Poetry Terms Made Easy

By Haley Drucker

Can't understand a thing your poetry teacher says? If you want to succeed in a late junior high or early high school poetry class, here are some poetic terms you'll absolutely need to know.

The Structure of Poetry

Stanza: Several lines of poetry grouped together, with white space above and below. The stanza is the basic unit of a poem, and is similar to a paragraph in fiction or a verse in a song.

Couplet: Two lines of poetry that stand alone or apart from the rest of the poem. Often these two lines will rhyme and have the same meter, but not always.

Soliloquy: Though used in prose occasionally, soliloquies are most often found in poetry. One character will speak aloud for a long period of time, describing his or her thoughts and feelings. A soliloquy is private, and not directed to another character. In Hamlet, the “To be or not to be" speech is a soliloquy.

Meter: The rhythmic structure of the poem—the way it sounds when read aloud. Certain syllables are stressed (emphasized) while others are left unstressed, which creates a certain rhythmic feel.

Iambic pentameter: A specific poetic meter. A line of iambic pentameter has exactly ten syllables, and the first syllable is unstressed. The line follows this pattern: unstressed, stressed, unstressed, stressed, etc. Here is an example by Shakespeare, with the stressed syllables in bold: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?"

Types of Poetry

Free verse: This type of poetry is free-form, and doesn’t stick to a particular structure or rhythm. It does not have regular rhymes, and the lines may be of different lengths and have different patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables.

Blank verse: Blank verse is a form of poetry that does not rhyme, but has a regular meter. Each line has the same (or close to the same) rhythm of stressed and unstressed syllables and words. A popular meter used in blank verse is iambic pentameter.

Narrative poem: This kind of poem tells a story, much like a novel does. Their structures vary greatly, but every narrative poem has to have some form of plot and characters. Often these poems are long, and the many possible varieties include epics and ballads.

Sonnet: A type of poem commonly written by Shakespeare and other English writers in the sixteenth century. It has a very strict 14-line structure. Each line must contain exactly ten syllables and be written in iambic pentameter. In a typical Shakespearian sonnet, the last couplet (two lines) of the poem rhymes.

Elegy: A poem with a very sad, melancholy mood. Often an elegy is written for someone who has recently died.

Poetic Techniques

Alliteration: A poem is using alliteration when several words that start with the same consonant are placed close together. For example: “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers."

Onomatopoeia: A word that sounds like what it represents. Words for animal sounds, such as “meow" and “oink," are onomatopoeias, as are words like “pop" and “click" that sound like the noise they are naming.

Consonance: Consonance is similar to alliteration, because it involves the same consonant being repeated several times close together. However, this time the consonant doesn’t have to always be at the beginning of the word. For example: “She sells seashells by the seashore."

Repetition: Often in poetry a word or phrase is repeated in order to emphasize a certain idea or image. Repetition may also help give structure to the poem, the same way the repeated chorus in a song gives it a predictable structure. “To be or not to be" repeats the phrase “to be" twice, giving it greater emphasis.

Imagery: Descriptive language that creates pictures in the reader’s mind is known as imagery. Certain words and comparisons are used to help the reader ‘see’ what’s going on and evoke a certain mood or emotion.

Personification: This is when an object or animal is given human qualities. The poem may describe an object as though it can think and feel, or describe an animal that can talk or think logically. In William Blake’s poem “Two Sunflowers," he personifies the flowers when he writes: “‘Ah, William, we're weary of weather,’ said the sunflowers, shining with dew."


Internal rhyme: When two or more words in the same line of a poem rhyme, that line is said to have internal rhyme. For example, the first line of “The Raven" by Edgar Allen Poe reads, “Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary." Dreary and weary rhyme, meaning this line of poetry has internal rhyme.

End rhyme: This term can refer to two things: rhyming lines of poetry and rhyming words. When two or more lines of poetry end with a rhyming word, that is considered an end rhyme. Also, two words that rhyme on their last syllable, such as “showers" and “flowers," are said to have end rhyme.