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What Is A Poem?

A poem is a collection of literary tools that use aesthetic and rhythmic qualities, such as phonaesthetics, sound symbolism, and meter to evoke meaning. The word “poem” derives from a variant of the Greek term, poiesis, “making.” “Poetry” is a late Middle English word, from the medieval Latin word poetry; from which Latin poet became ‘poet’. 

There are numerous different types of poems: the sonnet, haiku, villanelle, sestina, acrostic, ekphrastic poetry, concrete poetry, elegy, epigram, limerick, ballad, epitaph, tanka, ode, epic and the free verse; just to name a few.

Poetry is closely related to musical traditions…the earliest poetry exists in the form of hymns (such as the work of Sumerian priestess Enheduanna), and other types of song such as chants. Many of the poems surviving from the ancient world are recorded prayers or stories about religious subject matter, but they also include historical accounts, instructions for everyday activities, love songs, and fiction.The Epic of Gilgamesh often is cited as one of the earliest works of epic poetry, dating back to the 18th century B.C.

Elizabethan Era (Western) Poetry

The word sonnet is derived from the Italian word sonetto, which means “a little sound or song.” There are two types of Sonnet poems, the Petrarchan (or Italian) and the Shakespearean (or Elizabethan). Sonnets traditionally have 14 lines, are often about love, and written in iambic pentameter.

The Petrarchan sonnet typically follow an ABBA ABBA CDE CDE rhyme scheme while Shakespearean sonnets usually follow ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. 

Did You Know? Shakespeare is credited for writing 154 sonnets and 37 plays. His first group of sonnets (The Fair Youth Sonnets, 1-126) are addressed to a young man with whom the poet has a deep friendship. In Sonnets 127-152 the poet becomes infatuated with a mysterious women. The relationship with Shakespeare was not entirely clear but these sequence of sonnets are also known as ‘The Dark Lady Sonnets.’

Poetry’s Evolution Into Satire and Expressionism 

Following the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the English Restoration period brought in a new demand for poetry. Writers created poems inspired by political events and immediately reflected the times. Over time these poem grew into poems that we know today, such as: Epigram, Limerick, Ballads, and Epic poems.


An Epigram is a short, pithy saying, usually in verse, often with a quick, satirical twist at the end. The subject is usually a single thought or event. The first-century epigrams of the Roman poet Martial became the model for the modern epigram. The term epigram derives from the Greek word epi-gramma meaning inscription or to inscribe. Emily Dickinson and Samuel Taylor Coleridge are classic examples of writers that like to write Epigrams.

A Limerick poem is a humorous poem consisting of five lines. The first, second, and fifth lines must have seven to ten syllables while rhyming and having the same verbal rhythm. The third and fourth lines only have to have five to seven syllables, and have to rhyme with each other and have the same rhythm.

A typical Ballad is a plot-driven song, with one or more characters hurriedly unfurling events leading to a dramatic conclusion. Ballads are generally used to tell a story in a poem. Ballads are written in quatrains, groups of four lines, and have a rhyme scheme of ABAB or ABCB. The lines alternate between having eight syllables and six syllables.

Around the World: Chinese and Japanese Poetic Form

Chinese poetry can be divided into three main periods: the early period, characterized by folk songs in simple, repetitive forms; the classical period from the Han Dynasty to the fall of the Qing Dynasty, in which a number of different forms were developed; and the modern period of Westernized free verse.


Early poetry: The Shi Jing (literally “Classic of Poetry”, also called “Book of Songs”) was the first major collection of Chinese poems, a collection of both aristocratic poems (Odes) and more rustic poetry, probably derived from folk song.

Classical poetry: During the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220), the Chu lyrics evolved into the fu, a poem usually in rhymed verse except for introductory and concluding passages that are in prose, often in the form of questions and answers. Later Classical Poetry After the Song dynasty, both shi poems and lyrics continued to be composed until the end of the imperial period, and to a lesser extent to this day.

A classic Japanese poem we know and use a lot in modern day is the Haiku. A Haiku typically contains 17 syllables, arranged in three lines, first five syllables, then 7, then 5. Haikus are most commonly about nature, often containing a seasonal reference and they tend to contain two juxtaposed images or ideas. A Haiku presents simple imagery, devoid of similes, metaphors, and eloquent adjectives and adverbs. When crafting haiku, think of a group of words that present an observation in a way that appeals to the senses. But A Haiku was not always called a Haiku.

Originally, During the Heian period of Japanese culture (700-1100), it was a social requirement to be able to instantly recognize, appreciate and recite Japanese poetry. Poems of this era were known as Renga of its later derivative, renku (or haikai no renga). A renga consists of at least two ku () or stanzas. The opening stanza of the renga, called the hokku (発句), became the basis for the modern haiku form of poetry. By (1644–1694), when Matsuo Bashō began to influence the hokku, the hokku begun to appear as an independent poem. was also incorporated in haibun (a combination of prose and hokku), and haiga (a combination of painting with hokku). In the late 19th century, Masaoka Shiki (1867–1902) renamed the standalone hokku to haiku.

The earliest westerner known to have written haiku was the Dutchman Hendrik Doeff (1764–1837), who was the Dutch commissioner in the Dejima trading post in Nagasaki, during the first years of the 19th century.

National Poetry Month

National Poetry Month was inaugurated by the Academy of American Poets in 1996. Over the years, it has become the largest literary celebration in the world with schools, publishers, libraries, booksellers, and poets celebrating poetry’s vital place in our culture. In 1998, the Academy of American Poets joined the American Poetry & Literacy Project to distribute 100,000 free books of poetry from New York to California during National Poetry Month. On April 22, President Clinton and the First Lady hosted a gala at the White House that featured Poets Laureate Robert Pinsky, Robert Hass, Rita Dove. 

Below we have provided you with a short list of poems we have in our collection. Please take a look and feel free to tweet at us your favorite poems this month! Also check out The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman available in our Special Series collection.

Transcendence and the Concrete: Selected Writings by Jean André Wahl, Alan D Schrift and Ian Alexander Moore