Some Helpful Poetry Terms

One of the stumbling blocks when trying to study poetry is that it seems like a different world. Familiar things, like words, are put to unfamiliar use, and there is an entire descriptive vocabulary that is completely foreign and quite often puzzling. This list seeks to explain the words used to describe poetry through examples from famous poems. Nassim Nicholas Taleb said, "If you want to annoy a poet, explain his poetry," but we are willing to take that risk to make the world of literary analysis a little clearer and further illuminate the mystery of poetry.

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definitions & notes only words
  1. alliteration
    use of the same consonant at the beginning of each word
    Your poetry is alive with alliteration; bursting with evocative images; and brimming with thoughtful rhythms, unexpected wordplay and heartfelt emotion.
    —Seattle Times May 6, 2011
    The light from the porthole was a pulsing purple.— Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut
  2. allusion
    passing reference or indirect mention
    She was dancing below a noose, an allusion to the hanging of dissidents under her father’s regime.
    —New York Times Aug 30, 2014
  3. apostrophe
    an address to an absent or imaginary person
    Her unfortunate position, and the singular apostrophe she had addressed to me, pierced me to the heart.
    —Jacques Casanova de Seingalt
    O stranger of the future!
    O inconceivable being!
    whatever the shape of your house,
    however you scoot from place to place,
    no matter how strange and colorless the clothes you may wear,
    I bet nobody likes a wet dog either.
    I bet everyone in your pub,
    even the children, pushes her away.
    —To a Stranger Born in Some Distant Country Hundreds of Years from Now, Billy Collins
  4. assonance
    the repetition of similar vowels in successive words
    His work exhibits ease and elasticity of rhythm, liquid smoothness of assonance, sympathetic beauty of thought, with subtle skill in wedding sense to sound.
    —William Henry Oliphant Smeaton
    Those images that yet,
    Fresh images beget,
    That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.
    – Byzantium, W.B. Yeats
  5. caesura
    a break or pause in the middle of a verse line
    But the third line, with its caesura before the last foot, complicates the grandfather's absence, extends his influence, and begins to restore his existence.
    —The Guardian Jul 15, 2013
    I'm nobody! Who are you?
    Are you nobody, too?
    Then there's a pair of us — don't tell!
    —I'm Nobody ! Who are you?, Emily Dickinson
  6. consonance
    the repetition of sounds especially at the ends of words
    Occasionally the author breaks into verse, or stretches of consonance or alliteration.
    —New York Times Jan 9, 2012
    I'll swing by my ankles.
    She'll cling to your knees.
    As you hang by your nose,
    From a high-up trapeze.
    But just one thing, please,
    As we float through the breeze,
    Don't sneeze.
    — The Acrobats, Shel Silverstein
  7. couplet
    a stanza consisting of two successive lines of verse
    In "Keeping Hope Alive," he triggers a world of emotions in a brief couplet: "Pride and pain/Cloud my brain."
    —Los Angeles Times May 28, 2014
    For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
    Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.
    - Sonnet 94, William Shakespeare
  8. enjambment
    continuation from one line of verse into the next line
    But poetry critics have a more precise term for the kind of enjambment Obama employs: “bad line breaks.”
    —Salon Jul 17, 2012
    A thing of beauty is a joy forever:
    Its loveliness increases; it will never
    Pass into nothingness but still will keep
    A bower quiet for us, and asleep
    Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
    —Endymion, John Keats
  9. hyperbole
    extravagant exaggeration
    That’s not hyperbole; statistics prove this to be true.
    —Time Aug 17, 2014
    I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you
    Till China and Africa meet,
    And the river jumps over the mountain
    And the salmon sing in the street,
    I’ll love you till the ocean
    Is folded and hung up to dry
    — As I Walked One Evening, W.H. Auden
  10. internal rhyme
    a rhyme between words in the same line
    That songlike quality would fit well in a poem, especially the internal rhyme and near-rhyme of “night and light” with “alike.”
    —Washington Post July 17, 2014
    Double, double toil and trouble,
    Fire burn and cauldron bubble
    —Macbeth, William Shakespeare
  11. litotes
    understatement for rhetorical effect
    Litotes describes the object to which it refers not directly, but through the negation of the opposite.
    —J.R. Bergmann, Veiled Morality
    We were going through the three first acts, and not unsuccessfully upon the whole.
    --Mansfield Park, Jane Austen

