Line Up

Birds often inspire poems. The lyrical flock includes skylarks, nightingales, starlings, penguins, and even dodos. In this lesson, you will explore the graphical elements of poetry through stirring tributes to feathered fauna. A fanciful flight over poetry will reveal its defining structure. You will also learn how that structure can reinforce and shape a poem's meaning.

Adélie penguin rookery at Erebus and Terror Gulf

Prose, the most common form of written language, is pretty straightforward. The basic unit of thought in prose is the sentence. Several sentences are grouped together around a single topic in a paragraph. A page of prose is dense with words, with very little white space. A prose passage is similar to a penguin rookery: one has a lot of words and the other has a lot of birds. Look at the following prose passage, for example:

Adélie penguins arrive at their breeding grounds in October or November, at the end of winter and the start of spring. Their nests consist of stones piled together. In December, the warmest month in Antarctica (about −2 °C or 28 °F), the parents take turns incubating the egg; one goes to feed and the other stays to warm the egg. The parent who is incubating does not eat. In March, the adults and their young return to the sea.

A page of poetry, on the other hand, usually has more white space. Words are not bumping shoulders with one another lining up across the page. In poetry, words are arranged in lines, which may be as short as a single word. Each word appears to have enough space to flap its wings. Contrast the appearance of this poem with the prose sample on Adélie penguins.

"Emperor Penguins" by Barry Louis Polisar

Huddled close together
Against the snow and sleet,
Penguins at the pole
Pool their body heat.

They gather in a circle,
Steadfast, disciplined,
Turning toward the center,
Fighting off the wind.

Sharing warmth and comfort
On cold and icy floes,
Balancing their future
Gently, on their toes.

Notice that the lines of the poem are short—two to five words—allowing for white space on the right side. Lines of poetry can contain complete sentences, but often poets spread a single sentence out over a number of lines. In this poem, Polisar divided the first sentence into four lines. Lined up from left to right in prose form, those four lines would look like this:

Huddled close together against the snow and sleet, penguins at the pole pool their body heat.

The third set of four lines in "Emperor Penguins" ends with a period, yet it is not a sentence. It lacks a subject. The implied subject is the pigeons, but in formal English, sentences without subjects often don't fly. Poets, however, have the license to ignore some of the grammar rules that prose writers must follow.

Images used in this section:

Source: Adélie penguin rookery at Erebus and Terror Gulf, Antartic96, Wikimedia Commons
Source: Adélie penguins on an iceberg in Antarctica, Jason Auch, Flickr

Stand Up for Stanzas

Poetry, which is sometimes called verse, is structured into stanzas. Stanzas are groups of lines that are comparable to paragraphs in prose. If you are "versed" in music, you know that songs are also divided into stanzas or verses.

Watch this video to review how stanzas fit together to provide structure to a poem.

Another way to think about stanzas is through an analogy. Stanza originated from the Italian word for room, so if stanzas are rooms, poems are houses. While all the rooms of a house combine to make a functional and beautiful domicile, all the stanzas of a poem combine to create meaningful and beautiful insight.

Just as rooms come in different sizes, so do stanzas. Stanzas of two lines are couplets, three lines are tercets, and four lines are quatrains. In "Emperor Penguins," the poet uses the common quatrain. While the regal birds are held together by body heat, the words in Polisar's poem are bound together by rhythm and rhyme.

House of Stanzas

Rhythm is the particular beat of the poem or the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. Rhythm is such an important element of poetry that it merits its own lesson. However, the primary focus of this lesson is on the graphical elements, or the look, of poetry.

Rhyme (time, climb, sublime) is often used by poets to draw attention to the words at the end of the stanza. In "Emperor Penguins," there is an alternate rhyme scheme. The end of line two, sleet, rhymes with the end of line four, heat. Rhythm and rhyme patterns are usually consistent in a poem. If you notice alternate rhyme in the first stanza, you can usually expect the same pattern in stanzas two and three.

How do the three stanzas of Polisar's poem contribute to the overall meaning? In each of the stanzas, the poet presents an idea, building on the insight of the previous stanza. In the first stanza, Polisar paints a picture of birds huddling together to survive the freezing weather in Antarctica. The cold intensifies in the second stanza as the individual birds—unlike the emperors for which they are named—circle as a community, turning inward to outsmart the biting wind. In the last stanza, we understand why penguins must outwit the harsh climate: They need to insure that their species survives by protecting its eggs.

