While poetry may be hard to define because of all of the different styles and variations it contains, it can give us a much better understanding of poetry if we know the various styles, conventions and tools that the writers of poetry use.
Whether you want to have a better understanding of poetry to enhance your reading experience, or to become a better writer of poetry, then having a good knowledge of these basics will be a massive help. Having a good understanding of poetry is undoubtedly good for both sides, as famous poet Walt Whitman once said:
“To have great poets, there must be great audiences.”
Poetry is usually written to capture or evoke an emotional experience, and often uses succinct language (often arranged in a specific pattern) and powerful imagery to achieve this. Different types of poem have different ‘rules’ or conventions, and how the writer employs these in their work can impact the reader in various ways. Many completely different types of poem can use some of the same tools – sometimes for the same reason, but sometimes in a completely different way to create a completely different effect.
There are five major elements which are used in poetry to create, project, or enhance the message or desired emotional response. These are:
- Sound Devices
- Figurative Language
The form of a poem is how it appears on the page, or how the words are physically arranged. This is mainly in relation to the lines of a poem, and then the stanzas those lines are arranged in. A line of poetry is different from a sentence in prose, because there can be breaks in lines wherever the writer wants them. One sentence can take up several lines, depending on how the poet has decided to arrange it. Stanzas are groups of lines, which are separated by a space. These are like paragraphs in prose, or verses in songs. Each usually conveys a single idea, with the next stanza either building on that idea in a different way, or moving on to explore another.
Some common stanza types include couplets, which is a pair of lines that rhyme with each other, and quatrains, which are stanzas made up of four lines.
The form of the poem is the main way that poems are classified into types. There are many types of poem, but each type has a certain form that it must follow, or else it does not fit in that category. Of course, poets use whichever form they like when writing the poem, so sometimes they will stray from the conventions of a form on purpose, knowing that by doing that, they are essentially making up a new form that probably doesn’t have a classification. However, the vast majority of poems fit into certain types.
Four of the most well-known forms of poem (in no particular order) are:
- Free Verse
Ballads are often called structured form, or lyric poetry, because they follow a regular repeated pattern, in much the same way that songs have repeated patterns. This can be in terms of the rhythm of the lines, the rhyme structure, repeated phrases, etc. The rhyme and rhythm (or meter) of the lines is often the most important or most noticeable feature of a ballad, as these elements make them very musical and memorable. (This is the form of poetry that I tend to prefer, and the majority of my own poems would be classed as ballads, or lyric poetry.)
Haiku are a short form of poetry which originated in Japan and has seen a resurgence of popularity in recent years. These consist of three lines with a strict syllable pattern. The first and third lines must contain five syllables, while the middle line must have seven.
Limericks are humorous poems of five lines, with a rhyme scheme consisting of two different couplets, then a fifth line which rhymes with the first couplet. So if we assign letters to each of the rhymes, with ‘a’ being the first rhyme and ‘b’ being the second, the lines would have a pattern of a-a-b-b-a. They also follow a particular rhythm, with the third and fourth lines being shorter than the other three lines. The last line is usually a subversion of what the reader is supposed to expect, or a punchline of some sort.
Free Verse is any poem that has no regular pattern. They do not use meter or rhyme, and tend not to include any other repeated linguistic tools such as alliteration or assonance. While they may employ some of these, they tend to be used sparingly, and not in a pattern that repeats throughout the whole poem.
The speaker is the voice in which the poem is written, in the same way as the narrator of a story. Much like in novels, the perspective we are given in a poem is not necessarily that of the writer, but can often be a third party, including a fictional character.
Poetry started out as a spoken art before it was ever written down, and sound devices have been employed since the beginning. These are language tools which can be used to make the poem ‘sound’ more interesting – even when read silently on the page, because we tend to ‘hear’ the sounds of the words in our heads as we read. Even people who don’t necessarily experience poems in this way can still recognise and appreciate the language patterns.
