Elements of poetry

This page presents a brief description of some common poetic techniques and devices and other features of poetry that are important to understand in order to achieve the fullest appreciation of any poem. This list below is far from exhaustive. For further explanation and illustration of the items below or to explore additional elements of poetry, refer to chapters 10-18 in our Norton Introduction to Literature text. For brief definitions of literary terms, see the glossary at the back of the book, pp. A1-A13.


Voice

Speaker: By convention we refer to the speaking persona as "the speaker" in poetry where specific characters are not indicated (comparable to "the narrator" in fiction). In some poems, Anne Bradstreet's "To My Dear and Loving Husband," for instance, we may know that the speaking voice is actually the poet's, but in the great majority of poems we cannot assume that speaker and poet are the same individual, and quite often the speaker is clearly not the poet himself or herself. For more on the speaker in poetry, see chapter 10 in the Norton text.

Always refer to the speaking persona in lyric poetry as "the speaker."

Tone: As a literary term, tone refers to the writer's attitude towards the subject of a literary work as indicated in the work itself. One way to think about tone in poetry is to consider the speaker's literal "tone of voice": just as with tone of voice, a poem's tone may indicate an attitude of joy, sadness, solemnity, silliness, frustration, anger, puzzlement, etc.

Irony: The word "irony" has a number of different meanings, but in the most general terms irony involves a marked difference between what one says or expects and what is actually meant or what actually happens. More precisely, verbal irony occurs when there is an appreciable difference between what is said and what is actually meant, often where what is meant is the opposite of what is said.

For example, a person who dreads going to the dentist might say with great irony, "I just love having someone put needles and small power tools in my mouth. I wish I could get cavities filled every month."

The tone of a poem is ironic if there is some apparent discrepancy between the literal substance of the speaker's words and the attitude actually conveyed. The tone is ironic in Alexander Pope's famous poem, The Rape of the Lock, for instance, where the speaker describes the relatively trivial cutting off of a lock of a frivolous young lady's hair as a matter of grand, tragic, earth-shattering consequence.



Imagery


As applied to poetry, imagery is the use of words to convey vivid, concrete sensory experiences. The word "image" suggests most obviously a visual image, a picture, but imagery also includes vivid sensory experiences of smell, sound, touch, and taste as well. Imagery goes beyond mere description to communicate an experience or feeling so vividly that it encourages the creation of images in the mind of the reader and readers experiences for themselves the specific sensations that the poet intends.

Visual imagery: visual descriptions so vivid they seem to come to life in the reader's mind's when they are read, as in the description of a very old fish in Elizabeth Bishop's poem titled "The Fish":

Here and there
his brown skin hung in strips
like ancient wall-paper,
and its pattern of darker brown
was like wall-paper:
shapes like full-blown roses
strained and lost through age.
He was speckled with barnacles,
fine rosettes of lime,
and infested
with tiny white sea-lice,
and underneath two or three
rags of green weed hung down. (9-21)

Auditory imagery: descriptions of sound so vivid the reader seems almost to hear them while reading the poem. For example, Alexander Pope contrasts the gentle sounds of a whispering wind and a soft-running stream with the harsher sound of waves crashing on the shore in "Sound and Sense":

The sound must seem an echo to the sense:
Soft is the strain when Zephyr gently bows,
And the smooth stream in smoother numbers flow;
But when the loud surges lash the sounding shore,
The hoarse, rough verse should like the torrent roar. (365-69)

For another example see "What the Motorcycle Said," which opens, "Br-r-r-am-m-m, rackety-am-m, OM, Am: / All-r-r-room, r-r-ram, ala-bas-ter" (1-2).

