The world of poetry can be complex, confusing, and overwhelming for some, but it can also bring great insight, raw emotion, and rich imagery to readers.
One of the ways that poetry can really shine is through the use of poetic techniques and devices. Together, the use of such techniques can help one piece to stand out from another, and really draw the reader into the rich imagery of the poetry and help them to understand the true meaning of that poem.
As a result, any aspiring poet should read a lot of poetry and try to become versed with as many poetic devices as possible, and know when to use each device to their advantage.
This article outlines what impact poetic technique can achieve and also highlights some of the most common poetic and literary devices a poet may encounter. Following this, we will consider how, as a student, you may approach analysing poetry (whether your own or others).
Poetry vs Literature
We've mentioned literary devices above, which may lead you to think that poetry and literature are inherently one and the same. Before we break down the various poetry techniques available to you, we should first distinguish between this art form and its close relative: literature
Though they pertain to the same family of writing, that being classical, literature refers to the collective works of a nation, people, group, or culture, or the collected legislation or documentation of culturally and societally important proceedings. Literature is often referred to as historical, philosophic, or narrative in style also, as it often recounts or seeks to encapsulate a zeitgeist, impart a moral, or inspire a sentiment in its readers.
Where the sticking point is is that literature, especially pre 20th century, often also contained poetry. To differentiate these for you, the art of poetry exists by itself even if it is contained within a larger literary work. Think a fable in rhyming couplets by a character in a play, or a soliloquy that sounds like a sonnet in Shakespeare.
To actually classify a body of work as poetry, the collection of pieces need to all be poems, either one long one, or several smaller, self-contained ones.
The approach to understanding both poetry and literary texts is again similar, however the nature of each kind of work denotes attention to different facets, thereby warranting different discussion.
The difference first of all with literature is that there is likely to be a plot. While poetry will recount a tale sometimes (the Iliad is technically a poem but is 462 pages long), it is crafted to carry you more on a current of a story than in a play or novel, wherein you would focus more on the stage directions or character relationship, as well as the writing style.
When analysing literature, the main things you will need to seek to understand in literature analysis are:
- Story arc
- Character arcs
- Themes, motifs, and symbols
- Author's voice (and life)
- Time it was written in
- Structure of the piece
The simplest way to show the differences in helping yourself to understand poetry or literary text is to outline what to look for compared to the analysis of literature. We will go into the specific details of poetry devices later on in this text, but for now would like to outline the way you can get into the mindset of reading and understanding poetry
Analysing poetry requires a different skillset, as you need to get into the groove of it much more quickly. A novel or play takes a lot longer to play out, and you can find the story arc quite easily based on the sequence of events. With poetry, it has to flow in order for you to be taken away by it, but unfortunately, not all poems or styles of poetry are easy to read. Therefore, when dissecting a piece and understanding its deeper meanings, there are certain things to look out for:
- Style (we will describe the details later, but this can refer to whether it's rhyming, in stanzas, whether there's a clear rhythm etc)
- The use of language, be it full of synonyms, weather to describe the cold, words that sound a particular way (this is how the poet sets the scene and tone for the reader)
- The author's personal life (What did they want to say with this poem? Who is it dedicated to? How does this link with the rest of the techniques used?)
- Symbols and imagery to give life to the poem (What might each of these mean by themselves? What about in the context of the work?)
- Structure (Are there any parts that are repeated? Is it chronological? How has the poet ordered the text?)
What Techniques Are Used In A Poem?
A poem can feature a wide variety of literary or poetic devices and techniques, as ultimately such techniques build upon each other and work together to help bring a poem to life and make the scene the work is portraying more vivid to the reader or listener.
As such, a variety of factors come into play when utilising poetic techniques, and poets need to think about the overall impact a poem may have, from:
- The sounds that are spoken aloud when reading the poem;
- The overall rhythm and rhyme scheme of the poem;
- What imagery the poem conjures; to
- What meaning a reader should take from your poem.
Whether you decide to use rhyme, personification, or a particular mood or setting for your poem, poetic devices can help make it come alive, and can even help inform how you structure your work.
For example, you could decide to structure your poem with stanzas, although there’s no obligation to if you would rather not. A stanza helps to divide the undertaking by grouping together two or more lines together that usually have a similar metrical form or rhyme, although they don’t have to share this feature. Just as paragraphs are used in literature to group ideas together, stanzas perform a similar function in the world of poetry.
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Another question that many poets ask themselves today is whether or not it’s worth incorporating rhyme, iambic pentameter, or rhyming words into the piece. Although older poems may rhyme more frequently than newer, more contemporary poems, ultimately the choice of whether to use rhyme depends on your own preferences towards rhyme as a poet and whether rhyme would work well as a poetic device in the poem you’re writing.
