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Basics of Poetry


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Title: Basics of Poetry

Basics of Poetry
  • Introduction to Poetry, Literary Terms, How to
    Read a Poem, and Helpful Websites

Introduction to Poetry by Billy Collins
I ask them to take a poem and hold it up to the
light like a color slide or press an ear
against its hive. I say drop a mouse into a
poem and watch him probe his way out, or walk
inside the poem's room and feel the walls for a
light switch. I want them to water ski across
the surface of a poem waving at the author's
name on the shore. But all they want to do is
tie the poem to a chair with rope and torture a
confession out of it. They begin beating it
with a hose to find out what it really means.
Literary Terms
Allegory - sometimes called an extended metaphor,
is the representation of abstract ideas by
characters or events in narrative, dramatic, or
pictorial form.
  • work-length narratives such as Bunyan's Pilgrim's

As I walked through the wilderness of this world,
I lighted on a certain place where was a den and
laid me down in that place to sleep and as I
slept, I dreamed a dream. I dreamed, and behold,
I saw a man clothed with rags, standing in a
certain place, with his face from his own house,
a book in his hand, and a great burden upon his
back. I looked and saw him open the book, and
read therein and as he read, he wept and
trembled and not being able longer to contain,
he brake out with a lamentable cry, saying, What
shall I do? Bunyans Pilgrims Progress
Alliteration - Alliteration is the succession of
similar consonant sounds. They are not recognized
by spelling, but rather by sounds.
  • Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.
  • The wild and woolly walrus waits and wonders when
    we'll walk by.

Allusion - Referencing a person place or thing,
usually indirectly, that is believed to be known
by the reader. Sometimes these references are
footnoted or glossed.
  • In The Matrix Trinity tells Neo to follow the
    white rabbit a cybernaut tells Neo, fasten
    your seatbelt, Dorothy, cause Kansas is goin
    bye bye. The white rabbit is an allusion to
    Alices Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
    and The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum.

Analogy - The use of words of phrases that share
meaning but are dissimilar.
  • shoe is to foot as tire is to wheel
  • followers are to a leader as planets are to a sun
  • shells were to ancient cultures as dollar bills
    are to modern culture
  • Similes and Metaphors are great examples of

Anaphora - A word or expression used repeatedly
at the beginning of successive phrases. This is
usually used for poetic or rhetorical effect.
  • This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
    This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars, This
    other Eden, demi-paradise,This fortress built by
    Nature for herselfAgainst infection and the hand
    of war,This happy breed of men, this little
    world,This precious stone set in the silver
    sea,Which serves it in the office of a wall,Or
    as a moat defensive to a house,Against the
    envy of less happier landsThis blessed plot,
    this earth, this realm, this England,This nurse,
    this teeming womb of royal kings . . .This
    land of such dear souls, this dear dear
    land,Dear for her reputation through the
    world,Is now leas'd out I die pronouncing it
    Like to a tenement or pelting farm.
  • John of Gaunt in Shakespeare's Richard II
    (2.1.40-51 57-60)

Antithesis - Placing a pair of words, phrases,
clauses, or sentences side by side in contrast
and opposition.
  • "It has been my experience that folks who have no
    vices have very few virtues." Abraham Lincoln

Apostrophe - the addressing of an absent or
imaginary person
  • It appears often in Shakespeare's and Whitman's
    works. An example "O Opportunity, thy guilt is
    great!" from Shakespeare's "The Rape of Lucrece."
    Another "O Night, thou furnace of foul reeking
    smoke!" from the same epic poem.

Assonance - The succession of similar vowel
sounds that are not recognized by spelling,
rather by sound. Do not confuse this with
alliteration which is the repetition of
  • holy and stony
  • fleet feet sweep by sleeping geese
  • The bows glided down, and the coast Blackened
    with birds took a last look At his thrashing
    hair and whale-blue eye The trodden town rang
    its cobbles for luck.
  • --Dylan Thomas
  • Assonance is involved in "bows" (pronounced
    "boughs") and "down" "blackened," "last,"
    "thrashing," "hair," "whale," and "rang" "took"
    and "look" and "trodden" and "cobbles." (In
    passing one might also note the pattern of
    ALLITERATION in this stanza and that the RHYMING
    of look with luck is an example of consonance.

