Page Links: | 1. What is Poetry? | 2. Reading the Poem | 3. Denotation and Connotation | 4. Imagery | 5. Figurative Language 1: Metaphor, Personification, and Metonymy | 6. Figurative Language 2: Symbol and Allegory | 7. Figurative Language 3: Paradox, Overstatement, understatement, Irony and Allusion | 8. Tone and Musical Devices | 9. Rhythm and Meter | 10. Patterns of Traditional Poems | MLA Style Citation of this Web Page |

| Appendix O: American Poetry: Selected Bibliography |

Site Links: | Appendices: Index | Alphabetical List | Table Of Contents | Home Page |


1. What is Poetry?

It is difficult to define; we have been more successful at describing and appreciating poetry than at defining it. Poetry might be defined, initially, as a kind of language that says more and says it more intensely than does ordinary language. William Wordsworth defined poetry as "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings, recollected in tranquillity." Poetry is the most condensed and concentrated form of literature, saying most in the fewest number of words.

2. Reading the Poem:

a. Read a poem more than once. b. Keep a dictionary by you and use it. c. Read so as to hear the sounds of the words in your mind. Poetry is written to be heard: its meanings are conveyed through sound as well as through print. Every word is therefore important. d. Always pay careful attention to what the poem is saying. e. Practice reading poems aloud. Ask yourself the following questions: i. Who is the speaker and what is the occasion? ii. What is the central purpose of the poem? iii. By what means is the purpose of the poem achieved?

3. Denotation and Connotation:

The average word has three components parts: sound, denotation, and connotation. Denotation is the dictionary meaning(s) of the word; connotations are what it suggests beyond what it expresses: its overtones of meaning. It acquires these connotations by its past history and associations, by the way and the circumstances in which it has been used.

4. Imagery:

Poetry communicates experience and experience comes to us largely through the senses (seeing, hearing, smelling, feeling, and touching). Imagery may be defined as the representation through language of sense experience. The word image perhaps most often suggests a mental picture, something seen in the mind's eye - and visual imagery is the most frequently occurring kind of imagery in poetry. But an image may also represent a sound; a smell; a taste; a tactile experience; and an internal sensation.

5. Figurative Language 1:

Metaphor, Personification, and Metonymy: Figures of speech are another way of adding extra dimensions to language. Broadly defined, a figure of speech is any of saying something other than the ordinary way, and some rhetoricians have classified as many as 250 separate figures. Figurative language is language that cannot be taken literally. Metaphor and simile are both used as a means of comparing things that are essentially unlike; in simile the comparison is expressed by the use of some word or phrase such as like, as than, similar to, resembles or seems; in metaphor the comparison is implied - that is, the figurative term is substituted for or identified with the literal term. Personification consists in giving the attributes of a human being to an animal, an object, or a concept. Closely related to personification is apostrophe, which consists in addressing someone absent or something non human as if it were alive and present and could reply to what is being said. Synecdoche (the use of the part for the whole) and metonymy (the use of something closely related for the thing actually meant) are alike in that both substitute some significant detail or aspect of an experience for the experience itself.

6. Figurative Language 2:

Symbol and Allegory: A symbol may be roughly defined as something that means more than what it is. Image, metaphor, and symbol shade into each other and are sometimes difficult to distinguish. In general, however, an image means only what it is; a metaphor means something other than what it is; and a symbol means what it is and something more too. Allegory is a narrative or description that has a second meaning beneath the surface one. Although the surface story or description may have its own interest, the author's major interest is in the ulterior meaning. Allegory has been defined as an extended metaphor and sometimes as a series of related symbols.

7. Figurative Language 3:

A paradox is an apparent contradiction that is nevertheless true. It may either be a situation or a statement ("damn with faint praise"). Overstatement, or hyperbole, is simply exaggeration but exaggeration in the service of truth. Understatement, or saying less than one means, may exist in what one says or merely in how one says it Like paradox, irony has meanings that extend beyond its use merely as a figure of speech. Verbal irony, saying the opposite of what one means, is often confused with sarcasm and with satire. Sarcasm and satire both imply ridicule, one on the colloquial level, the other on the literary level. The term irony always implies some sort of discrepancy or incongruity: between what is said and what is meant, or between appearance and reality, or between expectation and fulfillment (dramatic irony and irony of situation). Allusion, a reference to something in history or previous literature, is, like a richly connotative word or a symbol, a means of suggesting far more that it says. Allusions are a means of reinforcing the emotion or the ideas of one's own work with the emotion or ideas of another work or occasion. Because they are capable of saying so much in so little, they are extremely useful to the poet.

| Top | 8. Tone and Musical Devices:

Tone , in literature, may be defined as the writer's or speaker's attitude toward the subject, the audience, or toward herself/himself. Almost all the elements of poetry go into indicating its tone: connotation, imagery, and metaphor; irony and understatement; rhythm, sentence construction, and formal pattern. The poet chooses words for sound as well as for meaning. Verbal music is one of the important resources that enable the poet to do something more than communicate mere information. Essential elements in all music are repetition and variation. The repetition of initial consonant sounds, as in "tried and true," "safe and sound," "fish and fowl," "rhyme and reason," is alliteration. The repetition of vowel sounds, as in "mad as a hatter," "time out of mind," "free and easy," "slapdash," is assonance. The repetition of final consonant sounds, as in "first and last," "odds and ends," "short and sweet," "a stroke of luck," is consonance. The combination of assonance and consonance is rhyme. Rhyme is the repetition of the accented vowel sound and all succeeding sounds.

