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Elements of Poetry

When you read a poem, pay attention to some basic ideas:

Voice (Who is speaking? How are they speaking?)

Stanzas (how lines are grouped)

Sound (includes rhyme, but also many other patterns)

Rhythm (what kind of "beat" or meter does the poem have?)

Figures of speech (many poems are full of metaphors and other figurative language)

Form (there are standard types of poem)



Voice is a word people use to talk about the way poems "talk" to the reader.

Lyric poems and narrative poems are the ones you will see most. Lyric poems express the feelings of the writer. A narrative poem tells a story.

Some other types of voice are mask, apostrophe, and conversation. A mask puts on the identity of someone or something else, and speaks for it. Apostrophe talks to something that can't answer (a bee, the moon, a tree) and is good for wondering, asking, or offering advice. Conversation is a dialogue between two voices and often asks us to guess who the voices are.


A stanza is a group within a poem which may have two or many lines. They are like paragraphs.

Some poems are made of REALLY short stanzas, called couplets--two lines that rhyme, one after the other, usually equal in length.


One of the most important things poems do is play with sound. That doesn't just mean rhyme. It means many other things. The earliest poems were memorized and recited, not written down, so sound is very important in poetry.

Rhyme - Rhyme means sounds agree. "Rhyme" usually means end rhymes (words at the end of a line). They give balance and please the ear. Sometimes rhymes are exact. Other times they are just similar. Both are okay.

You mark rhyme in a poem with the letters of the alphabet. For instance, in this stanza:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
the rhyme scheme is aaba (because "know," "though," and "snow" rhyme, they are marked "a," while "here" is another rhyme, and is marked "b")

Repetition - Repetition occurs when a word or phrase used more than once. Repetition can create a pattern

Refrain - Lines repeated in the same way, that repeat regularly in the poem.

Alliteration - Alliteration is the repetition of the same sound in different words.

Onomatopoeia - Onomatopoeia means words or phrases that sound like the things they are describing. (hiss, zoom, bow-wow, etc.)

Consonance - Consonance happens when consonants agree in words, though they may not rhyme. (fast, lost)

Assonance - Assonance happens when vowels agree in words, though they may not rhyme. (peach, tree)


Meter (or metrics) - When you speak, you don't say everything in a steady tone like a hum--you'd sound funny. Instead, you stress parts of words. You say different parts of words with different volume, and your voice rises and falls as if you were singing a song. Mostly, we don't notice we're doing it. Poetry in English is often made up of poetic units or feet. The most common feet are the iamb, the trochee, the anapest, and the dactyl. Each foot has one stress or beat.

Depending on what kind of poem you're writing, each line can have anywhere from one to many stressed beats, otherwise known as feet. Most common are:

Trimeter (three beats)

Tetrameter (four beats)

Pentameter (five beats)

You also sometimes see dimeter (two beats) and hexameter (six beats) but lines longer than that can't be said in one breath, so poets tend to avoid them.

Figures of speech

Figures of speech are also called figurative language. The most well-known figures of speech are are simile, metaphor, and personification. They are used to help with the task of "telling, not showing."

Simile - a comparison of one thing to another, using the words "like," "as," or "as though."

Metaphor - comparing one thing to another by saying that one thing is another thing. Metaphors are stronger than similes, but they are more difficult to see.

Personification - speaking as if something were human when it's not.

Poetic forms

There are a number of common poetic forms. .

Ballad - story told in verse. A ballad stanza is usually four lines, and there is often a repetitive refrain. As you might guess, this form started out as a song. An example of a traditional Scottish ballad is Lord Randal at

Haiku - a short poem with seventeen syllables, usually written in three lines with five syllables in the first line, seven in the second, and five in the third. The present tense is used, the subject is one thing happening now, and words are not repeated. It does not rhyme. The origin of the haiku is Japanese.

Cinquain - a five-line poem with two syllables in the first line, four in the second, six in the third, eight in the fourth, and two in the fifth. It expresses one image or thought, in one or possibly two sentences.

Villanelle - a 19-line poem with five tercets and one quatrain at the end. Two of the lines are repeated alternately at the ends of the tercets, and finish off the poem: the first line and the third line of the first tercet. Although it sounds very complicated, it's like a song or a dance and easy to see once you've looked at a villanelle.

Limerick - A five-line poem, usually meant to be funny. The rhythm is anapests. Lines 1, 2, and 5 rhyme with one another, and lines 3 and 4 rhyme with one another. Lines 1, 2, and 5 have three feet, lines 3 and 4 have two feet. An iamb can be substituted for an anapest in the first foot of any line. The last foot can add another unstressed beat for the rhyming effect.

Sonnet - There are different types of sonnet. The most familiar to us is made of three quatrains and ends with a couplet. They tend to be complicated and elegant. William Shakespeare wrote the most well-known sonnets.

Free verse (or open form) - Much modern poetry does not obviously rhyme and doesn't have a set meter. However, sound and rhythm are often still important, and it is still often written in short lines.

Concrete poetry (pattern or shape poetry) is a picture poem, in which the visual shape of the poem contributes to its meaning.


This page last modified November 2, 2012
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Copyright ©2003-2010 Delia Marshall Turner, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.
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