Images used in this section:

Source: Italian house, Evgeniy Isaev, Wikimedia Commons

A Capital Form of Communication

The use of capital letters is another distinguishing visual feature of poetry. Prose writers must capitalize the first word of every sentence. They also must capitalize proper names, such as John James Audubon, and movie titles, such as The Birdman of Alcatraz. However, poets are free to capitalize whenever they want.

Some poets follow the tradition of capitalizing the first letter of each line regardless of whether or not it starts a new sentence. If writers were paid by the number of capital letters, this group of poets would be wealthy. Hilaire Belloc, in his poem "The Dodo," used this "capital" form of verse to emphasize something irreversible. Often poets use this form to draw attention to the first word in the line, but in Belloc's poem, the first words are unimportant articles like the and conjunctions like and. For good measure, though, he also capitalized Dodo and Museum, two common nouns that are the most important words in the poem. Belloc’s capitalization of those two words brings them to the reader’s attention and helps us understand the poem’s message: The Dodo is now extinct, never to return, and nowhere to be found except in the Museum.

the skeleton of a Do-do bird

“The Dodo”

The Dodo used to walk around,
And take the sun and air.
The sun yet warms his native ground—
The Dodo is not there!

The voice which used to squawk and squeak
Is now forever dumb—
Yet may you see his bones and beak
All in the Mu-se-um.

Many contemporary poets have abandoned the traditional form of capitalizing the first word of every line, shifting their focus more to meaning than to form. Some capitalize the first words of sentences as in prose. In "Caged Bird," Maya Angelou uses capitalization as if she were writing a story. Note that the first stanza is a single sentence.

A free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wing
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.

Then there's another group of contemporary poets who disregard many of the conventions of written English altogether. The poet e.e. cummings, who doesn’t even capitalize his name, is the most well-known of that group. Consider his typical poem, in which he omits the title, capital letters, and punctuation marks.

may my heart always be open to little
birds who are the secrets of living
whatever they sing is better than to know
and if men should not hear them men are old

The first two lines constitute a sentence; in prose the first word, may, would be capitalized, and a period would follow the last word, living. The next two lines also constitute a sentence. With no commas, the reader has to insert pauses after know and them to fully grasp the meaning of these lines. Try reading the poem aloud with the suggested punctuation.

For each of the following five questions about Shel Silverstein’s poem “Weird-Bird,” type your answer in the white space and then click “Check” to see if you are correct. To advance to another question, click the next circle at the bottom of the box. Pay close attention to how Silverstein uses capital letters.

Images used in this section:

Source: Matthieu Sontag, Wikimedia Commons

The Long and Short of It

Poems are linear, meaning they consist of lines rather than sentences. Some poems are amazingly long. For instance, The Odyssey by Homer has 12,110 lines. Other poems, like Muhammed Ali's, are unbelievably short.


Lemony Snickett might not have taken into account the heavyweight champ's two-word poem when he said, "Many, many poems are too long; hardly any are too short."

You may already be familiar with one short form of poetry called the haiku, which captures a seasonal moment. This unrhymed form has only three lines and 17 syllables. While haiku poets don't have to rhyme, they must count syllables carefully: no more than five syllables in the first line, seven in the second, and five in the third. Haikus focus on nature, and as you might have guessed, that includes birds. In one stanza of her poem "Haiku Journey," poet Kimberly Blaeser creates a picture of crows in the spring perched precariously in the heights.

the tips of each pine
the spikes of telephone poles
hold gathering crows

While the haiku originated in Japan, the limerick, a slightly longer form, takes its name from a town in Ireland. Therefore, a leprechaun is best suited to explain its structure. Listen to the consistent rhythm (ta-ta-TUM, ta-ta-TUM) in the explanation.

While the haiku focuses on serene moments in nature, the limerick spotlights the ridiculous. This five-line form follows a structured rhyme and rhythm pattern. Edward Lear popularized this humorous form of poetry in the 19th century. Consider this example from his Book of Nonsense.

Cover for A Book of Nonsense by Edward Lear (ca 1875 James Miller edition)

There was an Old Man with a beard,
Who said, 'It is just as I feared!
Two Owls and a Hen,
Four Larks and a Wren,
Have all built their nests in my beard!'

Reread the information about haikus and limericks before completing the following activity.

Drag and drop each descriptive term into either the haiku or limerick column according to which form of poetry the term describes. Click “Check” to see if you are correct.

