WHAT IS A POEM?
Before we look at some specific elements of poetry, it’d be helpful to attempt to define just what a poem is briefly.
What exactly makes a poem different, for example, from a piece of prose? Or song lyrics, even?
The truth is that when we get down to it, poetry isn’t all that easy to pin down. Even poets themselves disagree about what constitutes a poem. What chance, then, do our struggling students have?
Luckily, some broad, general characteristics can be agreed upon. In this article, we will look at these common features of poetry and how we can best instil an understanding of these in our students.
COMMON FEATURES OF POETRY
● It looks like a poem – If it looks like a poem and reads like a poem, then the chances are pretty good that it is indeed a poem. Poetry comes in lines, some of which are complete sentences, but many of which are not. Also, these lines usually don’t run out to the margins consistently, like in, say, a novel. All this gives poetry a distinctive and recognisable look on the page.
● It often has some underlying form holding things together – While this isn’t always true (in some free verse, for example), a lot of poetry conforms to a prescribed structure, such as in a sonnet, a haiku etc.
● It uses imagery – If the poet is worth his or her salt, they’ll endeavour to create images in the reader’s mind using lots of sensory details and figurative language.
● It has a certain musicality – We could be forgiven for thinking that poetry’s natural incarnation is the written word and its habitat, the page, but the printed word is not where poetry’s origins lie. The earliest poems were composed orally and committed to memory. We can still see the importance the sound of language plays when we read poems out loud. We can see it, too, in the attention paid to musical devices incorporated into the poem. Devices such as alliteration, assonance, and rhyme, for example. We will look at many of these later in this article.
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THE PURPOSE OF POETRY: WHAT IS POETRY FOR?
Of all the forms professional writers can take, the professional poet most often finds themself struggling to make ends meet financially. Poetry can be challenging to understand and require much effort from the reader. Students can be forgiven for wondering exactly what the point of this difficult-to-write and difficult-to-read genre that is apparently used to torture the less literary-minded during their school years.
It may be a hard sell to some of our more reluctant students, but there is a point behind all this word-smithery.
Poetry’s purpose is essential to help us understand the world around us. It endeavours to show us things anew that we may have previously taken for granted. It offers us new perspectives on the familiar.
Poetry’s purpose is to enable us to see the world with fresh eyes again, like those of a child. Doing this, helps us understand our world more profoundly.
THE STRUCTURE OF POETRY
We’ve mentioned already that though poetry’s origins lie in the spoken word, it does take a very recognizable shape when put down on the page. This is mainly due to the overall organization of the lines on the page, often in the form of stanzas.
Though some modern forms of poetry eschew traditional poetic conventions such as rhyme schemes and meter etc., the stanza still plays a vital role in the overall look of printed poetry.
But, just what exactly is a stanza? – your students may well ask.
Stanzas are the poetic equivalent of a prose paragraph. They are a series of lines grouped together and separated from other groups of lines or stanzas by a skipped line.
Stanzas come in various lengths, dependent either on the poet’s whim or the conventions of a particular poetic form. Various technical vocabulary is often used to refer to stanzas of specific lengths. Here are the most common of these,
● two lines are called a couplet
● three lines are called a tercet
● four lines are called a quatrain
● five lines are called a cinquain
● six lines are called a sestet, or occasionally a sexain
● seven lines are called a septet
● eight lines are called an octave
POEM STRUCTURES: TYPES OF POETRY AND THEIR CHARACTERISTICS
When exploring the elements of poetry, we must appreciate there are many different types of poetry, some of which we will look at below. But, regardless of the specific type of poetry in question, a poem will most likely fit into one of these three overarching types of poetry: lyric, narrative, and descriptive.
Lyric poetry mainly concerns the poet’s emotional life; it’s written in their voice and expresses solid thoughts and emotions. There is only one voice in a lyric poem, and we see the world from that single perspective. Most modern poetry is lyric poetry in that it is personal and introspective.
Lyric Poetry Example: The Cat’s Serenade
The moon is high and the night is still A feline prowls with a velvet thrill His whiskers twitch and his eyes gleam bright As he sets out on his nightly flight The world is his, all to explore His kingdom vast, a hunter's floor With stealth and grace he moves along A symphony of purrs and song The night breeze whispers in his ear As he purrs a tune, oh so clear His melody lulls the world to sleep As he creeps and crawls, oh so deep The stars above, they shine so bright As the cat serenades the night With every note, he weaves a spell A magical tune, too hard to quell So listen close, my dear friend To the cat's serenade, till the very end For in his song, there lies a clue To the secrets of the night, so pure and true.
As its name implies, narrative poetry is concerned with storytelling. Just as in a prose story, a narrative poem will most likely follow the conventions of the plot, including elements such as conflict, rising action, climax, resolution etc. Again, as in prose stories, narrative poems will most likely be peopled with characters to perform the actions of the tale.
