Types of poetry forms in literature & song lyrics
The world of poetry is vast and varied. To find your way around it, you need to know the main types of poetry. While there are quite a few, understanding different types of poems is not as difficult as it might seem. Our article will help you, so read on!
The main difference between this article and the other ones is that we will look at the key types of poetry with examples not only from literature but song lyrics as well. Our list does not claim to be comprehensive or cover all possible poetry types, but knowing these main genres of poetry will help you navigate all that poetic diversity more confidently.
The Key Genres and Types of Poetry
Generally speaking, regardless of its genre and style, any poem can be attributed to one of the two fundamental types:
- lyric poetry, and
- epic (narrative) poetry
Lyric poetry aims to reveal the soul of the lyrical hero: thoughts, impressions, feelings. The narrative does not concern itself with events: a lyric poem can be completely plotless. The lyrical part here also reflects the author’s state of mind and experiences. Types of lyric poetry include the ode, the sonnet, the elegy, the madrigal, etc.
Epic poetry, on the other hand, offers an objective description of reality. In epic poems, events are portrayed in a sequential development, and heroes in action. This kind of poetry tells about phenomena, persons (people and not only), their characters, and actions. Types of epic poetry include the epic itself, the fable and parable, and others.
Now that we know this basic division, let’s consider what types of poetry exist!
Ode is a solemn poem (from the Greek ode — a song). In ancient Greece, odes were composed to glorify the winners of athletic competitions, war heroes, and gods. Later, the ode was transformed into a genre of high poetry, praising an important person, event, or idea.
This type of poetry is characterized by an elevated style: church vocabulary, inversion, the splendor of epithets, rhetorical questions, and exclamations. The ode became one of the most important poetic genres of the era of classicism in the 18th century, carrying into the next one:
In 1819, John Keats composed six odes, which are among his most famous and well-regarded poems. Keats wrote the first five poems, “Ode on a Grecian Urn“, “Ode on Indolence“, “Ode on Melancholy“, “Ode to a Nightingale“, and “Ode to Psyche” in quick succession during the spring, and he composed “To Autumn” in September
A prominent modern musician who composes odes is Hozier: his “Angel of Small Death” meets just about every criterion of the ode except length (classical odes are rather lengthy):
Free verse can be rhymed or unrhymed poetry that is written without following the rules of the meter. Free verse was first written and labeled vers libre (French for “free verse”) by a group of French poets of the late 19th century, including Gustave Kahn and other symbolists. Their purpose was to deliver French poetry from the guidelines of metrical patterns and to re-create the free rhythms of natural speech.
Following the writing forms of American poet Walt Whitman as a guide, they wrote lines of varied lengths and cadence, usually unrhymed. The emotional meaning of their work was expressed through its rhythm. Free verse has been characteristic of the work of many modern American poets, including Amy Lowell, Ezra Pound, and Carl Sandburg.
Read more on free verse and its counterpart, rhyming poetry, along with examples.
Hymn (from the Greek gymnos — praise) is a solemn song (poem) on a sublime theme. In antiquity, hymns were sung as tributes to the gods. In European literature of the 18-19th centuries, both religious and secular hymns were composed.
Hymns often appeal to the object of praise, use flattering comparisons, descriptions, enumeration of the praiseworthy qualities or deeds of the object. Among the poetic devices, hyperboles, metaphors, comparisons, and epithets prevail.
Florence And The Machine are the authors of several hymns, of which “You’ve Got The Love” is not only the most famous but also the most classic as it is actually dedicated to God:
Haiku is a form of poetry that developed in Japan from about 400 years ago. The style reached a peak in the first half of the Edo period (1603-1868), when a poet named Matsuo Basho wrote distinctive verses on his journeys around the country describing the seasons and the scenery of the places he visited.
In the ensuing Meiji period (1868-1912) haiku developed as a uniquely Japanese form of poetry thanks to the efforts of another poet, Masaoka Shiki. It was Shiki who promoted a new form of haiku that emphasized realistic portrayals of nature and human life.
A haiku is a short verse of 17 syllables, divided into units of five, seven, and five syllables. Haiku use simple expressions in ways that allow deeply felt emotions and a sense of discovery to be readily conveyed to the reader. As a rule, a haiku must have a word that is identified with a particular season.
