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This is your easy guide for understanding poetry. Look for the following basic elements:


I. The Poetic Argument

Every poet has something to say. The argument, then, is the theme, idea or meaning of the poet. It may be expressed or implied depending upon the poet's technique.

A. Lyric Poetry

    Example: Yeats: "The Wild Swans Of Coole"

B. Narrative Poetry

    Example: Frost: "Death Of The Hired Man"

II. The Poetic Texture

This is the element of technique. It is the way in which the poet gives the argument depth, intensity, feeling, through a balance of three fundamental ingredients.

A. The texture of meter.

B. The texture of imagery.

C. The texture of wit.


METER -- the rhythm of the words.

Poetry is meant to be read aloud. To establish a poetic rhythm for the proper listening effect, poets arrange their words so that the accent will fall at regular intervals. This regular recurrence of accent in a poetic line is called meter. There are five basic metrical patterns:

1. Iambic (iamb)

Rising rhythm, consisting of two syllables; one unaccented followed by one accented (-'),

2. Trochaic (trochee)

Falling rhythm, consisting of two syllables, one accented followed by one unaccented (' -).

3. Anapestic (anapest)

Triple-rising rhythm, consisting of three syllables, two unaccented followed by one accented (- - ').

4. Dactylic (dactyl)

Triple-falling rhythm, consisting of threee syllables, one accented followed by two unaccented (' - - ).

5. Spondaic (spondee)

All syllables are accented.

Meter means foot. Each of the above groups explains one foot. Every line of poetry is so many feet long.
The line below is five feet long (penta meter.)

         The    qual   ity    of    mer    cy    is   not    strained.
                                                                                                    -- Shakespeare

Trochee tripe from long to short,
From long to long in solemn sort,
Slow spondee stalks, strong foot yet ill able
Ever to keep up with dactyl tri syllable,
Iambus walks from short to long,
With a leap and a bound they gay anapeets throng.


It is not the words, but what the poet does with them that constitutes poetry. It is his power of suggesting ideas and arousing images to the reader's mind that distinguishes him as a poet. Imagery, then, is any appeal to the senses that may help the poet present his argument.

1. Non-metaphorical imagery is simple description.

2. Metaphorical imagery is the use of an image as a symbol.


The way in which the poet plays with the language is called wit. It is the striking power of the words and someting which you may remember.

Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream.

                   - Edgar Allan Poe

Remember that the poet, like all artists, has a purpose. It may be to teach, to inspire, to confide, to sympathize, to judge, to question . . . . whatever his purpose, it is the achievement of balance in the poetic elements that establishes the beauty of this lines. Above all, the poet is creative and in order to appreciate him, we must be creative ourselves. When reading poetry, let your thoughts and imagination range.

III. Sonic Devices

      Sound is to poetry as color is to visual art. (e.g. painting).
      For poetry to be compelling, the language must be rich. Here are some sonic devices to help you in understanding and
      writing poetry.

*Alliteration is the repetition of the initial sounds of two or more words in a line or series of lines, such as "singing songs of silence."

*Hidden alliteration is the repetition of sound within two or more words in a line or series of lines, such as "Long ago regal glory regaled at tables set by the poor."

*Assonance is the repetition of two or more identical vowel sounds preceded and followed by differing consonant sounds that are close enough together in the poem to create an echoing effect. "ping" and "thing" are rhymes (which are assonantal, too) but "ping" and "teen" are assonantal (without rhyming).

*Consonance is like hidden alliteration, the repetition of two or more identical consonant sounds and differing vowel sounds close together in a poem, such as "the bright little British boy." The "b" sounds are alliterative and "t" sounds are consonantal.

*Antiphrasis is the use of a word or phrase in the opposite sense of its literal meaning often as a form of name-calling. Calling a guy who's six-foot-seven, 300 pounds "Tiny" is antiphrasis.


*Aporia is the questioning of an issue to lead the audience to form an opinion about it without directly stating a stand on the issue.

"Have you ever wondered
why politicians who promote public education
send their kids to private schools?"

*Bombast is rant speech that goes overboard and is too inflated for the situation.

*Onomatopoea is the use of words that mimic or suggest the sounds they describe, such as "buzz" or "bellow."

*Euphony is the pleasant combination of sounds and sonic devices.

*Cacaphony is the mixture of sounds and sonic devices that clash and create harsh, discordant effects. both have their purpose and place in well-crafted poetry.

IV. Rhyming

       Following are the various types of rhyme that can offer more surprising and appealing sonic color that tedious end rhyme:

*Cross Rhyme rhymes a line ending word with a word in the middle of a preceding or following line:
          Love finds ways to mask
          The bitter task when it says,

*Interlaced Rhyme rhymes words in the middle of one line with words in the middle of another line:
          Hapless rode the headless horseman
          Like a bedless husband in the night

*Internal Rhyme rhymes the end of a line with a word in the middle of the line:

          Like worms in his eyes twisted in his lies


*Linked Rhyme rhymes the last sound of a line with the first sound of the next lines:

          Sling your sizzling muck acroos the room
          Fume at me from afar
          Tar and feather my position,
          I shall not alter a single word.

*Slant Rhyme, Off-Rhyme, or Near Rhyme allow sounds that aren't quite identical to masquerade as rhyme:

          He picked up the wrench
          And went to the hedge
          To find his neighbor
          And return the favor.


Some General Hints:


  1. In English poetry before 1900, expect iambic meter.

  2. After 1900, the texture of meter and imagery becomes much more complex. Free verse (non-metrical) is a popular form of poetry today.

  3. All lines of verse do not follow the basic metrical pattern rigidly. For example, a trochee may be substituted for an iamb (frequently in the first foot of an iambic line).

  4. Metrical patterns are not absolute; two readers may disagree over the stress (accent) in a particular foot, depending upon their interpretation of the meaning; however, while they may differ in regard to a particular foot, they should agree in regard to the general pattern.

  5. Poetry may be rhymed or unrhymed depending upon the artist's purpose.

  6. To properly analyze a poem, follow this procedure:
    • scan the lines to determine the prevailing metrical pattern
    • connect the images and
    • formulate your interpretation of the argument.

  7. Do not be easily deceived into making a literal interpretation of Lyric poetry. Take the time to analyze and very likely a deeper meaning will be unveiled. A poem is a compressed form of writing and deserves your patience.

  8. Stanzas of poetry are roughly equivalent to paragraphs in prose; each stanza usually develops a single thought.







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