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What is Poetry?

What is poetry? What is a poem? How can you tell the difference between poetry

and prose?

I usually try to provide a defintion, knowing that the definition is little more

than a simplified starting point for this elusive and irresistible genre. I

developed this one collaboratively with my colleague at TCC, Stan Barger, who

team-taught English 112 with me several summers:

Poetry is the concentrated, rhythmic, verbal expression of observations,

perceptions, and feelings.

Poetry looks different from prose on the page. In prose, the words go to the

margin without regard to position in space. In poetry, ends of lines depend on

sound, meaning, and appearance. Often, lines begin with capital letters even

when they are neither the beginnings of sentences nor proper nouns. These

conventions make poetry instantly recognizable.

Reading a variety of poems will help you understand both individual poems and

the concept of poetry. Poetry Guidelines: Reading and Writing for Understanding

is intended to give you some strategies for understanding poems.

Dona Hickey at the University of Richmond and I developed Poetry Portals, a

resource list of poems, poetry scholarship, poetry classes, and poetry zines,

for our students and for other teachers at workshops we conduct on using

computers for poetry instruction. Other collaborators recommended sites for us

to include. If you suggest sites that we use, we’ll add your name to the


Don Maxwell at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College in Richmond has been

teaching a poetry writing class, for which he has posted some electures on

poetry that I recommend. Here you can read a local poet’s explanation of What

Makes a Poem a Poem? and The Sound of Poetry, including a poem by and picture of

Emily Dickinson, one of the United States’ earliest and best poets.

Top of Page

Glossary of Poetry Terms

Concentrated diction and syntax: highly selective language uses few words to

express many thoughts and feelings, depends on suggestions as well as

conventional meanings

Diction: choice of words

denotation: basic dictionary definition

connotation: attitudes and meanings suggested through usage or tradition

or context, for example, “landlord” has one connotation to an upper middle

class family, quite another to a slum family barely able to scrape

together the rent; in “Ulysses” the speaker uses “mete and dole” rather

than “distribute”

Usage levels

Slang, colloguialisms, and other informal usages

Standard usages that are acceptable in formal speech and writing

Elegant “poetic” diction that may seem pretentious to 20th century


Imagery: words and phrases that appeal to the emotions, intellect, or senses

concrete or abstract

concrete: appeals to senses (visual, auditory/aural, olfactory,

gustatory, tactile + kinetic, synaesthesia)

abstract: appeals to imagination and intellect (brutal armies)

literal or figurative

literal images mean what they seem to mean

figurative images are not literal; they depend on comparisons and


Rhythm: patterns of stresses and silences in language

Syntax: arrangement of words in intentional rather than accidental patterns

for sound effects (to make particular rhythmic or rhyming patterns)

for meaning: to create units of expression other than standard sentences

Prosody: the study of the rhythms and other sound patterns of poetry

Observations, perceptions, and feelings: ideas, attitudes, opinions, feelings,

stories, interpretations, explanations of aspects of the human condition

Nature of these perceptions

Personal: based on individual experience and reflection on that experience

Cultural: experiences or feelings common to a group of people

Universal: experiences or feelings common to all human beings

Subjects: the literal and particular surface matter that can be summarized

or paraphrased

Speaker: the persona adopted by the poet to sing the poem; a sort of

narrative voice that may be identifiable only slightly or very precisely

Situation: similar to plot and setting in narratives, the situation

involves the entire context of the poem: physical, mental, emotional,

cultural, and spiritual elements

Tone: author’s attitude or speaker’s attitude or both

Primary genres

Narrative poems emphasize the telling of stories: conflict, action,


Lyric poems emphasize deeply felt emotions

Individual’s perspective, usually first person speaker

Personal feelings, highly subjective, even intimate (often love or

death, often misery)


Musical rhythms (from lyre)

Themes: meanings that can be expressed as a generalized statement about the

subject or subjects of the poem.Themes may be new angle of perception or new

insight or philosophical position. A statement about a poem’s themes can and

should be stated as a complete sentence that generalizes beyond the

particulars of the individual work, stating not that this speaker is

fretting about his life being too short to enjoy cherry blossoms but

generalizing that for human beings life is short and should be enjoyed as

much as possible during the time available as exemplified by life being too

short to enjoy cherry blossoms.