Ballad - A form of verse to be sung or recited
and characterized by its presentation of a
dramatic or exciting EPISODE in simple narrative
  • The Gothic Ballad  I walk carelessly down the
    dark roadMy heavy black boots constantly
    clickingClicking on the cold cementMy long
    black and velvet Trench coat Billowing in the
    slight breezeMy Chest slightly rising under my
    tight corsetMy chains on my pants jingling
    togetherAs I walk down this Moon lit
    roadStaring up at the midnight moonThis is the
    balladThe ballad of the lostOf the silent
    warriorsOf the people you pass by and call
    freaksOf the peopleWho will save your soulFor
    our souls are pureOur souls sing this balladThe
    ballad of the nightThe ballad of the pure hearts
    Ankoku Gekido

Blank Verse - Simply defined as unrhymed verse or
unrhymed iambic pentameter.
  • "To one who has been long in city pent
  • Tis very sweet to look into the fair And open
    face of heaven." (John Keats)

Close Rhyme - A rhyme of two close words.
  • such as "red" "head".

Conceit - An ingenious, logically complicated
image, or an elaborate metaphor.
  • THE Robert HerrickI DREAM'D this
    mortal part of mine Was Metamorphoz'd to a Vine
    Which crawling one and every way, Enthrall'd my
    dainty Lucia. Me thought, her long small legs
    thighs I with my Tendrils did surprize Her
    Belly, Buttocks, and her Waste By my soft
    Nerv'lits were embrac'd About her head I
    writhing hung, And with rich clusters (hid among
    The leaves) her temples I behung So that my
    Lucia seem'd to me Young Bacchus ravished by his
    tree.My curles about her neck did craule, And
    armes and hands they did enthrall So that she
    could not freely stir,(All parts there made one
    prisoner.) But when I crept with leaves to hide
    Those parts, which maids keep unespy'd, Such
    fleeting pleasures there I took,That with the
    fancie I awook And found (Ah me!) this flesh of
    mine More like a Stock then like a Vine.

Consonance - The close repetition of the same end
consonants of stressed syllables with differing
vowel sounds.
  • the "t" sound in "Is it blunt and flat?"
    Alliteration differs from consonance insofar as
    alliteration requires the repeated consonant
    sound to be at the beginning of each word, where
    in consonance it is anywhere within the word,
    although often at the end.

Couplet - Two lines of VERSE with similar
END-RHYMES. Formally, the couplet is a two-line
STANZA with both grammatical structure and idea
complete within itself.
  • From Maxine Kumin's "Morning Swim"
  • Into my empty head there comea cotton beach, a
    dock wherefromI set out, oily and nudethrough
    mist in oily solitude.

Diction - choice of words esp. with regard to
correctness, clearness, or effectiveness
  • In A Lesson Before Dying Jeffersons Diary

Dirge - A poem of grave meditation, or lament.
The dirge is a song of lamentation that is apt to
be less meditative than the elegy.
Dramatic Poem - A composition of verse that
portrays the story of life or character,
involving conflict and emotions.
  • Traditional dramatic poetry differs from dramatic
    prose mainly in the formal construction of the
    poetic utterance, which is organized on the basis
    of a repetitive rhythmic structure for each line.
    Dramatic poetry, in other words, gives us spoken
    language which departs considerably from
    naturalistic speech patterns, mainly because the
    poetry is more tightly and formally organized
    (i.e., patterned).

End Rhyme A rhyme occurring in the terminating
word or syllable of one line of poetry with that
of another line, as opposed to internal rhyme.
Epic - An Epic is a long narrative poem
celebrating the adventures and achievements of a
hero...epics deal with the traditions, mythical
or historical, of a nation.
Beowulf, The Iliad and the Odyssey, and Aeneid
Epigram - Epigrams are short satirical poems
ending with either a humorous retort or a
stinging punch-line.
  • What is an Epigram? A dwarfish whole,Its body
    brevity, and wit its soul.
  • --Samuel Coleridge

Extended Metaphor - A metaphor which is drawn-out
beyond the usual word or phrase to extend
throughout a stanza or an entire poem, usually by
using multiple comparisons between the unlike
objects or ideas.
  • Well, son, I'll tell youLife for me ain't been
    no crystal stair.It's had tacks in it,And
    splinters,And boards torn up,And places with no
    carpet on the floor --Bare.But all the
    timeI'se been a-climbin' on,And reachin'
    landin's,And turnin' corners,And sometimes
    goin' in the darkWhere there ain't been no
    light.So boy, don't you turn back.Don't you set
    down on the steps'Cause you finds it's kinder
    hard.Don't you fall now --For I'se still goin',
    honey,I'se still climbin',And life for me ain't
    been no crystal stair.
  • -- Mother to Son by Langston Hughes

