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.

The use of poetic techniques and effects is what makes this written genre shine. They allow one piece to stand out from another, drawing us into the rich imagery and imparting the true meaning.

Reading widely allows us to discover many different poetic devices so we can learn when and how to use each one.

This article highlights some of the most common poetic and literary devices used. We also consider approaches to the analysis of poetry.

A sky and clouds. Metaphor is one techniques can use to add to the imagery of a poem.
Poetry techniques and effects can really enrich your understanding of a poem. (Image: CC0 1.0, UzbekIL, Pixabay)
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Poetry v Prose

We've mentioned literary devices above, which may lead you to think that poetry and classical prose are inherently one and the same when it comes to technique. Indeed, they are both worthy forms of literature with many similarities but also numerous differences. Before we break down the various poetry techniques, we should first distinguish between this written form and its close relative, prose.

Though both forms can be deemed 'classical', prose has a broader use and includes most human conversation and lectures, texts, novels, short stories, fairy tales, newspaper articles and essays. It uses ordinary language and follows regular grammatical conventions. When we talk of 'classical prose', we are referring to something that is considered to be a masterpiece. Classical works are relevant over generations past, present and future, with messages that resonate no matter the era.

Classical works are often referred to as historical, philosophic, or narrative in style as they often recount or seek to encapsulate a zeitgeist, impart a  moral or inspire a sentiment. Often, they are the collective works of a nation, people, group or culture.

Generally speaking, poetry has more rules than prose but can serve the same purposes, only with more emphasis on careful word selection, with attention to sound to create and convey images and atmosphere. 

Poetry featured heavily in pre-20th century literature and, like prose, it also fits into the classical genre.

To further differentiate between the two — the art of poetry exists by itself even if it is contained within a larger, more comprehensive text. Think of a fable written in rhyming couplets, a romantic speech by a character in a play or a soliloquy that is similar to a Shakespearean sonnet.

Analysing Narrative Prose

The approach to understanding both text types is similar, however, the nature of each kind of work denotes attention to different facets, thereby warranting different discussions.

First of all, the difference with narrative prose is that there is likely to be a plot. While it will sometimes recount a tale — such as in a ballad, most of Shakespeare's plays and classics like The Iliad — poetry is crafted to carry you more along a current of a story than a play or novel where you focus more on the stage directions or character relationships, as well as the writing style.

When analysing narrative prose, the main things you need to understand are:

  • plot
  • story arc
  • character arcs
  • themes, motifs and symbols
  • author's voice and purpose
  • time period
  • structural features.

Analysing Poetry

When analysing poetry, you look for different aspects to those mentioned above, even if it is a narrative form. We'll touch on specific details of some poetic devices later but for now, we'll outline how you can get into the mindset of reading and understanding poetry.

Because you need to get into the groove of the work much more quickly, analysing poetry requires a different skillset. The story arc of a novel or script can often be found easily based on the sequence of events and, being longer, there is naturally more information to aid you to process different aspects. With poetry, unfortunately, it's not always easy to understand the flow and not all styles are easy to comprehend. Therefore, when dissecting a piece and understanding its deeper meaning, there are certain aspects to look out for.

  • Style — does it rhyme or is it free verse? Are there stanzas? Is there a clear beat?
  • Language — does it use synonyms or similes or consonance? What description is used?  How are scenes and tones created?
  • Purpose — what is the message? Is it dedicated to someone? How does the purpose link with the style and processes chosen?
  • Symbolism — what gives life to the poem? What do the symbols mean by themselves? What about in the context of the work?
  • Structure — is any part repeated? Is it chronological? How has the text been ordered?

What Poetic Devices can be Used?

There is a wide variety of poetic techniques and devices. Ultimately, each one builds upon another, making the scene being conveyed more vivid and emotive.

As such, a variety of factors come into play when utilising poetic techniques and the overall impact of the poem needs to be considered. This includes paying attention to:

  • the tone that comes through in an oral reading
  • the impact of the rhythmic schemes used
  • the images that can be conjured
  • the meaning a reader may take.

Whether you decide to use rhyme, personification or a particular mood or setting, carefully chosen devices can inform how you put together your piece and bring your words to life.

For example, you may decide to use stanzas to direct the structure. A stanza groups together two or more lines that usually have a similar metrical form, although they don’t have to share this feature. Just as paragraphs are used in prose to group ideas together, stanzas perform a similar function in the world of poetry.