If you do decide to incorporate rhyme into your poem to improve its rhythm, then you could look to use a poetic technique such as rhyming couplets. A rhyming couplet features two lines of equal length that rhyme. Shakespeare’s sonnets often featured rhyming couplets, if you’re looking for good examples to learn from.
Ultimately, the decision of which poetic techniques are best to use is very personal, and will likely change on a poem by poem basis. With that in mind, some common poetic devices have been defined and highlighted below to give you some inspiration on which poetic devices and literary terms to include in your next piece of work.
What Are Poetic Devices?
Poetic devices are used throughout various types and styles of poems to increase that poem’s effect on the reader or listener and to help make the poem more memorable overall.
As a result, poetic devices can really enhance a poetic work, regardless of the type written, including:
- Narrative poems;
- Haikus; and
- Free verse poems.
As a result, poetic devices can really be the best friend of any poet, including established poets and poets who are just starting out. So learning them should be among an aspiring poet’s top priorities when they’re just starting to write.
Some of the most common poetic devices are highlighted below, although there others out there.
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Effects that enrich the imagery of a poem
Simile – a simile compares two things that are not alike, using “as” or “like” to signal the comparison.
Example: “That was as clear as mud.”
Metaphor – a metaphor, like a simile, seeks to compare two things that are not alike, however, a metaphor does not feature the use of “as” or “like”. There are many different types of metaphor, including extended metaphors, implied metaphors, and mixed metaphors, among others.
Example: “You’re the apple of my eye.”
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Effects that enrich the sound of a poem
Alliteration - the repetition of consonants at the beginning of words that follow, or closely follow, each other.
Example: “She sells seashells by the sea-shore.”
Assonance – the repetition of vowels within words close to each other, although each word starts with a different consonant.
Example: “The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.” (My Fair Lady)
Onomatopoeia – words that imitate how the thing being described sounds.
Example: “The buzzing bee.”
Note that some poetic devices are also used as wider literary devices, for example in works of fiction, but these devices can be just as effective when used within a poem.
If you’d like to learn more about poetic or literary devices or understand their purpose and effect further, then you may want to reach out to a tutor for some extra direction when it comes to informing your studies. Superprof, for example, has a number of English tutors available who would be happy to give you some further insight into the most effective poetic devices out there, and which ones may complement your writing style.
Poetry Techniques And Effects
Ultimately, when you set out to write a poem, think about the techniques that would best make it shine and grab the attention of your intended audience. While literary techniques such as alliteration and onomatopoeia may work well within some poems, in others they may fall flat.
Finding the right poetic devices for your work can really enhance the feelings and emotions of your reader while they are going through oeuvre, regardless of whether you want to write a ballad, sonnet, or a dramatic poem.
As such, take the time to plan your poem in advance before you start writing, so you can decide which poetry techniques would work best. Advance planning can help to prevent excessive rewrites at a later date, so it can really pay to get on top of your style early, long before the pen hits paper.
Thinking about potential techniques in advance can really help your writing and publishing, as you can help figure out whether you'd like to use figurative language, hyperbole, or stressed vowel sounds to help convey the true meaning of your poem to the reader.
However, if you didn’t plan out a poem you wrote, or if you prefer to write organically, then not to worry! Even if you’ve finished a piece, it’s still worth spending some time looking through your work to see whether yours achieves what you’d like it to.
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If you think that the poem doesn’t appeal to your intended audience, then it might be worthwhile revising certain lines to make sure has the intended effect overall.
For example, modern poems don’t always contain as many rhyme or rhyming words within them compared to older poems. As such, if you’re trying to appeal to a contemporary audience, have a think about whether your work needs to feature as much if any, rhyme. If not, then rewrite your poem, removing the rhyming words in favour of another literary technique, whether that’s:
- Similes; or
- Another poetic technique that you think would fit well in the poem.
Of course, if you’re ever struggling to come up with ideas of what literary techniques to use, or would like another person to take a look over your poems to provide their own feedback and suggestions on where to improve, then you could look to hire an English tutor with experience within the area of poetry.
Sites such as Superprof have a range of English tutors, who can be available for one on one, group tutoring, remote learning, or workshop sessions. So if you’d like to learn more about poetic techniques and how they could help your poems shine that bit more, then reach out to an experienced tutor today for help and see how it could benefit you.
It's just a case of entering your postcode to find local tutors in your area that are willing to help. With one to one lessons and group workshops available, there's sure to be a tuition format that works for you. Even if you'd prefer to have tuition lessons remotely, there are also remote tutors out there!
