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Poetry Rules!

by parmadur


DEEP CATACOMBS - If you have given up all hope of ever winning the Poetry Contest, you might just need a refresher on the basics. There have been several articles in the Neopian Times about “How to Write a Poem for the Poetry Contest”. They went through the different kinds of poems, how to choose subject matter, and why chatspeak is bad. Well, this article is a little different. (Not that I like chatspeak, i lyk, think its, lyk, teribbul!!!111) I’ll assume for the moment that you can figure out what to write about, and that you have all the ideas you need. This article is mainly about the technical side of poetry. Wait! Before you say “Technical? AAAAH!” and run screaming from the room let me assure you that this is actually going to be fun. Or at least, I hope it will be helpful.

In fact, many might-have-been winning poems could have been winners if not for technical problems. Your poem will need a meter, some rhymes, and a rhyming style. While some poems don’t have these, the ones talked about in this article will.


When you sit down to write a poem, before you do anything else you need to consider the “meter” or rhythm. The meter of a poem decides what you want people to feel when they read your work. It’s what determines the flavor, the personality, and the mood of your poem. Your finished poem (in general) will be made of “stanzas”, “lines”, and “feet”. Stanzas are like paragraphs. They’re made up of lines, some of which might rhyme, and lines are made up of feet, which are the foundation of a poem. We’ll start with feet, and work up.

The feet of a poem are its basic building blocks. Each foot is a set of “beats” that tells readers where to put the accent. There are several different kinds of feet, and I’ll cover the most common. The two most frequently used kinds of feet are “iambs” and “trochees”. Seriously. (Who comes up with these names? Truth is no doubt stranger than fiction.) An iamb is a two-beat foot where the accent is put on the second beat. For example: the word “confuse” has two syllables, and the emphasis is on the second beat. So when you say it, you say “con FUSE” as two syllables. An iamb is two syllables, with the beat on the second. A poem made of many iambs is called an “iambic” poem. So if you used the line “I am confused” in your poem, it would be made of two iambic feet. (I AM con FUSED).

Similarly, a poem of many trochees is called a “trochaic” poem. A trochaic foot is the opposite of an iambic foot. It’s made of two beats and the accent is put on the first beat or the first syllable of a word. For example, the word “wind-chime” is a trochee. If you used the line “I like wind-chimes” in your poem, that would be a line composed of two trochaic feet. (I like WIND chimes).

Many poems are written in the iambic style, not so many are written in the trochaic style. There’s a reason for this: iambic poems make the reader feel more relaxed, and they make for easier reading. Amusing poems are almost always written in an iambic meter. For example:

A Tuskaninny went to town

And there he bought some toys.

He knew that the Usuki Dolls

Are meant to be for boys!

Trochaic poems, on the other hand, are meant to make the readers feel uneasy, to keep them on the edge of their seats, or just to help them not fall asleep if their poetry is boring. For example:

Eliv Thade in his dark room

Seeks an answer – it’s your doom.

Solve the anagrams or stay

Lost forever and a day.

Whichever style you use, be sure to keep it consistent. It’s very frustrating and hard to read when a writer alternates back and forth or, worse yet, doesn’t use any meter at all.

There are two other main kinds of feet that are often used, though they are not as common as the others. Anapests, which make up anapestic poetry, are three-syllable feet. Of the three syllables, only the last is accented. For example:

She was lost; she was scared,

And her owner was gone.

You could imagine using that double-line in a poem (with the underlines taken out, of course).

The last common meter is “dactylic”, which is the adjective referring to “dactyls”. As you might have guessed, dactyls are the opposite of anapests. They are also three-syllable feet, but the accent is on the first syllable of the three. For example:

“I am the best,” said the Gelert to me.

“No one is better.”

“Oh yeah? Wait and see.”

There are a few other kinds of meter: Haiku and Limericks both follow their own sets of rules. Haiku always have three lines, the first and third with five syllables, and the second with seven. For example:

Neopets is down.

I cannot live anymore!

When will it come back?

Limericks are possibly one of the hardest kinds of poetry to write well. They always have five lines, with eight syllables in the first, second, and fifth line, and five syllables in the third and fourth. The first, second, and fifth lines rhyme, and the third and fourth rhyme. I’ll cover rhymes later, but what’s more interesting is that the accents in a limerick always fall on the second, fifth, and eighth syllables, as I’ll demonstrate:

A Cybunny hopped down the road,

One lovely spring day, with her load:

Dubloons by the score,

A Codestone, and more!

“I’ll learn how to fight now!” she crowed.

As you can see, the meter in poems is a critical factor. While a poem should keep the same meter for every stanza, every line doesn’t have to have the same number of feet. Many poems have two seven-foot phrases broken into two lines each in every stanza. This makes for a four, three, four, three pattern of feet in each verse. This style is good for bouncy, upbeat poems. For example:

There are some Techos made of snow,

Who love the winter chill.

They laugh with voices crisp and clear

To cheer those who are ill.

While the lines alternate between four feet in the first and third lines and three in the second and fourth, each two-line pair has a set rhythm. Once you’ve got the hang of it, this is actually an easy style to write in. What’s surprising is how many poems actually don’t have a set meter. I hope after reading this that yours won’t be among them!


