Poetry comes in many different forms – from simple, catchy rhymes to epic works that contain the elements of a story. A poem can be social commentary, an attempt to describe something that eludes description, a declaration of love or a sentiment expressed on a greeting card. And with poetry, the structure and arrangement of the words often have just as much significant of the words themselves. This guide provides information and resources to help you learn about poetry and how to read and analyze it. Keep reading to learn all about the history, forms and movements of poetry, as well as tips on how to write poetry.
A Short History of Poetry
The earliest types of poetry were epic, lyric, and dramatic. An epic poem presents a long narrative of the hero’s journey. It is full of adventures and fantastic feats. Lyric poetry is a short expression of the poet’s personal ideas and feelings. It was originally written as song to be accompanied by an ancient musical instrument called a lyre. Dramatic poetry is scripted with the voices of different characters, which makes this form of poetry perfect for acting out by different people.
From its ancient beginnings, poetry has evolved over time into many different forms that appeal to everyone from the most innocent, wide-eyed child to the most seasoned, world-weary adult. In present-day, the world possesses access to an immense, colorful and rich body of poetic works along with the history of each form’s origins and their authors.
Learn more about the history of poetry with these resources:
A timeline of English poetry that’s perfect for teachers, students or anyone who has an interest in the history of English poetry. The timeline begins with the earliest forms of poetry and extends to present-day forms. Use the timeline to find answers to questions such as, “Who wrote the first limerick?”
An engaging synopsis of ancient to modern poetry complete with colorful pictures that illustrate different periods of poetic history throughout the world.
A thought-provoking article that gives the reader a concise history of poetry as an art and what ancient thinkers believed made poetry distinctive as a form of art.
A history of children’s poetry from the 17th century to the present. This resource gives readers an understanding of the types of poetry written for children throughout the past four centuries. It also offers information about famous children’s poets.
How to Read, Comprehend and Analyze Poetry
- Read the poem’s title and think about what it may mean.
- Read the poem aloud at least three times to hear the rhyme or rhythm of the words and the overall sound of the work.
- Pay attention to action verbs, descriptive words or comparisons and let them form images in your mind. Ask yourself if the images remind you of anything.
- Look up unfamiliar words.
- Think about the message is the poet trying to convey to the reader. Consider if the message relates to you or your life in any way.
- Think about how the poem makes you feel.
For additional information about reading, comprehending and analyzing poetry, check out these websites:
Puzzled about a poetic term? Check out this extensive glossary with poetic terms defined.
A collection of tips to help you read poetry and understand it from the University of Pennsylvania
Detailed guidelines that will help you breakdown and analyze a poem
An entertaining, yet helpful, guide that offers strategies for reading and understanding poetry.
A guide to breaking down a poem and analyzing its elements.
Major Poetic Forms
Poetic form consists of a set of rules followed by the different types of poems. These rules govern elements such as rhythm, rhyme scheme, length of lines or use of alliteration. Poetic forms range from abstract to villanelles. Here are some of the major poetic forms:
Couplet – two successive rhyming lines that contain the same meter to create a complete thought. Couplets exist in many forms. William Shakespeare commonly chose to end his sonnets with a rhyming couplet that served to sum up the main ideas in the poem.
Quatrain – four line stanzas of any kind, rhymed, metered, or otherwise. Many times, having alternate rhymes within the lines. Like the couplet, there are many variations of the quatrain. One famous example of a quatrain can be found in the The Tyger by William Blake.
Ballad – narrative poem arranged in short stanzas. Ballads that are traditional in nature have often been passed down over generations as a piece of folk culture. An example of a famous ballad is The Second Coming by W.B. Yeats.
Haiku – Following Japanese tradition, haikus are three-line poems with 17 syllables. There are five syllables in the first line, seven syllables in the second, and five syllables in the third. However, Japanese syllables are not the same as English syllables. Therefore, English-language haikus only sometimes contain a total of 17 syllables, and only sometimes are composed of three lines with a 5-7-5 syllable pattern.