Five common sound devices are:
- Rhyme – repeating similar sounds at the end of words (usually used at the ends of lines, although it can also be used in the middle, or even at the beginning of lines).
- Rhythm – the number of syllables in a line, and the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. This is done by carefully selecting words which naturally have stressed (or emphasised) and unstressed syllables in the right place to give the lines a certain beat.
- Repetition – repeating words, phrases or even complete lines or stanzas are often used in poetry because it is an effective tool for emphasis. By repeating something over and over again, it ensures that the reader will take extra notice of it and that it will stick in their minds.
- Alliteration – repeating the same consonant sounds, mostly at the beginning of words – which are often words which start with the same letter or combination of letters, or those with a letter which sounds similar to another letter. For example, repeating words which start with a ‘sh’ sound would create a very different effect to repeating words beginning with ‘c’ or ‘k’. The sounds used are often a reflection of the mood of the poem in some way. (Sibilance is the term used for alliteration of an ‘s’ sound, although no other alliterative sounds are referred to by their own name.)
- Onomatopoeia – words that imitate sounds, such as ‘bang’, ‘tweet’ (in terms of the sound of birds, not the verb meaning to post an update on your twitter account – although we should note that the word ‘twitter’ is also onomatopoeia), ‘pop’, ‘click’, ‘boom’, or – as popularised by Marvel’s X-Men comics – ‘snikt’. I doubt the last one has actually featured in many poems, but you never know (and a quick search shows that a few people have written poems about The Hulk – including this one by Kendrick Youngblood, so it’s definitely possible that Wolverine has a few of his own, too).
Imagery is any language which is designed to appeal to one of the reader’s five senses. Describing something that the speaker can see, hear, smell, taste or feel can help the reader to become more immersed in the scene or moment that is being described.
Figurative Language (also commonly referred to as ‘figures of speech’) is when writers make comparisons and emphasise features of a certain thing to help the reader understand it in a new and interesting way. These are often everyday, ordinary things (whether they be objects, animals, experiences, emotions, etc.) but which the writer shows in a new way that the reader had probably not thought of before.
While literal language is anything that means exactly what it says, figurative language means something different from the actual words being used, so it usually needs some interpretation from the person reading or hearing it. That being said, the amount of thought or analysis to work out what the person actually means can vary widely, but is usually kept within the realms that most people can understand straight away.
The most common figurative language devices are:
- Simile – a comparison between two different things using ‘like’, ‘than’ or ‘as’.
- Metaphor – a comparison that does not use ‘like’, ‘than’ or ‘as’ – it makes a comparison by saying that one thing is another thing, when we know that they are not literally the same thing. One good example of this is the popular saying ‘Time is money’. Obviously, we know that time and money are completely separate concepts/constructs, but the phrase means that to waste time would have implications to the person beyond the loss of the time itself.
- Personification – giving human characteristics to nonhuman things.
- Hyperbole – exaggerating something to the maximum degree – words usually ending in ‘est’ – ‘greatest’, ‘highest’, ‘strongest’ – claiming something to be the ultimate form of that thing. This also works in reverse, as hyperbole can be used to mean that something is the absolute worst version of that thing. It is expressing things as extremes to make them seem either exponentially better or worse than they are.
- Idiom – a common phrase or expression, usually local to a specific country or region, which is not meant to be taken literally, but the intended meaning is well known among those who use it. Idioms usually sound like gibberish or misinterpretations when they are translated into other languages, because their meaning is usually completely unconnected to the actual words used. One example would be the English idiom ‘you’re pulling my leg’, which means ‘you’re joking with me’, or ‘you’re trying to trick me’.
So, whether you are reading or writing poetry (or both), you should keep these five elements of poetry in mind. They will give you a better understanding of how poetry is written and how the various tools work together to make your favourite poems as powerful or entertaining as they are.
Thank you for reading. You can also read some samples of my poetry by clicking here.