Unfortunately, many people write poems that are . . . shall we say . . . rhyme-ically challenged

Even if two words end in the same manner, they don’t necessarily sound like rhymes. After all, “hard” and “reward” both end in the same letters; so do “sword” and “word”. Generally, when I write poems, I say them out loud to myself as I write. “Hard” has the “ar” sound of “shard”, “lard”, or “bard”, while “reward” has the “or” sound of “cord”, “stored”, and “lord”. “Sword” and “reward” sound pleasant to the ear, but “word” has the same sound as “curd” or “bird”. When writing poetry, it’s important to remember what the words sound like, not just how they’re spelled.

There’s one last thing to consider when rhyming. While words technically rhyme if their last sounds are the same, you can go another step. If you have the last two sounds be the same, your poems will flourish! For example, the words “began” and “plan” rhyme, but they don’t rhyme as well as “merry” and “berry”.

When you write poetry, even if you have a good meter and words that rhyme, you have to decide where to put those rhyming words. Do you want to have every line rhyme? Do you want to have every other line rhyme? There are several “standard” forms of rhyming that I’ll cover, but it’s really up to every author to decide what poem format to use.

To begin with, some poetry forms have to be written in a certain pattern. For instance, limericks are written so the first, second, and fifth lines rhyme with each other, and so the third and fourth lines rhyme with each other. This type of poem is called an “AABBA” poem – if one rhyming sound is represented as “A” and another rhyming sound is represented as “B”, then you can follow which lines are supposed to rhyme with which others. Let’s use the limerick stanza above as an example.

A Cybunny hopped down the road, Road (A)

One lovely spring day, with her load: Load (A)

Dubloons by the score, Score (B)

A Codestone, and more! More (B)

“I’ll learn how to fight now!” she crowed. Crowed (A)

One of the most commonly used types of rhymes is “ABCB”. As you could guess, “A” and “C” don’t rhyme, but the two “B” lines do. Let’s take another look at our iambic poetry example:

A Tuskaninny went to town Town (A)

And there he bought some toys. Toys (B)

He knew that the Usuki Dolls Dolls (C)

Are meant to be for boys! Boys (B)

If you really wanted to, you could also write an “ABAC” poem. These sometimes work, but sometimes they flop. People expect the last words in a sentence or phrase to rhyme with each other, and it’s awkward when the only rhymes come in the middle of a thought. For example, which of these two seems better?

Fyora, Faerie Queen, surveyed (A) Fyora, Faerie Queen, surveyed (A)

Her realm in wintertime this year; (B) OR Her realm in wintertime this year; (B)

And all about the cloud she saw (C) And all about the cloud she made (A)

The faeries spread abundant cheer. (B) A tour of what the faeries did. (C)

Every other line rhymes in both of these poems. (The “B” lines rhyme in the first poem, the “A” lines in the second.) The difference is that in the poem on the left, the rhymes come at the end of a phrase, a thought, or a sentence. In the right-hand poem, the rhymes come halfway through a thought. This makes the poetry seem less “good” somehow, though it’s still technically correct.

“ABAB” poems are also rather common, though a little more difficult to write. As you would imagine, the first and third lines of a stanza rhyme, and so do the second and fourth. This means that instead of only having to think of one “rhyming pair” per stanza, you have to think of two. If you want to invest the time, though, these poems can be worth it. Here’s an example of an “ABAB” poem.

Blumaroos are happy pets, (A)

Cybunnies are sweet. (B)

But I pity he who lets (A)

Them have drums to beat! (B)

The last common style is an “ABBA” poem. These poems are usually not as upbeat and carefree as poems that rhyme on an every-other-line basis. They force the reader to concentrate, and to remember what the author wrote. Some poems written in this style have a life of their own, and stick with their readers for a long time. Because readers expect a poem to rhyme in a certain manner, usually “ABCB” or another alternating-line pattern, readers sometimes pay more attention if you tweak the rhyme scheme a bit.

For example, I wrote a poem called “The Vow of Dr. Sloth”. The first stanza reads:

Where e'er I go, my mood is black; (A)

Neopia is not mine now. (B)

And so I make this solemn vow: (B)

I tell you true, I will come back. (A)

If you want, you can read the whole poem on either the 425th or 500th page of the Poetry Contest.

Some poems not only tweak the rhyme scheme a bit, but also do away with it altogether. “Blank verse” poems are poems that have a meter but don’t rhyme. Many people use these to make an audience feel a certain way, or to convey a particular message.

“Free verse” poetry is similar, but is more, well, free! Poems written in this style don’t rhyme and don’t have a meter. They sometimes have stanzas, but sometimes they don’t. Typically, free verse poetry uses symbolism, alliteration, repeated words, or metaphors to show what other poetry expresses through rhyme and putting an accent on certain words instead of others.

To close, I’d like to offer a word of caution: all the “basics” above are important, but only to a certain degree. Poetry is a very personalized art – if you think a poem would sound better by adding a syllable here, or not rhyming there, do it that way! There is no such thing as a rule in poetry. Or, to put it another way, poetry is where you can break the rules on purpose, and feel good about doing it.

Author's Note: Many thanks to Belgariadfan and Profmike for their editing skills! I like Neomail, but please, no BD challenges!

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