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The Impossible Poetic Formats

Updated on September 18, 2019
Dean Traylor profile image

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher who writes about various subjects, including education and creative writing.


I love writing poetry. Since the age of 12, I’ve written countless numbers of rhymes, verses, and prose on the back of school assignments (to my teachers’ dismay), napkins, notebooks, journals, and computers. Also, I’ve used the notebook apps on my I-pad and smart-phone to capture a verse or two.

My collections include short syllabic poems such as the haiku, senyru, tanka, and rub’yat. And, I have a vast array of long, narrative poems written in lyrical or blank verses. Still, I prefer the spur-of-the-moment and liberal style of blank (or free) verse poems.

For more than 20 years, I’ve gone from writing poems in secret to openly publishing them in various print and web publications. Also, as a teacher, I’ve taught them to my students.

Lately, I’ve gone outside my comfort zone of writing quick free verses and embraced other styles. Among the new formats are the sijo, lanterne, cinquian, acrostic, diamonte and various French lyrical poems. I’ve also written in formats that were extremely challenging. Sonnets and Villanelle have complex rules that took a little time for me to grasp.

And then, there are some formats I’ve either tried sparingly or avoided. These formats are beyond complex; they’re next to impossible to write. Or, at least, it’s tough to wrap a theme or writing style around them. In other cases, they are so perplexing to understand that one may wonder why it’s called poetry in the first place.

I gave some these poetic formats a try. In other cases, the mere definition left me so bewildered that I didn’t bother to try. I have a few Sonnets and Villanelles in my collection; however, I’ve never attempted the sestina or the double dactyl. Also, I’ve stayed away from metaphysical poems (that’s a beast of its own making, in my opinion).

In no way am I saying these formats are bad. In fact, there’s a possibility that I may try them in the future; especially as my writing ability and knowledge of poetry writing improves. But for someone who embraced the “anything-goes” attitude of blank/free verse poetry, writing poems with specific and intricate rules can lead to a few headaches.

another way of looking at a sonnet (without the words, of course)
another way of looking at a sonnet (without the words, of course) | Source

Beats in Poems

Lyrical poems will incorporate the natural rhythm or phoneme of a word to imitate musical quality. Aside from rhymes, alliteration, or repetition, they will use "beat" or the stress formed from a word. In dictionaries, you have seen the symbol (') before a syllable. This indicates a stressed sound. It's loud and more pronounced. Sometimes, unstressed syllables or phonemes are represented with a symbol that looks like a small "u" above the syllable of phoneme.

There's no doubt that poetry and music go hand-in-hand. Originally, poems were accompanied by music. It was the more likely the first form of story-telling. Think of it as today's movie with a soundtrack.


This may surprise a lot of people. Sonnets, in the eyes of many, is considered the epitome of poetry. There's an unwritten belief that every poet who wants to be taken seriously must write one.

Let’s be real: it is a high end style that requires a lot of rules and an acute understanding about speech. As a result, they tend to be very formulaic and have virtually the same themes of love, nature, or other forms of the writer's reflection on life. They also come in three variations (possibly more).

It is Italian in nature, but was successfully adapted by English writers. Eventually, the English versions formed their own rules and format. Still, the various forms of sonnets have a few common characteristics. They include:

  • Fourteen lines.
  • A distinctive rhyme scheme.
  • Series of stanzas (although they’re sometimes presented with no breaks between them).
  • A particular beat (stressed and unstressed words).

The rules alternate slightly between the English (Shakespearean), Spenserian, and Petrarchan (Italian). For now, I’ll keep the Italian version out of this and focus mainly on the English versions.

English and Spenserian are similar to a point. As mentioned, there are 14 lines. Also, the two often have around 10 syllables per line. But, these syllables have a specific type of "beat." That’s where formulating a sonnet can become tricky. The beat is known as iambic pentameter.

During my formative years, English teachers seemingly glossed over this term. Many simply stated that it was modeled after “natural” speech, or that it was used a lot by Shakespeare. Iamb is defined as a foot of two syllables, in which the first is short or unstressed while the second is long or stressed. Pent is “five”. Thus, this means that a typical line in a sonnet has a meter of five stressed and unstressed syllables.

Also, they may have been based on speech patterns and phonemes in Elizabethan England. Thus, this meter may not translate well into modern English spoken in other places.

That’s one rule that can confuse a sonnet writer (although it should be noted that many noted poets that used this format have stayed true to the ten syllable portion, but have been very liberal on the iambic pentameter).