Another question to ask is whether or not it’s worth incorporating iambic pentameter into the piece. Although older poems may feature more rhyme than contemporary ones, ultimately the choice of whether to use rhyme depends on your own preferences. You may also consider whether it would work well in this particular case.

If you do decide to incorporate this device, to perhaps improve your poem's rhythm, then you could look to using a process such as rhyming couplets. A couplet features two lines that are of equal length and that rhyme. Sonnets penned by Shakespeare often featured rhyming couplets and are well worth examining if you want to learn more about how to construct them and use them effectively.

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 below to give you some inspiration for your next piece of work.

A notepad and pen next to a laptop. You can write poetry in a number of different ways.
Poetic techniques are essential to create an engaging poem. (Image: CC BY 2.0, Pete O'Shea, Flickr)
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What Are Poetic Devices?

Devices are used throughout various types and styles of poetry to increase the effect on the reader or listener and to make the text more memorable overall.

They can really enhance a piece, whether you are creating sonnets, limericks, ballads, haiku, free verse or any other style, and are the best friend of any poet, whether established, emerging or aspiring. Learning their names and uses, as well as when and how to employ them, should be among your top priorities if you are an aspiring writer.

A selection of some of the most common poetry techniques and effects are listed below.

Effects that enrich the imagery

Simile: compares two things that are not alike, using “as” or “like” to signal the comparison – “That was as clear as mud.”

Metaphor: like a simile, a metaphor seeks to compare two things that are not alike, however, it does not feature the use of “as” or “like”. There are many different types of metaphors, including extended metaphors, implied metaphors, and mixed metaphors, among others – “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 — “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 – “The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.” (My Fair Lady)

Onomatopoeia: words that imitate the aural features of an object or subject – “The buzzing bee.”

Note that there is some overlap and many of the above are also used in works of fiction and are just as effective in both genres.

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 and a lesson or two. Superprof, for example, has a number of tutors available who would be happy to provide you with further insight into the most effective literary devices and the ones that may complement your writing style.

A violin with a clef set on top. Rhyming is a core part of some poems.
Rhyming can influence mood, tone and atmosphere. (Image: CC0 1.0, geralt, Pixabay)

Poetry Techniques And Effects

Ultimately, when you set out to write a poem, you need to consider what would best make it shine and grab the attention of your intended audience. While alliteration and onomatopoeia, for example, may work well in some cases, in others they may fall flat.

Using the right devices can really enhance the feelings and emotions conveyed in your words, regardless of whether you want to write a ballad, a sonnet or a dramatic poem.

As such, take the time to plan your poem in advance before you start and decide which poetry techniques are going to be most effective. 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.

Thinking about how to write and practices you can use can really assist you with both writing and publishing, as you can figure out whether you'd like to use figurative phrasing,  hyperbole or stressed vowels to convey the true meaning of your poem.

However, if you don't end up planning out your poem first, or if you prefer to write organically, then not to worry! Even if you’ve finished a piece, it’s still worth looking through it and analying it to see whether you've achieved your intentions.

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If you think that the poem won't appeal to your intended audience, then it might be worthwhile revising certain sections to make sure they have the intended effect overall.

For example, contemporary works don’t always contain as much rhyme compared to older ones. As such, if you’re trying to appeal to a contemporary audience, have a think about whether your piece needs to feature as much, if any, rhyme. If not, then rewrite it, removing the rhyming words in favour of something else, such as assonance, imagery, simile or any other device you think would fit well.

Of course, if you’re ever struggling to come up with ideas for processes to use, or would like another person to take a look over your efforts and provide feedback and suggestions on where to improve, then you could look to hire an English tutor who has experience in the area of poetry.

Sites such as Superprof have a range of English tutors available for a one-on-one lessons, group tutoring, remote learning or workshop-style sessions. So if you’d like to learn more about poetic techniques and how they could help your poems shine that little 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. There's sure to be a tuition format that works for you. And if you'd prefer to have your lesson delivered remotely, there are also tutors who work online!

Terminology: A Poet's Glossary

With thanks to Writer's Digest, we are able to provide you with a few dozen terms that you 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.

