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An Approach to Analysing Poetry: Structural Devices Used in Poetry

Joyette taught English & Literature at high school for many years. Her writing and education articles come from her classroom experience.

Hue, Shape, and Scent

Hue, Shape, and Scent

Poetry Speaks to the Reader!

In my experience as a high school teacher I have found that while students are usually happy to write poems of their own and while indeed, they enjoy experimenting with different types of poetry, they often find the study of poetry a challenge. I have therefore developed an approach to analyzing poetry that, I hope, will be of use to literature students at the high school level.

Poets employ various devices to enhance the quality of their poems. This tutorial will be broken up into three parts to examine three different types of devices that are commonly used in poetry and which, if students are able to understand and apply to the poems which they read, will enable them to more readily analyze and appreciate poetry. I say appreciate, not understand, for I believe that our business as readers is not to put a meaning to the feelings, emotions, or ideas expressed by the writer, but rather to relate to their ideas, identify with them and to appreciate the thoughts, feelings or emotions which they have expressed. In short, I believe that a poem does not necessarily mean something; rather, it says something and what it says depends not necessarily on the poet only, but to a great extent on the reader as well—their situation and frame of mind at the time they are reading the poem.

The three types of devices to be discussed in this three-part tutorial are structural devices, sound devices, and sense devices. In Tutorial 1, we will examine structural devices.

Tutorial 1 - Structural Devices Used in Poetry

The most commonly used structural devices in poetry are :

  • Contrast
  • Illustration
  • Repetition

These devices are referred to as structural devices as they are woven into the structure of the poem. They indicate the way a poem has been built and become apparent as soon as meaning begins to reveal itself to the reader.

1. Contrast

This is the most common of all. It occurs when we find two completely opposite pictures juxtaposed (placed side by side) in a poem. Sometimes the contrast is obvious, sometimes it is implied. Some examples of contrast in poems are:

(i) "Flowers" by Dennis Roy Craig

I have never learnt the names of flowers.

From beginning, my world has been a place

Of pot-holed streets where thick, sluggish gutters race

In slow time, away from garbage heaps and sewers

Past blanched old houses around which cowers

Stagnant earth. There, scarce green thing grew to chase

The dull-grey squalor of sick dust; no trace

Of plant save few sparse weeds; just these, no flowers.

One day, they cleared a space and made a park

There in the city’s slums; and suddenly

Came stark glory like lighting in the dark,

While perfume and bright petals thundered slowly.

I learnt no names, but hue, shape and scent mark

My mind, even now, with symbols holy.

This poem is a sonnet. Contrast is very effective in this type of poem. The octave of the poem (first eight lines) presents a picture of squalor, untidiness, dullness and lack of beauty; a place where you would not want to live. This is made evident through images such as "pot holed streets," "sluggish gutters," "stagnant earth," "dull grey squalor," "sick dust," "scarce green thing grew," and "no trace of plant," "no flowers." The sestet (last six lines), on the other hand, presents a picture which is completely opposite. It describes a place of beauty, life, vividness and colour. This is brought out through the following images: "stark glory," "like lightning in the dark," "perfume," "bright petals," and "symbols holy."

The contrast between these two pictures is quite obvious and it helps the reader to relate to the poet's feelings and the ideas which he wishes to share.

(ii) "Carrion Crows" by A J Seymour

Yes, I have seen them perched on paling posts --

Brooding with evil eyes upon the road,

Their black wings hooded -- and they left those roosts

When I have hissed at them. Away they strode

clapping their wings in a man's stride away

Over the fields. and I have seen them feast

On swollen carrion in the broad eye of day,

Pestered by flies, and yet they never ceased.

But I have seen them emperors of the sky,

Balancing gracefully in the wind's drive

With their broad sails just shifting or again

Throwing huge shadows from the sun's eye

To brush so swiftly over the fields' plain,

And winnowing the air like beauty come alive.

A. J. Seymour

This poem is also a sonnet. Again the octave presents a startling contrast to the sestet. In the octave, the crows are presented as hideous, disgusting and unpleasant when they are not in flight. The negative images here are: "brooding with evil eyes," "black wings hooded," "feast on swollen carrion," "pestered by flies." The contrasting positive images are: "emperors of the sky," "balancing gracefully," "broad sails just shifting," "brush so swiftly," "like beauty come alive."

In this poem also the contrast is clear. By juxtaposing two contrasting pictures the poet is able to highlight a marked difference between the two scenes. This can be done to highlight contrasts between people, ideas, places, attitudes, emotions, experiences, or situations.

2. Illustration

This usually takes the form of a vivid picture by which a poet makes an idea clear to the reader. In the poem "Flowers," the poet describes a transformation that has taken place, and this transformation is seen through vivid pictures of a park with brightly colored, sweet-smelling flowers. In "Carrion Crows," the poet wishes to convey the magnificence of the crows when they are in flight and his illustration of such magnificence is to describe them as "emperors of the sky." This image is apt as an emperor is a figure of magnificence and grandeur. He further describes their grace of movement as "beauty come alive." What more apt illustration of beauty can one have than beauty itself?