Narrative Poem Example: The Tale of Little Miss Whiskers
Little Miss Whiskers was a feline so fine, Her fur was soft, and her eyes did shine. With a tail that flicked and a nose so pink, She roamed the streets, without a single wink. She lived in a world, full of mystery and might, With rats and mice, she'd battle all night. She'd prowl and pounce, with agility and grace, And win the fight, in every single case. But one day, as she ventured too far, She stumbled upon a street so bizarre. With buildings that rose, into the endless sky, And people who rushed, with no time to pry. Little Miss Whiskers was lost, that was clear, But she refused to be trapped, in a world so drear. So she set out, to find her way back, With courage and wit, she stayed on track. She met a dog, a bird, and a mouse, And together they roamed, from house to house. They braved the streets, and the alleys so dark, And in each other, they found a spark. Little Miss Whiskers had finally found her way, And her new friends, she decided to stay. For in this world, so strange and new, She had found a family, and a home so true. And so she roamed, with her tail held high, In a world that was full, of wonders and sky. With every step, she felt so free, Little Miss Whiskers, the cat of the city.
Descriptive poetry usually employs lots of rich imagery to describe the world around the poet. While it most often has a single poetic voice and strong emotional content, descriptive poetry differs from lyric poetry in that its focus is more on the externalities of the world rather than the poet’s interior life.
Descriptive Poetry Example: The Majestic Cat
A cat so grand, with fur of gold, A sight to see, so brave and bold. His eyes of amber, bright and clear, A gaze so piercing, it filled with fear. He sat atop a throne of pillows, A king of his own, no need for billows. His head held high, with regal grace, A monarch of the feline race. His fur was soft, like silk and down, His whiskers long, like a monarch's crown. His paws were strong, with sharp claws, A hunter's weapon, with no flaws. He moved with grace, like a dancer's feet, His tail so long, like a winding street. He leaped and bounded, with such ease, A sight so grand, it was hard to please. But when he curled, and snuggled close, His gentle purr, like a soothing dose. His eyes so calm, his heart at rest, A friend so true, with no protest. For in his majesty, he still had love, A heart so pure, like a cooing dove. A cat so grand, yet still so kind, A true companion, that's hard to find.
We have mentioned that poetry often hangs on the conventions of specific underlying structures. Now, look at some of the more common subtypes and their defining characteristics.
SUBTYPES OF POETRY
Sonnets are predominantly concerned with matters of the heart. If you see a sonnet’s recognisably blocky form on a page, there’s a good chance the theme will be love. There are two common forms of sonnets: Shakespearean and Petrarchan. They differ slightly in their internal structure, but both have 14 lines. Let’s take look at some more of the internal characteristics of both forms:
● Comprises two stanzas
● The First eight lines pose a question
● 2nd stanza answers the question posed
● The rhyme scheme is: ABBA, ABBA, CDECDE
● Comprises 3 quatrains of 4 lines each
● Ends with a rhyming couplet which forms a conclusion
● The rhyme scheme is: ABAB, CDCD, EFEF, GG
Haiku is a disciplined form of poetry that originates in 17th-century Japanese poetry. Usually, it is concerned with nature and natural phenomena such as the seasons, weather etc. They are often quite meditative in tone.
However, there are no fundamental rules regarding themes; the only actual demands here relate to structure:
● They are written in three-line stanzas
● 1st line contains five syllables
● 2nd line contains seven syllables
● 3rd line contains five syllables
Due to their short length and limited requirements, these are usually a lot of fun for students to write. They can serve as an excellent introduction for students to attempt to write poetry according to specific technical requirements of a form.
Elegies are a type of poem that don’t really come with specific structural requirements but still constitute a recognisable form of poetry. What makes an elegy an elegy is its subject, that is, death. Elegies are poems of lamentation – the word elegy itself comes from the Greek word elegeia which means to ‘lament’.
● A poem of reflection on death or on someone who has died
● Usually comes in three parts expressing loss:
○ praise for the deceased
○ and, finally, consolation.
Favorites of school children everywhere, the most defining characteristic of limericks is their renowned humor. Given their well-deserved reputation for being funny and, on occasion, crude, it’s easy to overlook the fact that beneath the laughs lies quite a tightly structured verse form.
● five lines in total
●Distinct verbal rhythm
● two longer lines of usually between 7 to 10 syllables
● two shorter lines of usually between 5 to 7 syllables
● one closing line containing the ‘punchline.’
● Rhyme scheme is AABBA
Ballads are a type of narrative poetry closely tied to musical forms. Ballads written as poetry can often easily be adapted as song lyrics. While ballads don’t have tight formal constrictions like some other forms of poetry, there are enough in the way of distinguishable features to identify them as a form.