Alliteration — repeated consonant sounds, especially initial consonants

Anapest — foot consisting of 2 unstressed syllables followed by a stress

Assonance — repeated vowel sounds

Blank verse — unrhymed iambic pentameter

Caesura — deliberate rhetorical, grammatical or rhythmic pause or pivot

Chapbook — small book of about 24–50 pages

Consonance — repetition of consonant sounds, anywhere in the words

Couplet — a pair of rhymed lines

Dactyl — foot consisting of a stress followed by 2 unstressed syllables

Decasyllable — 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 no more than 4 lines long

Epigraph — a short verse, note or quotation that appears at the beginning; usually presents an idea or theme for elaboration or contributes background information not already reflected

Foot — unit of measure in a metrical line

Galleys — first typeset version of a poem, magazine, book or chapbook

Hendecasyllable — consisting of 11 syllables

Hexameter — 6 metrical feet

Honorarium — a token payment for a published piece

Iamb — foot consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stress

Line — basic poetic unit; measured in feet if metrical.

Meter — rhythmic measure of a line

Octave — 8-line section

Octosyllable — consisting of 8 syllables

Pentameter — consisting of 5 metrical feet

Quatrain — 4-line section

Quintain — 5-line section

Refrain — a repeated line, similar to the chorus of a song.

Rhyme — words that sound alike, especially ones that end in the same sound

Rhythm — beat and movement

Septet — 7-line section

Sestet — 6-line section

Spondee — foot consisting of 2 stressed syllables

Stanza — a group of lines making up a single unit

Strophe — a stanza of irregular line lengths

Tercet — 3-line poem

Tetrameter — 4 metrical feet

Trochee — foot consisting of a stress followed by an unstressed syllable

Using Key Terms in Comparisons

Whether you're an English Literacy student or someone who is passionate about making their own lyrical writing the best it can be, then comparison is usually a great way to learn.

During VCE, HSC or other Year 12 exams, for instance, candidates are asked to compare two different pieces that deal with a similar subject or theme. Though they may be written 100 years apart, or more in some cases, the act of comparing the two and considering the different poetic devices used can assist in discovering so much more than simply reading them separately.

Identifying similarities and differences allow us to better appreciate each piece, understanding how and why the subject has been approached in different manners.

When looking at two texts alongside each other, you may wish to consider:

  • theme
  • attitude
  • form
  • structural features
  • language
  • rhythm
  • rhyme.

If you aren't sure where to start (because not all pairings will have obvious similarities and differences), then you may want to try asking yourself some of the following questions:

  • Who is the speaker in each one?
  • How are the speaker's views similar or different?
  • Does one piece 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 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 — are they similar?

In addition, some prompts to think about when considering context include:

  • historical context
  • location
  • social and cultural context
  • literary context
  • readers’ context
  • biographical context.

Steps for Analysis in Exams

If you are an HSC or VCE student looking for some examples of how to incorporate your newly acquired terminology into your analysis during an exam, then do visit your exam board's website where you can find exemplar student responses.

How do I analyse poetry?
The first step to analysing a text is to reread it until you have a thorough understanding | Source: Pixabay - BlueRoses7

Using the correct terminology in the correct context can not only make you sound more knowledgeable about your subject but can also save on words as you won't have to describe what you mean.

There are some key steps when it comes to analysing poems for HSC, VCE or other Year 12 certificate exams.

Reread ... as often as you need

As basic as this step sounds, it is crucial that you have a good understanding of every aspect of the text you are analysing and are completely familiar with its specific nuances. Remember that pieces selected for exams are often abstract in nature and quite complex.

Note down your own interpretations and highlight relevant sections. Don't worry too much at this stage about the poetic devices — that part comes later — for now, the most important thing is to develop your own ideas.

Take some time to paraphrase the wording into prose. Note down the key themes or story and the atmosphere or tone, and jot down your thoughts and relevant text samples regarding these.

Consider the context

Context is the thing that shapes every text. In other words, context is what drives the author, composer or poet in their creation. It denotes their purpose, feeds into their voice and determines how they choose to illustrate different aspects of their written creation.

Understanding the context means that you have insight into what the writer was experiencing at the time and this, in turn, can assist you to understand the piece at a deeper level. Let's say, for instance, that you know the author was in his sixties and in ill health when he wrote a particular piece — this knowledge might contribute to your understanding of his purpose and the symbolism used.

