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 as 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 into many different forms that appeal to everyone from the most innocent, wide-eyed child to the most seasoned, world-weary adult. Today the world enjoys an immense, colorful, and rich body of poetic works along with the history of each form’s origins andauthors.
Learn more about the history of poetry with these resources:
This timeline of English poetry is perfect for teachers, students, or anyone interested in the history of English poetry. It 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?”
Access an engaging synopsis of ancient to modern poetry complete with colorful pictures that illustrate different periods of poetic history throughout the world.
This thought-provoking article gives readers a concise history of poetry as an art and what ancient thinkers believed made poetry distinctive as a form of art.
Review the 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 the poet is 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.
Review this collection of tips to help you read poetry and understand it from the University of Pennsylvania.
Learn how to break down and analyze a poem with these detailed guidelines.
This entertaining yet helpful guide offers strategies for reading and understanding poetry.
Discover how to break down a poem and analyze its elements.
Major Poetic Forms
Poetic form consists of sets 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 summed up the poem’s main ideas.
Quatrain – Four-line stanzas of any kind, rhymed, metered, or otherwise. Often has 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 – A 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 different fromEnglish 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! written by Walt Whitman to reflect upon the death of President Abraham Lincoln.
Ode – A lyric poem filled with exalted emotion such as love or respect. Traditional Greek odes were performed and accompanied by 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:
This large list of poetic forms links to full, detailed descriptions of each specific form.
Access detailed information regarding the three basic forms of sonnets.
These kid-friendly poetic forms are perfect for teachers to use as ideas when introducing poetry.
Kids can relate to this explanation of what makes up different forms of poetry, then use the knowledge to author poems of their own.
Peruse this 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 poets and writers.
“Poetry can be dangerous, especially beautiful poetry, because it gives the illusion of having had the experience without actually going through it.” – Rumi
“Poetry gives us permission. It reminds us that we are loved and we are human. Its rhythms are those of the heartbeat. Its rhymes lure us into remembering more than we ever imagine. It’s a form of song, with a quieter tune.” – Molly Fisk
“Poetry is what in a poem makes you laugh, cry, prickle, be silent, makes your toe nails twinkle, makes you want to do this or that or nothing, makes you know that you are alone in the unknown world, that your bliss and suffering is forever shared and forever all your own.” – Dylan Thomas
“Poetry is eternal graffiti written in the heart of everyone.” – Lawrence Ferlinghetti
“Poetry is, at bottom, a criticism of life.” – Matthew Arnold
“Poetry’s job is to discover wholeness and create wholeness, including the wholeness of the fragmentary and the broken.” – Jane Hirschfield
“Poetry is the journal of a sea animal living on land, wanting to fly in the air.” – Carl Sandburg
“Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before.” – Audre Lord
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 on societies and communities through the ages. Learning about the different movements in poetry can help you appreciate the differences in time periods and give you insight into how different historical events and ideals helped shape poetry.
Ancient Greek Poetry (7th to 4th centuries BC) — Before reading and writing was common, traveling performers memorized and recited poetry to audiences. However, the Greeks were the first civilization to write poetry down. Greeks created all of the following poetic forms: 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 wrote 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. Poetry was introduced into the educational system during this time.
Metaphysical Poets (17th century) — 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 was a common practice.
Romantic Poets (1790-1824) — 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 Ralph Waldo 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. They were focused on sending tender, personalized expression.
The Beat Movement (1948-1963) – This 15-year movement 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 observations 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:
Find plenty of helpful tips to get you started on your poet’s quest. Some are basic tips while others may help spark your creativity.
This guide for writing poetry that can impact the world contains examples and tips that will help you create poetic forms that command the attention of others.
Find 10 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 his late 20s, but his reputation has lived on for centuries. Keats is noted for his odes, such as “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”
Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-61) was married to famous English poet Robert Browning. However, she was also recognized as a Victorian poet, and some critics believe 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 the1845 publication of his unnerving poem, “The Raven.” 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 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 moved to England as a young man. He never returned to his American roots. Eliot was noted for his complex, modernist style of writing, exemplified in poems like “The Waste Land.”
E.E. Cummings (1894-1962) was one of the most popular American poets of the 20th century. He experimented with syntax, grammar, and form when writing poetry. He had a particular affinity for shunning capital letters in poems, and readers 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, “A Dream Deferred,” compares a dream pushed aside to a raisin exposed to the sun becoming dry and wrinkled.
Maya Angelou (1928-2014) had no shortage of talents. Not only was she an accomplished poet, she was also an experienced essayist, dancer, filmmaker, actress, and civil rights activist. Her 1969 memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is quite famous and became a best-seller at the time of its publication.