Poetry 101 with Sandy Shreve and Kate Braid

For World Poetry Day, we wanted to get our form down right, so we asked co-editors Sandy Shreve and Kate Braid of In Fine Form: A Contemporary Look at Canadian Form Poetry (Caitlin Press) to break it down for us. Below, they lay out the structures of 10 different poetry forms and suggest a poet who writes in that form to get you started.


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Form: Acrostic
An acrostic makes a vertical word, phrase, or sentence with the first letter or word of each consecutive line in a poem. The poem can be any length and in any form, and is not necessarily rhymed or metred (metre: having a particular pattern of stressed syllables). Other approaches are also possible. For example, the acrostic element, be it a first letter of a word or an entire word, can be somewhat disguised if it is placed in the middle or at the end of each line.
Poet: Adam Sol *
Form: Ballad
Stanzas: An unlimited number of quatrains (quatrain: four-line stanza, or verse).
Metre: (Metre: the heard rhythm or pattern of a line, measured by counting the number and kinds of vocal stresses.)Four strong stresses (stress: accented syllable that is part of a metric pattern) in the unrhymed lines and three strong stresses in the rhymed lines; or all lines can have four strong stresses.Rhyme: abcb or ababRepetition: Usually used extensively, often in the form of a regularly repeated phrase, line or stanza. Poet: Robert Service*
Form: Ghazal
Stanzas: Usually 5 to 12 (or more) closed couplets (closed couplet: a two-line stanza, or verse, that’s a complete thought, not run on to another stanza). The first couplet sets the tone and pattern for the rest of the poem but following couplets stand independent of each other in terms of meaning.
Metre: (Metre: the heard rhythm or pattern of a line, measured by counting the number and kinds of vocal stresses.) Not metred, though each line is approximately the same length, based on the tradition of an equal number of syllables (syllable: stressed or emphasized sound).Rhyme: aa ba ca and so on, plus an internal mono-rhyme (mono-rhyme: same rhyming sound) immediately before the refrain in each couplet (refrain: repeated phrase, line or stanza).Repetition: The refrain, either a word or phrase ends both lines of the opening couplet, and is repeated as the end of the second line of each succeeding couplet.Distinguishing feature:The final couplet may contain the poet’s name or pseudonym. Poet to read: Catherine Owen                           *
Form: Glosa
Stanzas: An opening four-line epigraph, or quotation, from another poet, plus four 10-line stanzas.
Metre: No set metre or syllable count required.Rhyme: Lines 6, 9, and 10 are end-rhymed (end-rhymed: matching like sounds or words on the final word or syllable).Repetition: Each line of the opening quatrain (quatrain: four-line stanza, or verse) reappears once, in order, to close each of the other four stanzas (i.e., line 1 of the quatrain is also line 10 of the first stanza, and so on).Poet to read: P.K. Page *
Form: Haiku
Stanza: Three lines (which also serve to close the haibun – see below).
Syllable count: Haiku lines have a syllable count of 5, 7, 5 (or less) in English; a pause in both rhythm and grammar divides them into two parts.Rhyme: Not rhymed.Repetition: None required.Distinguishing feature: Japanese forms achieve their effect through concrete images and succinct, objective description in the present tense.Poet to read: Terry Ann Carter*
Form: Haibun
Haibun are brief, minimalist prose pieces that end with one or more haiku. There isn’t always an obvious connection between the prose and closing haiku; instead, the connection is often left to the reader to decode. Some poets feel the haiku should inform and expand – but never précis – the prose, making the connection with an emotional tone.
Poet to read: Colin Morton *
Form: Pas de Deux
Stanzas: Not required but available examples indicate poets choose the same stanza form for both poems (or parts of one poem).
Metre: None required.Rhyme: None required.Repetition: The same subject matter must be addressed, but from different perspectives in both poems (or parts of one poem).Poet to read: Rachel Rose *
Form: Sestina
Stanza: Six sestets (sestet: six-line stanza) with a concluding three-line envoy (envoy: a half stanza, a summing up).
Metre: None required.Rhyme: None required.Repetition: The concluding words of each line in the first stanza are repeated in a set pattern in the following stanzas: If the numbers 1,2,3,4,5,6 represent the end words in stanza one, then the pattern for the end words in each of the next five stanzas (when compared with stanza one) is stanza two: 6-1-5-2-4-3; stanza three: 3-6-4-1-2-5; stanza four: 5-3-2-6-1-4; stanza five: 4-5-1-3-6-2; stanza six: 2-4-6-5-3-1. In the envoy, the pattern is 2-5 / 4-3 / 6-1 (where 2, 4, and 6 are used mid-line and 5, 3, 1 are used at line ends) – so the poem finishes with the same word that ends its opening line.Poet to read: Fred Cogswell*
Form: Sonnet
The two most common – and oldest – forms of the sonnet are Italian and English:
1. Italian (also called Petrarchan):Stanza: Two stanzas, an octave (octave: an eight-line stanza) and a sestet (sestet: a six-line stanza).Metre: (Metre: the heard rhythm or pattern of a line, measured by counting the number and kinds of vocal stresses.)Iambic pentameter (iambic pentameter: an iamb is a two syllable sound with the strong stress on the second. Five iambic feet in a row make an iambic pentameter line.)Rhyme: abbaabba cdecde (the cdecde pattern can be varied).Repetition: None required.Distinguishing feature: A turn or resolution (called a volta), often marked by a blank space, separates the octave and the sestet.2. English (also called Shakespearian):Stanza: Three quatrains (quatrain: four-line stanza, or verse) and a concluding couplet (couplet: a two-line stanza).Metre: (Metre: the heard rhythm or pattern of a line, measured by counting the number and kinds of vocal stresses.)Iambic pentameter.Rhyme: abab cdcd efef ggRepetition: None required.Distinguishing feature: Ends with a closing (often epigrammatic) couplet.Poet to read: Alexandra Oliver*
Form: Triolet
Stanzas: One octet (octet: as octave, an eight-line stanza).
Metre: (Metre: the heard rhythm or pattern of a line, measured by counting the number and kinds of vocal stresses.)Lines are usually iambic trimeter (iambic trimeter: a line of three iambic feet) or iambic tetrameter (iambic tetrameter: a line of fouriambic feet).Rhyme: ABaAabAB (capitals stand for refrains.)Repetition: The first refrain appears three times as lines 1, 4, 7; the second appears twice as lines 2 and 8, so the pattern becomes 12315612.Poet to read: Christopher Wiseman                       *  *  *Sandy Shreve was raised in New Brunswick and has lived in B.C. since 1971. She now lives on Pender Island. Her work is widely anthologized, has won the Earle Birney Prize and been shortlisted for the Milton Acorn People’s Poetry Award.Kate Braid worked as a receptionist, secretary, teacher’s aide, lumber piler, construction labourer, apprentice and journey-carpenter before finally “settling down” as a teacher. She has taught construction and creative writing, the latter in workshops and also at SFU, UBC and for ten years at Vancouver Island University (previously Malaspina University-College). She is the author of several books and co-editor of In Fine Form: The Canadian Book of Form Poetry. She lives in Vancouver, B.C..