Foot A rhythmic or metrical unit the division
in verse of a group of syllables, one of which is
long or accented.
  • Iamb or Iambus (iambic) u /
  • behold, amuse, arise, awake, return, Noel,
    depict, destroy, inject,
  • inscribe, insist, employ, "to be," inspire,
    unwashed, "Of Mice and
  • Men," "the South will rise again."
  • Trochee (trochaic) / u
  • / u
  • happy, hammer, Pittsburgh, nugget, double,
    incest, injure, roses,
  • hippie, bubba, beat it, clever, dental, dinner,
    shatter, pitcher,
  • Cleveland, chosen, planet, chorus, widow,
    bladder, cuddle, slacker,
  • doctor, Memphis, "Doctor Wheeler," "Douglas
    County," market, picket
  • Spondee (spondaic) / /
  • / /
  • football, Mayday, D-Day, heartbreak, Key West,
    shortcake, plopplop,
  • fizz-fizz, drop-dead, dead man, dumbbell,
    childhood, goofoff,
  • race-track, bathrobe, black hole, breakdown,
  • Dactyl (dactylic) / u u
  • / u u
  • strawberry, carefully, changeable, merrily,
    mannequin, tenderly,

Free Verse - Poetry that is based on the
irregular rhythmic CADENCE or the recurrence,
with variations, of phrases, images, and
syntactical patterns rather than the conventional
use of METER. RHYME may or may not be present in
free verse, but when it is, it is used with great
  • All truths wait in all things They neither
    hasten their own delivery nor resist it, They do
    not need the obstetric forceps of the surgeon.
  • --Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

Haiku - A form of Japanese poetry which states in
three lines of five, seven, and five syllables a
clear picture designed to arouse a distinct
emotion and suggest a specific spiritual insight.
  • Green frog,Is your body alsofreshly painted?
  • -- Ryunosuke Akutagawa

Homonym - One of two or more words that have the
same sound and often the same spelling but differ
in meaning.
  • such as n. wind (moving air) and v. wind (to wrap
    or entwine)

Hyperbole - A figure of speech in which
exaggeration is used for emphasis or effect
  • "I'm so hungry, I could eat a horse.
  • mile-high ice-cream cones

Iambic - A metrical foot consisting of an
unaccented syllable (noted by "x") and an
accented or stressed one.
  • the most common metrical measure in English
    verse. A line from Christopher Marlow serves to
  • x / x / x /
    x /
  • Come live with me and be my love.

Imagery Elements in literature used to evoke
mental images of the visual sense, and sometimes
of sensation and emotion as well.
  • I took a walk around the world toEase my
    troubled mindI left my body laying somewhereIn
    the sands of timeI watched the world float to
    the darkSide of the moonI feel there is nothing
    I can do
  • --"Kryptonite" by Three Doors Down

Internal Rhyme a rhyme occurring in mid-line
  • the first stanza of Edgar Allan Poes "The
  • Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered,
    weak and weary,Over many a quaint and curious
    volume of forgotten lore,While I nodded, nearly
    napping, suddenly there came a tapping,As of
    someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber
    door." 'Tis some visitor," I muttered, "tapping
    at my chamber doorOnly this, and nothing more."
  • Note that in lines 1 and 3 you get an internal
    rhyme with "dreary" and "weary," and "napping"
    and "tapping."

