(from "Fields of Vision" by Denis Delaney, Ciaran Ward, Carla Rho Fiorina)
modern poet, when asked the question ‘What is poetry?’, replied that poetry,
unlike prose, is a form of writing in which few lines run to the edge of the
page! The American poet Robert Frost contended that ‘poetry is the kind of
thing poets write’. While these replies, at first, may not seem serious, they
inadvertently reveal two important aspects of poetry: the first quotation
indicates the arrangement of the words on the page as an important element of
poetry, while the second emphasises that there is a special ‘poetic’ way of
using language. A working definition may, therefore, be that poetry emerges
form the interplay between the meaning of words and their arrangement on paper;
or – as the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge put it – ‘poetry is the best
words in their best order’.
before humans could read and write, they
created, understood, and valued poetry. Historic events, natural catastrophes,
and dramatic predictions were remembered and embellished in the verses of
song-makers, court poets, and minstrels, who also invented ballads recording
the universal emotions evoked by lovers’ quarrels, forbidden romance, and
The works of early poets were
recited or sung; the audience gathered in groups and listened. These ancient
settings suggest the important connection between the sound of a poem and the
meaning it creates. More than any other qualities, rhythm and structural
patterns distinguish poetry from prose. Today, most poetry is read silently and
alone. To bring poetry to life, however, we must reach back into the past to
revive its music.
Nowadays poems come in all shapes and sizes, they
share certain characteristics. Imagery, metaphors and symbols make poetry dense
with meaning. Sound features, such as rhyme, rhythm and repetition, give the
language a special musical quality. The standard rules of grammar and syntax
are often ignored, so that the language may be used in a striking or original
Poetry, like all literature, is a writer’s
attempt to communicate to others his emotional and intellectual response to his
own experiences and to the world that surrounds him. The poet puts words
together to make the reader feel what he has felt and experience what he has
(from "Responding to Literature" by Judith A. Stanford)
Although not all poems fit neatly into
categories, the two major types of poems are narrative and lyric.
Narrative poems tell stories. They often present a significant episode or
series of episodes in the life of one primary character (or, sometimes, two
primary characters). Lyric poems express the feeling, musings, or emotions of a
single character (the speaker).
Poetry Examples of narrative poems include long epics (such as
Homer’s Iliad or Milton’s
Paradise Lost) as well as short ballads (such as "Lord Randal”, P. 850). Nearly
all narrative poems stress action and suggest a conflict. Many focus on a moral
choice or difficult decision. For examples of modern narrative poems, see William Stafford’s "Traveling through the Dark”,
Seamus Heaney’s "Mid-Term Break”, Kristine Batey's "Lot’s Wife”.
Lyric Poetry The
word "lyric" comes from the lyre, the Greek instrument used for musical
accompaniment of poetry, which was often sung or chanted. Although a lyric poem
may depict an outward action, it generally focuses on inward reactions,
insights, or responses. Lyric poems are written in many forms, including the
following: sonnets and ballads.
comes from the Italian word ‘sonetto’, which means ‘little song or sound’. In a
sonnet a poem expresses his thoughts and feelings in fourteen lines. The sonnet
originated in Italy,
where it was popularized by the fourteenth-century poet Petrarch. In the
Italian or Petrarchan sonnet the first eight lines – the octave – introduce the
subject while the last six lines – the sestet – provides a comment and express
the personal feelings of the poet. The rhyming scheme is usually
ABBA-ABBA-CDC-CDC. The first poet to introduce the Italian sonnet to England was Sir
Thomas Wyatt. Wyatt’s sonnets are largely translations or imitations of those
of Petrarch. However, he changed the rhyming scheme of the sestet to CDDC-EE,
thus creating a quatrain (four lines) and a couplet (two lines). The Earl of
Surrey developed the sestet even further, separating the couplet from the
quatrain and using it to comment on the previous twelve lines. The final
pattern for the English sonnet comprised of three quatrains (four lines) and a
couplet (two lines) with the following rhyming scheme: ABAB-CDCD-EFEF-GG. This
is the sonnet form that Shakespeare inherited, and indeed this form is often
referred to as the Shakespearean sonnet.