Elegy – A sad, reflective poem written in response to a death. The elegy began as a Greek metrical form of poetry. It reflects the three stages of loss: lament, praise and consolation. One famous elegy is O Captain! My Captain! which Walt Whitman wrote to reflect upon the death of President Abraham Lincoln.
Ode – A lyric poem filled with exalted emotion such as love or respect of someone. Traditional Greek odes were performed with the accompaniment of a musical instrument, such as a lyre. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind is a famous example of an English-language ode from the 19th century.
For more information about major poetic forms, check out these websites:
A large list of poetic forms with links to full, detailed descriptions of each specific form.
A source of detailed information regarding the three basic forms of sonnets.
Kid-friendly poetic forms that are perfect for teachers to use as ideas when introducing poetry.
An explanation of what makes up different forms of poetry that children can relate to and use the knowledge to author poems of their own.
A collection of well-known and obscure poetic forms.
Quotes About the Art of Poetry
Poetry – and the role of the poet – may mean different things to different people. Here are some different takes on poetry from notable figures.
“A poet’s work is to name the unnamable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop it going to sleep.“ – Salman Rushdie, writer
“My role in society, or any artist or poet’s role, is to try and express what we all feel. Not to tell people how to feel. Not as a preacher, not as a leader, but as a reflection of us all.” – John Lennon, musician
“Writing a book of poetry is like dropping a rose petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo.”
– Don Marquis, writer
“For what is a poem but a hazardous attempt at self-understanding: it is the deepest part of autobiography.” – Robert Penn Warren, poet
“Poetry is a language in which man explores his own amazement.” – Christopher Fry, poet
“Poetry is ordinary language raised to the Nth power. Poetry is boned with ideas, nerved and blooded with emotions, all held together by the delicate, tough skin of words.” – Paul Engle, poet
Major Movements in Poetry
Throughout history, poetry has evolved and changed according to the message that poets are interested in conveying to their audiences. From the oral tradition of storytelling to the politically influenced poetry designed as medium for change, poetry has made a notable impact through the ages on societies and communities. Learning about the different movements in poetry can help you appreciate the differences in time periods and give you insight into how different events and ideals in history helped shape poetry.
Ancient Greek Poetry (7th to 4th centuries B.C.) – before reading and writing was common, traveling performers memorized and recited poetry to audiences. However, the Greeks were the first civilization to begin writing down poetry. Greeks created all of the following forms of poetry: epic, tragedy, comedy, ode and lyric. Some of the famous poets of this time included Homer, Sappho and Euripides. Dramatic performances for royalty were common in this time period.
Provencal Literature (11th to 13th centuries) – This movement sprang from a group of musicians from southern France who began to write powerful lyrics and put them to music. The three concepts that they focused upon were imagery, secret love and the spiritualization of passion. Gifted in weaving together masterful works of meter, form and rhythm, these poets achieved a unique and enviable style.
Elizabethan and Shakespearean Eras (1558-1625) – Humanistic and religious subjects were written about during these parallel eras, and sonnets were widespread. Due to the increased interest in academic and literary pursuits, large, new audiences who were interested in poetry developed. It was also during this time that poetry was introduced into the educational system.
Metaphysical Poets –The metaphysical poets began with John Dryden and used topics such as love, nature and philosophy to define and compare their subjects. Writing about the afterlife became a common practice.
Romantic Poets – The Romantic period was based on the work of seven poets. It was rooted in heartfelt, personal expression. It is regarded as one of the greatest movements in poetic history. It began in the late 1790s with William Blake and ended with Lord Byron’s demise in 1824.
American Transcendentalists (1836-1860) – The transcendentalists, which included poets such as Emerson, Louisa May Alcott, Henry David Thoreau and Nathaniel Hawthorne, organized a cohesive movement against a culture they felt was too puritanical. They regularly met and even had a commune called Brook Farm. Their aims were focused on sending tender, personalized expression.
