How to identify form in poetry

  • The form of a poem is how we describe the overarching structure or pattern of the poem.
  • A poem’s form can be identified by analysing its structure.
  • Poems may be divided into stanzas with different numbers of lines.
Find out how to identify form in poetry

What is form?

The form of a poem is how we describe the overarching structure or pattern of the poem - how it looks on the page. Some forms of poetry must stick to very specific rules about length, rhythm and rhyme.

Analysing structure

Looking at the layout of a poem is a good way to start identifying the form. For example, considering the use of stanzas will help you to develop an understanding of which form the poem been written in.

A stanza, a separated verse in a poem, is like a paragraph within the poem and just like paragraphs, stanzas are used by poets for a specific impact.

The poem A Bird, came down the Walk by Emily Dickinson is divided into five stanzas, where each one is four lines long. A four-line stanza is called a quatrain, like a quarter.

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

In this stanza Dickinson has also used a rhyme scheme where the second and fourth lines rhyme.

For example, when two lines next to each other rhyme we call these rhyming couplets - a technique used by Shakespeare in his sonnets.

Closed form

A Shakespearian sonnet is an example of a closed form poem. These types of sonnet always have 14 lines and have other features which are also fixed. They all end with a rhyming couplet and the first 12 lines are divided into three quatrains, which themselves have an alternate line rhyme scheme. A sonnet follows the rhyme scheme ABAB CDCD EFEF GG.

The name ‘Shakespearian sonnet’ comes from the famous writer himself as this was the form his poetry took. However, over time other writers have used this form for their sonnets - not just Shakespeare. There are other styles of sonnet as well, such as a Petrarchan sonnet, which follow different structural rules.

Hands hold open a book of Shakespeare's sonnets showing 14 lines per sonnet
A 14-line Shakespearian sonnet is just one example of a closed form poem

It is impossible to list every single form of poetry that writers use, but some of the most common are sonnet, Shakespearian sonnet, haiku, limerick, ode, epic and acrostic. Each of these forms has very specific rules that they must follow:

  • An acrostic, for example, is a poem where the first letter of each line spells out a word, vertically.
  • A haiku is a Japanese form of poetry where there are three lines, which in total make up 17 syllables - line one has five, line two has seven and line three has five.

Open form and free verse

Some poems seem to have no structure or style. This is called open form. These poems won’t follow the specific rules and restrictions of some of the other forms of poetry we have looked at. Open form is much freer and limitless. An open form poem might have some element of rhyme and rhythm but will not follow a rigid pattern throughout.

Other poems seem to have a loose or vague structure but definitely don’t rhyme. This is called free verse.

In Echo by Raymond Antrobus there is a structure linked to when and where Antrobus changes line, but the form is very free. This gives a natural feel to the poem, as if the poet is talking directly to us and we can feel how he feels. This isn’t the case for all free verse poems, and so as you read them think about why a poet might have wanted a more ‘free’ feel to the poem.

Letters come flying out from the text of an open book
Free verse and open form poems don't have the same strict rules and restrictions which are present in closed form poems

Remember

When reading and analysing a poem considering and identifying the form is important. The poem will help to create an effect for the reader so identifying what that form is will help you to consider why it has been used.

Quiz

Find out how much you know about poetic form in this short quiz!

Where next?

Discover more from around Bitesize.

How to understand open and closed form in poetry
How to understand rhythm in poetry
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