Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Appreciating Poetry: Understanding Poetic Conventions

Poems are created to express what people consider to be meaningful and memorable in their lives. Poems are written in a style that seeks also to be meaningful and memorable.

Many poems make use of recognizable and accepted poetic conventions, though many poems break away from conventions. Familiarity with and understanding of many of the different poetic conventions can help a person to more fully appreciate the meanings and memories that are embedded in a poem.

Poetic Elements

The most common elements found in poetry are rhythm, rhyme, meter, and sound. These elements are what make poetry recognizably different from prose.

The rhythm in a poem comes from the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables and from the number of syllables in a line. Rhythm gives the lines of the poem movement and conveys a musical design.

The basic unit of meter is called a "foot." Most commonly, a foot consists of two syllables or three syllables. In a two syllable foot, one syllable is stressed and the other is unstressed. In a three syllable foot, generally either the last syllable is stressed or the first one is stressed.

Here are the names and examples of some common meters.

Iambic meter has the two syllable pattern of one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. For example: "That time of year thou mayest in me behold."

Trochaic meter is the opposite of iambic meter. A trochaic foot stresses the first syllable. For example: "Twinkle, twinkle little star."

Anapestic meter is a three syllable pattern with the third syllable receiving the stress. For example: "And the sound of a voice that is still."

Dactylic meter is a three syllable pattern where the first syllable is stressed. For example: "This is the forest primeval, the murmuring pines and the hemlock."

When the meter of a poetic line contains three feet, it is called a trimeter. If the line contains 4 feet, it is called a tetrameter, which is very common. Another common meter is the line that contains 5 feet, called a pentameter. A line with 6 feet is called a hexameter; a line with 7 feet is called a heptameter; and so on.

Putting meter and rhythm together, here is an example of a beautiful line of iambic pentameter from Shakespeare. "But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?" By the way, Shakespeare often used iambic pentameter in his plays. Here is an example of trochaic tetrameter. "Tell me not in mournful numbers." Or think of "Twinkle, twinkle little star." Here is an example of anapestic trimeter. "And the sound of a voice that is still."

Rhyme in a poem is the sound pattern produced by the regular repetition of consonant and vowel sounds. Most commonly, lines of a poem will rhyme at the end of the lines. When a rhyme occurs within a single line, it is called an internal rhyme. The sound pattern created by rhyming lines in a poem is called the rhyme scheme. A rhyme scheme is typically denoted with alphabetic letters, such as ABAB, or AABBCC. Not all poems exhibit a rhyme scheme, and those that do not are generally called free verse.

The sound of a poem often is created by the use of alliteration, assonance, or consonance. Alliteration is the most common of the sound elements. Alliteration is a pattern where there is repetition of the first consonant sound in two or more words in a line. Here's a good example from William Blake. "Tyger, Tyger burning bright." By the way, that line is also a good example of trochaic tetrameter.

Assonance generally involves the repetition of middle vowel sounds such as the use of "nine" and "white" in a line of poetry. Consonance involves the close repetition of similar consonant sounds following differing vowel sounds, such as the use of "head" and "bird" in a line of a poem.

Poetic Devices

Among the poetic devices commonly found in good poetry are simile, metaphor, and symbols. These devices, when well used, help to create a picture in the mind of the reader.

A simile is a definite and explicit comparison between two objects or concepts, usually linked with the words, "like," "as," or "than." A good simile is often surprising as it links two unlikely things. The simile creates a concrete image. Here's a great example from Robert Burns. "My love is like a red, red rose."

A metaphor differs from a simile in that it is an implied comparison between two objects or concepts. A metaphor does not have the linking words that a simile has, and it represents one thing in terms of another. Here's an example. "My love is a red rose of the heart." Notice how different this metaphor is from the preceding simile.

Lastly, the poet often uses symbols in their poem. A symbol is a concrete item which represents an idea or feeling. The use of a symbol gives the symbolic item a deeper meaning and creates another type of picture in the reader's mind. In Robert Frost's poem, "The Road Not Taken," the forked road represents choices in life and is an easily understood symbol.


Understanding the most common elements and devices used in poetry helps the reader to more greatly appreciate the work of the poet. Understanding the elements and devices also helps the poet to be able to convey their meanings and memories to the reader in wonderful, poetic ways.

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