(or Petrarchan) Sonnet The Italian sonnet is divided in two parts, an octave (eight
lines) with the rhyme scheme abbaabba and a
sestet (six lines) with the rhyme scheme cdecde (or some variation). The
octave usually develops an idea or image, and the sestet comments on this idea
(or Shakespearean) Sonnet The English sonnet falls into tree quatrains
(four lines) and a concluding couplet (two lines). The rhyme scheme is abab cdcd efef
The first three quatrains usually develop an idea or image, and the closing
couplet comments on this idea or image. For an example, see Shakespeare’s "Let
me not to the marriage of true minds” (P. 721).
Open-form lyric poems do not follow any particular pattern or structure.
Standard Poetic Forms
short stories in verse, often accompanied by music, that belong to an oral
tradition of poetry. Ballads share the following features:
they rarely tell a story
from beginning to end. They take us immediately into the story and often open
when the narrative has turned towards its catastrophe or resolution. We know
little of the events leading up to the climax;
description is brief and
conventional and very little information is given about the characters;
the narrative is impersonal
– the narrator tells the story without expressing his personal attitudes or
feelings. There is no moral moment on the characters’ behaviour, and the
motives behind their actions are largely unexplained;
in many ballads, words,
expressions and phrases and entire verses are repeated. A line or group of
lines which is repeated throughout the ballad is called a refrain;
many ballads contain stock
descriptive phrases such as ‘milk-white steed’, ‘blood-red wine’, ‘gallant
knight’ or ‘snow white’. While other forms of poetry are characterized by
individualistic or original figures of speech, the ballad employs a limited
stock of images and descriptive adjectives which the performer could easily
ballads are composed in
simple two or four line stanzas. The stanza usually consists of alternate four
and three stress lines rhyming on the second and fourth line:
The wind so cold blew south and north
And blew into
Quoth our goodman to our goowife
Go out and bar
(Get up and bar the door)
of a sound that makes you relax, like the gentle lapping of water against
rocks. Now think of a sound that you cannot stand, perhaps the screeching of
chalk against a blackboard. Different sounds have different effects on us. The
sounds of language also create different responses in us and writers,
especially poets, use this in their work. By choosing words for their sound as
well as their meaning, writers create a musicality in their work that can evoke
strong emotional responses and reinforce the meaning they wish to convey.
most common sound features are rhyme, alliteration, assonance and onomatopoeia.
term rhyme refers to the effect that
is created when a poet repeats the same sound at the end of two or more lines.
Rhyme has several important functions:
it adds a musical quality to
it marks the end of each
it makes the poem easier to
it affects the pace and tone
of the poem.
There are several different types
masculine rhyme: the beginning of the syllable varies while the rest stays
the same, for example day/say light/night;
feminine rhyme matches two syllable words or parts of word: ocean/motion, pretending/bending;
matches three-syllable words: beautiful/dutiful, comparison/garrison;
true, or perfect
rhyme: the rhymed sounds correspond exactly, for example: boat/float, double/trouble;
rhyme, or slant rhyme): the sound of two words is similar, but it is not
as close as is required in true or perfect rhyme. Generally the words contain
identical vowels or identical consonants but not both, for example loads/lids/lads, road/moan/boat;
rhymes fall at the end of the lines;
occur within the same line:
a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary
Raven, Edgar Allan Poe)
the repetition of the same initial consonant sound in a sequence of nearby
words. In Anglo-Saxon times, before the introduction of rhyme, alliteration
gave the language of poetry its musical quality and made the poems, which were
often recited, easier to remember. Alliteration is still popular in modern
poetry and can also be found in songs, headlines and everyday expressions such
as ‘black and blue’, ‘safe and sound’ and ‘right as rain’.
the repetition of similar or identical vowel sounds in a sequence of nearby
words containing different consonants. It creates ‘vowel rhyme’ as in break/play, hope/spoke.
Like alliteration, assonance adds a
musical quality to the language and it also establishes rhythm:
open, broad sounds ‘o’, ‘u’,
‘a’ (flow, burn, heat, flame) tend to slow the rhythm down;
slender ‘i’ and ‘e’ (hill,
met) sounds create a quicker pace.
