Poetic Devices: Tools for Poetry Commentary

Updated on May 16, 2020
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

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.

Poetry Tools


Poems, Doggerel, Versification

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." The following offers a glossary of additional terms that I use in poetry commentary:

Most Common Poetric Devices

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

Image: any sense perceived snapshot. Therefore, there are visual, auditory, tactile, gustatory, olfactory 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.

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 stanza unit. 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 second stanza or part of a Petrarchan sonnet
Septet (or Septain): seven lines
Octave: eight lines, usually the first stanza or part of a Petrarchan sonnet

Stanzas with lines from 9 forward are 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

Doggerella: unit of lines in a piece of doggerel (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)

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

Rime (often spelled "rhyme)":

"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, run / them.

Classifying Poetry

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

Contemporary Poetry: poetry recognized after 1920, especially that of Modernism, Postmodernism, and 21st century.

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. Often featuring a volta or turn between the octave and sestet.

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 eleven-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

Versanelle: a short, usually 12 lines or fewer, lyric that comments on human nature or behavior, and may employ any of the usual poetic devices (term coined by Linda Sue Grimes)

Writing About Poetry

Analysis: examines and discusses a poem in terms of its parts

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.

Critic: emphasizes the evaluation of poems

Scholar: emphasizes the research and study of poetry

Commentarian: combines the work of analysis, explication, research and evaluation to emphasize effect and meaning (concept created by Linda Sue Grimes)

Thus I consider myself primarily a commentarian as I rely on analysis, explication, scholarly research and study, in critically observing and reporting on the effects and meanings of poems.

Other Terms

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)

Questions & Answers

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


  • What is doggerel, anything to do with dogs?

    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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