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Poetic Devices: Tools for Poetry Commentary

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Introduction: Poems, Doggerel, and Poetry Classifications

Every field of study has its scholars, critics, and commentarians, who employ terminological tools appropriate to their unique purposes. Sometimes that set of terms is called "jargon." Poetry commentary has its own jargon, and so I am offering this set of definitions to assist in the understanding of my commentaries.

In the cosmos of poetry, there are genuine poems, and then there are pieces that masquerade as poems. Such false "poems" are labeled "doggerel." Some writers make the distinction between a genuine poem and doggerel by labeling the latter "verse." I will refer to the really bad "poems" as "doggerel," and to those that do not quite make poem status as "versification."

Classic Poetry includes poems recognized before 1920 and poems studied widely in secondary schools and college classes, to be distinguished from Classical Poetry, which refers only to the poetry of antiquity: Hindu, Persian, Greek, and Roman.

Contemporary Poetry includes poems recognized after 1920, especially those of Modernism, Postmodernism, and 21st century works.

For the most part, I do not classify poetry through political correctness or identity politics; therefore, I avoid labeling poets by their race or nationality. If discussion of race, ethnicity, religion, sex, or nationality is integral to the commentary of poem, I offer explanations with full discussions. But I avoid labeling poets or poems through those classifications. I do believe that labeling by nationality is less egregious and can be more useful than labeling by race; thus, "American" poetry may be legitimately distinguished from "British" or "World."

Writing about Poetry

Individuals who write about poetry fall into several distinguishable categories, depending on the focus of each writer. Some poetry enthusiasts write simply as fans of poetry and wish only to share their feelings, while others who have dedicated their lives and/or careers to the study of poetry fall into the following five distinctive categories, each with a different depth and purpose of study: (1) analysis, (2) explication, (3) criticism, (4) scholarship, and (5) commentary. The following list offers a brief description of each category of poetry study and writing focus:

(1) Analysis: examines and discusses in some detail a poem in terms of its parts, similar to explication but less exhaustive and extensive. The late Professor Laurence Perrine remains American’s finest and most thorough poetry analyst. His text book, Sound and Sense: An Introduction to Poetry, has been used in many college classrooms since the first edition appeared in 1956.

(2) Explication: explains how the poem's use of poetic devices implies its message. While the term "explicate" comes from the Latin "explicare," meaning to unfold, it is useful to think of the term "explication" as a conflation of explain + implication when referring to poetry; thus an explication explains the implications of the poetic devices used in the poem. The best place to go for poetry explication is the quarterly journal, The Explicator, which began publishing in 1942.

(3) Critic: emphasizes the evaluation of poems, whether the poems works well in expressing its meaning. Helen Vendler is a leading American poetry critic. According to the Poetry Foundation, "Vendler is regarded as among the finest and most acute of contemporary poetry critics."

(4) Scholar: emphasizes the research and study of poetry. Dana Gioia, Former California Poet laureate and Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, is an important American poetry scholar, as well as a fine poet..

(5) Commentarian: combines the work of analysis, explication, research, and evaluation to emphasize effect and meaning (concept created by Linda Sue Grimes). Thus, my work with poems is that of a commentarian as I rely on analysis, explication, scholarly research and study in critically observing and reporting on the effects and meanings of poems. Despite my fairly in-depth study of each poem, my commentaries are motivated primarily by my personal, informed reaction to the poem.

Glossary of Poetic Devices

This glossary of terms features definitions for the most widely employed poetic devices (literary devices) that I use in poetry commentaries. Most are traditional poetic devices that have been in service for decades, even centuries. However, since the turn of the 21st century, I have also coined a number of terms necessary for my commentaries; my coined terms are marked and italicized with each glossary definition.