Line - A formal structural division of a poem,
consisting of one or more feet arranged as a
separate rhythmical entity.
  • The line is a "unit of attention," but it is not
    necessarily a unit of sense in fact, poems are
    rather rare in which individual lines constitute
    complete sense units. For this reason, line
    divisions, unless they happen to coincide with
    sense pauses (whether indicated by punctuation or
    not), are often as unrelated to the rhetoric of
    poetic assertions as foot divisions. Lines are
    commonly classified according to their length in
  • monometer a line of 1 foot
  • Dimeter 2 feet
  • trimeter 3 feet
  • tetrameter 4 feet
  • pentameter 5 feet
  • hexameter 6 feet
  • heptameter 7 feet
  • octameter 8 feet

Meter A measure of rhythmic quantity organized
into groups of syllables at regular intervals in
a line of poetry
  • English poetry employs five basic rhythms of
    varying stressed (/) and unstressed (x)
    syllables. The meters are iambs, trochees,
    spondees, anapests and dactyls. In this document
    the stressed syllables are marked in boldface
    type rather than the tradition al "/" and "x."
    Each unit of rhythm is called a "foot" of poetry.
  • The meters with two-syllable feet are
  • IAMBIC (x /) That time of year thou mayst in me
  • TROCHAIC (/ x) Tell me not in mournful numbers
  • SPONDAIC (/ /) Break, break, break/ On thy cold
    gray stones, O Sea!
  • Meters with three-syllable feet are
  • ANAPESTIC (x x /) And the sound of a voice that
    is still
  • DACTYLIC (/ x x) This is the forest primeval,
    the murmuring pines and the hemlock (a trochee
    replaces the final dactyl)

Metaphor - Used to suggest a relationship between
an object or idea
  • No man is an island John Donne

Ode - An elaborately composed verse that is
enthusiastic in tone. It often has varying iambic
line lengths with no fixed system of rhyme
schemes. It often addresses a praised person or
  • crop from George Keats's manuscript copy of 'Ode
    on a Grecian Urn'
  • Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness,    
    Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
    Sylvan historian, who canst thou express     A
    flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme What
    leaf-fring'd legend haunt about thy shape     Of
    deities or mortals, or of both,         In Tempe
    or the dales of Arcady?     What men or gods are
    these?  What maidens loth? What mad pursuit? 
    What struggle to escape?         What pipes and
    timbrels?  What wild ecstasy?

Onomatopoeia - Words used in place of where a
reader should hear sounds.
  • Words such as pop, crackle, snap, whiz, buzz,
    zing, etc.

Oxymoron - The joining of two words that seem to
be contradictory (opposites), but offer a unique
  • such as living deaths, freezing fires, deafening
    silence, and pretty ugly

Pattern Poetry Poetry written with words,
letters, and lines to produce a visual image to
help convey the idea or topic of the poem
  • by George Herbert
  • Lord, who createdst man in wealth and store,  
    Though foolishly he lost the same,     Decaying
    more and more,      Till he became       
    Most poore        With thee      Oh let me
    rise As larks, harmoniously, And sing this
    day  thy victoriesThen shall the fall further
    the flight in me.My  tender  age  in  sorrow  
    did   beginne   And still with sicknesses and
    shame     Thou  didst  so  punish  sinne,   
       That  I  became         Most thinne.  
          With  thee        Let me combine    And
    feel this day thy victorie  For,  if  I  imp 
    my  wing  on  thine Affliction shall  advance
    the  flight in  me.

Personification - A form of metaphor where an
inanimate object, animal, or idea is given
human-like characteristics
  • such as "Night swallowed the sun's last ray of

Pun - A play on words that sound similar for a
humorous effect.
  • I do it for the pun of it" "his constant
    punning irritated her" 

Repitition - Repetition of a sound, syllable,
word, phrase, line, stanza, or metrical pattern
is a basic unifying device in all poetry. It may
reinforce, supplement, or even substitute for
meter, the other chief controlling factor in the
arrangement of words into poetry.
  • Because I do not hope to turn againBecause I do
    not hopeBecause I do not hope to turn
  • --T.S. Eliot

Rhetorical Question A question asked for
effect, but not demanding an answer
When someone responds to a tragic event by
saying, "Why me, God?!" it is more likely to be
an accusation or an expression of feeling than a
realistic request for information.
Rhyme - A recurrence of similar ending sounds at
the ends of a poetic line/verse
  • such as 'run' and 'sun', or 'night' and 'light'.

