Poetic terms and techniques
This article aims to give you a brief introduction to some poetic terms with which you can bemuse your friends and nonplus your enemies. Try and sling some of these terms into a casual conversation and watch the ensuing confusion.
If you don't want to confuse people, you could use these terms to discuss poetry like a badass
while smoking unfiltered cigarettes in a French cafe, when critiquing, or to give your own poetry a bit of a vajazzle.
These terms are arranged vaguely into alphabetical order for your convenience. Some of them will be covered in more detail in other articles throughout the week.
Alliteration (see also Sibilance)
Alliteration is the repetition of consonant sounds, often used for a specific effect in poetry.
the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
- - Wilfred Owen, ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’.
Here, the short, harsh consonant sounds emulate the noise of the guns.
Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds. Long vowel sounds can give a slow or gentle effect while short vowel sounds are abrupt and dramatic.
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices
- - Alfred, Lord Tennyson, ‘Ulysses’.
The repetition of the long ‘o’ sounds gives a mournful effect.
Anacoluthon is a sentence that has no grammatical sequence. Sometimes this involves some kind of grammatical interruption, and sometimes the structure of the sentence changes abruptly part way through. It is characteristic of informal speech, and can therefore give a natural feel to a poem or piece of prose.
Had ye been there--for what could that have done?
- - John Milton, ‘Lycidas’.
AnacrusisAnacrusis is where the first line of a verse of poetry opens with an unstressed syllable before the metre of the poem kicks in. This term is used both in music and poetry.
Oh, say, can you see, by the dawn’s early light…
- - Francis Scott Key, ‘The Defence of Fort McHenry’.
In this example, the anapestic metre (see Metre) of the poem does not begin until ‘can’, the unstressed syllable.
AnaphoraAnaphora is the repetition of a word or phrase at the start of the lines of a poem. The term is also used, in prose, to refer to the repetition of words at the start of a clause. Ephipher refers to the same technique applied to the end of a line.
What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp.
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?
- - William Blake, ‘The Tyger’.
A ballad is a narrative poem often dealing with folklore or popular legend. The plot is usually the central element, although ballads are rhymed and can be sung. Ballad metre is alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimester. The last words of the second and last lines of the stanza are rhymed. Ballad stanzas usually have four lines (a quatrain).
Keats’ La Belle Dame sans Merci is one example of a poem in ballad form.
Bathos is an anticlimax. Writing is bathetic when it apparently strives to be serious but achieves a comic effect because of this anticlimax.
Your eyes spit fire, your cheeks grow red as beef
- - Henry Fielding, ‘Tom Thumb the Great’.
This is a pause in the middle of a verse line, or a break in metrical rhythm. Examples are to be found in Old English poetry, among others. Also used to describe any break or pause in a larger narrative.
The proper study
of mankind is man
- - Alexander Pope, ‘An Essay on Man’.
Two parallel phrases where the order is inverted the second time around:
Pleasure’s a sin and sometimes sin’s a pleasure
- - Byron.
This effectively means in essence that one, that is to say the writer, is employed in being either excessively verbose or evasive, so to speak, by talking as it were basically 'round' the subject. Often, this takes the form of the substitution of a descriptive passage in place of a name. This technique creates a kind of weakened, euphemistic effect.
...Or lose your heart, or your chaste treasure open
To his unmast'red importunity.
- - Shakespeare, ‘Hamlet’.
In this passage, the whole is an extended metaphor for the loss of virginity.
A pair of rhymed lines. A couplet meant to stand on its own as a poem is called a distich.
'Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro' the house,Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
- - Ralph Waldo Emerson, ‘Account of a visit from St. Nicholas’.
Leaving out a letter or syllable to shorten a word, usually to achieve a uniform metrical pattern or improve the flow. Mostly these omissions are marked with an apostrophe. Types of elision include Apheresis, where a letter or syllable is omitted at the beginning of a word (e.g. ’twas), Apocope, where a letter or syllable is omitted at the end of a word (e.g. morn’), Syncope, where a word is contracted by removing one or more syllables or letters from the middle (e.g. ne’er), Syneresis is where two vowels together which are normally pronounced separately are pronounced as one syllable, e.g. in seest, and Synalepha, where a vowel at the end of one word is merged with the start of the next word (e.g. Th’ embattled plain).
This is the omission of words whose presence is inherently understood but not necessary. For instance, the 23rd [of] February. It is often indicated by '…' and is very possibly the single most overused form of punctuation in poetry on deviantArt.
A piece of writing or a speech which praises someone, often someone recently deceased (an elegy). A famous example is Gray’s Elegy written in a country churchyard.
A softer, milder word or phrase substituted for a harsher or more direct way of expressing something. Saying someone has 'passed on' instead of 'died' is a typical example.
Words that sound the same, but have different meanings.
Homophone or OronymWords that sound the same, but are spelled differently and have different meanings. See Malapropism.
Words that are spelled the same but have different meanings. (Heteronyms are a type of homograph where the words are spelled the same, have different meanings and sound different).
