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In this chapter we’ll look at:

Poetry forms
Blank verse
Couplets, tercets and quatrains
Fixed forms
Open-form poetry
When poetry goes bad
Writing poetry
Getting poetry published
Submitting a poem for publication
Poetry competitions

Poetry forms

There are two forms of poetry: closed-form in which the poet follows a set pattern; and open-form where the poet doesn’t follow any rules but their own. Closed-form poetry is what we usually think of as traditional poetry. These poems have a definite structure and usually rhyme.

Blank verse

In poetry the rhythm of the words in a line is called the meter. There are many different meters (just as there are many different musical rhythms) and they’re all based on syllables. The most famous meter is iambic pentameter. An iamb comprises a pair of syllables: the first unstressed; the second un-stressed. In a pentameter there are five iambs to the line, so each line comprises ten syllables. Take the following from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet:

But soft, what light from yonder window breaks?

Here each iambic pair has been put into brackets and the stressed syllables underlined.

(But soft) (what light) (from yon) (der win) (dow breaks)

Iambic pentameter is the basis for blank verse, the most common meter in English poetry and the form in which Shakespeare wrote his plays. You might ask why Shakespeare bothered, but he had a good reason: giving his lines a meter of ten syllables made them melodic and easier for his actors to remember. The term ‘blank’ is derived from the French blanc meaning ‘white’; this lack of colour being an allusion to the fact that blank verse does not rhyme.

Couplets, tercets and quatrains

The building blocks of traditional closed form poetry are the couplet, tercet and quatrain. Unlike blank verse these are all rhyming forms.

Couplet. A couplet is a pair of rhyming lines that encapsulate a single thought or idea. The following is a traditional rhyme made up of three couplets:

Beechwood fires are bright and clear
If the logs are kept a year;
Chestnut’s only good, they say
If for long ’tis laid away.
But ash new or ash old
Is fit for a Queen with a crown of gold.

Tercet. A tercet comprises a group of three rhyming lines. The following is The Angel That Presided O’Er My Birth by William Blake.

The Angel that presided o’er my birth
Said, ‘Little creature, formed of Joy and Mirth,
‘Go love without the help of any Thing on Earth.’

A more lighthearted example is:

Julius Caesar,
Silly old geezer,
Squashed his nose with a lemon squeezer.

Quatrain. A quatrain comprises four lines. The following is the first verse of a traditional Scottish ballad called Sir Patrick Spence:

The king sits in Dumferling toune,
Drinking the blude-reid wine:
‘O whar will I get guid sailor
To sail this schip of mine?’

Traditionally only the second and fourth lines of a quatrain rhyme (as in the above) but this isn’t always the case. The following is an extract from In Memoriam by Lord Tennyson.

Be near me when my light is low
When the blood creeps, and the nerves prick
And tingle; and the heart is sick,
And all the wheels of Being slow.

Here the first and fourth lines rhyme, as do the second and third.

Nearly all forms of traditional rhyming poetry comprise combinations of couplets, tercets and quatrains.


Some close-form poems are written to much stricter rules, these are known as fixed-forms. The following are some examples of fixed-forms found in English poetry.

The Sonnet. The name sonnet is derived from the Italian sonnetto (‘little song’). In an English sonnet there are fourteen lines of verse. These lines are divided between three quatrains and a couplet. In each quatrain the first line rhymes with the third, and the second line rhymes with the fourth. The lines of the final couplet rhyme with each other. Perhaps the most famous English sonnet is the following by William Shakespeare:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.

Sometimes too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometimes declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed.

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st.

So long as men can breathe or eyes to see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Like his plays Shakespeare wrote his sonnets with five iambic pairs to the line.

(Shall I) (comp are) (thee to) (a sum) (mer’s day?)

The Limerick. This form was popularised by the humorist and artist Edward Lear. There are five lines: one and two are a couplets, as are three and four. The last line rhymes with the first. The following example is by Lear himself:

There was a young lady of Riga,
Who rode with a smile on a tiger.
They returned from the ride
With the lady inside.
And the smile on the face of the tiger.

The Epigram. Epigrams are short poems (often a single couplet) that carry a satirical sting in their tail. The following example is by Alexander Pope and has a title as long as the poem itself Epigram Engraved on the Collar of a Dog Which I Gave to his Royal Highness:

I am his Highness’ dog at Kew;
Pray tell me, sir, whose dog are you?

The next epigram, Of Treason is by Sir John Harrington:

Treason doth never prosper; what’s the reason?
For if it prosper, none dare call it treason.

The Clerihew. Clerihews are named after their inventor, Edmund Clerihew Bentley. They comprise two rhyming couplets and usually have a biographical theme. The following Clerihew is by Clerihew himself:

Sir Christopher Wren said,
‘I am going to dine with some men.
If anyone calls
Say I am designing St Pauls’.