Top of Page


Tone is the expression of the poet’s attitude or the speaker’s attitude toward

subject, theme, or audience. Some examples are anger, joy, despair, reverence,

objectivity, irony, satire, amusement, affection.

Irony: presentation of elements which involve a discrepancy or contrast

between apparent meaning and actual meaning

Situational irony: outcome very different from normal expectations or from

what text leads readers to anticipate

Verbal irony: words suggest the opposite or something quite different from

what they seem say or literally mean

Dramatic (tragic) irony: words of a speaker in a drama are understood quite

differently by the audience than by the speaker as in Oedipus’s references

to avenging Laios as if he were his own father

Ambiguity: expression of an idea in language that suggests more than one

plausible meaning–but which enriches the possibilities of meaning (not the

same as obscure)

Satire: criticism of behavior or institutions through amusement or laughter,

ridiculing the human condition in order to show the need for reform

Horatian: gentle

Juvenalian: biting (invective is malicious)

Top of Page


An image is a word or phrase that appeals to the senses or the intellect or


1. Abstract images appeal to the imagination or intellect while concrete images

appeal to the physical senses.

2. Imagery refers to the collection of images within a given work or portion of

a work.

Senses: visual, auditory (aural), gustatory, olfactory, tactile (touch), thermal

(temperature), kinetic (movement through sight and sound), tactile (touch–nerve

endings) plus synaesthesia (appeal to more than one sense at the same time or

description of one sensation in terms of another, for example, “blueblack cold”

in “Those Winter Sundays”)

Literal imagery: an actual sensation and sensory response is evoked, for

example, “the sky is blue,” “the silver bells jingle,” and “the moon is round

and full tonight”

Figurative imagery or figures of speech

These nonliteral sensory appeals present one element in terms of another to

increase and limit understanding–serving to enrich meaning and heighten sense


allegory: extended metaphor in which objects and characters in a narrative

represent specific abstract concepts or qualities. Typically, abstractions are

personified through characters, and the plot and setting dramatize the

relationship among the abstractions

allusion: brief, usually indirect reference to another work or to a real or

historical event or person, traditionally as a way of drawing connections

between those elements and enriching the meaning of the current work through

associations with the other. Allusions imply a shared cultural experience and

shared knowledge.

anadiplosis (the last word of a sentence or clause repeated at the beginning of

the next sentence or clause): Time article “Americans are eating out more than

ever, and more than ever they are eating fast food” (26 Aug. 1985: 60).

Top of Page

analogy: comparison typical of formal argument in which acceptance of one item

as true implies acceptance of the other; in analogy the elements being compared

usually have some obvious points of literal similarity

antimetabole (repetition of words in reverse order): “Woe unto them that call

evil good, and good evil” (Isiah 5:20)

antithesis: close placement of strongly contrasting words, phrases, or ideas in

balanced structures (”Man proposes, God disposes”)

apostrophe: direct address to an absent, abstract, invisible or nonexistent

element as if it were real and capable of hearing and responding: “O death,

where is thy victory?” “Hail to thee, Blithe Spirit”)

conceit: sometimes called metaphysical conceit, is an extended metaphor or

simile, usually of strikingly different elements “yoked together” (S. Barger)

such as salvation to the making of clothing in Jonathan Edwards’ “Huswifery” or

the breaking in of a car to a first sexual experience in e. e. cummings’s “she

being brand”

epistrophe: repetition at the beginning or the end of successive sentences or

clauses: from a Newsweek ad for Bryant’s National Gas Company “Call us, buy us.