Other factors that need to be considered when you're looking at context include world events at the time of writing, the poet's cultural background and key influences at the time, such as other art forms.

With the context in mind, you might then comment on the bluntness of the language, the use of euphemism, the style (and whether it mirrors or mimics older or classic styles) and other works penned by the same author, whether poetic, informational essay or narrative prose.

Deep analysis

Saying what you think and how you interpret a piece of writing is one thing (and won't net you particularly good marks) but backing up your comments with relevant textual references is something else entirely and is one of the things an examiner is going to be looking for.

Other aspects to be mindful of when completing an analysis include:

  • using quotes that exemplify specific devices
  • deep examination of every word and device used and how it contributes to the overall message
  • not contradicting yourself (that is, be consistent with your argument).

The most effective method to use is to identify each technique individually, find a quote to support its existence and analyse how these impact your interpretation.

At all times, refer back to the actual essay question to ensure you're not heading off track and that you are actually answering all parts of the question.

Be critical

This doesn't mean you should tear the samples apart but refers more to critical literacy, which is the open interpretation of what's in front of you.

The beauty of critical literacy with any works of fiction, particularly poetic ones, is that anything goes when it comes to interpretation. You are critically analysing the text as long as you can back up your responses with excerpts from the text and justify why you've used them. The marks come from your ability to make a statement or an argument and back it up with relevant examples.

Australian Poets You Must Read

If we asked you to identify iconic Australian poems, you would probably be taken back to your school days where you'd recite the likes of The Man from Snowy River (Banjo Patterson), My Country (Dorothea Mackellar) and Said Hanrahan (John O'Brien). These remain classics today and should definitely be studied as part of your exploration of this genre.

Let's take a quick look at a few 'must-read' poets from Australia.

Adam Lindsay Gordon (1883—1870)

Once referred to as the 'national poet of Australia', Adam Lindsay Gordon was one of the first to write in a distinctly Australian idiom and many of his turns of phrase have been adopted into the Australian vernacular. Amongst his most famous pieces are The SwimmerThe Sick Stockrider and How We Beat the Favourite.

Dorothea Mackellar (1885—1968)

Known by all Australians for My Country (penned when she was just 19 years of age), Dorothea Mackellar's writing was inspired by her experiences on her brothers’ farms near Gunnedah, in New South Wales.

Oodgeroo Noonuccal (1920–1993)

A First Nations woman and political activist, the writer, who is also known as Kath Walker, was a staunch advocate for Indigenous welfare. She wrote from the perspective of an Aboriginal Australian woman and, by her own admission, her compositions were 'sloganistic and direct', with basic rhythmic schemes. Her most popular writings include We are GoingNo More Boomerang and Understand, Old One.

Judith Wright (1915–2000)

Like Oodgeroo Noonuccal, Judith Wright campaigned relentlessly for the rights of women and First Nations peoples through her written endeavours and other activities. She also spoke up for Indigenous land rights and conservation. Judith Wright is known for her concise, traditional verse, in keeping with the latest trends in the west, as shown in Woman to Man and Bullocky.

Banjo Patterson (1864—1941)

Banjo Patterson is credited with establishing the 'bushman' as a romantic and iconic figure in the Australian consciousness. He is regarded as one of the giants of Australian literature and wrote some of Australia's most famous ballads, including Waltzing MatildaClancy of the Overflow and The Man from Snowy River.

Henry Lawson (1867–1922)

In the same 'class' as Banjo Patterson, Henry Lawson was known for composing pieces about bush life. He penned short and punchy pieces as well as long ballads personifying the Australian bush landscape. Lawson struggled with psychological and artistic adversity for much of his life. Some of his most loved pieces include Up the Country and Andy's Gone with the Cattle.

Les Murray (1938–2019)

From folk ballads and limericks to sonnets and lyrical pieces celebrating the mythical world, Les Murray was an all-rounder when it came to this art form. He was both controversial and a multi-award winner who wrote about the Australia he loved and his identification with First Nations peoples. Some of his most popular creations include An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow and The Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle.

Lionel Fogarty (1958– )

Political activist and proud Yugambeh man, Lionel Fogarty writes about the importance of maintaining traditional Indigenous culture. His writings are considered to be among the most 'experimental' of contemporary Australian styles and are sometimes described as 'surrealist'. His collections include Kargun, Yoogum Yoogum and Jagera.

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