Poetry: Analysis Through Form

Interpreting poetry can be done through careful analysis of the structure of its form. As there are many different forms, only a few will be looked at—which are classified under Eastern poetry (mostly Japanese), Western poetry, and Filipino poetry (most of which are written in Filipino). 

Each form is restricted by several different elements like syllable count, line count, stanza length, and rhyme scheme, to name a few.

Through these restrictions on form, the way a poem is read (out loud or silently) drastically changes, as it may emphasize parts of the poem more than other parts. Identifying what form is used and how it is used can aid in understanding the author’s intended meaning.

Shakespeare is one of the most recognizable writers even up to the present time. He wrote plays as well as poems known as sonnets. Among the many that he wrote, one of the most well-known is Sonnet 18.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st;
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

It should be noted that this is a sonnet, which follows a specific structure. Observe what this structure is by looking at the number of lines, the syllable count, and the rhyme scheme.

There are several kinds of poetry. Below are some examples. Focus on their structure.

  • Japanese Haiku – a short poem with three lines and a syllable count of 5-7-5; contains elements such as kigo (seasonal reference) and an ikireji (“cutting word” placed between juxtaposed imagery).
  • English haiku – similar to a Japanese haiku, but is less restrictive with regard to the syllable count (due to the language); does not necessarily have the same features as a Japanese haiku.
  • Filipino haiku – even less restrictive in form as the English haiku, and written in Filipino.
  • Haibun – comparable to the essence of a travel journal, the haibun combines prose and poetry; the prose serves to vividly describe the location or scene, while the poetry is meant to capture the atmosphere or “feeling” associated with the scene.
  • Tanka – a Japanese short poem (generally known as wok’) with five lines following a syllable count of 5-7-5-7-7
  • English/Shakespearean sonnet – fourteen lines, conventionally follows iambic pentameter, with a rhyme scheme of a-b-a-b-c-d-c-d-e-f-e-f-g-g
  • Sestina – six verses with six lines, each following an alternating end-word pattern.
  • Villanelle – a nineteen-line poem of five tercets and a quatrain; the poem has two refrains and two rhyme patterns repeated throughout, involving the alternate repetition of the first and third lines of the first tercet.
  • Tanaga – a Filipino poetic form of four lines with seven syllables each, all of which rhyme together.
  • Awit –  Another Filipino poetic form; emphasizes narrative greatly.

The analysis of poetry through its form can only become easter through fa miliarization of the form itself. By reading more poetry, a person will start to see where a poem’s elements become most effective, and will soon also see how they are effective. Not discussed is free verse, which is regarded as much kinder to most writers as it doesn’t restrict them with form. This departure from form can only be understood properly if the reader is familiar with the restrictions of form. Only then can it be understood why these deviations came about, and how writers in free verse are able to use the elements of poetry in an effective manner despite the lack of form.