Poetry Cheat Sheet

I am not a poet, but I was convinced last year that writing poetry was good writerly exercise. Cross-training, if you will. Writing poetry in prescribed verse can range from an exciting adventure in wordsmithing to a creative puzzle relaxing your mind before you float off to sleep at night.

Words have meaning. Words have sounds. When writing poetry in traditional verse you craft the meaning of words and the sound of words into the mold of the verse. The traditional verse forms covered in writing 201 were the haiku, the limerick, the acrostic, the elegiac couplet, the ballad and the sonnet. Writing 201 was very well done by WordPress. In case you are a beginning writer like me, though, here is my writing 201 poetry cheat sheet so you can focus more on the creative and less on the prosody.

Prosody

Prosody is the “study of meters and forms of versification.” A meter is the “basic rhythmic structure of a verse or lines of verse.” Not all poetry requires a specific verse meter, but the poetic molds we study here today do. In the English language, we use qualitative meter as opposed to the quantitative meter of Romance languages. Qualitative meter focuses on stressed and unstressed syllables while quantitative meter focuses on long and short syllables.

Within a meter of verse are feet: a meter of verse is “a sequence of feet.” One foot is a specific set of syllable types. Some examples of feet are the iamb, the anapest and the dactyl. An iamb is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable: da-DUM. The “da” represents the unstressed syllable and the DUM the stressed syllable. An anapest is two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable: da-da-DUM. A dactyl is a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable: DUM-da.

Some types of meter are iambic pentameter, dactylic hexameter, dactylic pentameter, anapestic tetrameter, iambic tetrameter, iambic trimeter. As you can see, the foot is designated as is the number of times the foot is repeated. Let us unpack iambic pentameter, the meter for a sonnet. The iamb is the foot of this meter. The penta- indicates how many times (FIVE) the iamb repeats itself. (The hexameter is 6 repetitions of the foot. The tetrameter is 4. The trimeter is 3.) Iambic pentameter is one line of poetic verse with 5 sets of unstressed/stressed syllables for a total of 10 syllables. It sounds like this: da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM.

“To swell the gourd and plump the hazel shells” – John Keats, To Autumn

The Haiku

The haiku is a Japanese form of poetry that has been a crossover success in the West. The meter discussion above does not apply to it because its origins are not in the English language. A haiku has three lines of verse with 5, 7 and 5 syllables each. A haiku is cutting. Use it to show a juxtaposition. You can use it to describe nature, its natural subject. There is no required rhyme scheme.

A brown coat hangs in
A dark closet absorbing
Dust. Will water help?

The Limerick

A limerick has five lines of verse in anapestic meter (2 unstressed followed by 1 stressed syllable). Lines 1, 2 and 5 are in anapestic trimeter (3 anapests totalling 9 syllables) while lines 2 and 4 are in anapestic dimeter (2 anapests totalling 6 syllables). The limerick also has a required rhyme scheme of aabba. A limerick is irreverent, crude and/or obscene. Introduce a person or place in the first line and then expound. If you are not into conveying crude or obscene in your poetry, you can pick up the limerick form to convey negative emotions lightly.

They said American Sniper was awesome.
I waited patiently for it to blossom.
Two hours in,
It never did.
But, at least Bradley Cooper was handsome.

Acrostics

An acrostic is a poem with a word puzzle, particularly one where the first word of each line makes a hidden meaning. It is a little medieval. You can use it to convey a personal message of a religious nature. Can you guess my secret message?

An abecedarian sequence is also a type of acrostic. This sequence is a 26 word verse using the letters of the alphabet in chronological order. It only takes a few minutes to come up with one, even though it might be silly. It is a wonderful form of relaxation for writerly types. Select one word you love and build an abecedarian sequence around it. Or, take a piece of artwork and use an abecedarian sequence to describe it. The following sequence was crafted out of words relating to honey bees and used to describe a self-portrait by Egon Schiele. Can you guess which word describes him?

(taboo)
abundance breeds colony drones,earnest foragers, Goldenrods. Humming in jealousy, knowing lore’s manners, none of puberty quiet remains. Swarming (taboo) understands vacillation (wings), (x)centric yellow zones.

