Almost any written words on the page can be a poem. Like art, poetry can be hard to pin down. Just when you think you have a definition, you come across an exciting poem that undermines your classification system. Merriam Webster defines a poem as, “a composition in verse,” and “something suggesting a poem (as in expressiveness, lyricism, or formal grace).” Then, they go on to define “verse” as poetry. Rest assured, that circular logic will leave you scratching your head. Instead of trying to discover the outer boundaries of what a poem can be, let’s agree to start from the assumption that poems can exist without any concrete limits.
So, how do you write one?
The same way an artist will master figure drawing and landscapes before tackling abstract art, writing poetry usually begins with composing verses within a rigid structure. In this article, we’ll provide instructions for creative writing within structured poetic forms: sonnets, haiku, blank verse, and acrostics. Then, we’ll talk about free verse, blackout poetry, and other freeform types of poetry. Although we’ll only discuss a handful of poetic structures, hundreds of other poetic forms exist and would be just as worthy of your attention.
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Improve Your Writing Skills With Structure, Rhythm, and Rhyme
Many classical forms of poetry employ set meter and rhyme schemes. By attempting to write within the guidelines of these forms, you’ll develop your ability to manipulate language. As an exercise, try writing about the same topic in each of these styles. Brainstorm a central character or theme, and use it as a subject for each type of poem. For the styles below, I’ll be using my dog as inspiration for the examples, but you can pick any subject that inspires you!
This poetic form, popularized by William Shakespeare, consists of fourteen lines and ends with a rhyming couplet. Most sonnets consist of a single fourteen-line stanza. Shakespearean sonnets are written in iambic pentameter. A foot of poetry that contains an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable is called an iamb. Shakespeare included five iambs within each line, resulting in a total of ten syllables per line. The rhyme scheme includes three quatrains and a couplet: ABAB CDCD EFEF GG.
So, each line in a Shakespearean sonnet has the following meter:
duh DUM duh DUM duh DUM duh DUM duh DUM
As far as content, Shakespeare usually addressed a central question about love in each of his sonnets. As an example, I’ll share the first four lines of a sonnet about my dog, as well as the final couplet. Remember, this is only a first draft! We’ve bolded the stressed syllables to make the iambic pentameter easier to recognize.
Why do I love this canine, tenderly, (A)
Who sleeps upon the couch in sweet repose, (B)
His belly prone for all the world to see, (A)
His legs bent skyward, neck draped down to doze? (B)
No sooner does he see a rabbit run, (G)
than off he sprints, alert and having fun. (G)
With this sample poem, I’ve started with an inquiry about the nature of my affection. Then, in the final couplet, I introduce a volta, or a rhetorical shift, as the dog wakes from sleep. A full-length Shakespearean sonnet would include eight additional lines in the middle of the poem, featuring the rhyme scheme CDCD EFEF.
Haiku poems are a traditional Japanese form of verse, featuring three-lines and seventeen syllables. The first line contains five syllables, the second line contains seven syllables, and the third line contains five syllables. Most haiku poems center around subjects from nature. Over the course of these short poems, the poet usually tells a complete story through juxtaposition of two or more images. A haiku is not a rhyming poem.
Here is an example of a haiku:
Dew on morning grass— (5)
His black nose sniffs; he sneezes. (7)
Greyhound sprinting past. (5)
In this poem, I’ve tried to juxtapose the stillness of early morning with the sudden motion of a dog running. The alliteration, or repetition, of the letter s—sniffs, sneezes, sprints—mimics the sound one might hear when a dog rushes past. I’ve kept the word choice simple, with one- and two-syllable words that reflect the simple, outdoor scene.
Blank verse originated in Renaissance Italy, where poets took inspiration from classical Greek and Roman lyric forms. Like a Shakespearean sonnet, blank verse often uses iambic pentameter with five feet of iambs, or ten syllables, per line. Although blank verse can be written in any meter and line length, the most common meters include iambs (duh DUM), trochee (DUH dum), anapest (duh duh DUM), and dactyl (DUH duh dum). Unlike a sonnet, blank verse does not require rhyming. Blank verse poems also do not have a set length. As it happens, Paradise Lost by the English poet John Milton contains over ten thousand lines of blank verse! Luckily, you can practice blank verse without writing quite so many lines.