Poetry Terminology: A Poet's Glossary
With thanks to Writer's Digest, we are able to provide you with a few dozen poetry terms that all poets will need to know about, whether just starting out or new to analysing poetry. Take a look at these brief definitions of some of the most common terminology found in poetry analysis!
Alliteration. Close repetition of consonant sounds, especially initial consonant sounds.
Anapest. Foot consisting of 2 unstressed syllables followed by a stress.
Assonance. Close repetition of vowel sounds.
Blank verse. Unrhymed iambic pentameter.
Caesura. A deliberate rhetorical, grammatical, or rhythmic pause, break, cut, turn, division, or pivot in poetry.
Chapbook. A small book of about 24-50 pages.
Consonance. Close repetition of consonant sounds–anywhere within the words.
Couplet. Stanza of 2 lines; often, a pair of rhymed lines.
Dactyl. Foot consisting of a stress followed by 2 unstressed syllables.
Decasyllable. Line consisting of 10 syllables.
Enjambment. Continuation of sense and rhythmic movement from one line to the next; also called a “run-on” line.
Envoi. A brief ending (usually to a ballade or sestina) no more than 4 lines long; summary.
Epigraph. A short verse, note, or quotation that appears at the beginning of a poem or section; usually presents an idea or theme on which the poem elaborates, or contributes background information not reflected in the poem itself.
Foot. Unit of measure in a metrical line of poetry.
Galleys. First typeset version of a poem, magazine, and/or book/chapbook.
Hendecasyllable. Line consisting of 11 syllables.
Hexameter. Line consisting of 6 metrical feet.
Honorarium. A token payment for published work.
Iamb. Foot consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stress.
Line. Basic unit of a poem; measured in feet if metrical.
Meter. The rhythmic measure of a line.
Octave. Stanza of 8 lines.
Octosyllable. Line consisting of 8 syllables.
Pentameter. Line consisting of 5 metrical feet. For instance, iambic pentameter equals 10 syllables (5 unstressed, 5 stressed).
Quatrain. Stanza of 4 lines.
Quintain. Stanza of 5 lines.
Refrain. A repeated line within a poem, similar to the chorus of a song.
Rhyme. Words that sound alike, especially words that end in the same sound.
Rhythm. The beat and movement of language (rise and fall, repetition and variation, change of pitch, mix of syllables, melody of words).
Septet. Stanza of 7 lines.
Sestet. Stanza of 6 lines.
Spondee. Foot consisting of 2 stressed syllables.
Stanza. Group of lines making up a single unit; like a paragraph in prose.
Strophe. Often used to mean “stanza”; also a stanza of irregular line lengths.
Tercet. Stanza or poem of 3 lines.
Tetrameter. Line consisting of 4 metrical feet.
Trochee. Foot consisting of a stress followed by an unstressed syllable.
Using Key Poetry Terms In Comparisons
Whether an English Literature student or someone who is passionate about learning from existing poetry to make their own lyrical writing the best it can be, then comparing poems is usually a great way to learn a lot about a poem, its theme, a style, and an era.
During VCE/HSC and year 12 exams, for instance, candidates are asked to compare two pieces written by different poets but dealing with similar subjects or themes. Though they may be written 100 years apart, or more in some cases, the act of comparing the two and considering the different poetic techniques and devices used can help to unlock and discover so much more than simply reading them separately.
Identifying where poems are similar or where they differ can help the reader to better appreciate each one individually, understanding how and why the poets have approached the subject in different manners.
When looking at two poems alongside each other, you may wish to consider:
If you aren't sure where to start (because not all poetry pairings will have obvious similarities and differences), then BBC Bitesize recommends using some of the following questions to trigger discussion points:
Who is the speaker in each poem?
How are the speaker's views similar or different?
Does one poem present a more positive view than the other?
Do they focus on the same aspect of the overall theme?
Is there a stronger point of view in one poem compared to the other?
Do they concentrate on one aspect of a theme or explore different areas?
What about the tone or mood of each poem - are they similar?
In addition, some prompts to think about when considering context include:
- historical contexts
- social and cultural contexts
- literary contexts
- readers’ contexts
- biographical contexts
Using Poetry Terms In Analysis - Extracts
If you are an HSC or VCE student looking for some examples of how to incorporate your newly acquired poetry terms into your analysis during an exam, then do visit your exam board's website where you can find exemplar student responses to read through and learn from.
For example, on the AQA website, you can find the following extract from a band 5 pupil responding to a question about the topic: Love through the ages.
You can view this and read the examiner's comments by visiting the site here.