The world of poetry can be complex, confusing, and overwhelming for some, but it can also bring great insight, raw emotion, and rich imagery to readers.
One of the ways that poetry can really shine is through the use of poetic techniques and devices. Together, the use of such techniques can help one poem to stand out from another, and really draw the reader into the rich imagery of the poem and help them to understand the true meaning of that poem.
As a result, any aspiring poet should read a lot of poetry and try to become versed with as many poetic devices as possible, and know when to use each device to their advantage.
This article outlines what impact poetic technique can achieve and also highlights some of the most common poetic and literary devices a poet may encounter. Following this, we will consider how, as a student, you may approach analysing poetry (whether your own or others).
Poetic devices can really enrich the imagery of a poem. (Image: CC0 1.0, UzbekIL, Pixabay)
A poem can feature a wide variety of literary or poetic devices and techniques, as ultimately such techniques build upon each other and work together to help bring a poem to life and make the scene the poem is portraying more vivid to the reader or listener.
As such, a variety of factors come into play when utilising poetic techniques, and poets need to think about the overall impact a poem may have, from:
Whether you decide to use rhyme, personification, or a particular mood or setting for your poem, poetic devices can help make your poem come alive, and can even help inform how you structure your poem.
For example, you could decide to structure your poem with stanzas, although there’s no obligation to if you would rather not. A stanza helps to divide a poem by grouping together two or more lines together that usually have a similar metrical form or rhyme, although they don’t have to share this feature. Just as paragraphs are used in literature to group ideas together, stanzas perform a similar function in the world of poetry.
Another question that many poets ask themselves today is whether or not it’s worth incorporating rhyme, iambic pentameter, or rhyming words into a poem. Although older poems may rhyme more frequently than newer, more contemporary poems, ultimately the choice of whether to use rhyme depends on your own preferences towards rhyme as a poet and whether rhyme would work well as a poetic device in the poem you’re writing.
If you do decide to incorporate rhyme into your poem to improve the rhythm of the poem, then you could look to use a poetic technique such as rhyming couplets. A rhyming couplet features two lines of equal length that rhyme. Shakespeare’s sonnets often featured rhyming couplets, if you’re looking for good examples to learn from.
Ultimately, the decision of which poetic techniques are best to use is very personal, and will likely change on a poem by poem basis. With that in mind, some common poetic devices have been defined and highlighted below to give you some inspiration on which poetic devices and literary terms to include in your next piece of work.
poetry devices and poetic techniques are essential in an engaging poem. (Image: CC BY 2.0, Pete O’Shea, Flickr)
Poetic devices are used throughout various types and styles of poems to increase that poem’s effect on the reader or listener and to help make the poem more memorable overall.
As a result, poetic devices can really enhance a poetic work, regardless of the type of poem written, including:
As a result, poetic devices can really be the best friend of any poet, including established poets and poets who are just starting out. So learning them should be among an aspiring poet’s top priorities when they’re just starting to write.
Some of the most common poetic devices are highlighted below, although there others out there.
Simile – a simile compares two things that are not alike, using “as” or “like” to signal the comparison.
Example: “That was as clear as mud.”
Metaphor – a metaphor, like a simile, seeks to compare two things that are not alike, however, a metaphor does not feature the use of “as” or “like”. There are many different types of metaphor, including extended metaphors, implied metaphors, and mixed metaphors, among others.
Example: “You’re the apple of my eye.”
Alliteration – the repetition of consonants at the beginning of words that follow, or closely follow, each other.
Example: “She sells seashells by the sea-shore.”
Assonance – the repetition of vowels within words close to each other, although each word starts with a different consonant.
Example: “The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.” (My Fair Lady)
Onomatopoeia – words that imitate how the thing being described sounds.
Example: “The buzzing bee.”
Note that some poetic devices are also used as wider literary devices, for example in works of fiction, but these devices can be just as effective when used within a poem.
If you’d like to learn more about poetic or literary devices or understand their purpose and effect further, then you may want to reach out to a tutor for some extra direction when it comes to informing your studies. Superprof, for example, has a number of English tutors available who would be happy to give you some further insight into the most effective poetic devices out there, and which ones may complement your writing style.
Rhyming can help impact how a poem sounds. (Image: CC0 1.0, geralt, Pixabay)
Ultimately, when you set out to write a poem, think about the techniques that would best make your poem shine and grab the attention of your intended audience. While literary techniques such as alliteration and onomatopoeia may work well within some poems, in others they may fall flat.