Images of smell (olfactory imagery): descriptions of smells so vivid they seem almost to stimulate the reader's own sense of smell while reading, as in the poem, "Root Cellar," by Theodore Roethke:

And what a congress of stinks!—
Roots ripe as old bait,
Pulpy stems, rank, silo-rich,
Leaf-mold, manure, lime, piled against slippery planks.
Nothing would give up life:
Even the dirt kept breathing a small breath. (5-11)

Tactile or "physical" imagery: descriptions conveying a strong, vivid sense of touch or physical sensation that the reader can almost feel himself or herself while reading, as in Robert Frost's description of standing on a ladder in "After Apple Picking": "My instep arch not only keeps the ache, / It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round. / I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend" (21-23). Or in the sensation of touch (and possibly taste) in the fourth stanza of Helen Chasin's poem, "The Word Plum":

The word plum is delicious

pout and push, luxury of
self-love, and savoring murmur

full in the mouth and falling
like fruit

taut skin
pierced, bitten, provoked into
juice, and tart flesh. (1-8).



Figurative language


Figurative language is wording that makes explicit comparisons between unlike things using figures of speech such as metaphors and similes.

Simile: direct comparison between two unlike things usually delivered with the word "like," "as," or "so."

A simile so common as to be a cliché indicates great haste with the expression "like a bat out of hell": When Marcia's parents came home early, Bill went flying out the back door like a bat out of hell.

Metaphor: a figurative analogy or comparison between two things where the comparison is indicated directly, without the "like" or "as" customary in similes. Metaphors suggest literally that one thing is something else which it clearly is not in reality.

In the sentence, "Marcia's father had a cow when he saw Bill leaping over the backyard fence," the expression "had a cow" is a metaphorical expression meaning "got very upset." In all probability, Marcia's father is not capable of giving birth to a calf, much less a full-grown cow!

Or in the sentence, "Mr. Johnson yelled out the back door, 'Bill, I'm going to kick your butt from here clear into the next county!'" the expression "kick your butt" is a metaphor: Mr. Johnson means that he will cause physical harm to Bill, but not necessarily by applying his foot to Bill's backside.

Hyperbole: an extreme exaggeration, such as in the expression "from here clear into the next county" in the previous example, or the expression "after hell freezes over" in the sentence, "Bill, you'll be welcome in my house again about ten minutes after hell freezes over!"

Personification: a figurative comparison endowing inanimate things with human qualities.

Example: The stars above wept and the pale moon sighed as Bill trudged across the Andersons' yard with the cries of Marcia's father echoing through the night. Stars are personified as weeping here, and the moon is said to sigh, things humans can do but not inanimate bodies in the heavens.

These "figures" are but a few of a great many common types of figurative language. For more on metaphor and simile, see pp. 805-12 in our Norton text. For more on other rhetorical tropes or figures, see the University of Kentucky Division of Classics's online glossary of rhetorical terms with examples.



Symbolism

Not to be confused with metaphors (expressions making figurative comparisons between unlike things for the purpose of describing one of them with greater precision), symbols are objects, places, beings, or actions that operate on two separate levels of meaning. A symbol operates on one level as the thing described literally, but it also operates on a different, higher plane of meaning in what it suggests, represents, or "stands for."

An American flag is a common symbol: on the literal level the U.S. flag is a rectangular cloth covered with thirteen red and white stripes and fifty white stars on a blue background in one upper corner. The thirteen stripes symbolize the thirteen original colonies, and the fifty stars represent the fifty states making up the present-day United States of America. Beyond the symbolism contained within the design of the flag, however, the flag as a whole has symbolic meanings of liberty, equality, democracy, patriotism, and more. For American soldiers serving in foreign countries the flag no doubt symbolizes home.

For more explanation of symbolism, see pp. 813-24 in our Norton text.



Sound

The various uses and effects of sound in poetry can be quite complex. The items below are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Rhyme: Older and more traditional poetry very often contains rhyme, most readily identifiable as end rhyme, where lines end in similar sounds, as in Anne Bradstreet's "To My Dear and Loving Husband": "I prize thy love more than whole mines of gold, / Or all the riches that the East doth hold" (5-6). Some traditional poetic forms are organized into stanzas patterned to follow rhyme schemes—the Shakespearean sonnet follows a rhyme scheme such as abab, cdcd, efef, gg, for instance. One effect of rhyming is to add emphasis to particular words, especially the last in any pair or longer string of rhyming words: see the last word in each stanza of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven," for example.