Bill us.”

epithet: an adjective or adjective phrase or adjective-noun phrase used together

so that they become closely associated and one suggests the other (rosy-fingered

dawn; the trumpet of the dawn; the wine-dark sea–all Homeric)

hyperbole: exaggeration of characteristics (Lady Macbeth’s “my hand will rather

the multitudinous seas incarnadine / Making the green one red”)

litotes: form of understatement in which something is affirmed through the

statement of the negative of its opposite (”If this be not true, and upon me

proved, / I never writ nor no man ever loved”; “This is no small problem”)

meiosis (understatement): language that suggests something is less important

than it really is

metaphor: assertion of similarity as an indirect comparison between unlike

elements so that the characteristics of the second element become associated

with the first element (”the moon is a pink balloon”)

implied metaphor: does not mention the second item in the comparison, for

example, “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul” bu Emily

Dickinson does not mention a bird

metonymy: use of a word or phrase to represent or substitute for a closely

related object or concept (”White House” or “Oval Office” for President;

“scepter and crown” for king or queen)

Top of Page

oxymoron: phrase which pairs contradictory or opposite terms in a phrase (wise

fool; cheerful pessimist; authentic reproduction)

paradox: apparent contradiction in which what appears to be untrue or absurd is

revealed as true and significant (for example, “Stone walls do not a prison

make, nor iron bars a cage”)

periphrasis: circumlocution

personification or prosopopeia: attribution of lifelike traits to things which

are not alive or attribution of human traits to animals (’the pitiful trees

moaned” or “the fogcrept in on little cat feet”)

prolepsis: foreshadowing a future event as is it were already influencing the


prose poem: concentrated use of imagery and figurative language without the

standards of verse, line, and meter typical of poems. One handbook says, “In

forfeiting verse rhythms, the prose poem directs more attention to the poet’s

vision and less to the language itself. The result is an unusually private and

ethereal form, more like an interior monologue than an intentional revelation.”

pun or paranomasia: play on words, sometimes on different senses of the same

word or similar senses or sounds of differing words

simile: direct comparison between unlike elements in which a comparative term

signals the similarity and in which characteristics of the second item apply to

the first item. Typical comparative terms are like, as, seems, resembles, than,

and appears, for example, “My cat’s eyes glow like firey coals” or “like a

thunderbolt he falls” or “the moon is like a pink balloon.” Literal comparisons

are analogies, not similes: “My cousin is as tall as your cousin” or “My house

is dirtier than yours”

symbol: element that has a literal meaning in its own right plus special usually

abstract meanings and associations that evolve from the way that element is

presented in the work or genre, for example, bats in horror movies, the rug in

“Barn Burning.” Some symbols are traditional and universal, for example, the egg

for fertility, thorns on the rose for the problems of love or the defects in all


synechdoche: a variation of metonymy in which the whole represents the part or

the part represents the whole–but involving a significant part (”The sail flows

into the harbor”; the strong arm of the law)

Top of Page

Prosody: Sound and Meaning

To supplement the excellent information on the sounds of poetry in your textbook

and in other resources on poetry and prosody, this section suggests additional

resources and offers some notes and examples for understanding the sounds of

poetry. You should read poems aloud and listen to others read poetry aloud.

Tapes and CDs and videos about poets’ lives and works often include readings.

And some online resources include readings. Here are a few. If necessary,

download RealAudio Player to listen to them; it’s free. Please let me and your

classmates know if you find others to recommend.

The Sound of Poetry: Don Maxwell’s Notes on Prosody and Reading of “I Like To

Hear It Lap the Miles”


Contemporary Poets Read: Internet Poetry Archive at University of North

Carolina-Chapel Hill


Prosody is the system of principles of versification in poetry: aspects of

rhyme, rhythm, stanza patterns, and other sound devices.

Rhythm is the pattern of sound, stress and silence in language, including

syllable length.