Finding the right poetic devices for your poem can really enhance the feelings and emotions of your reader while they are going through your poem, regardless of whether you want to write a ballad, sonnet, or a dramatic poem.
As such, take the time to plan your poem in advance before you start writing, so you can decide which poetry techniques would work best. Advance planning can help to prevent excessive rewrites at a later date, so it can really pay to get on top of your poem early, long before the pen hits paper.
Thinking about potential techniques in advance can really help your writing and publishing, as you can help figure out whether you’d like to use figurative language, hyperbole, or stressed vowel sounds to help convey the true meaning of your poem to the reader.
However, if you didn’t plan out a poem you wrote, or if you prefer to write organically, then not to worry! Even if you’ve finished a poem, it’s still worth spending some time looking through your work to see whether your poem achieves what you’d like it to.
If you think that the poem doesn’t appeal to your intended audience, then it might be worthwhile revising certain lines to make sure the overall poem has its intended effect.
For example, modern poems don’t always contain as many rhyme or rhyming words within them compared to older poems. As such, if you’re trying to appeal to a contemporary audience, have a think about whether your poem needs to feature as much if any, rhyme. If not, then rewrite your poem, removing the rhyming words in favour of another literary technique, whether that’s:
Of course, if you’re ever struggling to come up with ideas of what literary techniques to use, or would like another person to take a look over your poems to provide their own feedback and suggestions on where to improve, then you could look to hire an English tutor with experience within the area of poetry.
Sites such as Superprof have a range of English tutors, who can be available for one on one, group tutoring, remote learning, or workshop sessions. So if you’d like to learn more about poetic techniques and how they could help your poems shine that bit more, then reach out to an experienced tutor today for help and see how it could benefit you.
It’s just a case of entering in your postcode to find local tutors in your area that are willing to help. With one to one lessons and group workshops available, there’s sure to be a tuition format that works for you. Even if you’d prefer to have tuition lessons remotely, there are also remote tutors out there!
With thanks to Writer’s Digest, we are able to provide you with a few dozen poetry terms that all poets will need to know about, whether just starting out or new to analysing poetry. Take a look at these brief definitions of some of the most common terminology found in poetry analysis!
Alliteration. Close repetition of consonant sounds, especially initial consonant sounds.
Anapest. Foot consisting of 2 unstressed syllables followed by a stress.
Assonance. Close repetition of vowel sounds.
Blank verse. Unrhymed iambic pentameter.
Caesura. A deliberate rhetorical, grammatical, or rhythmic pause, break, cut, turn, division, or pivot in poetry.
Chapbook. A small book of about 24-50 pages.
Consonance. Close repetition of consonant sounds–anywhere within the words.
Couplet. Stanza of 2 lines; often, a pair of rhymed lines.
Dactyl. Foot consisting of a stress followed by 2 unstressed syllables.
Decasyllable. Line consisting of 10 syllables.
Enjambment. Continuation of sense and rhythmic movement from one line to the next; also called a “run-on” line.
Envoi. A brief ending (usually to a ballade or sestina) no more than 4 lines long; summary.
Epigraph. A short verse, note, or quotation that appears at the beginning of a poem or section; usually presents an idea or theme on which the poem elaborates, or contributes background information not reflected in the poem itself.
Foot. Unit of measure in a metrical line of poetry.
Galleys. First typeset version of a poem, magazine, and/or book/chapbook.
Hendecasyllable. Line consisting of 11 syllables.
Hexameter. Line consisting of 6 metrical feet.
Honorarium. A token payment for published work.
Iamb. Foot consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stress.
Line. Basic unit of a poem; measured in feet if metrical.
Meter. The rhythmic measure of a line.
Octave. Stanza of 8 lines.
Octosyllable. Line consisting of 8 syllables.
Pentameter. Line consisting of 5 metrical feet. For instance, iambic pentameter equals 10 syllables (5 unstressed, 5 stressed).
Quatrain. Stanza of 4 lines.
Quintain. Stanza of 5 lines.
Refrain. A repeated line within a poem, similar to the chorus of a song.
Rhyme. Words that sound alike, especially words that end in the same sound.
Rhythm. The beat and movement of language (rise and fall, repetition and variation, change of pitch, mix of syllables, melody of words).
Septet. Stanza of 7 lines.
Sestet. Stanza of 6 lines.
Spondee. Foot consisting of 2 stressed syllables.
Stanza. Group of lines making up a single unit; like a paragraph in prose.