True rhyme occurs when stressed syllables in pairs of words contain the same vowel and consonant sounds in combination, "dating" and "skating," e.g. Slant rhyme, or "near rhyme," occurs when the rhyming is close but not perfect, as in "fort" and "fret," or "daisy" and "racy."

Also note that poetry can employ internal rhyme, or rhyming within single lines, as we find aplenty in Poe's "The Raven." Note the repetition of words ending in "-ember" in the first two lines below and words ending in "-orrow" in the third and fourth lines:

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow; —vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow—sorrow for the lost Lenore—
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
                                       Nameless here for evermore. (7-12)

Alliteration is the repetition especially of consonant sounds in words occurring in close proximity. Alliteration occurs most obviously in the stanza from "The Raven" above in the repetition of "s" sounds in "books surcease of sorrow—sorrow for the lost Lenore," and also of the "r" and "l" sounds in "rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore— / Nameless here for evermore" (10, 11-12).

Assonance involves the repetition of similar vowel sounds in syllables ending with different consonant sounds, as in "roof," "tooth," and "shoot." Consonance is the repetition of final consonant sounds with differing preceding vowel sounds: "peel," "pale," and "pole," e.g.

Onomatopoeia is where the sounds of words suggest their meaning, such as in the words "buzz," "crackle," and "sizzle."

Euphony is where the words sound pleasant and harmonious, as in the second line of Shakespeare's sonnet, "[Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?]": "Thou art more lovely and more temperate." Cacophony is the opposite, where the sound is harsher and more discordant, as in these lines from Sharon Olds's "Leningrad Cemetery, Winter of 1941":

[B]ut most lay like corpses, their coverings
coming undone, naked calves
hard as corded wood spilling
from under a cloak. (12-15)



Rhythm

Meter: The arrangement of stressed and unstressed syllables into repeating patterns within lines of poetry establish a poem's meter: iambic pentameter, for instance, is a common meter indicating five feet (units made up of unstressed and stressed syllables) per line: "The rain is scarce this year in Tulsa town," e.g.

Whether the lines follow precise metrical patterns or not, the pacing of words and syllables often supports or reinforces the meaning conveyed in particular lines. Consider the first line of Walt Whitman's "Beat! Beat! Drums!" for instance, where the drums and bugles call citizens to war with an insistent, marching beat, and contrast is evident in the less rigid and more expansive, free-flowing rhythms in the lines describing the peaceful occupations of the citizens being called to march:

Beat! beat! drums!—blow! bugles! blow!
Through the windows—through doors—burst like a ruthless force,
Into the solemn church, and scatter the congregation,
Into the school where the scholar is studying;
Leave not the bridegroom quiet—no happiness must he have now with his bride,
Nor the peaceful farmer any peace, ploughing his field or gathering his grain,
So fierce you whir and pound you drums—so shrill you bugles blow! (1-7)

Or to cite Alexander Pope's "Sound and Sense" a second time,

When Ajax strives, some rock's vast weight to throw,
The line too labors, and the words move slow;
Not so, when swift Camilla scours the plain,
Flies o'er th'unbending corn, and skims along the main. (370-73)

Caesura is a a strong pause occurring in the middle of a line of verse. Note the caesura in the third line below, from W. B. Yeats's "Cold Heaven":

And I took all the blame out of all sense and reason,
Until I cried and trembled and rocked to and fro,
Riddled with light. Ah! when the ghost begins to quicken,
Confusion of the death-bed over, is it sent
Out naked on the roads, as the books say, and stricken
By the injustice of the skies for punishment? (7-12)

Enjambment is where the rhythm rushes the reader from the end of one line to the beginning of the next without pause, as we see in the last three lines of the Yeats passage above: we move rapidly from "sent" at the end of line 10 to the "out" beginning line 11, and from the "stricken" ending line 11 to the "by" beginning line 12.


I may add to this page periodically as we proceed through the semester. . . . Let me know if there are specific terms or elements of poetry you'd like me to add to the list.