3. Repetition

Poets often repeat words, lines, or entire stanzas at intervals to emphasize a particular idea. Repetition has a memory effect and is, therefore, an effective tool for emphasis. In the poem "Flowers," the poet begins by saying, "I have never learnt the names of flowers" and he reiterates this at the end, "I learnt no names." This emphasizes the idea that the transformation which he has described is one which imprinted itself on his senses. The names were of no consequence to him, it was the effect of the "hue, shape and scent" which had impressed him.

The following poem is an example of how repetition is used at intervals throughout the poem:

"Colonial Girls School" by Olive Senior

Borrowed images

willed our skins pale

muffled our laughter

lowered our voices

let out our hems

dekinked our hair

denied our sex in gym tunics and bloomers

harnessed our voices to madrigals

and genteel airs

yoked our minds to declensions in Latin

and the language of Shakespeare

Told us nothing about our selves

There was nothing at all

How those pale northern eyes and

aristocratic whispers once erased us

How our loudness,our laughter debased us.

There was nothing left of ourselves

Nothing about us at all

Studying: History Ancient and Modern

Kings and Queens of England

Steppes of Russia

Wheat fields of Canada

There was nothing of our landscape there

Nothing about us at all

Marcus Garvey turned twice in his grave.

'Thirty- eight was a beacon. A flame.

They were talking of desegregation

In Little Rock, Arkansas, Lumumba

and the Congo. To us mumbo-jumbo.

We had read Vachel Lindsay's

vision of the jungle.

Feeling nothing about ourselves

There was nothing about us at all

Months, years, a childhood memorising

Latin declensions

(For our language

--'bad talking'--


Finding nothing about us there

Nothing about us at all

So, friend of my childhood years

One day we'll talk about

How the mirror broke

Who kissed us awake

Who let Anansi from his bag

For isn't it strange how

northern eyes

in the brighter world before us now


The repetition "There was nothing at all..." takes the form of a refrain. This thread runs throughout the entire poem. It conveys the idea of how the effects of colonialism made Caribbean people (in this instance the school girls) experience a kind of invisibility or deletion which eroded their confidence and self esteem. This is the whole point of the poem and it is emphasized through the use of repetition.

Enhancing the Reader's Experience

Structural devices are important in that they assist in bringing meaning to the poem and enhance the reader's experience.

In Tutorial 2, we will discuss sound devices in poetry.

© 2011 Joyette Helen Fabien


Joyette Helen Fabien (author) from Dominica on October 12, 2016:

Welcome! I am glad you found it useful!

harry on October 11, 2016:

i just want to say a thanks

Joyette Helen Fabien (author) from Dominica on December 22, 2014:

Thank you Suleiman Abualbasher, I hope students will find it useful too.

Suleiman Abualbasher on December 21, 2014:

It is remakablly helpful and useful to students and some teachers as well. I think that you keep to British literary terms which I think as distinctive and sensitive to be adopted in teaching and as you say appreciating poetry.

Joyette Helen Fabien (author) from Dominica on October 03, 2014:

Thanks Duskin K Phillips. Welcome to Hubpages! It provides a wonderful opportunities for writers to write, share and learn. I will stop by your page as soon as possible.

Dustin Phillips from Waynesburg, KY on October 03, 2014:

As a poet I really enjoyed this! I am new here and have only one of my poems on here. I'd love to see you opinions on it.

Joyette Helen Fabien (author) from Dominica on October 03, 2014:

CatherineGiordano, thank you for your warm approval.

Catherine Giordano from Orlando Florida on October 03, 2014:

An excellent illustration and discussion of poetic techniques. So many people think all you have to do is rhyme. I see you are doing a series on the topic. Bravo. voted up Interesting Useful.

Joyette Helen Fabien (author) from Dominica on October 03, 2014:

chef-de-jour, thank you so much for your approval and commendation.

Andrew Spacey from Sheffield, UK on October 03, 2014:

Thank you, a useful article with some excellent examples. Your enthusiasm and know how as a teacher comes out strongly. What is poetry? I like the definition - a poem doesn't have be truthful but it does have to be true to itself.

Votes and a share for this good quality.

Joyette Helen Fabien (author) from Dominica on October 28, 2012:

PoemWilliam, I am happy that you found the hub useful. Perhaps you should write down your rush of words as they come then try arranging them afterwards. That works sometimes (:

Willliam B on October 28, 2012:

I just started composing poems and songs again. This hub helped me in enriching my vocabulary. Two common problems that I usually encounter in writing poems and lyrics. First: all the words start entering my head, I just dont know how to arrange those words. Second: nothing comes inside my head.

Joyette Helen Fabien (author) from Dominica on February 21, 2012:

On the contrary, no! The problem is everybody wants to write poetry, but only a few will really take the time to read other people's poetry.

Rio on February 21, 2012:

Though this article is quite informative, I believe that poetry Is slowly losing it's place in contemporary literature

Joyette Helen Fabien (author) from Dominica on January 26, 2012:

You're welcome Sheka.

sheka on January 25, 2012:

this was of great help i was working on my essay on colonial gurl skool and i add in some of this information but ofcourse i did reword it.thank you