Strophe. Often used to mean “stanza”; also a stanza of irregular line lengths.
Tercet. Stanza or poem of 3 lines.
Tetrameter. Line consisting of 4 metrical feet.
Trochee. Foot consisting of a stress followed by an unstressed syllable.
Whether an English Literature student, or someone who is passionate about learning from existing poetry to make their own lyrical writing the best it can be, then comparing poems is usually a great way to learn a lot about a poem, its theme, a style, and an era.
During GCSE and A Level exams, for instance, candidates are asked to compare two pieces written by different poets but dealing with similar subjects or themes. Though they may be written 100 years apart, or more in some cases, the act of comparing the two and considering the different poetic techniques and devices used can help to unlock and discover so much more than simply reading them separately.
Identifying where poems are similar or where they differ can help the reader to better appreciate each one individually, understanding how and why the poets have approached the subject in different manners.
When looking at two poems alongside each other, you may wish to consider:
If you aren’t sure where to start (because not all poetry pairings will have obvious similarities and differences), then BBC Bitesize recommends using some of the following questions to trigger discussion points:
Who is the speaker in each poem?
How are the speaker’s views similar or different?
Does one poem present a more positive view than the other?
Do they focus on the same aspect of the overall theme?
Is there a stronger point of view in one poem compared to the other?
Do they concentrate on one aspect of a theme or explore different areas?
What about the tone or mood of each poem – are they similar?
In addition, some prompts to think about when considering context include:
If you are an A Level student looking for some examples of how to incorporate your newly acquired poetry terms into your analysis during an exam, then do visit your exam board’s website where you can find exemplar student responses to read through and learn from.
For example, on the AQA website, you can find the following extract from a band 5 pupil responding to a question about the topic: Love through the ages.
Below is the response, but you can view this and read the examiner’s comments by visiting the site here.
Paper 1, Section C
Compare how the authors of two texts you have studied present barriers to love.
Band 5 response
Barriers to love can take many forms: parental disapproval of a suitor on the grounds of class, race or religion; physical distance which puts stress on a relationship; emotional turmoil which results in us irrationally pushing away those closest to us, to name but a few. For the writers of The Awakening, ‘Talking in Bed’ and ‘One Flesh’, however, the barriers to love occur within marriage, a place where ironically we might expect barriers to love to be removed, and mainly because of the expectations society places on those who are married.
Written almost seventy years apart, both The Awakening and the two post-1900 poems show how society’s expectations of duty within marriage, more especially in 1899 in The Awakening perhaps but still relevant by the time the poems were written in the early 1960s, can result in disconnection within the marriage shown through a breakdown in communication.
The Awakening might be seen as an example of New Woman fiction which challenged the Victorian ideal of the dutiful wife and mother. Chopin tells the story of Edna Pontellier, a wife and mother who feels unfulfilled by her conventional domestic role and determines to overcome the barrier of society’s expectations of her in order to be with Robert, a young man who she falls in love with.
Chopin structures the novel in order to show the stages of Edna’s rebellion against social expectation. At the very beginning, Chopin includes the image of a caged songbird, a common symbol for a domestic Victorian woman, who speaks ‘a language which nobody understood’ and whose noise leads Edna’s husband to ‘an exclamation of disgust.’ Here Chopin foreshadows the breakdown of communication which occurs because Edna fails to speak the language of a devoted wife. Mr Pontellier regards Edna ‘as one who looks at a valuable piece of property’ (in Louisiana at that time women were regarded as their husband’s legal property). It is Mr Pontellier’s absolute certainty of his wife’s obligation to him, a trait of the Creole husband, that means he ‘is never jealous’ and so ironically allows Edna to spend time in Robert’s company, which leads to Edna ‘beginning to realise her position in the universe.’ Edna’s rebellion includes renewing her interest in painting and learning to swim ‘as if some power of significant import had been given her to control the working of her body and her soul.’ Afterwards, Edna shows open defiance of her husband’s wishes when she refuses to join him in bed where ‘another time…she would, through habit, have yielded to his desire… unthinkingly.’
