Poetry Writing Lesson #4: Formal Verse

In an earlier lesson I mentioned formal verse and free verse. Remember, formal verse poems have certain guidelines—they often rhyme and may have a set number of syllables per line. Free verse poems do not use these types of rules. Compare examples of the two:

                  Formal Verse
I wandered lonely as a cloud (a)
That floats on high o’er vales and hills, (b)
When all at once I saw a crowd, (a)
A host, of golden daffodils; (b)
                  From “Daffodils” by William Wordsworth

When most of us think of poetry, this is probably the type of poem that comes to mind. It rhymes, using an a-b-a-b rhyme scheme in this case, and each line has the same number of syllables.

                  Free Verse
My brother squats in poison ivy.
His Davy Crockett cap
sits squared on his head so the raccoon tail
flounces down the back of his sailor suit.
                  From “Fifth Grade Biography” by Rita Dove

While this poem doesn’t rhyme and the lines vary in length, it does use other poetic devices, such as imagery and alliteration (how many s words can you find?).

Free verse became popular in the early 1900s. Back then, some poets did not care for the limitations that formal verse put on their poetry. They didn’t want to bother with rules. And that’s why I enjoy writing free verse—it is freeing not having to think about rhyming or using meter or counting syllables.

However, it was through working with poetic forms that I learned how to write poetry. Writing formal verse challenges you in ways that writing free verse does not. You need to think of rhymes, which train your ears to listen to how words sound. Using meter helps you understand the rhythm of words and phrases. And by writing poems with a set number of lines or a specific syllable count, you are forced to pick your words more carefully, as you only have so many to use. Whenever I talk to students about writing poetry, I focus my discussions on formal verse for these reasons. So for this lesson, I will touch on a few popular types of formal verse. And instead of having one writing exercise at the end of the lesson, I will challenge you to write a poem using each form.


A haiku is a short poem with three lines. Typically, the first and third lines have 5 syllables while the middle line has 7. For example:

An old silent pond…
A frog jumps into the pond,
splash! Silence again.
                  by Matsuo Basho

Through imagery, a haiku captures a single moment, often one involving nature. The challenge is to describe that moment using only 17 syllables. You try . . . just look outside and write about the first thing you notice.


Perhaps my favorite form, and another short poem, is a cinquain. It has 5 lines with these syllable counts:  2, 4, 6, 8, 10, and 2. For example:

With faint dry sound,
Like steps of passing ghosts,
The leaves, frost-crisp’d, break from the trees
And fall.

From “November Night” by Adelaide Crapsey

Like a haiku, a cinquain often captures a brief moment in time. The big difference is that there is a slight meter, or rhythm, to the lines, a “ba-dum / ba-dum ba-dum / ba-dum ba-dum ba-dum . . .” because each line has an even number of syllables. Now you try writing one.


A quatrain is not a type of poem, but a stanza with four lines. Quatrains are often used in formal poetry. For example:

O, my luve’s like a red, red rose, (a)
That’s newly sprung in June: (b)
O, my luve’s like the melodie (a)
That’s sweetly played in tune. (b)
                  From “A Red, Red Rose” by Robert Burns

In this case, the rhyme scheme is a-b-a-b, but it could be a-a-b-b or a-b-b-a or a-b-c-b. There is also a pattern to the syllable count of the lines: 8-6-8-6.

Writing quatrains is a way to practice rhyming as well as work on writing lines with a set syllable count. For your exercise, choose one of the rhyme schemes mentioned above, and then pick a number between 5 and 10. That will give you the rules for you poem. You will also need a subject; I suggest picking a place or a thing. Then write away. You can continue stretching your poetic muscles by picking different rhymes schemes and syllable counts to write other quatrains.


Sonnets are one of the most popular poetic forms. They have 14 lines, a rhyme scheme, and often a set meter. The Robert Burns quatrain from “A Red, Red Rose” is actually part of a sonnet. And one style of sonnet uses three quatrains and then a couplet. The rhyme scheme is often a-b-a-b, c-d-c-d, e-f-e-f, g-g.

But there are various types of sonnets and many ways to write them. You can divide them into four tercets, which are groups of three line, and then end with a couplet; or they could be spilt into two stanzas, one with eight lines and the other of six. Like with the quatrain exercise, you can mix up the rhyme scheme and vary the syllable count.

The forms mentioned above are just a few of the many types of formal poems. Others to explore include villanelles, sestinas, tonka, rondeau, etc . . . And just keep in mind, whether you like to write formal verse or not, by using the rules of formal verse you are challenging your poetic skills. Writing formal verse can teach you various writing skills.

Terms to Know:

couplet—a group of two lines

meter—the rhythm of a line of poetry

quatrain—a group of four lines

stanza—a group of lines in a poem

tercet—a group of three lines


Blake Hoena is a published poet and children’s book author living in St Paul, MN. To learn more about him and his writing, go to bahoena.com. And should you write any poems using the recommended writing exercise, forward them to him so he can post them on his blog.