Shakespearean Sonnet Rhyme Scheme

Shakespearean Sonnet has an octave and sestet; however, they are not linked. The final couplets are independent from the rest of the poem. It’s set up in this fashion:















Spenserian Sonnet Rhyme Scheme

The Spenserian sonnet comprises of linked octave and sestet with an independent rhyming couplet to finish it off. The rhyme scheme can be represented in this fashion:













In other words, there’s a lot to think about when putting a sonnet together. And for that reason, I’ve only attempted four with two of them being published.


Impressionist painting was a huge influence on Villanelle poems
Impressionist painting was a huge influence on Villanelle poems | Source

It has 19 lines and it has only two rhymes. That’s the first thing I saw when I was looking up the Villanelle. Also, it was divided into 5 three-lined stanzas and one quatrain. This should be simple right? When I looked up the information on this poem, I failed to read the part about the first and third lines repeating. Not only that, they alternate.

In haste, I wrote what I thought was a good villanelle. Promptly, the publishing site returned it to me, stating it wasn’t a villanelle. I later found out what I did and fixed it. However, after two villanelles I gave up on it. It was tedious, and many times, it didn’t always feel like it flowed rhythmically. Most importantly the type of themes was limited. It dealt with light whimsical themes. Trying to apply dark themes didn’t seem to fit well. Still, Dylan Thomas made it work for him in his monumental "Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night."

Rodney does Dylan Thomas Villanelle


I never tried the Sestina, in part because this is what I read in Elizabeth Drew’s 1927 publication of Discovering Poetry:

“A form so complicated and intricate that it is rather a word puzzle than a poetic form.”

Ms. Drew didn’t bother to give an example or to describe it any further. I don’t blame her. One attempt at a model came from Babette Deutsch’s Poetry Handbook, in which she describes a poem with six stanzas of six lines with a concluding tercet. She continues to describe it as “usually unrhymed but the end words of the first stanza impose a pattern analogous to a rhymed scheme, since they are all repeated in the succeeding stanzas in a strict order that varies with each stanza and they recur in the tercet." If you were able to follow that, congratulations! Maybe, it’s possible you can navigate the model provided by Deutsch’s description.

Here’s the exact model she used. The numbers are supposed to indicate “the end words of the initial stanza, and each line representing a stanza.” It may look like this:






2,4,6, 5,3,1


The numbers are supposed to indicate “the end words of the initial stanza, and each line representing a stanza.” I’ll go no further with the description. Even Deutsch seems to concede that the poem is difficult to understand and write. For me, simply reading about it turned me off, despite a list of acclaimed writers that have attempted it (Swinburne, Rudyard Kipling, and W.H. Auden).

Maybe this chart will help...oh, never mind.
Maybe this chart will help...oh, never mind. | Source

Double Dactyl

By now, it’s obvious a poetic style is going to be arcane when the description uses the term “tricky”. However, what makes Double Dactyl aggravating to write is that it’s a mixture of numerous forms. It contains two quatrains, in which the the first three lines are two dactyls (a foot of three syllables, in which the first one is stressed and the other two are unstressed). The fourth line forms a dactyl and a macron (a symbol similar to a hyphen which supposed to represent a time between a long syllables).

To top it off, the first line is often nonsense while the second line reflects a clerihew ( a poem or line of poem about a famous person). Also, somewhere in the title or the poem is an epithet. Finally, there’s the presence of foreign words for good measure.

What’s the result? Here’s a poem from Deutsch to honor this style’s originator, Anthony Hecht:


Hecht atque Hollander,

Didacts and wits with a

Soupcon of Sade,

Made of the form that the

Former invented an


Joke on the fade.

Nonsense or a joke: Double Dactyl poems are simply too bizarre to make any sense of them.

Metaphysical Poetry

Metaphysical poetry is hard to define, and difficult to read. If you're looking for meaning, you may have to brush up on your knowledge of history, religion, and literature from around the world. Sometimes, you have to deal with unique linguistics, vernaculars and arcane rules of grammar throughout the world in order to read an “English-language” metaphysical poem.

And then there’s the problem of writing it. What are the themes? What are appropriate metaphors, or should it make sense? Sometimes, I wonder how anyone can read them and find any meaning. Then again, I wonder if there is an audience for it.

I won’t go too deep into this genre. There have been allegations that the modern equivalent of these poems were written by madmen. In some cases they may have been written by cranks and hacks who stamped their poems as high art as a way to deflect any criticism.

Whatever the reason may be, metaphysical poems are laden with metaphors and symbols that can confuse the reader. And may only be accessible to a small pretentious group of readers and poets.

In many respects, these poems are challenging and can serve as some kind of word puzzle. Still, it’s not for everyone; especially those who like to write succinct to-the-point verses that may tell a short story.

I’ll keep experimenting, and possibly, I’ll give these formats a try. As for now, I just want to get my point-a-view across to readers, in a creative, lyrical way.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2014 Dean Traylor


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