The Beat movement (1948-1963) – This movement lasted 15 years, and became mainstream only in the last six years of its existence. The Beats desired to live life on their own terms, as they defined it. Main influencers during this time included William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac, who created the term, “Beat Generation” in 1948. Free-expression jazz and free verse rooted in social issues were common during this movement by the mid-1950s. Young followers were interested in putting down the values held by their parents during the Great Depression and World War II. Many subsequent musicians and artists were influenced by the beats, including a young Bob Dylan.
Tips for Writing Poetry
The act of writing poetry can be as simple as jotting down words and phrases from the heart, arranging them as you see fit and attaching an appropriate title. However, if you want to write a certain type or style of poetry, you need to study the elements of the specific form you are interested in replicating. Stumped for ideas for the content of your poem? Try finding a quiet, serene spot in nature or a bustling avenue and let your senses take in everything around you. Don’t forget to make some notes about your observation for when you are ready to begin writing your poem. When writing your poem, avoid extreme rhyming or trite phrases for the best effect. Employ the use of figurative language, theme, and imagery to connect with the reader.
Check out the following websites for more tips about writing poetry:
Plenty of helpful tips to get you started on your poet’s quest. Some are basic tips while others may help spark your creativity.
A guide for writing poetry that can make an impact on the world. Find examples and tips that will help you create poetic forms that command the attention of others.
Ten, kid-friendly tips for authoring poems. A perfect resource for teachers to use with students who could become overwhelmed otherwise.
Ever wondered what famous authors did to inspire themselves to write? Check out this site for an entertaining read.
This article promises to teach you how to write a love poem that won’t be forgotten.
Need help analyzing a poem and writing about it in a way that makes sense? Find a comprehensive guide here that will help you compose your paper with confidence.
Influential Poets Through History
William Shakespeare (1564-1616) is well-known as a playwright. However, he penned more than 150 love poems and sonnets, which are often considered some of the most romantic works of all time. In fact, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 is often quoted in wedding ceremonies because it talks about the pure and enduring qualities of romantic love.
John Keats (1795-1821) was an English poet who was part of the romantic era. Keats died in the latter part of his 20s, but his reputation has lived on for centuries. Keats is noted for the odes he composed, such as Ode on a Grecian Urn.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-61) was an Englishwoman who was married to famous poet, Robert Browning. However, she was also recognized as a Victorian poet, and some critics hold the belief that she was more prominent in the poetry world than her husband. After all, most well-read people are familiar with her famously penned lines, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”
Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49), an American poet and writer who was the master of the dark and macabre, effectively launched his career after the publication of his unnerving poem, The Raven in 1845. Poe also wrote many stories that chilled the hearts of his readers such as The Cask of Amontillado and The Tell-Tale Heart.
Walt Whitman (1819-91) is regarded as one of the most influential of all American poets. Whitman favored writing in free verse and is commonly referred to as the father of free verse. His famous work Leaves of Grass suffered harsh criticism due to its references of overt sexuality.
Robert Frost (1874-1963), a Pulitzer Prize winner, based much of the imagery in his early poems on the rural landscape of New England. Some of his most popular and often quoted poems include The Road Not Taken and Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.
T.S. Eliot (1888-1965), a Nobel Prize winner, was born in America but choose to move to England as a young man. He never returned to his American roots. Eliot was noted for his complex, modernist style of writing, which can be found his poems such as The Waste Land.
E.E. Cummings (1894-1962) was one of the most popular American poets during the 20th century. Cummings experimented with syntax, grammar and form when writing poetry. He had a particular affinity for shunning capital letters in poems, and readers will often see his name stylized as e.e. cummings.
Langston Hughes (1902-67) was an integral figure in the Harlem Renaissance movement of the 1920s. A proponent of African-American culture, he authored poems, novels and plays that made an impact in his community and beyond due to his portrayal of working-class blacks and their struggles and joys. One of his famous poems is, A Dream Deferred, which refers to a dream pushed aside as raisin exposed to the sun becoming dry and wrinkled.
Maya Angelou had no shortage of talents. Not only was she an accomplished poet, she also had experience as an essayist, dancer, filmmaker, actress and civil rights activist. Her 1969 memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, is quite famous and became a bestseller at the time of its publication. In May 2014, Maya Angelou passed away at the age of 86.