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.