    The litotes here is "not unsuccessfully."
  12. metaphor
    a figure of speech that suggests a non-literal similarity
    Her extreme cosmetic aesthetic has been an apt metaphor for the excesses and vanities of Hollywood.
    —Salon Sep 4, 2014
    She really was a most charming girl, and might have passed for a captive fairy, whom that truculent ogre, Old Barley, had pressed into his service.
    -Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
  13. octave
    a rhythmic group of eight lines of verse
    One of these [two interpretations] must be in the octave and the other in the sestet.
    —Joyce Kilmer
    For the moon never beams without bringing me dreams
    Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
    And the stars never rise but I feel the bright eyes
    Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
    And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
    Of my darling, my darling, my life and my bride,
    In the sepulchre there by the sea,
    In her tomb by the sounding sea.
    —Annabel Lee, Edgar Allan Poe
  14. onomatopoeia
    using words that imitate the sound they denote
    What a succession of groans, hurrahs, cheers, and all the onomatopoeia of which the American language is so full.
    —Jules Verne
    It went zip when it moved and bop when it stopped,
    And whirr when it stood still.
    I never knew just what it was and I guess I never will.
    —The Marvelous Toy, Tom Paxton
  15. paradox
    a statement that contradicts itself
    The brilliant paradox of Flanagan’s introspective novel is that a work of such powerful remembrance should so movingly capture our inmost longing to forget.
    —Seattle Times Aug 27, 2014
    I can resist anything but temptation.
    — Oscar Wilde
  16. personification
    attributing human characteristics to abstract ideas
    Gordon-Levitt may also direct and star in the film, which is to tell the story of the brooding hero Morpheus, the immortal personification of dreams.
    —Los Angeles Times Aug 22, 2014
    Pearl Button swung on the little gate in front of the House of Boxes. It was the early afternoon of a sunshiny day with little winds playing hide-and-seek in it.
    —How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped, Katherine Mansfield
  17. anapest
    a metrical unit with unstressed-unstressed-stressed syllables
    An Anapest is a three-syllable foot accented on the last syllable.
    —William Franklin Webster
    ‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
    Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
    —'Twas the Night Before Christmas, Clement Clarke Moore

    An anapest here is "Twas the night".
  18. dactyl
    a metrical unit with stressed-unstressed-unstressed syllables
    There's a lovely contrast between the skippety dactyl of "Merry mites" and the surprising, ceremonious spondee, "Welcome".
    —The Guardian Mar 29, 2010
    Half a League, Half a League, Half a League, onward
    —The Charge of the Light Brigade, Alfred Lord Tennyson
  19. spondee
    a metrical unit with stressed-stressed syllables
    "Hot sun" and "cool fire" are both spondees.
    —The Guardian Oct 11, 2010
    'By the shore of Gitche Gumee,
    By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
    —The Song of Hiawatha, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

    A spondee here is "By the".
  20. trochee
    a metrical unit with stressed-unstressed syllables
    "Beauty" by this usage, is a trochee, "beautiful" a dactyl, "relate" an iamb, "intercede" an anapest.
    —Paull Franklin Baum
    Tyger! Tyger! Burning bright
    —The Tyger, William Blake

    The trochee here is "Burning bright".
  21. iamb
    a metrical unit with unstressed-stressed syllables
    “ ‘Feminine’ brand names, like Chanel, are often iambs; ‘masculine’ ones, like Black & Decker, tend to be trochees,” he writes.
    —New York Times Jul 26, 2011
    I have been one acquainted with the night.
    I have walked out in rain -- and back in rain.
    I have outwalked the furthest city light.
    I have looked down the saddest city lane.
    —Acquainted with the Night, Robert Frost
  22. sestet
    a group of six lines of verse
    In the sestet usually the first line rhymes with the fourth, the second with the fifth and the third with the sixth.
    —Charles Herbert Sylvester
    O mistress mine, where are you roaming?
    O stay and hear! your true-love's coming
    That can sing both high and low;
    Trip no further, pretty sweeting,
    Journey's end in lovers' meeting—
    Every wise man's son doth know.
    —Twelfth Night, Act II, Scene 3, William Shakespeare
  23. simile
    a figure of speech expressing a resemblance between things
    He repeatedly underlines the inhumanity of the situation prisoners face by using similes comparing them to animals.
    —New York Times Jul 2, 2013
    ...impressions poured in upon her of those two men, and to follow her thought was like following a voice which speaks too quickly to be taken down by one’s pencil . . .
    —To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf
  24. synaesthesia
    a sensation that normally occurs in one sense modality occurs when another modality is stimulated
    Synaesthesia is where the senses are mixed together - for example seeing colour when listening to music - or tasting food and hearing chords.
    —BBC Apr 19, 2014
    Tasting of Flora and the country green,
    Dance, and Provencal song, and sun burnt mirth!
    —Ode to a Nightingale, John Keats
Created on September 4, 2014 (updated September 5, 2014)

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