● Tells a story, often using simple language
● Often romantic, adventurous, or humorous
● Arranged in groups of 4 lines or quatrains
● Often uses alternating 4 and 3 beat lines
● Rhyme scheme is usually ABAB or ABCB
Another poetry form that traces its origins to Ancient Greece, odes were initially intended to be sung. Nowadays, though no longer sung, the term ode still refers to a type of lyrical poem that addresses and often praises a specific person, thing, or event.
● The author addresses a person, thing, or event
● Usually has a solemn, serious tone
● Explores universal elements of the theme
● Powerful emotional element, often involving catharsis
Odes written in the classical vein can follow very strict metrical patterns and rhyme schemes. However, many modern odes are written in free verse involving irregular rhythm and without adherence to a rhyme scheme.
These long narrative poems recount heroic tales, usually focused on a legendary or mythical figure. Think of works of literature on a grand scale, such as The Odyssey, The Cattle Raid of Cooley, or Beowulf.
● Employs an objective and omniscient narrator
● Written in an elevated style
● Recounts heroic events
● Grand in scale
Though we refer to these devices here as ‘poetic devices, the devices below are not the exclusive domain of poetry alone, many of these are to be found in other writing genres, particularly other creative forms such as short stories, novels, and creative nonfiction.
Many of these devices originate in poetry’s roots as a spoken literary form. They rely on the musicality of words, their rhythm and rhyme. They focus on various sound effects that can be created by the carefully chosen word.
Other devices are more concerned with imagery. They forge connections between various ideas and conjure pictures in the readers’ minds. Together, these devices lift poetry into the realm of art.
The following devices are organized into two sections. The first section, titled Sound Devices, deals with the following devices: alliteration, assonance, consonance, onomatopoeia, rhyme, and rhythm.
The second section, Figurative Language, deals with metaphor, personification, and simile. These are not meant as an exhaustive list but to give an indication of the possibilities for these elements of poetry. You can find many more examples of these in our article on figurative language.
Students will benefit from learning the definitions of each device over time. While it is essential that they learn to recognize their use in the poetry of others and appreciate the effects these devices can create, it is equally important that the students get a chance to have a go at creating their own examples of these devices in their own writing.
It is only by trying their hand at employing these devices in their own work that students can really internalize how these devices operate. So, in the section below, we’ll first look at a working definition of the poetic device, then an example to illustrate it in action, before offering simple exercises students can undertake to gain more practice with it themselves.
Meaning: This device involves the repetition of the initial consonant sound of a series of words, often consecutively. Alliteration is most easily explained to students by looking at a few simple tongue twisters, such as Peter Piper or She Sells Seashells.
Betty Botter bought a bit of butter
But, the bit of butter Betty Botter bought was bitter
So Betty Botter bought a better bit of butter
Exercise: Challenge the students to write their own tongue twisters using alliteration. You may wish to give them a topic to write on to start. For example, younger students may well enjoy writing about animals. They may even wish to employ the sounds animals make in their tongue twister, e.g. The slithering snake slid sideways through the grass… Once they have written their poem see if they can identify any other elements of poetry within it.
Meaning: Similarly to alliteration, assonance involves the repetition of sounds in a series of words, often consecutive words. However, rather than repeating the initial sounds, assonance focuses on the repeated internal vowel sounds.
Example: We can find many examples of assonance in poetry and song. Here’s an example from the poetry of Edgar Allen Poe: Hear the mellow wedding bells
“Muffled monotonous murmur of matrimony“
In this line, the repetition of the “uh” sound in “muffled,” “monotonous,” “murmur,” and “matrimony” creates an assonant effect, which emphasizes the monotonous and dull sound of the wedding bells.
Exercise: Assonance is often referred to as ‘vowel rhyme’. It is prevalent in many forms of popular music, especially rap. Challenge your students to find examples of assonance in the music they listen to and share them with the class. They may also want to try their hand at writing their examples too.
Meaning: Consonance is the consonant-focused counterpart to assonance. It involves the repetition of consonant sounds in the middle or at the end of words, distinguished from alliteration, where the initial sound is repeated.
Example: The crow struck through the thick cloud like a rocket
Exercise: As there are many similarities between the devices of alliteration, assonance, and consonance, it would be a good idea to give the students opportunities to practice distinguishing between them. An excellent exercise to achieve this is to first identify examples of each device from a verse in a poetry anthology before challenging them to create original examples of each on their own. The students can then use the examples they have identified as models to create their own.
Meaning: Onomatopoeia refers to creating words that sound like the very thing they refer to. For many students, the first introduction to onomatopoeia goes back to learning animal sounds as an infant. Words such as Oink! Chirp! Woof! and Meow! can all be thought of as onomatopoeic. Be sure to examine these elements of poetry with your younger students first.