Here’s an example of five lines of blank verse, written in dactylic trimeter:
Canine and clever and curious,
Ever the trickster with countertops,
Leaping up, stealing the treats from them,
Dashing off, eating the evidence.
Dog with a steak or a pizza slice.
This poem doesn’t rhyme, but literary devices such as assonance and a formal meter still make the poem sound musical. Many dramatists throughout history, including William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe, considered blank verse an ideal kind of poem for a theatrical work for this reason. Blank verse sounds wonderful when read aloud.
An acrostic poem contains a letter within each line (typically the first or last letter) that spells a word or phrase. Because these poems tend to be easy to write, without many restrictions regarding meter and rhyme, teachers commonly assign them in writing classes. I remember making them for Mother’s Day and Father’s Day in elementary school. It’s fun to write your own poem in this style, especially when you’re attempting a poem for the first time, because the form has a strict structure without difficult rules.
Here’s an example of an acrostic for the word “dog”:
Drool wets his lower lip, his drooping jowl.
Ogling my lunch, he waits. But never patiently.
Greedy eyes hunt, seeking any forgotten morsel.
Experiment with Freeform Writing Exercises
Now that you’ve become familiar with some structured forms of poetry, try your hand at some different that allow for more variation.
Blackout poetry describes a writing process in which a poet takes found text and adds to it so that only some of the words remain visible. In effect, this enables a new poem to emerge from an existing page of writing. Similarly, erasure poetry subtracts words (often by cutting words from the page) in order to create a new poem. To write a blackout poem, try taking a page from a novel or magazine. With a marker, remove words until you are able to form a short story or a description that differs significantly from the subject of the original page. Continue removing words until you feel that you have created a great poem. (The first time you try this, you may end up without any words on the page.)
Free verse has no set rhyme scheme, regular meter, or structure. While the poet Walt Whitman loved the freedom of writing in this style, another poet, Robert Frost, compared it to “playing tennis without a net.” Since free verse has no hard-and-fast rules, you may have a hard time figuring out how to create a good poem in this style. The idea of good poetry, like “good art,” can be quite subjective, so there’s no need to worry about it.
As a general rule, it helps to use literary devices, such as simile, metaphor, repetition, diction, and syntax, thoughtfully. Also, a free verse poem should have intentional line breaks, so you may want to think carefully about where you’d like to place those breaks. Also, even though free verse poems don’t employ a regular meter throughout the poem, you can still use meter and rhyme in unconventional ways to improve the rhythm of your poem.
Here’s an example:
One white paw STOPS
(A rustle in the bushes.)
No sounds. No smells. No shadowy masses.
The dog waits, invisible and ready.
Other Types of Poetry
Once you’ve tried writing free verse and blackout poetry, you can attempt to write a prose poem without line breaks. After you’ve mastered the prose poem, try writing in the form of a shape. For example, a Diamante poem forms a diamond out of a specific sequence of nouns, verbs, and adjectives. When you’ve finished with those, see if you can compose a funny limerick or a long, narrative poem.
The more poems you read, the more you’ll become familiar with the way poets use imagery, figures of speech, and classical allusions to craft meaning. Before long, you may find yourself writing poems, maybe even inventing new poetic forms to express your creativity. Since there’s no wrong way to write a poem, you can’t make a mistake. Give it a try! Begin by attempting some different forms and reading the work of other poets. Once you create something that makes you smile, try sharing your work with an audience.
I’m an award-winning playwright with a penchant for wordplay. After earning a perfect score on the Writing SAT, I worked my way through Brown University by moonlighting as a Kaplan Test Prep tutor. I received a BA with honors in Literary Arts (Playwriting)—which gave me the opportunity to study under Pulitzer Prize-winner Paula Vogel. In my previous roles as new media producer with Rosetta Stone, director of marketing for global ventures with The Juilliard School, and vice president of digital strategy with Up & Coming Media, I helped develop the voice for international brands. From my home office in Maui, Hawaii, I currently work on freelance and ghostwriting projects.