Commonly Used Figures: Literal vs Figurative

While many poems remain quite literal, most employ some forms of figurative language; expressing and describing human emotional experience remain ineffable by nature. For example, one cannot exhaustively with complete accuracy describe the taste of an orange. One may say an orange tastes sweet, but so do apples, pumpkin pie, chocolate cake, and even antifreeze. Obviously, an orange tastes nothing like any of those. Thus, to describe the taste of an orange one might employ figurative language: perhaps an orange tastes like sunshine mixed with smiles. Of course, the only way to know what an orange tastes like is to taste it.

Because poetry expresses human experience through emotion, one cannot expect to experience everything that others have done, but one can experience a taste of what others have experienced in comparison to one’s own. Figurative language through its colorful creativity assists in imparting the essence of the otherwise ineffable.

Literal language can be understood at face value; it expresses meaning without employing any literary devices that require interpretation. For example: The opening lines from E. A. Robinson’s "Richard Cory," "Whenever Richard Cory went down town, / We people on the pavement looked at him," is quite literal.

Figurative language requires interpretation because taken at face value it sounds non-sensical. For example: the only figure in E. A. Robinson’s "Richard Cory," is the line, "And he was rich—yes, richer than a king," which is an example of hyperbole (exaggeration). While Cory was likely very rich in estimation of his poor neighbors, it is not likely he was actually "richer than a king."

The following figures or poetic devices are the ones that are most important for most poems. This list is not exhaustive because my commentaries do not explicate or analyze; they merely offer a general, personal response to poems, but those responses remain sensitive to these most prominent devices:

Image: any sense perceived snapshot. Therefore, there are visual (sight), auditory (sound), tactile (touch), gustatory (taste), olfactory (smell) images. Example: Robert Browning's "A tap at the pane, the quick sharp scratch / And blue spurt of a lighted match" offers images of sound, sight, and smell.

Metaphor: a comparison of unlike entities in order to dramatize or portray the sensed reality of the subject. One of the best metaphors in American poetry is Robert Frost's "leaves got up in a coil and hissed / Blindly struck at my knee and missed," from his poem, "Bereft."

Simile: similar to a metaphor but uses the words "like" or "as"; thus the comparison remains weaker because it is more tentative. Metaphor claims that one thing "is" another, while simile claims one thing is merely "like" another; or in case of an action comparison, one act is "as" another. One of the best similes in American poetry is Sylvia Plath’s in her poem, "Mirror": "In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman / Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish." The simile, "like a terrible fish," is part of two lines that contain an image and a metaphor. The metaphoric act is the drowning of a young girl, which offers an image along with a second image of the rising old woman, who as she rises looks like "a terrible fish."

Hyperbole: exaggeration for the purpose of emphasis, and often for comic effect. For example, in Andrew Marvell’s "To His Coy Mistress," the speaker offers numerous examples of hyperbole, such as "I would / Love you ten years before the flood," wherein the speaker makes the outlandish claim that he would love this woman he is attempting to seduce for a long stretch of time that would extend back so far that no one can calculate that extent.

Personification: anthropomorphizing plants, animals, inanimate objects, concepts, or abstract ideas. An excellent example of personification is Emily Dickinson’s "Because I could not stop for Death," which metaphorically frames the occasion of dying as a carriage ride with Death personified as a gentleman caller.

Stanzas and Other Poetic Units

The "stanza" is the traditional unit within classic poems. It may consist of any number of lines and still be considered a stanzaic unit. Contemporary poems may also employ these units depending The following numerical clusters of lines may appear in classic poems:

Couplet: two lines
Tercet: three lines
Quatrain: four lines
Cinquain: five lines
Sestet: six lines, usually first stanza or part of a Petrarchan sonnet
Septet: seven lines
Octave: eight lines, usually the second stanza or part of a Petrarchan sonnet

Stanzas with lines from 9 and upward will be named according to the Latin term for the number; for example, the Latin term for the number 9 is "novem"; thus the name for a stanza with 9 lines is "novtet." The Latin term for the number 10 is "decem"; thus the name for a stanza with 10 lines is "dectet." Eleven lines is therefore "undectet," twelve "duodectet," etc.