The use of the sound of words to suggest the
sound they denote is called onomatopoeia. We hear this sound-echoing
effect in the ‘slamming’ of a door, the ‘buzzing’ of bees, the ‘ticking’ of a
clock. In his poem ‘OnaMaTaPia’, the poet Spike Milligan suggests that it’s
more difficult to spell onomatopoeia correctly than to understand and identify
The beating of the heart, breathing, walking, running – rhythm is at the core
of human existence. Rhythm is also an important part of the language of
literature. Writers build on the natural rhythms of language, putting words
with the same stress pattern side by side and creating an underlying beat or
rhythm in their work.
Metrical Terms and Scansion
The regular and rhythmic arrangement of
stressed and unstressed syllables found in poetry is called meter.
The basic unit of metre is the foot, which consists of one stressed
syllable and one or more unstressed syllables. The most common feet are:
iamb (adj.: iambic) – one
unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable: (ă|wáy);
trochee (adj.: trochaic) –
one stressed syllable followed by one unstressed syllable: (fá| thêr);
anapest (adj.: anapestic) –
two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed syllable: (iň| tĥe |líght);
dactyl (adj.: dactilic) one
stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables: (ó|vêr|thê)
monosyllabic) – one stressed syllable: ský;
spondee (adj.: spondaic) –
two stressed syllables: (raîn |bów)
Analyzing meter is called scansion. When we
scan a poem we first count the number of syllables and identify the position of
the stresses or accents, We then divide the line into feet and determine the
metrical length of the line:
- one foot
dimeter –two feet
trimeter – three feet
tetrameter – four feet
pentameter – five feet
hexameter – six feet
heptameter – seven feet
octameter – eight feet
When we have identified the kind of feet and
the line length, we combine the two to give the metre a name, for example
jambic pentameter, trochaic hexameter, anapestic heptameter. Iambic pentameter
is the metrical form that most closely resembles natural speech and it is the
most widely used metre in English poetry. The following are examples of the
scansion of a line of jambic pentameter and a line of anapestic tetrameter. The
feet are marked by vertical lines, the unstressed syllables by ˘ and the
stressed syllables by ‘:
|The cur| few tolls| the knell|of part| ing
(Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, Thomas
Metre is not a straitjacket and in most poems
there are deviations from the principal pattern. When scanning a poem it is
important to identify the prevailing metre, but also to notice variations.
The analysis of metre is meaningful only if it
contributes to our understanding of a poem. The rhythm may establish an
atmosphere or create a tone, and deviations from the predominant metrical
pattern may highlight key elements.
refers to the visual forms a poem takes on a page. It is important because it
helps the reader’s understanding by indicating, for example, where he should
pause or where a new line of thought begins. Certain conventions have been
established in the lay-out of poems. The lines:
do not cover the full page
as they do in prose;
are usually grouped together
into units called verses;
are occasionally grouped
into units that repeated the same number of lines, the same meter and the same
rhyming scheme. These units are called stanzas.
In what is referred to as concrete poetry, the
visual form of the poem is almost as important in conveying meaning as the
Figure of Speech
A figure of speech is any use of language which
deviates from the obvious or common usage in order to achieve a special meaning
or effect. We use figures of speech in everyday conversation when we say, for
example, ‘money talks’ (personification) or ‘I’ve got butterflies in my stomach’
(metaphor) or ‘he’s like a bull in a china shop’ (simile).
The density and originality of a writer’s use
of figures of speech is part of his characteristic style.
There are many different figures of speech. The
most widely used are:
A simile is a figure of speech in
which a comparison between two distinctly different things is indicated by the
word ‘like’ or ‘as’. A simile is made up of three elements:
the tenor: the subject under
the vehicle: what the
subject is compared to;
the ground: what the poet
believes the tenor and the vehicle have in common.
We can therefore analyze the simile ‘life is
like a rollercoaster’ as follows:
Tenor ground vehicle
Life it has its ups and downs rollercoaster
A metaphor is an implied comparison
which creates a total identification between the two things being compared. Words
such as ‘like’ or ‘as’ are not used.
Like a simile, a metaphor is made up of three
the tenor: the subject under
the vehicle: what the
subject is compared to;
the ground: what the poet
believes the tenor and the vehicle have in common.
We can analyze the metaphor ‘he’s a live wire’
Tenor ground vehicle
He is full of energy/is very
lively live wire
is potentially dangerous
In metonymy (Greek for ‘a change of name’) the
term for one thing is applied to another with which it has become closely
associated. ‘The crown’, for example, can be used to refer to a king.
