Poetry comes in all kinds of 'shapes and sizes'. At A-Level, we need to be able to describe the form and structure of poetry more precisely and in more detail than before.
Fortunately, all this takes is an ability to spot simple patterns and describe them using the appropriate terminology.
Below you will find a guide to the terms needed to describe the most common structures and forms. We will be looking at rhythm,rhyme and then how these are combined to give forms.
You sould be familiar with the idea of rhythm - a 'beat' which occurs as poetry is read aloud. This happens because when we speak, we naturally emphasise or stress some syllables and words more than others. In English speech, it is usual for the first syllable of a word to be stressed most strongly (although with polysyllabic words this is not always the case). It is also usual for 'unimportant' words like 'and' and 'the' to be unstressed; we tend to stress the words which carry meaning, so that we communicate as clearly as possible.
The first thing we need to do to describe the rhythm of a poem is to work out which syllables are stressed. If you are able to do this already, skip this part .If this is not immediately obvious to you, take each word individually, and split it into its constituent syllables. Try saying the word with the stress in different places - it should quite quickly become clear which syllables are stressed and which are not (getting the stress 'wrong' often makes words sound nonsensical).
For example, would you say
- des-cribe or
- sy-lla-ble or
You should have concluded that in each case, the answer was the first version. If not, try saying the different versions again, really emphasising the bold parts of the words - you should be able to hear that the first versions sound 'right' and the others sound 'wrong'.
To mark on a text which syllables are stressed, we place a curved line (like the mouth of a smiley face) over the vowel sound of an unstressed syllable, and a straight, rising line (like an acute accent in French) over the vowel sound of a stressed syllable. An example is given below.
Once we have marked a few lines of the poem, we need to begin looking for patterns, as it is repeated patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables which gives us a sense of the 'beat' of a poem - this is what makes rhythm.
In the example above, we have a an unstressed syllable then a stressed syllable, then another unstressed syllable and another stressed syllable - in fact, there are five repetitions of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. Put another way, there is a basic 'unit' of stressed, unstressed which repeats five times. This basic unit is called a metric foot.
There are diferent types of foot, classified according to the sequence of stressed and unstressed syllables they contain. These are listed below:
||(unstressed, unstressed, stressed)
||(stressed, unstressed, unstressed)
||(unstressed, stressed, unstressed)
Looking back at the example we used, we can now say that it is composed of five iambic feet, and we are half way to a detailed description of the metre of the line.
The other half of the description consists of the terms for the number of repetitions of the foot in a line, which come from Greek:
All we need to do now is to combine the term for the type of foot and the term for the number of repetitions - the metre of a poem in which each line consists of five repetitions of 'unstressed, stressed' is called iambic pentameter. Similarly, a poem in which each line consists of three repetitions of 'unstressed, stressed, unstressed' has a metre of amphibrachic trimeter.
Rhyme is something we are all aware of - we all 'know what it is' - but it is not something we are often called upon to define. Most people would say that two words whih rhyme "sound the same at the end". A more technical and specific description would be that for two words to rhyme, the vowel sound and any consonant sounds in the final syllable must be identical (and since we can all recognise rhyme, further detail here is unnecessary).
To describe rhyme, we assign each different line-end sound a letter, and list the sequence of sounds as letters. Using this notation, a poem of four four-line stanzas in which alternate lines rhyme (first and third line rhyme; second and fourth rhyme; fifth and seventh rhyme etc) would be described as having an abab cdcd efef ghgh rhyme scheme.
Forms of Poetry
As we have seen, the patterns of metre and rhyme poets can use are immensely varied. Sometimes, however, poets choose to use particular forms - that is, they adhere to set structures, which are described in terms of number of stanzas, number of lines, metre and rhyme scheme.
One of the most well-known forms of poem is the limerick, of which poem 3 above is an example. Looking at this, we can list the 'qualities' of a limerick as follows:
- one stanza
- five lines
- rhyme scheme - aabba
- metre - amphibrachic trimeter in lines 1, 2 and 5; one amphibachic foot and one iambic foot in lines 3 and 4.
The limerick is, however, a very versatile form - it does not always use this metre, as some have different numbers of syllables in the long lines.
Other forms which are much more strict are the following:
- one stanza
- fourteen lines
- rhyme scheme - abab cdcd efef gg
- metre - iambic pentameter
Example - (poem 2 above and) Sonnet 18 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:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his fair complexion dimm'd
And every fair from fair some time declines,
By chance, or nature's changing course, untrimm'd;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor Death shall brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest;
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
- one stanza
- three lines
- rhyme scheme - none
- metre - none, but haiku must have 5 syllables in lines 1 and 3, and 7 syllables in line2
Example - (by Basho)
The petals tremble
on the yellow mountain rose -
roar of the rapids
- one stanza
- four lines
- rhyme scheme - varied, but often abab
- metre - iambic pentameter
Example - from The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám
A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread - and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness -
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!