Fortunately, stanzas are seldom extended to line numbers above eight; therefore, I have coined the terms for stanzas with lines numbering above eight:

Novtet: Nine lines
Dectet: Ten lines
Undectet: Eleven lines
Duodectet: Twelves lines

Doggetet: unit of lines in a piece of doggerel (term coined by Linda Sue Grimes)

Versagraph: traditionally expressed as a "verse paragraph"; a free verse paragraph, usually unrimed, unmetered group of lines (a term coined by Linda Sue Grimes)

Movement: along with "versagraph," the movement is also a basic unit of lines for a free verse poem; however, a movement may not be limited to a single unit, but may be based primarily on the content, theme, or subject of the movement. Also, the line units of a traditional stanzaic poem may be labeled "movements," if the importance of the poem is more dependent on its movements than its stanzaic units (concept created by Linda Sue Grimes).

Rime (often spelled as "rhyme")

The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error."

Cluster Rime: groups of riming words appearing along with unrimed words, AAABBBBCCDEED.

End-rime: the most common rime, usually producing a consistent rime-scheme, such as the English sonnet: ABABCDCDEFEFGG.

Internal rime: a line's final word riming with a word within the line: '"While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping."

Scatter rime: appears in no definite scheme, AABCDDEFGG, but becomes apparent as it affects meaning (coined by Linda Sue Grimes).

Slant rime, near rime, off rime: pairs of words that are merely close in rime: to-day / victory; tell / still; arm / exclaim.

Forms of Poetry

Sonnet: the most commonly employed form of poem since the early 13th century. Types of sonnets include the Italian (Petrarchan), English (Spenserian, Elizabethan or Shakespearean), American (Innovative). Also, various combinations of these sonnets exist as innovative sonnets.

Elizabethan Sonnet: Three rimed quatrains and one rimed couplet in iambic pentameter. Rime scheme is ABABCDCDEFEFGG.

Petrarchan Sonnet: One octave and one sestet. Traditional rime scheme is ABBAABBACDCDCD

American (Innovative): A fourteen line poem, often incorporating features from traditional sonnets; usually unrimed without a specific rhythmic pattern, but retains the emphatic lyrical discourse of the traditional sonnet (definition delineated and stabilized by Linda Sue Grimes)

American (Near-Sonnet): An 11-13 line poem, often incorporating features from traditional sonnet, often unrimed and unrhythmed but retains the lyric intensity of traditional sonnets (term coined by Linda Sue Grimes)

Villanelle: a tightly structured 19-line poem that features only two rimes and two refrains. One of the most anthologized villanelles is Dylan Thomas' "Do not go gentle into that good night."

Versanelle: a short, usually 20 lines or fewer, narration that comments on human nature or behavior, and may employ any of the usual poetic devices (term coined by Linda Sue Grimes) For a thorough discussion of this form, please visit "The Versanelle: A Verse Form With a Punch."

Other Terms

I will continue to add terms as they become necessary to my commentaries, whether they be terms already in service or ones that I coin.

Loose Musing: results in non-sense pieces, brain-storming left without order, free-writing that remains disorganized without the revision necessary to allow the images to impart coherent and cohesive meaning (term coined by Linda Sue Grimes). An example of a poem resulting from loose-musing is Margaret Atwood's "In the Secular Night."

Occasional Poem: a poem written for a special event, such as Robert Frost’s "Dedication," written for the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy but not read; instead the poet recited the poem that Kennedy had asked him to read, "The Gift Outright." For a history of the "Occasional Poem," please visit the Academy of American Poets.

Questions & Answers

Question: What is the name of a structured poem which has fourteen lines?

Answer: Sonnet.

Question: What is doggerel, anything to do with dogs?

Answer: The term "doggerel" has nothing to do with man's best friend. In the cosmos of poetry, there are genuine poems, and then there are pieces that masquerade as poems. Such false "poems" are labeled "doggerel." Some writers make the distinction between a genuine poem and doggerel by labeling the latter "verse." I will refer to the really bad "poems" as "doggerel," and to those that do not quite make poem status as "versification."

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

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