Many examples of poetry showing the difficulties of homonyms, homophones and homographs can be found on the website of The Spelling Society
A super incredibly exaggerated statement, typically not meant to be taken literally, and sometimes used to convey an ironic tone. 'He's a million times better than you' or 'trying to think of a good example of hyperbole is the most difficult thing in the world', for instance. The opposite of litotes.
Winter kept us warm, covering- - T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
The opposite of hyperbole. Understatement for ironic or comic effect.
Not small was his anger, nor few his enemies.
- - Anglo-Saxon poem.
Named after the character Mrs Malaprop from the play The Rivals (who was in turn named after the French phrase 'mal á propos'). A difficult to pronounce word is substituted with an inappropriate homophone for comic effect. For example, 'He is the very pine-apple of politeness!' (instead of pinnacle - from Sheridan's The Rivals).
A comparison between two objects which describes one thing by comparing it to the other. It conveys a much closer relationship between the two objects being compare than a simile - the implication is that the two things are not just alike, they are practically the same.
Thou art thy mother's glass, and she in thee
Calls back the lovely April of her prime.
- - Shakespeare, Sonnet 3
A metonym is where a word is substituted for one which represents the thing it is replacing. In The Pen is Mightier than the Sword, the pen signifies the written word and the sword is a symbol for military power.
Metre (US: Meter)
Metre is the way of describing the rhythm of a poem. Instead of referring to the number of syllables in a line, metre refers to the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. Each line is composed of metrical feet, which are the basic units of stressed and unstressed syllables that form the metre of the poem when repeated. If you want to learn more, please check out Parsat's excellent article on metre this PE week.
A word that sounds like what it describes.
And murmuring of innumerable bees.
- - Tennyson, ‘Come Down, O Maid’.
Juxtaposed words with opposite meanings, such as 'bitter-sweet'. A contradiction in itself.
Inanimate objects are imbued with human feelings or emotions. The central character or narrator's emotions might be externalised and represented by the wider world, typically by the weather (stormy weather might reflect turbulence while rain or mist could indicate gloom). One example of this is in William Wordsworth’s "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud"
A poem retracting what was said in a previous poem.
A poem that depicts rural life in a peaceful, idealised way. The Romantic poets were particularly fond of pastorals, sometimes using them to convey political messages about the effects of industrialisation.
Writing which appeals to the audience's emotions, evoking sympathy.
Where an animal or inanimate object is given human traits. One example is the four horsemen of the apocalypse where Famine, Pestilence, War and Death are depicted as men and not abstract concepts.
QuatrainA stanza or group of four lines often rhyming alternately. Kind of like the four line equivalent of a couplet.
This is a question, typically posed in political or public speech, in which the answer (frequently either 'yes' or 'no') is implied in the question itself. The desired effect of this is to convince the speaker's audience of a fact without seeming to be trying to.
I thrice presented him a kingly crown,
Which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition?
Act 3 Scene II of Shakespeare's 'Julius Caesar'
A type of alliteration in which the ‘s’ sound is repeated:
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness
- - John Keats, ‘To Autumn’.
The sibilants serve to give a sense of softness in this example.
A figurative comparison using either 'like' or 'as' (See metaphor).
e.g. Built like a brick shithouse or Camp as a row of tents.
StrophePart of a poem divided by arranging the lines into groups separated by a space. Like a stanza. Traditionally strophes comprised of two stanzas of alternating metrical forms. In contemporary poetry the terms strophe and stanza are used more-or-less interchangeably.
An image which often recurs throughout a piece and suggests a wide range of interpretation. Colours can be used symbolically, for example red to suggest passion or anger.
Similar to Metonymy, this is a technique where a part of something is used to refer to the whole thing or vice versa. It is a kind of confusion of scale and is often used in everyday speech ('a sympathetic ear').
...and the Stratocaster guitars slung over
Burgermeister beer guts and the swizzle stick legs
jacknifed over Naugahyde stools...
- - Tom Waits, 'Putnam County'
Sense confusion. Colour attributed to sounds, odour to colours etc.
Then, as midnight makes
Her giant heart of Memory and Tears
Drink the pale drug of silence...
- - George Meredith, 'Modern Love I'
Needless repetition, often for emphasis.
There is a Thorn—it looks so old,In truth, you’d find it hard to sayHow it could ever have been young,It looks so old and grey.Not higher than a two years' childIt stands erect, this aged Thorn;No leaves it has, no prickly points;It is a mass of knotted joints,A wretched thing forlorn.It stands erect, and like a stoneWith lichens is it overgrown.
- - William Wordsworth, 'The Thorn'
This is where two nouns are both modified by the same verb or adjective, with the meaning of the verb or adjective subtly modified by its usage. 'She left in tears and a taxi', for instance.
- How many of these terms did you know before? Which are new to you?
- What examples can you think of for these techniques in poetry you have read? What effect did the use of the technique convey? (Bonus points if it's a really unusual technique.)
- Which of these techniques have you used previously in your own poetry? Which do you think you might use in future?
- Which terms and techniques did I miss from the list?