9. Rhythm and Meter:

The term rhythm refers to any wave like recurrence of motion or sound. Meter is the kind of rhythm we can tap our foot to. Metrical language is called verse; non metrical language is prose.

Trochee trips from long to short;
From long to long in solemn sort
Slow Spondee stalks; strong foot yet ill able
Ever to come up with Dactylic trisyllable.
Iambics march from short to long -
With a leap and a bound the swift Anapests throng.
- Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The foot is the metrical unit by which a line of poetry is measured; it usually consists of one stressed or accented ( ' ) and one or two unstressed or unaccented syllables ( - ).

Name of Foot

Name of Meter




- '



' -



- - '



' - -



' '



- -

| Top | The secondary unit of measurement, the line, is measured by naming the number of feet in it. A line that ends with a stressed syllable is said to have a masculine ending and a line that ends with an extra syllable is said to have a feminine ending. A pause within a line is called a caesura and is identified by a double vertical line (||). A line with a pause at its end is called end-stopped line, whereas a line that continues without a pause is called run-on line or enjambment. The following metrical names are used to identify the lengths of lines:



one foot


two feet


three feet


four feet


five feet


six feet


seven feet


eight feet


The third unit, the stanza, consists of a group of lines whose metrical pattern is repeated throughout the poem.

The process of measuring verse is referred to as scansion. To scan a poem we do these three things: 1. we identify the prevailing meter, 2. we give a metrical name to the number of feet in a line, and 3. we describe the stanza pattern or rhyme-scheme.

| Top | 10. Patterns of Traditional Poems

Ballad , or literary ballad, is a long singing poem that tells a story (usually of love or adventure), written in quatrains - four lines alternatively of four and three feet - the third line may have internal rhyme.

Ballade is French in origin and made up of 28 lines, usually three stanzas of 8 lines and a concluding stanza, called envoy, of 4 lines. The last line of each stanza is the same and the scheme is ababbcbc and the envoy's is bcbc.

Blank Verse is made up of unrhymed iambic pentameter lines.

Elegy is a lyric poem written to commemorate someone who is dead.

Epigram is a brief, pointed, and witty poem of no prescribed form.

Free Verse has no identifiable meter, although the lines may have a rhyme-scheme.

Haiku is an unrhymed poem of seventeen syllables derived from Japanese verse; it is made up of three lines, lines 1 and 3 have five syllables, line 2 has seven.

Heroic Couplet is two lines of rhyming iambic pentameters.

Limerick is a five-line poem in which lines 1, 2, and 5 are anapestic trimeters and lines 3 and 4 are anapestic dimeters, rhymed as aabba. Possible source of origin is Limerick, Ireland.

Lyric is a poem of emotional intensity and expresses powerful feelings.

Narrative form is used to tell a story; it is usually made of ballad stanzas - four lines alternatively of four and three feet.

Ode, English in origin, is a poem of indefinite length, divided in 10-line stanzas, rhymed, with different schemes for each stanza - ababcdecde, written in iambic meter.

Parody is a humorous imitation of a serious poem.

Quatrain is a four-line stanza with various meters and rhyme schemes.

Sestina consists of thirty-nine lines divided into six six-line stanzas and a three-line concluding stanza called an envoy.

Sonnet is a fourteen line poem. The Italian or Petrarchan has two stanzas: the first of eight lines is called octave and has the rhyme-scheme abba abba; the second of six lines is called the sestet and has the rhyme cdecde or cdcdcd. The Spenserian sonnet, developed by Edmund Spenser, has three quatrains and a heroic couplet, in iambic pentameter with rhymes ababbcbccdcdee. The English sonnet, developed by Shakespeare, has three quatrains and a heroic couplet, in iambic pentameter with rhymes ababcdcdefefgg.

Tercet is a three-line stanza; when all three lines rhyme they are called a triplet.

Terza Rima consists of interlocking three-line rhyme scheme (aba, bcb).

Villanelle is a fixed form consisting of nineteen lines divided into six stanzas: five tercets and a a concluding quatrain.  

(Definitions and examples in Appendices F, G, & H are from Laurence Perrine, LITERATURE: Structure, Sound, and Sense; 1978, Shapiro and Beum, A Prosody Handbook; Miller Williams, Patterns of Poetry; and Lawrence Zillman, The Art and Craft of Poetry.)

MLA Style Citation of this Web Page

Reuben, Paul P. "PAL: Appendix F: Elements of Poetry." PAL: Perspectives in American Literature- A Research and Reference Guide. URL: (provide page date or date of your login). 

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