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5.1 Traits of closed and open structures in poetry

9 min readjanuary 28, 2023

ChristineLing

ChristineLing


AP English Literature 📚

145 resources
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Introduction

Welcome to the first guide of Unit 5! Today, we’ll be comparing different structural choices authors can make that influence the reader’s interpretation of the text. The primary two categories are closed and open structures. You’ll look at example poems and identify which of the two forms the poems take on.
Note: on the AP Lit exam, you will not be expected to identify/name forms of poetry. However, you may find them useful to know for essay writing and general English literature studying purposes.
Note: in this guide, the words “structure” and “form” will be used interchangeably.

Intro to Closed Structure

First, we’ll look at what closed structure is.
A closed structure poem is a type of poem that follows a traditional, fixed pattern of rhyme, meter, and stanzas. This structure is predetermined and follows a specific pattern. These are probably the kinds of poems you’ve seen the most often before. At the most basic level, think nursery rhymes like “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” or “Humpty Dumpty”
Other examples of closed structure poems include sonnets, haiku, and rhymed couplets. Let’s look at each in depth, so you can get an idea of the variety of formats “closed structure” poems can take on.
  • Sonnet: A 14-line poem with a specific rhyme scheme (varies depending on the type of sonnet) and a strict meter. Shakespeare's sonnets are some of the most famous examples of this type of poem. Example:
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 stay: Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines, And often is his gold complexion dimmed; But thy eternal beauty shall not fade Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest; Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade, When in eternal lines to time thou growest: So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
  • Haiku: A traditional Japanese poem consisting of three lines. The first and third lines contain 5 syllables, while the second line has 7 syllables. Haikus often focus on nature and the changing of seasons. Example:
Autumn leaves falling Nature's symphony plays on Peaceful and serene.
  • Rhymed Couplet: A poem consisting of two lines with a rhyme at the end of each line. Couplets can be found in different forms of poetry and can be used to create a sense of closure. Example:
The stars above us, bright and bold, Will shine forever, young and old.
These are just a few examples of closed structure poems. Essentially, when you think “closed,” think of a fixed form.

Impact of Closed Structure

Here are some ways closed structure can influence the way a poem is interpreted:
  • It can create a sense of predictability and familiarity for the reader, making the poem easier to understand and follow. This can increase the reader's engagement with the poem and make the poem more accessible to a wider audience.
  • It can add an element of discipline and control to the poem, giving the poet a framework within which to work. This can lead to a more polished and refined final product.
  • Structure can affect the overall meaning and tone of the poem. For example, the strict structure of a sonnet can convey a sense of formality and traditionalism, while the simplicity of a haiku can convey a sense of Zen-like contemplation.
  • Structure can also affect the way the reader interprets the poem's meaning. For example, a sonnet with its strict structure can convey a sense of tradition, and the reader may interpret the poem as a traditional love poem. While a free verse poem that does not have a set structure, the reader may interpret the poem in a more personal and less traditional way.
  • Lastly, structure can affect the way in which the poet approaches the subject matter of the poem. Using a closed form can be a creative challenge for a poet, as it requires them to be concise and choose words carefully. This can push the poet to be more creative and inventive with language.
Here are a few examples to illustrate these points:
  • The structure of the Shakespearean sonnet above, with its strict rhyme scheme, guides the reader to focus on certain themes, such as love, beauty, and time.
  • The haiku example, with its simple structure, guides the poet to focus and limit their words. Fewer words and lines prompts the reader to look closely at every word, since each comprises a decent proportion of the overall poem.
  • A rhymed couplet can convey a playful and casual tone. The rhyme makes the poem more light-hearted and less formal, so the reader may be more likely to engage with the poem with a relaxed perspective.

Intro to Open Structure

Alright, with the more familiar “closed structure” poem format learned, let’s look at what open structure poems look like. 
Open structure in poetry refers to a form of poetry that does not have a set structure or pattern. This can include a lack of rhyme, meter, or a specific stanza pattern. Open form poetry is characterized by its freedom and flexibility, which allows the poet to experiment with different styles, forms and structures.
Note: this doesn’t mean there are no strategic structural choices that create relationships between ideas.
Open form poetry can be divided into two main categories: free verse and prose poetry.

Free Verse

Free verse is poetry that does not have a set structure or pattern. It often uses natural rhythms of spoken language and does not have a strict rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. For example:
The leaves rustle in the wind A symphony of sound and motion Nature's symphony
Recap: this poem doesn't have a set structure, no rhyme, no strict metrical pattern. Therefore, it's a free verse.