Chopin uses setting to help show the stages of Edna’s attempt to break down the barrier presented by social convention. Her initial rebellion (above) takes place away from her marital home at Grand Isle. The morning following her defiance of her husband, Edna’s invitation to Robert to sail across to Cheniere Caminada with her made her feel ‘as if she were being borne away from some anchorage which had held her fast, whose chains…had snapped the night before…leaving her free to drift whithersoever she chose to set her sails.’ In this new setting, Robert and Edna grow closer and she realises that she has changed: ‘she was seeing with different eyes and making the acquaintance of new conditions in herself.’ Instead of a return to dutiful domesticity back in New Orleans, Chopin heightens Edna’s ongoing rebellion against a backdrop of ‘the cut glass, the silver, the heavy damask which…were the envy of many women whose husbands were less generous than Mr Pontellier.’ Edna discards the trappings of her domestic role by refusing to stay at home on Tuesdays, her reception day, and by changing ‘her gown for a comfortable and commodious wrapper.’ Finally, Edna moves out of the marital home while her husband is away ‘without even waiting for an answer…regarding his opinions or wishes on the matter’ and begins an affair with a womaniser, Alcee Arobin.
In spite of these attempts to break down the barrier of social convention which Edna believes is preventing her and Robert from being together, Chopin shows how Edna’s rebellion does not produce a neat solution. When she throws off her wedding ring and tries to crush it, her ‘boot heel did not make an indenture, not a mark upon the little glittering circlet’ and her new home is described as ‘the pigeon house’, a return to the effective symbol of the caged bird. It is, however, Robert’s decision to conform to social expectation and so end the relationship which means Edna is unable to overcome this barrier except through suicide. As she swims out to sea at the end, Edna realises that Robert ‘would never understand’ her and Chopin cleverly changes the metaphor of the seabird from ‘winging its flight away’ to now ‘with a broken wing…circling disabled down, down to the water.’
Although poetry cannot use setting to show the attempt to break down a barrier to love over time in the same detail as Chopin does, both ‘Talking in Bed’ and ‘One Flesh’ choose the marital bed as an ’emblem’ of social convention and, through it, are able to show how expectations have led to disconnection within both couples. Larkin’s use of ‘ought’ in the opening line shows both the expectation that married couples communicate easily in this setting but also a hint that this communication has broken down. (This links to Edna’s refusal to join her husband in bed discussed earlier.) The second stanza starts with ‘yet’ which confirms that this marriage is not living up to expectation as in this bed ‘time passes silently’. Larkin plays on the word ‘lying’ which seems at first to relate to lying in bed but which might suggest that instead of ‘two people being honest’, dishonesty is a barrier to this couple’s love. Interestingly, Edna does not need to lie to her husband because he takes her honesty for granted. The same difficulty of communication within the marriage, shown through the imagery of the parrot in The Awakening, is shown by Larkin’s use of half-rhyme in stanzas 1-3 and through the ambiguous meaning in the final two lines: ‘words at once true and kind/or not untrue and not unkind.’ These lines do not mean the same as each other and help to leave the reader with a sense of disconnection in this relationship.
In ‘One Flesh’, Jennings discusses how the passion has gone out of her parents’ marriage so that they are ‘lying apart now, each in a separate bed.’ Just as Edna’s loneliness within her marriage makes her remember her girlish infatuations, the poet’s mother lies in her bed ‘dreaming of childhood/All men elsewhere.’ The disconnection between the poet’s parents is shown in the contrast between him being in ‘light’ and her lying in ‘shadows’, and in the fact that ‘they hardly ever touch/Or if they do, it is like a confession.’ This religious imagery could link to their marriage vows as in the title ‘One Flesh’, and so again to social expectation. Unlike in The Awakening or ‘Talking in Bed’, however, there is a sense that there was ‘a former passion’ and Jennings uses a contrast between that ‘fire’ which ‘has now grown cold’ to show how this separation is a barrier to the physical intimacy expected of marriage. Where Chopin and Larkin offer no hope of overcoming barriers to love, Jennings uses a steady rhyme to suggest an ongoing bond between her parents. Although they are ‘strangely apart’ she believes they are also ‘strangely close together’ and her question ‘Do they know they’re old?’ might suggest her parents should accept that the nature of their marriage will change over time.
Both in The Awakening and in ‘Talking in Bed’ and ‘One Flesh’, barriers to love exist for the married characters. In The Awakening, Edna is fighting pre-1900 society’s expectations of her as a wife to be free to love Robert. In the post-1900 poetry, both poems were written in the early 1960s when divorce was unusual and many couples stayed together unhappily; these couples are failing to meet society’s expectations of marriage through a lack of honesty or physical intimacy. All three writers use setting successfully to convey social expectation and each show how a difficulty of communication is a barrier to love, Chopin through imagery, Larkin through half-rhyme and ambiguous language, and Jennings through contrast.