Images used in this section:

Source: Cover for A Book of Nonsense by Edward Lear (ca 1875 James Miller edition), Wikimedia Commons

Taking Shape

words written on a sidewalk with chalk

As you have discovered, poets have more freedom from rules than prose writers, but none more so than the group who write concrete poems. These poets are free to make any number of choices, including how their words will look on the page. While concrete poems can be written on the sidewalk, that is not their distinguishing feature. It's their shape that matters. The outline of a concrete poem forms a recognizable shape, one that is consistent with the subject of the poem. Concrete poems are a combination of literature and visual art, but they would not be good choices for poetry recitations. Here's a concrete example in animation.

The Slow Train

The Slow Train - Dudley Wild

Geese fly in a V shape, but their aerial formation pales in comparison to the exquisite shapes created by murmurations, or flocks of starlings. Some see starlings as pests, but it's hard to be critical of birds who can perform such breathtaking feats. Watch as a murmuration of starlings fly in formation, tightening into thin cords and then billowing out into new intriguing cloud shapes.

A single bird in flight inspired Ernesto Santiago to write this shape poem, “The Bird.” The first words of the lines don't hug the left margin as in conventional poetry; instead, the poet spaces each line intentionally so that the overall shape resembles a bird in flight. While the first "wing" focuses on a bird's freedom, the second "wing" focuses on a poet, reminding us that poets are free to create lines that will be remembered. The shape reminds readers that poets can soar through words.

               Soaring high,
                         Up into the
                              Limitless sky,
                                     A traveler,
                              With its red feathers
                            Exploded, into force, like
                            An airborne ranger, enjoying
                            Its freedom and it never
                               Worries what to eat
                  And, what to wear like a poet
           With his silvery quill, glowing
Inside, his soul, yesterday………today,
                    Tomorrow and forever!
                     A master, of his words
                      His life, free to write
                     And, never worries
                   When to stop, nor
                   To die, for his
             Poetry, will be

Along with the poem’s shape, also notice that the figurative language within the poem adds to Santiago’s image of a bird in flight. The poet uses the simile “like an airborne ranger” to compare the bird to a pilot. He also personifies the bird, saying it “never worries about what to eat and, what to wear like a poet”.

Images used in this section:

Source: Marathon sidewalk chalk, Cassandra 423, Wikimedia Commons

A Bird's-Eye View

In this lesson you have observed how poems look, more specifically how they are structured in contrast to prose. You’ve noticed that capital letters, line length, and word position can have an impact on the meaning of a poem. Along with rhythm and rhyme schemes in stanzas, you’ve reviewed special styles of poetry: haikus, limericks, and concrete poems. Also, you’ve observed how poets use figurative language to enhance a poem’s meaning. Finally, during our fanciful flight over poetry, you have become acquainted with poets who display a great deal of respect for our feathered friends. You, too, can be remembered for your poetry.

Your final activity is to write an acrostic poem, a pattern poem in which the first letters of the first words of each line spell out the subject of the poem. Write the word "BIRDS" vertically down your paper and use the letters of this spine word to begin the lines of your imaginative poem. Your lines can be long or short, and rhyming is optional.

The acrostic poem below shows what an acrostic poem looks like and tells more about how to write one.

“Free Like a Bird”

An acrostic poem

Can be about a bird,

Really any bird.

Owls count too.

Start your poem with one word, and

Tack on more to make a sentence.

I like acrostics; I

Can create poetry and feel free as a bird.



Adélie penguins. (n.d.). Wikipedia. Retrieved from

Angelou, M. (1983). Caged bird. Poetry Foundation. Retrieved from

Blaeser, K. (2007). Haiku journey. Poetry Foundation. Retrieved from

Belloc, H. (1896). The dodo. Poetry Archive. Retrieved from

Clive, S. W., & Smith, L. (2011, December 2). Murmuration. [YouTube]. Retrieved from

Cummings, E. E. (n.d.). May my heart always be open to little. Goodreads. Retrieved from

eSpark Learning. (2014, August 4). How stanzas fit together to provide structure to a poem. [YouTube]. Retrieved from

Lear, E. (1846). There was an old man with a beard. A Book of Nonsense. Retrieved from

The limerick song. (2011, March 16). [YouTube]. Retrieved from

Silverstein, S. (n.d.). Weird-bird. Poem Hunter. Retrieved from

Wild, D. (2008, July 9). The slow train. [YouTube]. Retrieved from