The Elements of Poetry Poetry is hard to define. Even poets argue among themselves about what makes a poem a poem. There are some common characteristics, however, that we can use to help us differentiate between poetry and prose. (1) It should look like a poem, meaning that lines don’t run to the margins. Some lines are not even sentences. (2) There are usually some musical devices that give the poem a song-like, lyrical quality. (3) Images are conveyed through sensory details and figurative language. (4) The poem has some form to hold it together. Some poems actually have a prescribed form like haikus and sonnets. (5) The poem has some meaning, image or emotion it wants to share with the reader. These three things are shown by the above four. That makes a poem!
To critically analyze a poem, we must look at its elements and see what they are doing to the poem. Then we can infer a meaning to it. The following slides will take us through the elements so that we can recognize them, and then we will try to put it all together and analyze the meaning of the poem.
Imagery • Imagery is the senses the poem evokes in the reader. Imagery puts the reader in the poem. It helps the reader to “see” the poem. • The tools of imagery are • Senses : sound, sight, touch, smell, taste, and emotion. • Figurative language : metaphor, simile, personification, hyperbole, etc. • Contrast
Sensory details Sensory details touch the five senses. They make the poem vivid to the reader. Let’s look at the sensory details in the poem “Those Winter Sundays.”
Those Winter Sundays Sundays too my father got up early and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold, then with cracked hands that ached from labor in the weekday weather made banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him. I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking. When the rooms were warm, he’d call, and slowly I would rise and dress, fearing the chronic angers of that house, Speaking indifferently to him, who had driven out the cold and polished my good shoes as well. What did I know, what did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices? Robert Hayden
In “Those Winter Sundays” Hayden has caused us to experience several senses. “…[B]lueblack cold” certainly makes us feel how cold it was. When the father’s hands are described as “cracked hands that ached” we can feel the roughness. He describes the cold “splintering and breaking.” We can hear the trees and ice crack. And then the rooms “were warm” when the boy got up. We know how that feels on a cold day. When the boy fears “the chronic angers of that house” and when he speaks “indifferently to him” we know what emotions the boy is feeling. Hayden has caused us to feel cold, cracked hands and warm rooms. We hear splintering and breaking and feel anger and indifference. These sensory details make the poem come alive to us and help us to feel what the boy felt on those winter Sundays.
Figurative Language • Figurative language is words not meant to be taken literally. The words are symbolic. We know these images as metaphor, simile, personification, hyperbole, and others. Because the poet is comparing a less familiar object to a common one, the comparison makes the familiar image stronger. • The next slides will give examples of each type of image.
Metaphor/Simile Metaphors and similes compare something in the poem to something familiar outside the poem. Making the connection requires background knowledge for the metaphor/simile to be meaningful to the reader. Look at the metaphors in the poem, “frost.”
Frost How does The plain Transparency Of water Sprout these Lacy fronds And plumes And tendrils? And where, Before window- Panes, did They root Their lush forests, Their cold Silver jungles?
The author of this poem compared the frost on a window to the lacy fronds, plumes, and tendrils of a fern. In the last stanza she has expanded the comparison to “crystal forests” and “silver jungles.” Let us picture that in our minds. Can we “see” the frost on the window?
Personification When an author uses personification, he gives human characteristics to a non-human object. Look at the human characteristics used by Howard Nemerov in his poem “The Vacuum.” Also notice how personification reveals the speaker’s attitude toward housekeeping.
The Vacuum The house is quiet now The vacuum cleaner sulks in the corner closet, Its bag limp as a stopped lung, its mouth Grinning into the floor, maybe at my Slovenly life, my dog-dead youth. I’ve lived this way long enough, But when my old woman died her soul Went into that vacuum cleaner, and I can’t bear To see the bag swell like a belly, eating the dust And the woolen mice, and begin to howl Because there is old filth everywhere She used to crawl, in corner and under the stair. I know now how life is cheap as dirt, And still the hungry, angry heart Hangs on and howls, biting at air.
Hyperbole/ Exaggeration The poet uses hyperbole to overstate something to reveal the truth. In a poem called “Sow” Sylvia Plath describes how much the sow eats. She writes, “Of kitchen slops and, stomaching no constraint,/ Proceeded to swill/ The seven seas and every earthquaking continent.” How much did the sow eat?
Contrast Poets use contrast to further show images. Antithesis strengthens the differences of the image. In the next poem Ms. Piercy describes the ambivalence of the speaker’s love relationship by writing these contrasting images: “…cold and hot winds of our breath,/ as we make and unmake in passionate/ diastole and systole the rhythm/ of our unbound bonding…”
Music The poet uses musical devices to make the poem song-like. In fact, some poems are/were songs. The musical devices we will discuss, and be responsible for, are onomatopoeia, rhythm, rhyme, letters, repetition, pause, and enjambment.