Read more about haiku and its examples here.
Elegy is a meditation poem, mainly of a pensive, philosophical or emotional nature. Most often, elegies are written on behalf of the lyrical hero. Traditional elegy motives include disappointment, unrequited or tragic love, loneliness, discord between ideals and reality, death, and frailty of being. Most types of love poems (including such niche ones as sweet goodnight poems for a beloved woman) are elegies.
This type of poetry gained the greatest popularity in the poems of sentimentalism and romanticism. Among the famous authors of elegies are Walt Whitman (“When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”); Alfred, Lord Tennyson (“In Memoriam”); and John Milton (“Lycidas”).
Enya’s “Only Time” is a remarkable example of a contemporary elegy:
Just make sure you don’t confuse elegy and eulogy, which is not a poems genre, although it can be composed in verse.
Sonnet is a type of lyric poetry that originated in Italy in the 13th century and became widespread during the Renaissance and Romanticism. It is a so-called solid poetic form because of its strictly defined length (14 lines) and the order of rhyming. The most frequent topics covered in sonnets are love and reflections on poetry.
The triumvirate of sonnet writers consists of two Italian masters Dante and Petrarch and William Shakespeare. Among his notable works in this type of poems is Sonnet 55. Unfortunately, there are no songs based on sonnets that we know, but if you do, please share in the comments!
A romance is a small poem, mainly about love. Romances usually tell stories that are simple but full of feelings. This type of poetry is distinguished by melodiousness, expressiveness, and liveliness (in contrast to the ballad).
Note that “Bad Romance” by Lady Gaga, is an example of satire, not romance:
Satire is more detailed than an epigram, including the scale of what it depicts. In a satirical poem, the shortcomings of a person, group, or the whole society are ridiculed, hence its civic pathos. Unlike the epigram, satire is characterized by the greater indignation of the author.
Jonathan Swift, one of the most prominent satirical poets, is the author of such masterpieces as “A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed” and “The Lady’s Dressing Room”.
Limerick, a humorous verse form, the subject of which is often nonsensical but the structure of which is strictly prescribed. This definite pattern consists of five anapestic lines. Lines one, two, and five contain three metrical feet, and rhyme; lines three and four contain two metrical feet and rhyme. Originally, limericks were delivered orally and served as commentaries on manners and behavior. The most famous of all limerick writers was the English painter and humorist Edward Lear.
Here’s an article on limerick and some other rare and cool types of poetry with examples.
Pastoral (bucolic poetry)
Pastoral, idyll, bucolic poetry (from the French pastorale: pastoral, rural) is a genre of poetry depicting simple rural life in a romanticized representation. Initially, the heroes of pastoral poetry were shepherds and shepherdesses.
The pastorals’ objective is to contrapose the quiet rural life to the hustle and bustle of large cities. Pastoral poetry is characterized by “pagan” stylization, primitive hedonism, playing with mythological images.
The birthplace of the pastoral is Italy. This type of poetry was widespread in the 18th century among sentimentalists.
This article on pastoral poetry with examples will probably tell you all you want to know about this poetry genre.
Madrigal is a short poetic dedication containing a compliment, a declaration of love, or a flattering description of the addressee. Most often, madrigals are addressed to women, but not always. For example, the following madrigal by William Shakespeare is addressed to youth:
During the Renaissance, madrigals were created mainly for later transcription into music. Later, the madrigal became an independent poetic genre. It was often used in the so-called “salon” poetry as it was customary to write madrigals in the albums of secular beauties.
Kyrielle was once a very popular poetic form originating in France and dating back to the Middle Ages. The word Kyrielle is derived from a part of the church liturgy, the kyrie eleison (Lord, have mercy). This is why we have the refrain, which is a characteristic of kyrie eleison. The words to many hymns are in this form, though it is by no means confined to religious poetry.
It is written in quatrains (four-line stanzas), which include a refrain (repeat line, phrase or word) as the last line, and each line has eight syllables.
The rhyming scheme is completely up to the author; it could easily be aabB, ccbB or abaB, cbcB. It is not even required for the refrain to rhyme with the second line, so it could be axaR, bxbR
Read more about Kyrielle and find examples of this curious type of poetry form here.