Here’s a more contemporary anonymous example:

Sir Elton John
hit a note wrong.
So he whipped out some ammo
and shot the piano.

International fixed-forms

There are many types of fixed-form poetry round the world, for example, the Arabic Ghazal and the French Villanelle, Rondeau and Troilet. However, one of the most famous is the Japanese Haiku.

A Haiku has three lines and contains seventeen syllables. Traditionally the first and last lines contain five syllables and the middle line has seven. Seventeen syllables don’t give you much room to manoeuvre so Haikus tend to be simple and descriptive; think of them as the flash-photography of poetry used to capture an instant in time. The following is the The Falling Flower by Arakida Moritake.

The falling flower
I saw drift back to the branch
Was a butterfly.

Open-form poetry

The opposite of closed-form poetry is open-form, sometimes known as free verse. Open-form poetry might have its own internal structure but it doesn’t follow any set pattern, it goes its own way. Many people think of open-form poetry as a modern development but it’s not new. The following, Victory Comes Late is by the Victorian poet Emily Dickinson:

Victory comes late —
And is held low to freezing lips —
Too rapt with frost
To take it —
How sweet it would have tasted—
Just a Drop —
Was God so economical?
His Table’s spread too high for Us —
Unless We dine on tiptoe —
Crumbs — fit such little mouths —
Cherries — suit Robins —
The Eagle’s Golden Breakfast strangles — Them —
God keep His Oath to Sparrows —
Who of little Love — know how to starve —

The following, Cavalry Crossing a Ford is by another 19th-century poet, Walt Whitman:

A line in long array where they wind betwixt green islands,
They take a serpentine course, their arms flash in the sun — hark to
the musical clank,
Behold the silvery river, in it the splashing horses loitering stop
to drink,
Behold the brown-faced men, each group, each person a picture, the
negligent rest on the saddles,
Some emerge on the opposite bank, others are just entering the ford —
Scarlet and blue and snowy white,
The guidon flags flutter gayly in the wind.

When poetry goes bad

Open-form poetry is disliked by some. The poet Robert Frost said it was ‘like playing tennis with the net down’. These critics have a point — because there are no rules in open-form poetry it can be easy to write material that’s rambling and incoherent. An episode of the Ray Galton and Alan Simpson sitcom Hancock’s Half Hour featured a poetry evening held at Tony Hancock’s house. The following was Tony’s contribution:

The Ash Tray by Anthony

Steel rods of reason through my head,
Salmon jumping, where jump I?
Camels on fire — and spotted clouds.
Striped horses prance the meadow wild,
And rush on to drink at life’s fountains deep.
Life is cream,
I am puce.
Ching, chang, cholla.

Traditional closed-form poetry can be just as bad. The following is called O Moon, When I Gaze On They Beautiful Face.

O Moon, when I gaze on thy beautiful face
Careering along through the boundaries of space,
The thought has often come into my mind
If I shall ever see thy glorious behind.

The above is anonymous but is thought to have been written by the critic Sir Edmund Goose to illustrate just how bad poetry can get.

Poetry writing tips

If you’d like to try your hand at poetry the best way to start is by reading the works of others. Discovering what you like and don’t like in other people’s poems will be the first step in developing your own style and your research might unearth a poetry form that you find particularly appealing. Concentrating on one form of poetry (at least in the beginning ) can help focus your creativity.

Finding topics
A poem can be about anything and you can find something new and interesting to say about even the most mundane item if you think hard enough. Create a bank of ideas by keeping a writer’s notebook (see Coming up with ideas). Each day take a few minutes to write down five things that interested, shocked or amused you.

Settled on a topic that you think might be fruitful and write down as many related words and phrases you can think of. Set yourself a target that will take some effort to reach and stick at it until you get there. Once you have your word list, start sifting through it like a prospector looking for nuggets. Most of what you’ve come up with is likely to be on the ordinary side, but there should be a few words that stand out as being quirky and interesting. Use these as the seeds of your poem. If you’ve decided on a closed-form poem one obvious step is to start thinking of words with rhyme with the ones you’ve selected.

Find your form
You probably already have leanings to either open- or close-form poetry, but don’t limit yourself when you start writing. The poem you envisaged as a series of tercets might start to develop into something less structured. Go with the flow and see where it takes you.

Keep it fresh
One of the challenges of poetry (and much of the fun) is finding new and interesting ways of expressing ideas. When speaking, people tend to cling to a limited repertoire of familiar phrases and expressions; your goal is to put a new slant on the familiar. For example, if we wanted to describe something as being dark we could say it was ‘coal black’ or ‘black as night’, ‘pitch black’ perhaps; none of which are very imaginative. In Under Milk Wood Dylan Thomas uses the phrase ‘Bible black’, which as well as being descriptive also conjures up an atmosphere of dusty, grim-faced austerity. A few lines later in the poem we see black again in:

Sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea.

