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Poetic Terms and Techniques

Tue Nov 19, 2013, 1:00 AM


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

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


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’.


Anacrusis

Anacrusis 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.


Anaphora

Anaphora 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’.

 

Ballad

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


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’.

 

Caesura


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’.


Chiasmus


Two parallel phrases where the order is inverted the second time around:

 

Pleasure’s a sin and sometimes sin’s a pleasure 

 - - Byron.

 

Circumlocution


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.

 

Couplet

 

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’.
 

Elision

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).


Ellipsis


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.


Eulogy


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.


Euphemism


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.


Homonym

Words that sound the same, but have different meanings.


Homophone or Oronym

Words that sound the same, but are spelled differently and have different meanings.  See Malapropism.


Homograph

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


Hyperbole

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.

Hypallage

Playing around with the relationship of two words within a line or strophe.  One type of hypallage is a transferred epithet, where the adjective is used to modify the 'wrong' noun.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
          - - T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land


Litotes


The opposite of hyperbole. Understatement for ironic or comic effect.

Not small was his anger, nor few his enemies.

 - - Anglo-Saxon poem.

Malapropism

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).

Metaphor


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

  

Metonymy

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.


Onomatopoeia

A word that sounds like what it describes. 

And murmuring of innumerable bees.

 - - Tennyson, ‘Come Down, O Maid’.


Oxymoron


Juxtaposed words with opposite meanings, such as 'bitter-sweet'.  A contradiction in itself.

Pathetic Fallacy


Inanimate objects are imbued with human feelings or emotions.  T
he 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"

 

Palinode

A poem retracting what was said in a previous poem.

 

Pastoral

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.


Pathos

Writing which appeals to the audience's emotions, evoking sympathy.

Personification

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.

 

Quatrain

A stanza or group of four lines often rhyming alternately.  Kind of like the four line equivalent of a couplet.

 

Rhetorical Question

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'

 

Sibilance

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.


Simile

A figurative comparison using either 'like' or 'as' (See metaphor).

e.g. Built like a brick shithouse or Camp as a row of tents.


Stanza

Part of a poem divided by arranging the lines into groups separated by a space. Usually stanzas have a corresponding number of lines and a recurrent pattern of meter and rhyme.  Stanzas with lines which are all the same length and metre are Isometric stanzas (not to be confused with Isotonic stanzas, which may or may not improve your sports hydration and performance).


Strophe

Part 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.


Symbolism

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.


Synechdoche

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'


Synesthesia  

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'

Tautology

Needless repetition, often for emphasis.

There is a Thorn—it looks so old,
In truth, you’d find it hard to say
How it could ever have been young,
It looks so old and grey.
Not higher than a two years' child
It 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 stone
With lichens is it overgrown.
 - - William Wordsworth, 'The Thorn'


Zeugma

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.


Questions

  • 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?




%projecteducate and %CRLiterature combine to bring you Poetry Basics Week.  Callooh and, indeed, Callay.
Add a Comment:
 
:iconfernknits:
fernknits Featured By Owner Oct 11, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
This is so thorough.  I wish I had seen it long, long ago.
Reply
:iconhtblack:
HtBlack Featured By Owner Jan 24, 2014
This is really great. (: also LOL vajazzle.
Reply
:iconalphabetsoup314:
alphabetsoup314 Featured By Owner Nov 21, 2013  Hobbyist Digital Artist
I want to throw "You're such a synechdoche!" at some hapless person. I just need the opportunity to use it. 
Reply
:iconbun-e:
BUN-E Featured By Owner Nov 21, 2013  Student General Artist
Incredibly helpful. C:
I only knew eight though.
Your making poetry more interesting than my teacher has been today thank you again.
Reply
:iconblaise-katzchen:
Blaise-Katzchen Featured By Owner Nov 20, 2013  Student General Artist
I knew 17 of them :)
The others i'd never even heard of :P

Thanks for posting this, it will come in handy. 
Reply
:iconaldwarke:
aldwarke Featured By Owner Nov 20, 2013

Here's another not often used but a favorite in Old English poetry.  The epic poem Beowulf contains many examples. The word is 'kenning'.


 A kenning is used to give familiar words a fresh charge of meaning by bringing out their pictorial and emotional color.

Thus, the idea of the sea is heightened by calling it 'swan road', in the sense of the region in which the swan swims; the kenning evokes a sharp visual reminder in our minds of a natural aspect of the sea. (Beowulf, Magnus Magnusson, 1987 also see Beowulf a translation by Michael Alexander, Penguin Classics, 1973).

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Similarly 'world candle' for the sun, 'wave skimmer' for a boat and widow maker for a sword.

Reply
:iconfutilitarian:
futilitarian Featured By Owner Nov 20, 2013   Writer
Shocking omission on my part!  Thanks very much :) 

It seems to mostly be used in children's poetry now which is rather sad.  I think the kenning is long overdue a revival.
Reply
:iconauriv1:
AuriV1 Featured By Owner Nov 20, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
Agreed! I love the usage of kennings. So cool. :D
Reply
:iconaldwarke:
aldwarke Featured By Owner Nov 20, 2013
What a wonderful idea! Thank you!
Reply
:iconliliwrites:
LiliWrites Featured By Owner Nov 20, 2013  Hobbyist Writer
I only knew like.....a quarter of these. Ashamed 
Reply
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