In synecdoche (Greek for ‘taking
together’) a part of something is used to signify the whole or vice versa, although the latter form is quite rare. An
example of synecdoche from everyday speech can be found in the proverb ‘Many
hands make light work’, where the expression ‘many hands’ means ‘the labor of
many people’. An example of the whole representing a part can be found in
expressions such as ‘I’m reading Dickens’, where an attribute of a literary
work (i.e. it was written by Charles Dickens) is substituted for the work
Personification is a form of comparison in
which human characteristics, such as emotions, personality, behavior and so on,
are attributed to an animal, object or idea: "The proud lion surveyed his
The primary function of personification is to
make abstract ideas clearer to the reader by comparing them to everyday human
experience. Humanizing cold and complex abstractions can bring them to life,
render them more interesting and make them easier to understand.
Images are words or phrases that appeal to our
senses. Consider these line taken from Wilfred Owen’s poem Dulce et Decorum Est.
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags we cursed
The poet is describing his experience as a
soldier during the First World War. Through his choice of words he creates:
visual images: bent double, old beggars under sacks, knock-kneed;
aural images: coughing like hags, cursed;
a tactile image: sludge.
replace the imagistic words that Owen uses with more generic terms:
exhausted, the soldier marched across the
terrain cursing their fate.
the impact on our senses is lost.
A writer may use an image to help us:
re-live a sense experience
that we have already had. We may be able to conjure up the sound of old women
coughing or the sensation of walking through mud from past experience;
have a new sense experience.
This achieved when our sense memories are called forth in a pattern that does
not correspond to any of our actual experiences. Exploited in this way, images
allow us to see, hear, feel, smell and taste experiences that new to us.
We use the term imagery to refer to
combinations or clusters of images that are used to create a dominant impression.
Death, corruption and disease imagery, for example, creates a powerful network in
Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet. Writers often develop meaningful patterns in their
imagery, and a writer’s choice and arrangement of images is often an important clue
to the overall meaning of his work.
is an example of what is called the transference of meaning. Writers take a
concrete item – an object, a color, a person, a place – and attribute a deeper
meaning to it. A symbol may be a detail, an object, a character or an incident.
It exists first as something literal and concrete in the work, but it also has
the capacity to evoke in the mind of the reader a range of invisible and
definition symbols are open-ended. A given symbol will evoke different
responses in different readers. There is, however, an acceptable range of
possible reading and any interpretation of a symbol must be confirmed by the
rest of the work.
The identification and understanding
of symbols demands awareness and intelligence of the reader. It involves the reader
directly in the creative process, asking him to add his own intellectual and
emotional responses. Through this collaboration the work is enriched and
Cultural or shared symbols. Many symbolic associations are widely recognized and accepted: the
dawn with hope, the serpent with evil, the color white with innocence, light
with knowledge, dark with ignorance. Writers often make use of these cultural
or shared symbols. Readers must not, however, automatically apply conventional
meanings to these symbols. Sometimes writers will enlarge or narrow the meaning
of a cultural symbol. The reader must first carefully examine how the symbol is
used in the text before assigning meaning.
Literary or personal symbols. Authors also use their own original symbols. Personal or literary
symbols do not have pre-established associations: the meaning that is attached
to them emerges from the context of the work in which they occur. A particular
landscape or certain atmospheric conditions may become associated with a
character’s emotional state. A color or an object may take on a secondary
meaning. A recurring gesture or character may be given symbolic meaning.
Guidelines for identifying and understanding symbols. When does an object, character or action cease to be just part of the
story and begin to develop symbolic associations? There is no simple answer to
this question. Ultimately, the reader must develop his own awareness through receptive and
responsive reading. There are, however, some broad guidelines he can follow.
The principal techniques that writes use for
creating symbols are:
repetition: the reader should take note of multiple references to a particular
object or the recurrence of the same gesture;
emphasis: does the author seem to pay
particular attention to some element, describe it in detail or use
poetic or connotative language when referring to it?
made with shared symbols: the reader should try to
understand if he has added his own personal significance.
While there is a risk that a reader may not
identify symbols, there is also the danger that he may see symbolic importance
where the writer did not intend it. ‘Symbol hunting’, i.e. attributing symbolic
status to objects, characters or actions when there is little evidence in the
text that they should be viewed as a symbol, should be avoided.