How to understand open and closed form in poetry

  • Form is the physical structure or pattern of a poem.
  • The main forms of poetry are open form and closed form.
  • Line length, rhythm patterns and rhyme structures all contribute to poetic form.
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 more free.

The stanzas in a poem are like paragraphs in prose. They separate ideas and give shape, and guide the reader through the poem.

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.

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 - poetic paragraphs - 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’

A painting of Toussaint L'Ouverture
John Agard's ‘Checking Out Me History’ is an example of an open form poem where the poet writes about historical figures such as Toussaint L'Ouverture

Closed form is much more structured, and governed by specific rules, or patterns. In closed form poetry specific poetic structures may repeat throughout the poem, perhaps to create rhythmic effects.

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 iambic trimeter, which has three metrical feet in a line and a rhyme scheme 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 and this pattern also repeats throughout the five stanzas.

A blackbird eats a worm
Emily Dickinson uses specific patterns in a closed form poem to reflect the actions of a bird

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.

Sometimes a poet will ‘break the rules’ in a closed poetic form in order to draw attention to a specific word or idea in the poem.

Remember

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.

Quiz

Find out how much you know about open and closed form poetry in this short quiz!

Where next?

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