Example: Aside from animal noises, the names of sounds themselves are often onomatopoeic, for example:
Exercise: Encourage students to coin new onomatopoeic words. Instruct them to sit in silence for a few minutes. They should pay close attention to all the sounds they can hear in the environment. When the time is up, have the students quickly jot down all the noises they heard. They should then come up with an onomatopoeic word for each of the different sounds. For example, if they could hear people indistinctly talking in the corridor, they might come up with the word ‘rabbalabba’ to describe the sound they heard. As an extension, they could try using their freshly-minted words in sentences.
Meaning: Rhyme refers to the repetition of sounds in a poem. Various types of rhyme are possible; however, in English, we usually use the term rhyme to refer to the repetition of the final sounds in a line or end rhyme. Letters are often used to denote a rhyme scheme. A new letter is ascribed to each of the different sounds. For example, in the following example, the rhyme scheme is described as ABAB.
The people along the sand
All turn and look one way.
They turn their back on the land.
They look at the sea all day.
[From Neither Out Far Nor In Deep by Robert Frost]
Exercise: Even though a lot of modern poetry no longer follows a strict rhyme scheme, it is still helpful for students to recognize various rhyming patterns in poetry. A good way for them to gain more experience with rhyme schemes is to give them copies of several different poems and ask them to describe the rhyme scheme using letters, e.g. ABAB, ABABCC etc. Once they have completed this task, they can be challenged to write a stanza or two of poetry employing each identified rhyme scheme.
Meaning: Rhythm in poetry involves sound patterning. A lot of classical poetry conforms to a systematic regularity of rhythm, referred to as the poem’s meter. This involves combining stressed and unstressed syllables to create a constant beat pattern that runs throughout the poem. Each pattern of beats is called a foot. There are various possible combinations of stressed and unstressed syllables, or feet, and these patterns have their own names to describe them. While exploring all of these in this article is impossible, we look at one of the more common ones below.
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day
[Iambic pentameter, i.e. five metrical feet of alternating unstressed and stressed syllables]
Exercise: A valuable way of tuning in students to meter is to have them mark the stressed and unstressed syllables in a line of poetry. The iambic pentameter is a good place to start. This pattern is found in many of Shakespeare’s plays. It is also frequently used in love sonnets, where its rhythm reflects the beating of the human heart and reinforces the idea that love comes ‘from the heart’. Once students have become adept at recognizing various meters and rhythms, they should have a go at writing in them too.
Figurative / Connotative Language in Poetry
Meaning: Metaphors make comparisons between things by stating that one thing literally is something else. Metaphors are used to bring clarity to ideas by forming connections. Often, metaphors reveal implicit similarities between two things or concepts.
Example: We can find lots of examples of metaphors in our everyday speech, for example:
She’s an old flame
Time is money
Life is a rollercoaster
Exercise: When students can comfortably identify metaphors in the poems of others, they should try their hands at creating their own metaphors. A good start is challenging them to convert some similes into metaphors. Not only does this give students valuable practice in creating metaphors, but it also helps reinforce their understanding of the differences between metaphors and similes while giving them a scaffold to support their first attempts at producing metaphors themselves.
Meaning: Unlike metaphors that make comparisons by saying one thing is something else, similes work by saying something is similar to something else. They commonly come in two forms. Those that compare using ‘as’ and those that make a comparison using ‘like’.
She is as strong as an ox
She sings like a nightingale
Exercise: As with the exercise for metaphors, it’d be helpful to practice for students to convert metaphors they identify in poetry into similes, reinforcing their understanding of both.
Meaning: Personification is a particular type of metaphor where a non-human thing or idea is ascribed to human qualities or abilities. This can be in the form of a single phrase or line or extended in the form of a stanza or the whole poem.
The moon was shining sulkily,
Because she thought the sun
Had got no business to be there
After the day was done –
“It’s very rude of him,” she said,
“To come and spoil the fun.”
[From the Walrus and the Carpenter by Lewis Carroll]
Exercise: To help students practice distinguishing between metaphors, similes, and personification, gather a list of jumbled-up examples of each from various poems. Students can then sort these accordingly. When they have completed this, task them to devise an original example of each.
The elements of poetry are many, and while the elements explored above represent the most important of these, it is not an exhaustive list of every element. It takes lots of exposure for students to become comfortable recognizing each and confident in employing these elements in their writing.
Take every opportunity to reinforce student understanding of these elements. Poetic elements are often employed in genres outside of poetry, such as in stories, advertising, and song – waste no opportunity!
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The content for this page has been written by Shane Mac Donnchaidh. A former principal of an international school and English university lecturer with 15 years of teaching and administration experience. Shane’s latest Book, The Complete Guide to Nonfiction Writing, can be found here. Editing and support for this article have been provided by the literacyideas team.