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What Are the Different Poetry Genres?

By Lumara Lee
Updated May 23, 2024
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The first poems ever written predated the Bible. Unfortunately, these early works were passed on through word of mouth or inscribed on tree bark and leaves, so no samples of these poems survived. Since then, many poetry genres and subgenres have evolved. Some of the most popular poetry genres are epic, sonnet, couplet, limerick, and haiku.

An epic poem is generally a long narrative about a mythical, heroic figure. Some poetry genres are dependent on rhyme and rhythm, while the epic poem is often written in the form of prose. The Epic of Gilgamesh is the earliest written poem that survived. It has been estimated that this poem was written in Sumeria sometime between 2750 and 2500 B.C. The Epic of Gilgamesh narrated the adventures of an ancient king and survived because it was written on clay tablets.

A sonnet is a rhythmic poem that has a rhyme at the end of each sentence and contains 14 lines. The first sonnet appeared around 1200 A.D. Sonnets evolved into the current standard of 14 lines after Francesco Petrarch made that format popular. Many other famous poets incorporated the sonnet form in their poetry, including Elizabeth Barrett Browning, William Wordsworth, Dante Alighieri, Lord Byron, and William Shakespeare.

Couplets consist of two lines that usually end in rhyme. Sometimes several couplets are grouped together to form a stanza in a poem. William Shakespeare ended most of his sonnets with a rhyming couplet. Geoffrey Chaucer, John Dryden, and Alexander Pope also produced famous works written in rhyming couplets.

The limerick appeared in the 1300s and was usually in the form of a nursery rhyme written for children. A limerick has a very tight rhyme and rhythm scheme which has made it a popular format for humor and even bawdy subjects. Limericks always have five lines. The first, second, and fifth lines always rhyme, while the third and fourth lines rhyme.

William Shakespeare wrote some limericks, but the most prolific writer of limericks was Edward Lear. His Book of Nonsense, which was published in the 19th century, made the limerick one of the most popular poetry genres. The book was filled with humorous poems that weren’t indecent as so many limericks were, and his poems became popular with all ages.

Haiku is the only one of the popular poetry genres that originated in Japan. This form of poetry usually doesn’t rhyme. A haiku poem consists of three short lines containing a total of 17 syllables. The first line of a haiku has exactly five syllables; the second line, seven syllables; and the third, five syllables.

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Discussion Comments
By umbra21 — On Apr 30, 2012

@KoiwiGal - Actually you'd be surprised at how difficult it is to really translate a poem. People might easily understand the sentiment of a limerick once it is explained to them, but translating it so that it makes sense and still keeps some of the original form is very difficult.

Poetry translation is one of the most difficult things you can do really, as it calls for language expertise, poetry expertise, cultural expertise and a fair bit of creativity as well.

The very best translators can keep the genre intact, and might even be able to substitute rhymes without losing any of the flavor of the original poem.

But usually genre is lost, particularly when it is reliant on a form. A haiku, for example, translated from Japanese, will very rarely come out in the form we recognize as a haiku.

By KoiwiGal — On Apr 29, 2012

@indigomoth - I like that one too. But, generally epitaph poems are either very short and pithy or they aren't very interesting as they simply relate the life of the person who they are for.

I'm quite fond of the limerick myself.

You can turn them over in your mind for the whole day, trying to find the right words for a limerick, which I don't find myself doing with other kinds of poems.

I also like how universal limericks are. Aside from the rhyme, I feel like many of them could be translated into another language and people would still understand them without any problems and would still get a laugh out of them as well.

By indigomoth — On Apr 29, 2012

The poem that I will always remember the most clearly was of a particular genre that isn't used much anymore. Epitaph poems were once quite popular and most people would have one on their gravestone. They usually rhymed and wouldn't always be serious. Some of them were funny. Sometimes they were commissioned, or sometimes written by the person who had died for use after they died.

My favorite one was very sad though and it was found written anonymously on the small grave of an aborted fetus. It ends with the lines: "Two adverse giants ruled thy wayward fate, thyself a helpless victim to their hate. Love, spite of Honor's dictates, gave thee breath. Honor, in spite of love, pronounced thy death."

I have always thought that was so well written, beautiful and sad and perfectly capturing the conundrum of abortion.

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