Prose Poetry

On the other hand, prose poetry is poetry that is written in (as the name suggests) prose. It often lacks line breaks and stanzas, and instead, it is written in paragraphs. For example:
The city was alive with the sound of cars and people. The streets were crowded with people going about their business, the buildings towering above them like sentinels. The air was thick with the smell of exhaust and the sound of chatter. But amidst all of this, there was a sense of peace and belonging.
Recap: this poem doesn't have line breaks or stanzas. Therefore, it's prose poetry.
Using open form can give the poet a lot of freedom to explore different themes and styles, and can also create a sense of intimacy and immediacy for the reader. However, it can also be more challenging for the reader to follow and understand.

Impact of Open Structure

Here are the ways open structure can influence your perception of a poem:
  • Creates a sense of intimacy and immediacy: The lack of structure in open form poetry can create a sense of intimacy and immediacy for the reader. It can make the poem feel more personal and relatable, and can help the reader to connect with the poet's emotions and thoughts. For example, the poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" by T.S. Eliot, the speaker expresses a deep sense of insecurity and self-doubt through the use of free verse, which allows the reader to connect with the speaker's emotions in a more personal way.
  • Encourages interpretation: Without a set structure or pattern, open form poetry can be more open to interpretation. The reader is not limited by a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern, and can focus on the meaning and message of the poem. For example, the poem "Howl" by Allen Ginsberg, the use of free verse encourages the reader to focus on the content of the poem, which is a critique of American society in the 1950s.
  • Allows for experimentation with language: Open form poetry allows the poet to experiment with different styles and forms, which can make the poem more interesting and engaging for the reader. For example, in the poem "The Red Wheelbarrow" by William Carlos Williams, the poet uses simple and straightforward language, but the lack of structure and punctuation makes the poem more intriguing and thought-provoking.
  • Can be more challenging for the reader: Without a set structure or pattern, open form poetry can be more challenging for the reader to follow and understand. The reader may need to pay more attention to the language and imagery of the poem, which can make the poem more rewarding, but also more challenging.
  • Encourages a sense of freedom: Open form poetry can create a sense of freedom for the reader, as it allows them to approach the poem with their own perspectives, and encourages them to think more critically and creatively about the poem.
It's worth noting that many poets use both open and closed forms in their work, depending on the context, the theme, and the message they want to convey.

Test Yourself #1

In this Test Yourself exercise, and in the following ones, you’ll be given a poem to look at. Identify the form it takes on and if you have the time, analyze how the poem’s form helped you interpret it in a particular way.

“Harlem” by Langston Hughes

What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore— And then run? Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over— like a syrupy sweet? Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?

Test Yourself #2

Hamlet by William Shakespeare

"The time is out of joint, O cursed spite That ever I was born to set it right!"

Test Yourself #3

“Information” by David Ignatow

This tree has two million and seventy-five thousand leaves. Perhaps I missed a leaf or two but I do feel triumphant at having persisted in counting by hand branch by branch and marked down on paper with pencil each total. Adding them up was a pleasure I could understand; I did something on my own that was not dependent on others, and to count leaves is not less meaningful than to count the stars, as astronomers are always doing. They want the facts to be sure they have them all. It would help them to know whether the world is finite. I discovered one tree that is finite. I must try counting the hairs on my head, and you too. We could swap information.

Conclusion

In this guide, we looked at two structures of poetry: closed and open. Closed structures have a predetermined pattern or form with roots in history while open structures do not. Both can challenge the poet to be creative and inventive with language, just in different ways.

Answers to Test Yourself Exercises

  1. Open structure- specifically free verse. The free verse structure of "Harlem" creates a sense of immediacy for the reader, as it reflects the colloquial and everyday language of the people living in Harlem. This allows the reader to connect with the speaker's emotions and thoughts in a more personal way. There may be other analyses; that is just one.
  2. Closed structure- specifically couplet. The closed structure of this couplet creates a sense of control and formality. The rhymed couplet structure gives the poem a sense of order and symmetry, which contrasts with the content of the poem, which expresses a sense of despair and chaos. The rhyme and meter of the couplet also creates a sense of inevitability and finality, which reinforces the speaker's feeling of helplessness.
  3. Open structure- specifically prose. The poem feels like a stream of consciousness, which can make the reader feel like they are a part of the poet's thoughts and emotions. The poem is also full of wordplay and imagery; and the reader is encouraged to interpret these elements in their own way.
Browse Study Guides By Unit
🤔Exam Skills
🌱Unit 1 – Intro to Short Fiction
Unit 2 – Intro to Poetry
🎭Unit 3 – Intro to Longer Fiction & Drama
⚔️Unit 4 – Character, Conflict, & Storytelling in Short Fiction
🌈Unit 5 – Structure & Figurative Language in Poetry
🛠️Unit 6 – Literary Techniques in Longer Works
🏛️Unit 7 – Societal & Historical Context in Short Fiction
🤾🏾‍♀️Unit 8 – Advanced Techniques in Poetry
🚣🏾Unit 9 – Nuanced Analysis in Longer Works

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