how a piece reads and sounds, and even what it means.

Recommended for Further Discussion

For a good discussion of form (meter) and meaning, see Donald Justice's "Meters and Memory." Contrast this essay with Denise Levertov's "On the Function of the Line." (Both of these pieces can be found in Donald Hall's anthology, Claims for Poetry.) Does form have meaning in and of itself? Does meter or its lack imply something meaningful in a political sense? Do poems in traditional, fixed forms mean differently than poems in “open" forms? What is the relationship of "closed" and "open" forms and the process by which poems get written or poetic meaning made or found?

Lyric Mode

The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics ,

Lyric poetry may be said to retain most prominently the elements which evidence its origins in musical expression—singing, chant­ing, and recitation to musical accompaniment. . . The primary importance of the musical element is indicated in the many generic terms which various cultures have used to designate nonnarra­tive and nondramatic poetry: the English “lyric,” derived from the Greek lyra, a musical instrument; the Classic Greek melic or mele (air, melody), the Chinese shi or ci (word song). (713)

Oral Form (Rap, Slams, Performed Poetry)

(Information coming)

Check out PennSound on recorded poetry.



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