Ace English Class: Literary Terms for Poetry

Updated on September 15, 2013
Poetry can be sweet or creepy -- according to your analysis.
Poetry can be sweet or creepy -- according to your analysis. | Source

Poetry is like the Trigonometry of English literature. Just like trig, poetry can be very difficult to master even just as a reader. However, once you have mastered poetry and poetic terms, the body of English literature is open for your enjoyment.

To analyze poetry, be prepared to read a poem several times. Start with the parts that you can easily identify: how many lines there are, stanzas, etc. Then move on to the following poetic devices.

Blank Verse vs. Free Verse

Blank verse is unrhymed iambic pentameter; iambic pentameter consists of five feet, with each foot containing both an accented and an unaccented syllable. Shakespeare, The Bard, wrote his plays in iambic pentamer.

  • From Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet:

O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name;
Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I'll no longer be a Capulet.

1 foot = deNY 1 foot= thy FA 1 foot =ther AND 1 foot = reFUSE 1 foot =thy NAME

John Milton wrote Paradise Lost in iambic pentameter as well.


Free verse is unrhymed verse with no set meter.

  • From Walt Whitman's Beat! Beat! Drums:

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 whirr and pound you drums -- so shrill you bugles blow.

A lot of modern poetry is written in free verse.

Rage against the dying of the light.
Rage against the dying of the light. | Source

Alliteration and Assonance

Alliteration occurs when words close together that have the same beginning sounds.

  • From W.H. Auden's The Age of Anxiety:

Now the news. Night raids on
Five cities. Fires started.
Pressure applied by pincer movement
In threatening thrust. Third Division
Enlarges beachhead. Lucky charm
Saves sniper. Sabotage hinted
In steel-mill stoppage. . . .

Assonance occurs when there is a repetition of vowels sounds, especially long vowel sounds, in the middle of words that are placed close together.

  • From Dylan Thomas's Do not go gentle into that good night:

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.

Slant Rhyme and Rhyme Scheme

With slant rhyme words at the end of lines have only final consonant and no preceding vowel sounds in common; it is not a true rhyme.

  • From William Butler Yeats' Lines Written in Dejection:

When have I last looked on
The round green eyes and the long wavering bodies
Of the dark leopards of the moon?
All the wild witches, those most noble ladies.

Rhyme scheme is the pattern of rhyme in a stanza or poem, usually indicated with letters for the rhyming sounds.

  • From Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard:

The Curfew tolls the knell of parting day, A

The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea, B

The plowman homeward plods his weary way, A

And leaves the world to darkness and to me. B

The above are examples of the mechanics of poetry. They will give a reader a foothold in the world of poetry. However in order to interpret poetry, the ultimate goal of reading poetry, readers need to understand some of the literature terms that relate to figurative language, the author's craft.


Figurative Language: Onomatopoeia and Hyperbole

When words imitate sounds, that is onomatopoeia. Examples of such words are as follows: ring, buzz, boom, bam, etc – just think of a Superman comic! However, poets use it, too.

  • From Beat! Beat! Drums by Walt Whitman:

So fierce you whirr and pound, you drums -- so shrill you bugles blow.

  • · From Sir Alfred Tennyson’s Come Down, O Maid:

... the moan of doves in immemorial elms,
And murmuring of innumerable bees.

Hyperbole is exaggeration for effect. It is very common when people are telling stories – especially about fishing! However, poets use it for their own effect as well.

  • From What am I?, Anonymous

I’m bigger than the entire earth
More powerful than the sea
Though a million, billion have tried
Not one could ever stop me.
I control each person with my hand
and hold up fleets of ships.
I can make them bend to my will
with one word from my lips.
I’m the greatest power in the world
in this entire nation.
No one should ever try to stop
a child’s imagination.

Examples of hyperbole: "bigger than the entire earth," "more powerful than the sea," etc.

Is this the star to whom Frost was speaking?
Is this the star to whom Frost was speaking? | Source

Figurative Language: Personification and Apostrophe

When a writer gives human qualities to non-humans (animals or inanimate objects), this is personification.

  • From Two Sunflowers Move in the Yellow Room by William Blake:

"Ah, William, we're weary of weather,"
said the sunflowers, shining with dew.
"Our traveling habits have tired us.
Can you give us a room with a view?"

They arranged themselves at the window
and counted the steps of the sun,
and they both took root in the carpet
where the topaz tortoises run.

Sunflowers, of course, cannot talk much less feel emotions like weariness. Blake has given them those human qualities.

When a poet addresses an absent person, an abstract concept, or an important object, this is apostrophe.

  • From Take Something Like a Star by Robert Frost

O, Star, (the fairest one in sight),

We grant your loftiness the right

To some obscurity of cloud –

It will not do to say of night,

Since dark is what brings our your light.

The narrator is addressing an important object, a star.

Life is definitely not a crystal stair.
Life is definitely not a crystal stair. | Source

Figurative Language: Simile vs. Metaphor

The easiest way to remember the difference between these two is that they both make comparisons, but simile uses the words "like" or "as" while metaphor does not. However, this is only part of the difference. A metaphor makes a comparison that suggests deeper connections than a simile does.

  • Simile in Robert Burns' O, My Luve’s a Red, Red, Rose:

O, MY Luve's like a red, red rose,

That's newly sprung in June.

O, my Luve's like the melodie,

That's sweetly play'd in tune.

The comparison is pretty simple – his love is like a red rose in June and a sweet melody. This is nothing compared to the depth of comparison in Langston Hughes' Mother to Son.

  • From Langston Hughes' Mother to Son:

Well, son, I'll tell you:
Life for me ain't been no crystal stair.
It's had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor --

Throughout the poem Hughes uses the image of the stairs to show what the mother's life has been like; the comparison goes deep.

These basic poetry terms should help readers decipher the language of poetry. Why bother? Most people listen to poems every day – whenever you listen to a song with lyrics, you are listening to a poem. In addition, master the art of poetry, even in interpretation, and you have mastered the highest craft of the English language. And that's not hyperbole!


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