Structure In Poetry

by: Rodney J. Smith

In my creative writing classes, I’m amazed at how many people believe that free verse has no structure; the result is a formless offering of words that often leaves the reader unfulfilled or with a sense that something is not quite right. And because there is no predetermined pattern to refer to (eg an abab rhyme scheme) it’s difficult to pinpoint what’s wrong with the poem.

Now while I agree that writers of free verse do not have to conform to the ‘rules’ of set form poetry (eg sonnets, ballads, limericks, haiku etc., each with its own rules of rhythm, rhyme and meter) there is definitely structure. The difference is each poem defines its own structure which emerges from within. If you don’t like the word ‘structure’, consider balance, pattern or cohesion. The tricky thing with establishing your own structure in a poem is that you have to ‘teach’ your reader how to read it, and, once established, you need to continue with it – or subvert it, but more of that later.

Why structure?

Structure serves the mood or thematic intent of a poem. What do you want to say through this poem? How may the structure aid the communication of this idea? Structure also determines the pace at which the poem may be read. Do you want to slow your reader down at a certain point or speed them up? Why? All of these questions and answers should have an impact upon the individual structure of each poem.

In one of my classes I chose a piece of prose – an extract of an article from New Scientist – and asked each student to work the prose into a free verse poem. Each student had the same words, but the way they chose to structure the words, led to ten very different poems.

In free verse, the following techniques are frequently used to bring structure to a poem:


  • of sound = rhyme
  • meter = rhythm
  • words – for emphasis, not just because of lazy writing.
  • phrases – again for emphasis of a theme or effect
  • letters = alliteration and assonance
  • stanzas = refrains
  • images – identical or thematically linked to emphasise a concept or ideas.

For example ‘Travel Sickness’ by Nick Toczek.

Line breaks

Alternating line length provides internal rhythm and pace, tension and release. Don’t forget that a single word can be a line.
Enjambment (when a sentence runs over onto the next line. Sometimes a sentence starts mid-line or even runs over onto the next stanza).
End stops (where you choose to stop the line).
For example, ‘Television’ by John Coldwell.

Stanza groupings

How many lines are in a stanza? You may wish to alternate stanzas with the same number of lines eg a 3 line stanza then 7 line stanza then 3 then 7 again. Can you see the structure that is emerging? A repetition of stanzas is known as a refrain. For example ‘The Millennium Falcon’ by Roger Stevens.


The physical spacing of words on a page can establish a unique structure. For example, ‘Autumn’ by Roger McGough.

Point of View shifts

Shifting between first, second and third person. For example ‘Black March’ by the late poet Stevie Smith.


You can establish a repetitive pattern or omit it completely. (See ‘Millennium Falcon’). Remember, you don’t have to punctuate full sentences – you can break punctuation rules if it serves the poem better.

Juxtaposition of opposites.
For example, ‘This is the Weather’ by Stephen Bowkett.

Metaphors, similes, unexpected descriptive adverbs and adjectives.
For example, ‘Thaw’ by Edward Thomas.


By setting up an expectation of pattern, you can subvert it by changing it. But this only works when the structure is already well established in the reader’s mind. The reader must come away thinking ‘that was clever’ rather than ‘huh? What happened to the structure?’ For example, ‘A Happy Kenning’ by Clare Bevan.

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1 Comment on "Structure In Poetry"

  1. There is certainly a great deal to learn about this topic.
    I love all of the points you have made.


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