Learn the Lingo of Poetry

Contributor: Allison Crews. Lesson ID: 13567

Understanding poetry can be a little intimidating, but learning the vocabulary of poetic devices can make it much easier to understand, appreciate, and analyze this rich literary form.

categories

Comprehension, Writing

subject
Reading
learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Lion, Otter
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Skill Sharpener

Lesson Plan - Get It!

Audio:

Listen to poet William Carlos Williams recite his poem "This Is Just To Say" in the video below.

William Carlos Williams - This Is Just To Say from brownmandeluxe:

  • Would you guess that when you search for an analysis of this 18-second poem, there are over 3 million results?

Even short poems can pack big meaning into very few lines.

Read on to discover the most common devices poets use to create form and meaning in their work.

quill and ink

When analyzing poetry, these are the broad categories to consider:

  • rhyme scheme and meter
  • types of poems
  • figurative language

First Things First

Before you begin, you must know the main component of poetry is the stanza. Stanzas are the paragraphs of poetry.

They are named according to the number of lines they contain. Beginning with one line, these are the names of stanzas by length:

  1. monostitch
  2. couple
  3. tercet
  4. quatrain
  5. quintain
  6. sestet
  7. septet
  8. octave

Types of poems are often differentiated by their rhyme scheme and meter, so let's explore those next. Having a basic understanding of how to recognize rhyme scheme and common metrical forms will go a long way in strengthening your poetry analysis abilities.

These can also be two of the trickier aspects of poetry analysis to master, so let's look at each indiviually.

Rhyme Scheme

Rhyme scheme is a little more straightforward than meter. A poem's rhyme scheme is the pattern of rhyme in the poem.

Look at this classic folk poem as an example:

  Roses are red,  
  violets are blue.  
  Sugar is sweet  
  and so are you.  

 

  • Which lines rhyme in this example?

man with a magnifying glass

We see that lines 2 and 4 rhyme, while lines 1 and 3 do not. When identifying rhyme patterns, each line is given a letter to indicate each unique final sound. So in this case, the rhyme scheme would be ABCB.

Here is the poem once more with the rhyme scheme annotated:

  Roses are red, A
  violets are blue. B
  Sugar is sweet C
  and so are you. B

 

Take a look at another example, from "The Road Not Taken" by Robert Frost:

  Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
  And sorry I could not travel both
  And be one traveler, long I stood
  And looked down one as far as I could
  To where it bent in the undergrowth

 

Of course, not all poems rhyme. In those instances, there is no rhyme scheme to speak of.

Meter

Meter is the rhythm created by the patterns of emphasis on the syllables in each line of a poem.

Read the following line from "The Raven" by Edgar Allan Poe aloud:

  Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,

 

  • Do you hear the rhythmic quality to this line as you read it aloud?

The rhythm comes from the syllabic emphasis of the words.

Syllables are either stressed or unstressed and are marked by symbols. Look at this line annotated with stress symbols:

The Raven line meter

Meter is measured in feet, which are units of 2-3 syllable patterns that repeat throughout the line.

Review some of the common stress patterns as well as the terminology for:

Types of Feet

These are the most common stress patterns:

  • trochee (trochaic): stressed, unstressed
  • iamb (iambic): unstressed, stressed
  • dactyl (dactylic): stressed, two unstressed
  • anapest (anapestic): unstressed, two stressed

Number of Feet

The meter of a poem is also determined by the number of feet per line. The terms for each number of feet are in order starting with 1 as follows:

  1. monometer
  2. dimeter
  3. trimeter
  4. tetrameter
  5. pentameter
  6. hexameter
  7. heptameter
  8. octameter

When counting feet, you determine what the stress pattern of a line is and count how many times that pattern repeats.

For example, look at these two stanzas from "Birches" by Robert Frost:

  When I see birches bend to left and right
  Across the line of straighter darker Trees...

 

First, you would determine the stress pattern to be unstressed/stressed, which makes it iambic. Then, you would count how many sets of unstressed/stressed repeat in each line.

There are five sets (repeating over 10 syllables), so it is pentameter.

Birches meter count

Now, look at the line from "The Raven" again:

The Raven line meter

In the example above, the line has eight feet (sets) of the stress pattern. The stress pattern of this foot is stressed, unstressed. This type of stress pattern is called trochaic octameter.

Sometimes, a poem will have no rhyme scheme or meter. This is called free verse.

If it is unrhymed but is written in iambic pentameter, it is known as blank verse. Shakespeare wrote his plays primarily in blank verse.

It isn't always easy to determine the meter of a poem, and whether or not the meter significantly contributes to the meaning of the poem is not always clear.

It is important to keep in mind that your primary objective when examining poetry is to look for patterns, themes, or ideas that are presented throughout the work--as well as moments when the poet might stray from those patterns.

For a great explanation of this concept with more examples, watch "What is Meter in Poetry?": A Literary Guide for English Students and Teachers from Oregon State University - School of Writing, Literature and Film:

The next step in understanding poetry terminology is identifying different types of poems.

Move on to the Got It? section to learn this vocabulary as well as connect it to your knowledge of rhyme scheme and meter.

more poetry is needed

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