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Elements of Poetry
Poetry is a special type of literature in which words are arranged and chosen to create a
certain effect. Poets carefully select words for their sounds and meanings and combine them
in different and unusual was in order to communicate ideas, feelings, new ways of looking at
things, experiences, and sometimes stories. Poets use the elements of poetry to convey the
sounds, emotions, pictures, and ideas they want to express.
Understanding Poetry
Form The way a poem looks and is arranged on a page is its form. The words in a poem
are written in lines, which may or may not be sentences. In some poems, such as “Annabel
Lee,” lines are grouped into stanzas. Each stanza may have a uniform number of lines, or the
number of lines may vary.
Sound Since most poems are meant to be read aloud, poets make many decisions about how
the poem should sound. In some poems, words are arranged to form patterns of sound.
Some of these patterns are described below.
Rhyme Rhyme is the repetition of the same sound at the ends of words – peek and creak,
for example. Many traditional poems contain rhyme at the ends of lines. The pattern of such
rhyme is called the rhyme scheme.
Rhythm The rhythm of a poem is the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. Rhythm
brings out the musical quality of language; it can also create mood and emphasize ideas.
Notice the rhythm in this line from “Annabel Lee.” The stressed syllables are marked by a /.
/ /
It was many and many a year ago.
Poems in which the rhythm is like everyday conversation, without a definite pattern, are
called free verse. “Incident in a Rose Garden” is written in free verse.
Alliteration Alliteration is the repetition of consonant sounds at the beginnings of words, as
in this line from “Incident in a Rose Garden”:
Black gloves, a broad black hat.
Assonance The repetition of a vowel sounds within words is called assonance, as in this
line from “Annabel Lee”:
And so, all the night-tide, I lie
Down by the side.
Imagery Language that appeals to the readers’ senses of sight, hearing, touch, smell, and
taste is called imagery. Most imagery creates visual images for the reader, as in these lines
from “Incident in a Rose Garden”:
Death grinned, and his eyes lit up
With the pale glow of those lanterns
That workmen carry sometimes…
Imagery can appeal to the other senses as well. These lines from “Lost” appeal to the senses
of touch and smell:
I brushed by people with every step,
Covered my nose once in a while,
Gasping against the smell of
Perspiration on humid days.
Figurative Language Language that describes ordinary things in a new way is called
figurative language. Poets commonly use figurative language to compare one thing to
another. These and other special ways words are combined, called “figures of speech,” are
explained below.
Simile A comparison of unlike things using the word like or as is called a simile. This
example from “The Courage that My Mother Had” compares courage to a rock:
That courage like a rock, which she
Has no more need of, and I have.
Metaphor A metaphor compares two unlike things without the word like or as. In these
lines from “Lost,” the speaker’s head is compared to a signal.
Lights flashed everywhere
Until my head became a signal,
Flashing on and off.
Personification In personification, an object, animal, or idea exhibits human qualities. In
these lines from “Incident in a Rose Garden,” death seems like a person.
Sir, I encountered Death
Just now among the roses.
Thin as a scythe he stood there.
Speaker The speaker is the voice that talks to the reader. The speaker may or may not be
the voice of the poet, even in a poem that uses the pronouns ‘I’ and ‘me.’ The poet might
make the speaker a young child or an old woman, or anyone. The speaker often expresses
feelings the poet wants to convey.
Theme The theme of a poem is the message about life or human nature that the poet shares
with the reader. For example, the theme might be an idea, such as “Death is inevitable.”
Strategies for Reading Poetry
1. Read the poem aloud. You hear the sounds of a poem by reading it aloud. As you
read, remember that the end of a line is not necessarily the end of a thought. Read to
the end punctuation to understand the complete thought. Listen to the rhyme,
rhythm, and sounds of the words as you read.
2. Visualize the images. Picture the images that the poem suggests. Think about any
comparisons the poet makes.
3. Figure out who the speaker is. Use clues in the poem to decide if the speaker is
male or female, young or old, and so on. The speaker’s identity will influence how
you feel about his or her message.
4. Look carefully at the individual words and phrases. Poets try to choose words
that convey an exact meaning, feeling, and sound. As you read, try to figure out what
each word adds to the poem. Think about why the poet chose those words.
5. Think about the poem’s message or theme. Ask yourself what idea all the
elements of the poem combine to suggest. Paraphrase, or put into your own words,
the idea or feeling or picture the poem gives you.
Remember that poetry is very personal. A poem may mean something special to you because
you have experienced the feelings it expresses. You may have seen a picture the poem
describes, or agree with an idea the poem suggests. Let yourself become involved with
poetry and enjoy the new and special way that poetry makes you think and feel.