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An Introduction to Poetry

(from "Fields of Vision" by Denis Delaney, Ciaran Ward, Carla Rho Fiorina)

One 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’.

Long 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 family fights.

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 way.

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 experienced.

Types of Poetry

(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).

 Narrative 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.

The term sonnet 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.

             Italian (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 image.

            English (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 gg. 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

Ballads are 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 memorize;

·        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 the flow;

                               Quoth our goodman to our goowife

                               Go out and bar the door

                                              (Get up and bar the door)

Sound features

Think 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.

The most common sound features are rhyme, alliteration, assonance and onomatopoeia.

The 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 the poem;

·        it marks the end of each line;

·        it makes the poem easier to remember;

·        it affects the pace and tone of the poem.

There are several different types of rhyme:

single-syllable, or masculine rhyme: the beginning of the syllable varies while the rest stays the same, for example day/say light/night;

double-syllable, or feminine rhyme matches two syllable words or parts of word: ocean/motion, pretending/bending;

triple-syllable rhyme matches three-syllable words: beautiful/dutiful, comparison/garrison;

true, or perfect rhyme: the rhymed sounds correspond exactly, for example: boat/float, double/trouble;

imperfect rhyme (half 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;

end rhymes fall at the end of the lines;

internal rhymes occur within the same line:

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

          (The Raven, Edgar Allan Poe)

 Alliteration is 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’.

Assonance is 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 it!










 Rhythm. 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)

·        monosyllable (adj.: 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:

monometer  - 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 day|

(Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, Thomas Gray)

 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.


Layout 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 verbal communication.

Figure of Speech in Poetry

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 discussion;

·        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 elements:

·        the tenor: the subject under discussion;

·        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’ as follows:

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 itself.

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 kingdom”.

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 through sludge.

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.

If  we replace the imagistic words that Owen uses with more generic terms:

Physically exhausted, the soldier marched across the

wet 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.


 A symbol 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 abstract associations.

By 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 enlarged.

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?

·        associations automatically 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.  


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