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Basics of Poetry . “Introduction to Poetry,” Literary Terms, How to Read a Poem, and Helpful Websites. Introduction to Poetry by Billy Collins.

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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
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.

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 Progress.

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?”

Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s 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 TheMatrix – 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 Alice’s 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
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 analogies

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 lands;This 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
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 consonants.

  • 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 form.

  • 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
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
Close Rhyme - A rhyme of two close words.

  • such as "red" "head".

Conceit an ingenious logically complicated image or an elaborate metaphor
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
Diction - choice of words esp. with regard to correctness, clearness, or effectiveness

  • In A Lesson Before Dying – Jefferson’s 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 you:Life 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, love-song

  • Dactyl (dactylic): = / u u

  • / u u

  • strawberry, carefully, changeable, merrily, mannequin, tenderly,

  • prominent, buffalo, Bellingham, bitterly, notable, horrible,

  • glycerin, parable, scorpion, Indianapolis, Jefferson

  • Anapest (anapestic): = u u /

  • u u /

  • understand, interrupt, comprehend, anapest, New Rochelle,

  • contradict, "get a life," Coeur d'Alene, "In the blink of an eye"

  • There are five most commonly used sets of feet are iambic (iamb), trochaic (trochee), anapestic (anapest), dactylic (dactyl), and spondaic (spondee).

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 freedom.

  • “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
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 illustrate:

  • 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
Internal Rhyme – a rhyme occurring in mid-line

– the first stanza of Edgar Allan Poe’s "The Raven":

  • “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 door;Only 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 feet:

  • 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 behold

  • TROCHAIC (/ x): Tell me not in mournful numbers

  • SPONDAIC (/ /): Break, break, break/ On thy coldgraystones, 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
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 object.

  • 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
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 effect
Oxymoron - The joining of two words that seem to be contradictory (opposites), but offer a unique effect.

  • 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 victories:Then 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 light"

Pun a play on words that sound similar for a humorous effect
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
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
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 rhyme schemes
Sonnet - A lyric poem of fourteen lines, following one or another of several set rhyme-schemes.

  • The two characteristic sonnet types are the Italian (Petrarchan) and the English (Shakespearean).

  • 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 thee.

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 hall.”

Simile a comparison between two unlike things using like or as etc
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
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 BlakeBlake 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
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
How to Read a Poem

Read on –until there’s a punctuation mark.

A poem’s line breaks indicate thought groupings, but don’t break at the end of each line.

If you’re 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 speech—and think about them.

Figurative language is part of what makes poetry, poetry.

Still reading that poem
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 isn’t 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, you’ll 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
Helpful Websites


    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.


    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.


    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.


    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
More Helpful Websites


    Discover the definitions for the buzz words in poetry through this site.


    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.


    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.


    This glossary defines many common literary terms.


    An extensive glossary of literary terms provided in alphabetical format with hyperlink cross references from a major library publisher.