Help - Poetry terms

Poetry is (with the exception of visual or concrete poetry) musical in the broadest sense - and like all music there are 'mathematical' systems for defining its structures. However, knowing that a blues song is written in iambic hexameter will not help you to write one unless you listen to the sound implied by the term.


A foot is the unit of metre. A line of poetry can be divided into feet.
For example, a pentameter is a line with five feet - if these feet have two beats each, it is iambic pentameter, if three beats then it is called trochaic pentameter.
So we can define a regular type by combining the type of metre with the number of feet:
from very short: iambic monometer - 2 beats - (the CAT)
to the very long: anapestic heptameter - 21 beats - (with a CRY/of deep DES/ pair he FELL/down the SHAFT/whose long GAP/ing throat SWAL/lowed him whole)

but long lines tend to fall into parts and although anapestic octameter would be possible, with 24 syllables it would more naturally form two lines.
In most poetry in English a foot will contain two or three beats or
syllables. It is very unusual for a single line to have more than eight feet (an octameter).

Free verse

Free verse is verse/poetry that is not written according to the normal rules of metre. This does not mean that it ignores rhythm or metre - just that it is not restricted to a particular form.


The line is the unit of language in a poem, a group of words that stand together. Usually a line appears as one line of type, though long lines are run over if they don't fit the size of the printed page.


Metre is the system of writing verse by creating patterns of sound through organising the words into groups so that an accented syllable occurs at regular intervals, usually in one out of every two or three syllables in succession in a line. Metre creates regular rhythm.

Iambic metre
A unit of two syllables, the second of which is stressed - ti-TUM
Trochaic metre
A unit of two syllables, the first of which is stressed - TUM-ti
Anapestic metre
A unit of three syllables, with stress on the third - ti-ti-TUM
Dactylic metre
A unit of three syllables, with stress on the first - TUM-ti-ti

Although other metres exist from other languages, the nature of spoken English almost always breaks them down to variations of the four above.
It is important to note that perfectly regular metre is seldom used in English poetry since a rhythmic mixture makes more interesting sounds.


Poetry is verse, not all verse is poetry.


Rhyme is the agreement or chiming of the same or similar sounds at the ends of lines, and within a line.


A stanza is a group of lines that are arranged together. The lines belong together either because of content or the verse form.
They are separated from other stanzas by a line space.
Stanzas can be of irregular length, one stanza can be a complete poem.
The most common are the couplet of two lines and the quatrain of four lines. There is no actual limit but it is most unusual for a rhymed stanza to exceed fourteen lines.
Other words:
distich (2 lines), triplet or tercet (3 lines),
quintet or cinquain (5 lines), sextet or sextain (6 lines),
septet (7 lines), octave (8 lines).


A syllable is a single beat or sound in speech. It may be stressed (accented) or not. It is the variation and pattern of these stresses that creates rhythm in speech and poetry.


Verse is a composition of language that uses deliberate patterns of sound.
The patterns may follow the rules of metre or the cadences of free verse.
Verse is almost always divided into lines and a line is sometimes, rather confusingly, called a verse. Groups of lines are often arranged in stanzas. which are also sometimes loosely called verses.
See also Rhyme and verse forms and Rhyming dictionary