An evocative phrase that paints a rich, vivid mental image with surprisingly few words (if you didn’t know it a sloe is the purple-black fruit of the blackthorn.)

How many different ways of describing something as ‘black’ could you think of; or yellow, or purple…? Try doing it as an exercise — aim for ten. Don’t limit yourself to simple comparisons, stretch yourself, how about ‘un-white-none-bright’?

Less is more
Be economic with your text. Every word must serve a purpose. Think of your words as rowers in a galley — if any aren’t pulling their weight, throw them overboard. Unnecessary text will dilute the important elements of your poem, distract from them and reduce their impact.

Show don’t tell
This is a useful piece of advice that is also recommended in the chapter Writing tips. Essentially it means it’s better to describe the effect of something rather than make bland announcements about it. For example, if you were describing the moment you first saw something wonderful you could tell the reader you were excited, entranced or amazed, or whatever; but a better way would be to ‘show’ the reader by describing the symptoms of your excitement — your quick breathing, clammy hands, revolving bow-tie… Telling is like a police incident report; showing adds detail and emotion; paints a mental picture that puts the reader at the heart of the action.

Listen for the rhythm
Close-form poems have a definite rhythm but even an open-form poem should have a beat to drive it along. Compare Cavalry Crossing a Ford with The Ashtray. The words in Cavalry Crossing create a pattern of sound with a distinct tempo while Hancock’s poem is a noisy discordant jumble.

Read it aloud
We tend to skim over words when we read and they often don’t make the impact they should. Reading aloud will make you concentrate on each word and how it fits in with its neighbours; the rhythm of the words, if there is one, will also be much stronger. Reading aloud will help you weed out words that are creating discordant notes or not pulling their weight.

Don’t edit too soon
In your early drafts let your freedom of expression run wild. You might end up with a very different poem from the one you envisaged, but it might also be far better than the one you were hoping for. If you’re lucky you’ll produce a poem you like very quickly, but most people find they end up with a tangle of words that needs careful pruning before it’s in a fit state to be seen. Don’t edit yourself as you write, but once you’ve finished a rough draft be ruthless about hacking it back.

Reworking a poem can be hard. If you find you’re stuck, put it away for a few days and come back to it. You can get used to seeing words on the page, but taking a short break will help you look at them afresh. Problems, and their solutions, will often leap out at you if you give yourself a holiday.

Keep at it
After an initial burst of enthusiasm many people give up on poetry if they don’t feel they’re making progress. It can take time and effort to produce something worthwhile but your first ten ‘lousy’ poems might be vital stepping stones towards your first great one. Try to make writing a habit. Give yourself an achievable target and stick at it. Set aside some regular writing time and use it to create at least six lines of original verse, or revise the six lines you wrote last time.

Getting poetry published

There are many magazines devoted to poetry, but they rarely have money to throw around and most can’t pay fees to their authors; often the best you can hope for is a free copy of the magazine itself.

London’s Southbank Centre has an online Poetry Library ( listing many poetry titles and links to their websites.

In the USA a good source of poetry titles is NewPages.Com ( Their website features a comprehensive list of national and regional literary magazines.

Submitting a poem for publication

Doing the following can’t guarantee success but will improve your chances.

Read the magazine’s submissions guidelines. Most magazines will have a set of writers’ guidelines they send to prospective writers. Read the guidelines and follow them to the letter.

Keep your covering letter short. A rambling letter is likely to annoy. Include only the information you have to (see below).

Give a publication history. Your covering letter should include your poem’s publication history. If a work has been published previously you must say so.

Send your poem to a name, not a title. Find out the right person to send your submission to and address the letter to them by name. Literary magazines have a more intimate relationship with authors than other publications. An impersonal form letter won’t be appreciated.

Keep a copy. If you’ve composed your poem on a typewriter don’t rely on a magazine returning it even if you included a stamped self-addressed envelope — your poem, or the envelope, might get lost. Some magazines have a policy of not returning printed material.

Poetry competitions

Winning a prestigious poetry competition will raise your profile in the literary world. Apart from the recognition some competitions also have a significant prize. As with other submissions the most important thing is read the guidelines and follow them; even a slight deviation from the required format can be enough to put your poem on the reject pile.

One common mistake is to put your contact details on the same page as the poem. Many guidelines request that your contact details are kept separate from your entry. Presenting anonymous poems to the judges means they can mark them without prejudice or discrimination.

More information on competitions can be found in the chapter Literary competitions, prizes and awards.

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