Rhythm - The rise and fall of stress (stressed
and unstressed syllables) a metrical pattern or
flow of sound in verse
Sonnet - A lyric poem of fourteen lines,
following one or another of several set
  • The two characteristic sonnet types are the
    Italian (Petrarchan) and the English
  • Sonnet -Sonnet 1
  • From fairest creatures we desire increase, That
    thereby beauty's rose might never die, But as
    the riper should by time decease, His tender
    heir might bear his memory But thou, contracted
    to thine own bright eyes, Feed'st thy light'st
    flame with self-substantial fuel, Making a
    famine where abundance lies, Thyself thy foe, to
    thy sweet self too cruel. Thou that art now the
    world's fresh ornament And only herald to the
    gaudy spring, Within thine own bud buriest thy
    content And, tender churl, makest waste in
    niggarding. Pity the world, or else this glutton
    be, To eat the world's due, by the grave and

Sight Rhyme - A rhyme consisting of words with
similar spellings but different sounds. Also
called eye rhyme.
  • such as the blowing wind does wind down the

Simile - A comparison between two unlike things
using like or as, etc.
  • such as "Your eyes are like sparkling diamonds".

Stanza - One of the divisions of a poem, composed
of two or more lines of verse usually
characterized by a common pattern of meter,
rhyme, or number of lines.
  • Style - The poet's individual creative
  • process, through figurative language,
  • sounds, and rhythmic patterns.

Symbol - An image or icon that represents
something else by association.
  • "The Sick Rose"
  •   O rose, thou art sick!      The invisible
    worm      That flies in the night,      In the
    howling storm,
  •       Has found out thy bed      Of crimson
    joy,      And his dark secret love      Does
    thy life destroy.
  • --
    William Blake                            Blake
    uses the rose as a symbol for all that is
    beautiful, natural and desirable. He uses the
    worm to symbolize the evil that destroys natural
    beauty and love. The poem is more than a
    description of an infested flower bed.

Theme The central idea, topic, or subject of
artistic representation.
  • Tone - the pitch of a word often used to
  • express differences of meaning a particular
  • pitch or change of pitch constituting an
  • element in the intonation of a phrase or
  • sentence high low mid low-rising)
  • falling , style or manner of expression in
  • speaking or writing

How to Read a Poem
  • Read on until theres a punctuation mark.
  • A poems line breaks indicate thought groupings,
    but dont break at the end of each line.
  • If youre baffled, find the subject and verb.
  • Sometimes, when passages are difficult to
    understand, you can clarify the meaning by
    finding the subject, verb, and complement of each
    sentence. Try to paraphrase.
  • Look for figures of speechand think about them.
  • Figurative language is part of what makes
    poetry, poetry.

Still Reading that Poem
  • Listen to the sounds.
  • Always read a poem aloud to yourself. Poets
    choose evocative words for their sound as well as
    their meaning.
  • One reading isnt enough.
  • Respond to a poem on first meeting it, and then
    talk about the poem with other readers before you
    read it carefully again. On your second reading,
    youll notice new details and develop new
    insights and when you read it for the third
    time, the poem will feel comfortably yours.
  • Perform the poem.
  • When you give a poem a dramatic reading for an
    audience, you can emphasize the mood and feelings
    the words and images evoke. Then the poem really
    comes alive.

Helpful Websites
  • http//
  • Click on these terms for an excellent definition
    of these poetic terms, some from the Oxford
    English Dictionary. Includes types of poetry as
    well as terms.
  • http//
  • This A-Z "poetry handbook" is really an
    extensive, online glossary of the terminology
    used to describe and discuss the structure and
    content of poetry.
  • http//
  • An exhaustive list of literary terms and
    techniques with explanations that often include
    examples. The terms are presented in the order in
    which the author's students would be exposed to
    them in a semester of English literature, so you
    would need to scroll or do a "Find" for a
    specific term.
  • http//
  • The terms and definitions might seem different,
    as this is a British site, but they are all
    easily understood, and it's a fairly extensive
    list. Scroll down to view the long list of terms
    to choose from.

More Helpful Websites
  • http//
  • Discover the definitions for the buzz words in
    poetry through this site.
  • http//
  • Calling itself "unique," Bob's is easy to use,
    with cross-links throughout, phonetic
    pronunciation guides when necessary, and many
    examples and quotations. Click on the letter and
    scroll for the word.
  • http//
  • This site, designed to help students who are
    writing about poetry, defines many significant
    terms related to poetry, including figurative
    language, poetic genres, and the mechanics of
    rhythm and meter. Examples are also provided in
    addition to the definitions.
  • http//
  • This glossary defines many common literary terms.
  • http//
  • An extensive glossary of literary terms provided
    in alphabetical format with hyperlink cross
    references from a major library publisher.