Onomatopoeia We are familiar with onomatopoeia even if we don’t understand the word. When two cars collide, what sound do they make? Crash! That is onomatopoeia – words that make the sound they are imitating. Here is a poem by Eve Merriam appropriately titled “Onomatopoeia.” See how many sounds are heard.
Onomatopoeia The rusty spigot sputter, utters a sputter, spatters a smattering of drops, gashes wider; slash, splatters, scatters, spurts, finally stops sputtering and plash! gushes rushes splashes clear water dashes.
Rhythm Rhythm is the beat of a poem. It is the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. There are several rhythm patterns in poetry which we will not go into in this presentation which will be shown later. Let’s look at the following poem and see if we can identify the pattern of stressed and unstressed beats.
Counting-Out Rhyme Silver bark of beech , and sallow Bark of yellow birch and yellow Twig of willow. Stripe of green in moosewood maple, Colour seen in leaf of apples, Bark of popple. Wood of popple pale as moonbeam, Wood of oak for yoke and bran-beam, Wood of hornbeam. Silver bark of beech, and hollow Stem of elder, tall and yellow Twig of willow. -Edna St. Vincent Millay
Rhyme Exact rhyme are words that have the exact same-sounding ending, like cat and hat Slant rhyme words sound similar, but aren’t exact, like one and down. A rhymescheme is the pattern of rhyming words. Look at the following poem and identify the rhyme scheme.
Reapers Jean Toomer Black reapers with the sound of steel on stones Are sharpening scythes. I see them place the hones In their hip-pockets as a thing that’s done, And start their silent swinging, one by one. Black horses drive a mower through the weeds, And there, a field rat, startled, squealing bleeds, His belly close to ground, I see the blade, Blood-stained, continue cutting weeds and shade.
Letters Repetitive initial consonant sounds in a poem are called alliteration. Repetition of other consonant sounds is called consonance. Repetitive vowel sounds are called assonance. The following poem has many examples of each. See how many you can find. Also notice what other element of poetry you can find.
Fueledby Marcie Hans Fueled by a million man-made wings of fire – the rocket tore a tunnel through the sky – and everybody cheered, Fueled only by a thought from God – the seedling urged its way through the thickness of black – and as it pierced the ceiling of the soil – and launched itself up into outer space – no one even clapped.
Repetition • Poems also create music through the repetition of words and lines. • Look at the poem “One Perfect Rose” by Dorothy Parker. One line is repeated three times. Notice how the meaning of the line changes by the third repetition.
One Perfect Roseby Dorothy Parker A single flow’r he sent me, since we met. All tenderly his messenger he chose; Deep-hearted, pure with scented dew still wet – One perfect rose. I knew the language of the flowerlet; “My fragile leaves,” it said, “his heart enclose.” Love long has taken for his amulet One perfect rose. Why is it no one ever sent me yet One perfect limousine, do you suppose? Ah no, it’s always just my luck to get One perfect rose.
Pause When we read poetry, we must be careful to read it with the punctuation the author provided. Our tendency is to pause at the end of each line when we should pause at the punctuation marks. When pauses come in the middle of the line, we call it a caesura. When the line continues to the next line we call it enjambment. The next slides show examples of each.
EnjambmentWe Real Coolby Gwendolyn Brooks We real cool. We Left school. We Lurk late. We Strike straight. We Sing sin. We Thin gin. We Jazz June. We die soon.
Notice that the enjambment forces you to pause before the end of the line. The word we is emphasized and gives the poem a syncopated rhythm, similar to the rhythm in jazz. This is appropriate since the poem is about the period of the 30’s when Prohibition was in effect and jazz was king.
Caesura The Tide Rises, the Tide Falls By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow The tide rises, the tide falls, The twilight darkens, the curlew calls; Along the sea sands damp and brown The traveler hastens toward the town. And the tide rises, the tide falls. This is only the first stanza of the poem, but you can see how effective the caesura is in creating the sound of the waves.
Form • Form is the structure of the poem. Any type of writing must have something to hold it together. The structure can be created through many means: meter, stanza, rhyme scheme, or set patterns of poetry like sonnet, haiku , concrete, and others.
