Spring Into Poetry: Poetic Forms as Writing Prompts

Poetic Forms as Inspiration

April is upon us, and so is San José Public Library’s Spring into Poetry contest in celebration of National Poetry Month.

If you’d like to enter your own poetry in this contest but aren’t sure where to start, here are some poetic forms that could help. I have heard it said that "structure sets you free," and I sometimes find it easier to start writing a poem if I try to follow a specific form of poetry that has rules related to rhyme, rhythm, meter, length, etc.

When writing a poem in one of these formats, I do not think it is a cardinal sin if you break the rules a little (Shakespeare did...all the time). But thinking of these formats and themes as the skeleton of your poem may help you flesh out your own masterpiece.


Originating in Japan, a haiku has three lines, with five syllables in the first line, seven in the second, and five in the third. Haikus often include imagery from the natural world.

Famous examples of haikus are The Old Pond by Matsuo Bashō, After Killing A Spider by Masaoka Shiki, and The Morning Glory by Kaga no Chiyo.


Originating in France, a villanelle has nineteen lines, five tercets (three-line stanzas) and a final quatrain (four-line stanza). The first and third line of the first stanza becoming repeating refrains in the following stanzas, and are used as the last two lines of the final quatrain.

Famous examples of villanelles are Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night by Dylan Thomas, Mad Girl’s Love Song by Sylvia Plath, and One Art by Elizabeth Bishop.


Originating in Italy, a sonnet is a 14-line poem with a formal rhyme scheme. In England, William Shakespeare popularized the Elizabethan sonnet form that employs iambic pentameter and ten syllables per line.

Famous examples of sonnets are Sonnet 18 (“Shall I Compare Thee to a Winter’s Day?”) by William Shakespeare, Sonnet 43 (“How Do I Love Thee?”) by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and the sonnet-ballad by Gwendolyn Brooks.


Originating in the Arab world, a ghazal usually contains five to fifteen couplets. Each couplet ends on the same word, known as the radif. The radif is directly preceded by a qafia, which is a rhyme repeated in the second line of each couplet.

Well-known examples of ghazals are Tonight by Agha Shahid Ali, Hip-Hop Ghazal by Patricia Smith, and To Hold Me by Mimi Khalvati.

Explore More with Literary Reference Center

These are just four examples of many poetry forms known throughout the world. You can explore many more in our Literary Reference Center database.

For More About Poetry Forms

The Haiku Handbook , book cover
Villanelles, book cover
The Oxford Book of Sonnets, book cover
After Tomorrow the Days Disappear: Ghazals and Other Poems, book cover