The Elegy

An elegy can be written in any meter, but for a challenge you can try to use elegiac couplet. A couplet is two lines of verse that make sense on their own. The first line is in dactylic hexameter (6 dactyls totaling 12 syllables) and the second line is in dactylic pentameter (5 dactyls totaling 10 syllables). A dactyl is a stressed followed by an unstressed syllable. An elegy is written in first person and is pensive. Use it to convey a sense of moving through longing, loss or mourning. The lack of prescribed rhyme schemes gives you freedom and supports the serious tone. In the verses below, I explore moving through uncomfortable feelings in a changing relationship.

Will I come to your side when you are no longer in my arms needing?
I try though it feels stilted like cotton is in your ears.

Sweet small boy that you were, molded to me like a sloth on a tree,
Now you are tall and knobby like a young sapling: proud, no bend.

Knowing that wanting to bend and not being able to hurts more than
Bending, wind I’d become, son, to be with you lightly, with ease.

Rustle your leaves, gently visit with you, we would never be far yet
Apart and new words would come to us in time and more love.

The Ballad

A ballad of European ballad form is written in quatrains (four verse lines) alternating iambic tetrameter (4 iambs) and iambic trimeter (3 iambs) with a rhyme scheme abcb. Use it to write about a larger than life subject. Think rock songs of the 80’s like Guns ‘n’ Roses’ November Rain, one of my personal favorites. The ballad was originally the form for folk songs. Yeats, Carroll and Whitman liked the ballad form. My current larger than life character is my infant daughter. I struggled with the meter on the ballad assignment and complying with the rhyme scheme was too much for me that day.

In her mother’s womb she wrestled.
Her bag of waters made
Of hearty fibers, almost
In a mermaid’s purse, she’s born.

Black hair is spiked. Blue eyes are wide.
Mama could barely hold
In her delight at this new child
Not fraught with any frailty

And powers so full since that first day.
A little ox, with beauty
Out and inside charm, infectious
Love and devilish laugh.

A will un-bent by outside things,
Alarming sobs when things
Aren’t right, big roars to match in any
Fight, she crawls and grabs

And pulls down loot from tables, tubs.
Watch out!

The Sonnet

The sonnet is a 14 line poem in iambic pentameter with 3 stanzas of 4 lines each and a last stanza of 2 lines. There are Petrarchan, Spenserian and Shakespearean sonnets. We focus on Shakespearean here because the rhyme scheme is the loosest: abab / cdcd / efef / gg. My favorite article on writing sonnets is Qwik Lit’s How to Write a Sonnet. A sonnet is “an exploration of the language that produces meaning.” Start with a hackneyed expression that would cause an eye roll and then explore it to surprise your reader. The last two lines are meant to be the “turn,” where the building desire in the previous 12 lines is foiled. I prefer turns that provide unexpected resolution as opposed to an anticipated let down.

They say to make the most of every day,
While youth says, wait, I move to squander years.
Youth loathes the dawn, when demons tend to appear
In brown forms, they fly tugging at the scalp.

We thought we lived so richly, with no fear
That fed the people eating in the town.
I ate alone because I was too hungry to be full.
I was too rich to need a full square meal.

Youth left me with an adult appetite.
I feel most free to sit at table with all sorts.
To sit and talk and laugh and hear the things
That go on in such places of together

Or apart, where the space in breath and hearth
Expand so life won’t fit inside a heart.


Do you want to convey a cutting image in a pithy way? Do you want to get out negative emotions with lightness? Do you want to explore a new world of words in 26 visions? Do you aspire to write old time folks songs about modern heroes? Do you need an outlet for your somber thoughts that befits the dignity of your mood? Do you want to surprise your readers in 14 lines? Write a poem in prescribed verse today!

The featured image is the right detail from Gustav Klimt’s “Beethoven Frieze: the Longing for Happiness Finds Repose in Poetry” painted in 1902. All works by Klimt (1862-1918) are in the public domain.  

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