Meter Meter is the set pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in a line of poetry. The main meter patterns are Iambic -- U/ (one foot) Trochee - /U Anapest -- UU/ Dactyl -- //U
Iambic Iambic is the most common pattern of meter since it is the way we generally talk . It is the unstressed/stressed syllable pattern. Here is an example of iambic lines: Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright, (/U|U/|U/|U/) The bridal of the earth and sky; (U/|U/|U/|U/) The dew shall weep thy fall to night, (U/|U/|U/|U/) For thou must die.(U/|U/|) (from “Virtue” by George Herbert)
Trochee Trochee is the reverse of an iamb. It is a stressed/unstressed pattern like in this line: Piping down the valleys wild, (/U|/U|/U|/) Piping songs of pleasant glee, (/U|/U|/U|/) On a cloud I saw a child, (/U|/U|/U|/) From “Songs of Innocence” by William Blake
Anapest Anapest is a meter pattern that sounds like hoof-beats. UU/|UU/ A tutor who tooted the flute (/|UU/|UU/|/) Tried to teach two young tooters to toot.
Stanza • A stanza in poetry is like a paragraph in prose. The author divides the poem by grouping words into stanzas. We can often see the structure of the poem by the author’s use of stanza.
Rhyme Scheme • Having a certain rhyme scheme also is a way to give structure to poetry. • Look at the rhyme scheme in the poem “Cross” by Langston Hughes. See how it holds the poem together. Also notice the use of stanzas. Why did Hughes put these words in the stanza?
CrossLangston Hughes My old man’s a white old man And my old mother’s black. If ever I cursed my white old man I take my curses back. If ever I cursed my black old mother And wished she were in hell, I’m sorry for that evil wish And now I wish her well. My old man died in a fine big house. My ma died in a shack. I wonder where I’m gonna die Being neither white or black?
Pattern • Some poems are written in a set form like sonnets, haikus, pantoums, limericks, concrete, etc. These patterns sometimes require a regular rhyme scheme or meter; or number of syllables or lines. Look at the following examples:
Sonnet • The sonnet is the requirement of every experienced poet. You must write one! • It is fourteen lines of rhymed iambic pentameter. • The first 12 lines pose a problem, ask a question, or set up a situation. • The couplet at the end solves the problem, answers the question or settles the situation.
Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day? – William Shakespeare Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? a Thou art more lovely and more temperate: b Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May, a And summer’s lease hath all too short a date: b Sometimes too hot the eye of heaven shines, c And often is his gold complexion dimmed: d And every fair from fair sometime declines, c By chance or nature’s changing course untrimmed; d But thy eternal summer shall not fade, e Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest; f Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade, e When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st: f So long as men can breathe, or eye can see, g So long lives this, and this gives life to thee. g
The previous sonnet is a famous one by William Shakespeare. It follows exactly the sonnet pattern. Iambic pentameter means that it has five feet of iamb meter (U/). The rhyme scheme is called Shakespearen because Shakespeare used it in all his sonnets. Look back at the poem and notice the rhyme and meter. Then see what the first four lines are talking about and how the couplet at the end completes it.
Haiku Haiku is an ancient Japanese pattern. It is three lines of seventeen syllables separated into 5 syllables in the first line, 7 syllables in the second, and 5 in the last. But a haiku is much more than that. Look at the following haiku written by Mike Reiss.
I think he was trying to be funny. Did you laugh? • Real haiku also have other characteristics besides syllables. • Haiku depend on imagery. • Haiku are condensed; the poet leaves out all unnecessary words. • Haiku are concerned with emotions; nature reflects these emotions. • Haiku rely heavily on the power of suggestion or connotation.
Here is a real Japanese haiku written by Japanese writer Kobayashi Issa. A gentle spring rainLook, a rat is lapping Sumida River. Here is one by American author Richard Wright. Over spring mountains A star ends the paragraph Of a thunderstorm. Finally, one by a former student, Jonathan Martin. Praying like a priest Then snapping with God’s power, The mantis chews love.
Pantoum • A pantoum is an old Malaysian form of poetry that repeats certain lines. You start off with 8 original lines and repeat certain ones to complete 16 lines. Look at the pattern in the next poem.
Deserted HouseRobert King Questions linger in the tall grass. Over the long abandoned house The clouds pile up, filling the sky the night birds veer and dart away without an answer to the grass reflected in broken windows or the last sunlight slanting low. and we are alone by the house. The clouds pile up, filling the sky The night birds veer and dart away. over the long abandoned house Questions linger in the grass with the last sunlight slanting low and we are alone by the house reflected broken windows. without an answer to the grass.
Limerick • The limerick has a strict pattern of five lines in an anapestic meter with a rhyme scheme of aa, bb, a. The limerick is almost always a light, humorous poem. Here is an example:
I sat next the Duchess at tea. It was just as I feared it would be: Her rumblings abdominal Were simply abominable And everyone thought they were me! -Anonymous
Concrete poetry Some poetry takes the shape of what the poem is about. Here is one called Poem by Philip G. Tannenbaum: Ido Can you figure out what this is about? Ntl Ike Tel Eph One Boo ths