How to understand open and closed form in poetry

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Did you know?

William Shakespeare is the bestselling poet of all time.

The word 'poetry' is from the Greek term poiesis, which means 'making'.

The oldest written poem is the Epic of Gilgamesh originating from Babylon.

Introduction to open and closed form

Form is the physical structure or pattern of a poem. The main forms of poetry are open form and closed form. In closed form poetry, the poet follows a set pattern; and in open form poetry, the poet doesn’t follow any rules but their own.

Line length, patterns and structures all contribute to poetic form.

Video about open and closed form in poetry

Find out how to understand open and closed form in poetry

What is form?

The form, the physical structure of a poem, refers collectively to line lengths, rhythms and patterns of rhyme. It includes both how the poem looks on the page and how it sounds when read out loud. There are some forms of poetry which follow specific rules and others which can be freer.

Poems can be ordered by breaking them into groups of lines called stanzas. Stanzas in a poem separate ideas, shape the poem and guide the reader through the poem.

Which one of these is not about form?

  1. Rhythm
  2. Rhyme scheme
  3. Stanza length
  4. Simile

4. Similes are language devices and they're not about form in poetry.

Open and closed form

The main forms of poetry are open and closed.

Open form is very free – it doesn’t have to follow traditional or specific patterns. This style of poetry may not follow any rules at all or it might use small elements of traditional forms of poetry. When looking at an open form poem consider some of the structural ideas, such as rhyme and the rhythm, and think about how these have been created and why.

Closed form is much more structured, and governed by specific rules, or patterns. In closed form specific poetic structures may repeat throughout the poem, perhaps to create rhythmic effects. Closed-form poetry is what we usually think of as traditional poetry – but modern poets also enjoy the unique challenges of using these forms.

Example of open form poetry

John Agard’s Checking Out Me History is an example of an open form poem but one that still has a shape and structure. It is divided into stanzas and includes some rhyme and rhythm but not in a regular pattern. If we look at the opening stanza we can see this.

Dem tell me
Dem tell me
Wha dem want to tell me

Bandage up me eye with me own history
Blind me to me own identity

Dem tell me bout 1066 and all dat
dem tell me bout Dick Whittington and he cat
But Toussaint L’Ouverture
no dem never tell me bout dat

The irregular pattern makes it seem more conversational, like the poet is talking to you. This is also shown by his spelling of words – you can hear a Caribbean accent.

True or false?

An open form poem can still have some rhyme and rhythm.

Answer: True! An open form poem can still have some rhyme and rhythm.

Example of closed poetry

Emily Dickinson has repeated some clear patterns in the poem A Bird, came down the Walk. Dickinson has divided the poem into five stanzas, where each one is four lines long. The rhythm is mainly , which has three in a line and a where the second and fourth lines rhyme.

A Bird, came down the Walk -
He did not know I saw -
He bit an Angle Worm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw,

Perhaps the tightly controlled form reflects the precise actions of the bird, and draws attention to the brutal behaviour of actually killing the worm. Notice that the third line has an extra metrical foot – two more beats in the line. This is a pattern that repeats throughout the five stanzas.

True or false?

A closed form poem usually repeats the same patterns throughout the poem.

Answer: True. A closed form poem does usually repeat the same patterns throughout the poem.

Understanding form

To understand the form of a poem you can start by looking at its shape. Ask yourself some of the following questions:

  • Is the poem split into stanzas and if so how many?
  • Are they the same length?
  • Is there a rhyme scheme?
  • Is there a clear rhythm?

Shakespearian sonnets, for example, are 14 lines long and have a clear set structure. A Shakespearian sonnet follows the rhyme scheme ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. The lines form three quatrains, which are stanzas made up of four lines, and the sonnet ends with a closing rhyming couplet.

A haiku is a short closed form of poetry that relies on a syllable pattern. It usually has five syllables in the first line, seven in the second, and five in the third and final line, as in this example by Kobayashi Issa:

Everything I touch
with tenderness, alas,
pricks like a bramble.

Although haiku is a closed form of poetry, haikus do not usually rhyme.

There are many types of closed form poems including , , , and . Occasionally a poet will help us by naming the type of poem in the title.

Breaking the rules

Sometimes a poet will ‘break the rules’ in in order to draw attention to a specific word or idea in the poem. For example in Dusting the Phone by Jackie Kay the poem is carefully structured into tercets (three line stanzas) until the final stanza.

Opening stanza :

I am spending my time imagining the worst that could happen.
I know this is not a good idea, and that being in love, I could be
spending my time going over the best that has been happening.

Final stanza:

I am trapped in it. I can’t move. I want you.
All the time. This is awful – only a photo.
Come on, damn you, ring me. Or else. What?
I don’t know what.

The short, monosyllabic final line ‘I don’t know what’ shows the speaker’s confusion and perhaps suggests she is giving up hope for this relationship.

Sometimes a poet will follow the rules but still do something unexpected. For example, Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky uses made-up words in a memorable way whilst carefully using a regular ABAB rhyme scheme and quatrains (four line stanzas):

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
      Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
      And the mome raths outgrabe.


The form of the poem will influence the effect it has on the reader. As well as looking at the length of lines, the rhythm and the rhyme scheme, also look out for breaks in the pattern of a poem and think about what the poet might be inviting you to think about.

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