Essential Poetry Terms and Devices

Analyzing and writing poetry draws you into a world that speaks another language. From iambs to hexameters, there are new poetry terms and definitions that you need to decipher. By understanding the basic terms related to meter, form, and poetic devices, you can hone your technique and express yourself with creativity and precision.

Poetry Meter

Meter: Poetry meter refers to the structured pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in a line of verse, which creates a rhythm.

• Rising meter: Rising meter starts with unstressed syllables and ends in stressed syllables.

• Falling meter: Falling meter describes metrical feet that begin with one or more stressed syllables and end with unstressed syllables.

Foot: In poetry, a foot is a unit of measurement related to a poem's meter. It is the basic building block to creating meter in a poem. One foot contains a combination of stressed and unstressed syllables. 

There are many types of poetic feet. Here are some of the more common feet in English poetry, classified by the number of syllables in the foot:

("Short" means a short, unstressed syllable, and "long" means a long, stressed syllable.)

• Disyllable feet (feet with two syllables):

• Iamb (iambic): short-long (example: beside, upon)

• Trochee (trochaic): long-short (example: coffee, tiger)

• Spondee: long-long (example: hog-wild, heyday)

• Pyrrhus (pyrrhic): short-short (example: Andrew Marvell’s “The Garden”: “To a green thought in a green shade.”)

•Trisyllable feet (three syllables):

• Dactyl (dactylic): long-short-short (example: poetry, pineapple)

• Anapest (anapestic): short-short-long (example: engineer, understand)

• Tetrasyllable feet (four syllables):

• Choriamb: long-short-short-long (example: under the bridge, what a relief)

Line length (in feet): The length of a line is sometimes referred to by the number of feet. These terms can also be used in combination with other terms when describing a poetic form, such as iambic pentameter (five iambs per line):  

• Monometer: a line of one metrical foot

• Dimeter: a line of two metrical feet

• Trimeter: a line of three metrical feet

• Tetrameter: a line of four metrical feet

• Pentameter: a line of five metrical feet

• Hexameter: a line of six metrical feet

• Heptameter: a line of seven metrical feet

Line length (in syllables): Line length may also be described in syllables instead of feet, for example in syllabic verse, where the form has fixed number of syllables per line and stresses do not constrain the structure. Here are some examples:

• Disyllabic: two syllables per line

• Trisyllabic: three syllables per line

• Octosyllabic: eight syllables per line

• Decasyllabic: ten syllables per line

• Hendecasyllabic: eleven syllables per line

Caesura: A caesura, or pause, is a break in the rhythm of a poem for a beat, usually indicated by punctuation, a line break, or an extra space.

Poetry Form Terms

Form: A poetic form is a set of rules that dictate the meter, rhyme scheme, length, and purpose or tone of a poem. Examples of poetic forms include sonnet, haiku, and blank verse. For more details on specific forms of poetry, please refer to our article on poetic forms and their definitions.

• Open form: An open form of poetry doesn't have strict rules to follow; free verse is an example.

• Closed form: A closed form of poetry has rules that regulate a poem's structure, meter, and/or rhyme scheme.

Stanza: A stanza is a group of lines in a poem. Stanzas are separated by a line break. They are similar to paragraphs in a book, uniting and dividing thoughts. Lines within a stanza may share a rhyme scheme and meter.

Lines per stanza: There are terms for stanzas depending on the number of lines they contain. For example:

• Couplet: A stanza of two lines, usually rhyming.

• Tercet: A stanza of three lines.

• Quatrain: A stanza of four lines.

• Quintain: A stanza of five lines.

• Sestet: A stanza of six lines.

• Septet: A stanza of seven lines.

• Octave: A stanza of eight lines.

Envoi/Envoy: An envoi is a concluding or explanatory stanza that appears at the very end of a poem (for example, a ballade). It is shorter than the previous stanzas throughout the poem.

Refrain: A refrain is a line or phrase that is repeated throughout a poem. For example, there are two refrains in "Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night," by Dylan Thomas. 

Poetic Devices and Terms

Alliteration: Alliteration is the repetition of sounds used at the beginning of words next to, or near each other. For example, alliteration is demonstrated in the use of the n sound in this line from "The Raven," by Edgar Allan Poe: "While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping."

Apostrophe: An apostrophe is when the poem directly addresses someone or something that isn't present, such as a person (living or deceased), place, or thing (for example, the earth, love, or death).

Assonance: Assonance is a repetition of similar vowel sounds in words near each other. William Wordsworth uses assonance in his poem, "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud," for example: "A host, of golden daffodils; / Beside the lake, beneath the trees."

Connotation: Connotation is the implied meaning, feeling, and weight of a word. It's the word's emotional and cultural baggage. 

Denotation: Denotation is the literal meaning of a word, or the dictionary definition.

Enjambment: Enjambment is when a sentence wraps between two or more lines in a poem. The incomplete sentence at the end of the line creates tension because the reader is both drawn to pause at the end of the line and is urged to continue to the next line to read the completion of the sentence.

Hyperbole: An extreme exaggeration to create emphasis is a hyperbole.

Imagery: When poets write using imagery, they write in a way that creates mental pictures in the minds of readers. Writing with imagery appeals to the five senses, showing the reader instead of telling.

Irony: Irony is a literary device that requires the reader to read between the lines. What is literally written is not what is meant—in fact, it may be the exact opposite. There is an implied meaning behind the words. Additionally, poets may use situational or dramatic irony. In this type of irony, the actions, intentions, or ideals contrast with the reality of the situation.

Metaphor: A metaphor is a literary device that draws a comparison between two seemingly unrelated things. The metaphor may be direct or implied. A metaphor does not use the words "like" or "as" to make the comparison.

Prose: Prose, as opposed to poetry, refers to text written without rhyme or meter. Literary devices, such as metaphor, imagery, and symbolism, may be present in prose.

Onomatopoeia: This term describes using words that imitate a sound, such as "snap" and "meow."

Simile: A simile is a comparison between two things using the words "like" or "as."

Slant rhyme: A slant rhyme (also called an off, imperfect, near, or half rhyme) is a type of rhyme that does not have a perfectly matched end sound between the two words, but they share similar sounds (such as the vowels are the same but the consonants are different). For example: home and none, mug and mutt, ridge and grudge.

Symbol: Poets use symbols as a literary device when an object or action signifies or represents something else, which is usually a more abstract idea that holds deep significance. Unlike metaphor, a symbol's meaning is not directly explained through a comparison between the two things, but instead it is created through the context of its use.

Verse: The term verse generally refers to poetry, or text written in meter or rhyme (as opposed to prose, which is not). The term can also describe a single metrical

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