Meter (metrics) describes and identifies the units of rhythm; each unit is

called a foot. The metric feet are listed here with some examples. A —

represents an unstressed syllable. a / represents a stressed syllable.

IAMB — /

Begone you ghost of night

That time of year thou mayst in me behold


Happy days are here again


Like a ghost from the tomb / He floats through the room

DACTYL / — —

Bring me a rose and a lily too


and know not me

PYRRHUS— — rare to have two unstressed syllables

PAEON — — — rarer to have three

AMPHIBRAC rocking foot — / —



To scan is to identify the rhythmic patterns (noun scansion) and count the

metric feet per line.

monometer 1

dimeter 2

trimeter 3

tetrameter 4pentameter 5

hexameter 6

heptameter 7

octameter 8

Sound Devices

rhyme: repetition of identical or similar sounds in stressed syllables in

corresponding positions, usually at ends of lines. Earliest poetry did not rhyme

but depended on alliteration, rhythm, syllabication, epithets (e.g. Homer,


end rhyme: ends of lines

internal rhyme: within lines

masculine rhyme: final accented syllable (night, fight, light, tonight, polite)

feminine rhyme: 2 consecutive syllables, second being unstressed (lighting,

fighting: fellow, bellow)

triple rhyme: correspondence in 3 consecutive syllables (glorious,

victorious)—most commonly used in humorous or satirical verse

alliteration: repetition of consonant sounds in proximity (usually successive or

closely associated words or syllables:, usually but not always initial

consonant: “The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew,/The furrow followed

free”; “The moan of doves in immemorial elms,/And murmuring of innumerable


assonance: repetition of same or similar vowel sounds between differing

consonants: lake, fate, steak, haven

consonance: repetition of ending consonant sounds preceded by differing vowel

sounds (bolt, welt; cake, folk), also called half rhyme or slant rhyme

onomatopoeia: sound that echoes sense or meaning: hiss, whisper, buzz, “The wren

whistles from the garden/And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.”

caesura: a silence rather than a sound but it affects the perception of sound

and rhythm; usually a pause or break in the metrical pattern of a verse, often

signalled by punctuation or syntactical unit such as prepositional phrase,

subject-verb inversion; noted by double diagonal //

end-stopped line: syntactical pause at end of line

enjambment/run-on line: syntactical sense carries over to next line

Diction and syntax affect sound as well as meaning: monosyllabic words have

different sound and rhythm than polysyllabic words even when meter is same.

“wandering” is dactylic and wanders (meandering meanders)

“run for it” is also dactylic but includes pauses that make it a less gentle

and flowing phrase than “wandering”

“Take her up // tenderly” (Thomas Hood) is dactylic dimeter; first dactyl

seems to have a different rhythm from the second because of a combination of


Stanza Patterns

couplet: two-lines, frequently a rhyming pair

heroic couplet: rhymed iambic pentameter unit of thought, syntactically complete

tercet/triplet: AAA

quatrain: 4 lines

ballad stanza: alternating iambic tetrameter and trimeter ABCB

heroic quatrain: iambic pentameter ABAB

blank verse: unrhymed iambic pentameter (19th century dramatic monologues,

Shakespeare’s plays)

free verse/vers libre: irregular rhythm and rhyme, often unpredictable or absent

patterns, characterized instead by

repetition of sounds, words, phrases, images

parallel grammatical structure

significant line length and arrangement

other sound devices: alliteration, assonance, onomatopoeia, sprung rhythm (see

Gerard Manley Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur”)

nonmetrical cadences

Free Verse (open form): Free verse has predecessors in the nonmetrical rhythms

of Greek poetry, the cadences of the King James Bible Psalms, Milton’s poetry;

however, the true groundbreaker for free verse rhythms was America’s Walt

Whitman in the nineteenth century

Some Familiar Fixed (Closed) forms



“Venus and Adonis” stanza: ABABCC (see Puritan poetry)

Closed couplets

Terza rima: ABA BCB CDC (”Acquainted with the Night”)

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