Epigram – (from the Greek epigramma — inscription), a short (usually four to eight lines) satirical poem. The main task of the epigram is to ridicule (or present in a humorous manner) a person, event, phenomenon, or idea.
Initially, epigrams served as epitaphs on altars and tombstones. The modern epigram was formed in France in the 16th-17th centuries and gradually became a means of exposing human vices. This poetry genre is also used for political purposes.
A dedication is a poetic monologue addressed to a real or fictional person. Usually, a dedication contains an appeal, request, or wish. The main feature of this poem type is a connection to biographical or historical events. In the 19th century, friendly dedications gained enormous popularity, replacing the “solemn” ones of the 18th century.
Matthew Bellamy of MUSE is a big fan of dedications. The hit song “Supermassive Black Hole” belongs to this type of poetry:
Epic is a song-legend about outstanding deeds. Epics describe the feats of heroes, historical events, and the folklife of ancient times. Since the epic is a folklore genre, this type of poetry is frequented by miracles and fantastic elements.
From the literary devices used in epics, hyperbole, comparisons, and repetitions are the most common. There is no rhyme, and melodiousness is achieved due to consonances and a special arrangement of stressed syllables in the poetic meter. Usually, the first emphasis falls on the third syllable from the beginning and the last on the third from the end.
Here’s a list of the 20 greatest epics of all time.
Fable & Parable
Fable is a short, comical story in verse. The main feature of fables is the presence of a pithy moral conclusion (lesson), which likens the fable to an allegory. In fables, the characters are not people, but animals, plants, and even inanimate things. Here is a list of famous fables, a good portion of which was written by Aesop.
Parable is similar to the fable but differs in greater generalization and significance of the idea. The purpose of the parable is to inform about events and the ethical choice of a person, not to depict characters or phenomena in their evolution. Thus, parables are often based on biblical stories.
Ballad is a plot poem based on fantastic, folklore material. This poetry genre has a mysterious, mystical character. The plot of the ballad is built around some unusual event: a crime, a tragedy, a phenomenon of otherworldly forces.
Ballads actively use such poetic devices as epithets (“bitter fate”, “dead silence”), comparisons (“rushed as if on wings”), archaisms, and a special phonetic melody. The ballad was extremely popular during sentimentalism and romanticism. Since this poetry genre combines the features of a story and a song, the ballad evolved naturally into modern songwriting. Consider “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” by Johnny Cash:
Danil Rudoy’s “Marriage Market, or a Ballad on Love and Money” is a curious example of this poetry type written in the 21st century.
Narrative poem (including the novel in verse) is a large or medium-sized work prominently featuring an original plot (as in the epic), and the presence of a lyric hero (as in lyrical poetry). In narrative poems of different types — heroic, romantic, satirical, and others — these key components are combined in different proportions.
Due to its length and complexity, the narrative poem is the hardest type of poems to write.
Coventry Patmore’s Angel in the House is a good example of a proper narrative poem.
Rondeau, (French, “rondo”), one of several fixed forms in French poetry and song, popular from the 13th to the 16th century. Possibly originating as sung accompaniment for a round dance with a chorus of singers and a soloist, early rondeaux were written by such French poet-composers as Guillaume de Machaut. The early form had eight lines, of which the first two formed a refrain repeated in the middle and at the end of the poem; only two rhymes were used.
The Rondeau is a very underestimated and sometimes a very challenging poetry form. It consists of three stanzas, a quintet (5 lines), a quatrain (4 lines), and a sestet (6 lines), making the poem a total of 15 lines. The refrain consists of the first few words of the first line of the first stanza.
More information and examples of the rondeau.
Confession is a poem-repentance where the lyric hero reveals his soul, recalls his life path, expresses personal convictions of a philosophical, religious, political, and even sexual nature. The confession is similar to a diary entry, but, unlike it, is not tied to time or place. Hozier’s “Take me to Church” is an excellent example of this poetry type:
We now discussed the main types of poems: if you want to explore more, including such rare genres of poetry as lai, cinquain, clerihew, and others check out this resource
Do you want to not only know the key types of poetry but become a poet as well? Check out our article on how to write poetry and learn how to be the next Shakespeare!