Poetic Forms & Terms

When getting to know your poem, it’s helpful to examine the nuts and bolts of the work you’re studying. The following definitions will help you better understand the choices that the poet made and see how those choices give shape to the poem.

Poetic Forms & Terms

 

Alliteration

The repetition of the same initial letter, sound, or group of sounds in a series of words, as in the Gerard Manley Hopkins line “[king-]dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon...”          

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Allusion

A brief reference to a person, character, place, literary work, or historical event, such as when Allen Ginsberg imagines he sees the poet Walt Whitman in a grocery store or when P.K. Page writes a poem that incorporates language and images from a poem by Wallace Stevens.

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Assonance

A vowel rhyme created through the relatively close juxtaposition of the same or similar vowel sounds, but with different end consonants in a line or passage, as in the sequence “So twice five miles” in “Kubla Khan” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

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Ballad

A song that tells a story, often using simple, folksy language. The art of writing ballads began in medieval France, though the English ballad follows its own form: quatrains that alternate between four-stress (“So we’ll * go no * more a * ro-ving”) and three-stress lines (“So late * in-to * the night”).

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Blank verse

Iambic pentameter that doesn’t follow a fixed rhyme scheme.

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Common measure

Four-line stanzas (quatrains) that rhyme abab, alternating between between four-stress and three-stress iambic lines. See ballad, a form written in common measure.

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Consonance

The repetition of a consonant sound, such as the repetition of the “t” sound in “tucked string tells” or the “c” sound in “cloudless climes.”

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Couplet

Two consecutive lines of a poem, usually of the same length, that rhyme.

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Elegy

A poem of mourning for a person or event.

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Free verse

A poem that does not follow a consistent meter or rhyme scheme in its structure.   

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Imagery

The use of vivid visual images.       

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Metaphor

An implied comparison where one thing is described in terms of another without using the words like or as (see simile). Emily Dickinson doesn’t write that “hope” is like a thing with feathers she writes that “hope” is the thing with feathers. Sometimes the story of a poem is a metaphor for a larger idea, as in “The Road Not Taken,” where Robert Frost describes a forked road as a metaphor for the moment one chooses between two different ways of life.

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Ode

A poem that formally addresses a person, place, thing, or idea; odes often praise or celebrate their subjects.

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Pastoral

Poetry that idealizes rural life as tranquil, uncomplicated, and virtuous.         

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Persona poem

A poem that, though written in first person, is not in the voice of the poet but rather speaks from the point of view of a dramatic character.

 

Personification

A figure of speech in which human characteristics are given to an animal, object, or abstract idea.

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Prose poem

A poem that appears to follow the same form as prose — with sentences that flow into paragraphs rather than being broken into verse lines — but that uses poetic devices, such as metaphor, imagery, or symbolism.

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Quatrain

A four-line stanza.    

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Refrain

A phrase or line that repeats regularly in a poem, often at the end of stanzas.

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Rhyme

A patterned repetition of vowel and consonant sounds.

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Rhythm

The organization of sound patterns.

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Sensory language

The use of words and details that appeal to a reader’s physical senses (sight, touch, taste, hearing, smell).

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Simile

The use of like or as to compare one thing to another, as Michael Ondaatje writes “Your voice sounds like a scorpion being pushed / through a glass tube.”

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Sonnet

One of the most enduring forms in English poetry, a sonnet — from sonetto, which means  “little song” in Italian — is a 14-line poem. Traditionally a sonnet employs a variable rhyme scheme, though many contemporary examples of the sonnet do not rhyme.    

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Stanza

A group of two or more lines that make up a single unit of a larger poem, traditionally in a set structure (of couplets, tercets, quatrains, etc.), though contemporary poems often contain stanzas of varying lengths without a formal pattern. A poem moves from stanza to stanza in much the same way that a prose composition moves from paragraph to paragraph.

 

Tercet

A three-line stanza or a three-line poem. There are many contemporary examples of poems written entirely in tercets.

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