What Makes A Poem A Poem?

Contributor: Jennifer Blanchard. Lesson ID: 13619

Just like with fiction, nonfiction, and other subgenres of text, there are certain elements that classify writing as a poem. Learn how to recognize, understand, and apply these elements!


Literary Studies, Writing

English / Language Arts
learning style
personality style
Golden Retriever
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Quick Query

Lesson Plan - Get It!


Would you rather...

  • only read poetry or only read fiction novels for the rest of your life?
  • be stuck on a very long car ride with a book collection of poems or no book at all?
  • become famous for writing poems or for writing and illustrating graphic novels?

A lot of people start out with negative feelings about poetry.

  • What do you think your impression of poetry is?

In this lesson, you will learn the elements, or characteristics, of poetry and discover what makes a poem a poem!

This is important because, by knowing the elements, you will know what to look for when reading poetry, and that will help you understand poems better. You will also know what to include when writing poetry.

poetry elements

  • So, what did you discover from your answers to the "Would You Rather?" questions above?
  • Would you choose anything else over reading and writing poems?
  • What did your responses show you about your overall feeling of poetry?

Let's try one more question.

  • If someone says the word "poetry" to you, what do you immediately think and feel?

Write down whatever words come to your mind.

Maybe you have positive feelings about poetry. If so, this lesson is right up your alley!

If not, don't fret! You are similar to many other high schoolers in this way.

This lesson will help you to understand poetry better, which will help you to appreciate it and like it more! After all, the topics you typically like the best are the ones you understand the most!

First, let's think more deeply about what poetry actually is.

Check out The elements of a poem | Reading | Khan Academy (Unlisted):

  • How would you sum up poetry?

As you watched that video, you heard the speaker mention some parts, or elements, of poetry.

Let's learn (or be reminded of!) some of the main elements that characterize what a poem is. Not every poem will contain ALL of these, but you will recognize most in poems.

Form of a Poem

Element What It Is
  • line

a group of words arranged into a row

  • line break

deliberate space where a line ends and the next one begins

  • stanza

a part of a poem, made up of two or more lines (similar to what a paragraph is in other types of writing)


Sound in a Poem

Element What It Is
  • rhyme

words, or endings of words, that sound the same

  • rhyme scheme

the ordered patterns of rhymes at the ends of lines

  • rhythm

the beat and pace of a poem; the stressed and unstressed syllables in a line

  • free verse

poem that has no rhythm or rhyme


Type of Language

Element What It Is
  • imagery
  • figurative language

words used purposefully (with lots of details) to reach the reader's senses or to create an image in the reader's mind

  • simile

a comparison between two objects using like or as

  • metaphor

a comparison between two objects without the words like or as

  • alliteration

when words next to each other start with the same letter or sound

  • personification

giving human characteristics to something nonhuman

  • hyperbole

a statement that shows something as being bigger or worse than it really is

  • onomatopoeia

when a word describes a sound and actually mimics the sound of the object it is talking about

  • symbol

something that stands for or represents something else



Element What It Is
  • tone

the attitude of the poet

  • mood

the feeling created by the poet for the reader


That was a lot of information, so let's check in.

  • With which one of those were you already familiar?
  • Which element(s) stood out as being new to you or different from what you rememembered?

Let's look at a poem now to see examples of a few of these elements.

First, read Mother to Son by Langston Hughes, courtesy of Poetry Foundation. Keep in mind that sometimes you must read a poem more than once in order to understand it while also appreciating the elements that are used.

  • Did you notice any of the elements discussed above?

Now, check out some of the examples I found:


Element Example in the Poem
  • line

Well, son, I'll tell you

  • line break

Well, son, I'll tell you (line break)

Life for me ain't been no crystal stair (line break)

  • stanza

There are no big spaces between lines, so the entire poem is one stanza.

  • rhyme
  • rhyme scheme

There were no rhyming words.

  • free verse

This is a free verse poem because there is no rhyme or rhyme scheme.

  • imagery
  • figurative language

Crystal stair

had tacks in it


boards torn up

place with no carpet on the floor-Bare

  • metaphor

Life ain't no crystal stair

  • symbol

Bare floor = empty and not beautiful parts of life

  • tone


  • mood

motivating but realistic, honest


Some of the other elements mentioned above that were not in this poem can be explored with the videos on the slides below. You don't need to watch these entire videos, but be sure to click around until you see an example of each term!

  • Do you think you've got this down?


It's not just useful to know and recognize the elements of poetry. The next step is thinking about the purpose of that element in the poem or WHY it is used in the poem.

Move on to the Got It? section to practice working with these elements!

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