First off: technical terms. It might make it easier if you think of poems in terms of songs. Well-written song lyrics really are poetry if you think about it. They have melodies, they have time signatures, they have rhythms, etc. The same thing can be said of poetry.
So, first off: Poems are divided into verses. That's similar to music, little bits of chunks of words. Some poems might just have one verse, some might have just one line and some might have multiple verses. When they're arranged rhythmically, they're called stanzas. You often hear that in poetry: first stanza, second stanza. Depending on how the stanzas are divided, there are different terms you can use to refer to them. Popular types are:
- Couplet: a two-line stanza that often rhymes (typically using end rhymes) but doesn't have to.
- Triplet: a three-line stanza.
- Quatrain: a four-line stanza.
- Sonnet: a 14-line stanza that can be a single poem, or you can have a larger poem that has a bunch of sonnets as its stanzas, so you can get a little creative.
And while verses and stanzas subdivide into lines, lines themselves subdivide into feet, which are not like my feet but are the basic unit of measurement in poetry. It's kind of like how a drummer goes, 'one, two, three, four!' The count of the song, or the count of the poem, can be measured in feet. They typically follow patterns of stress and emphasis, and there are a bunch of different kinds. The most common ones are:
- Iambs: one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable; this is really common in English poetry. It goes da-DA.
- Trochee: the reverse of an iamb, a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable, so DA-da.
- Anapest: two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable, so you've got da-da-DA.
- Dactyl: the reverse of an anapest, one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables, DA-da-da
- Spondee (my favorite because of a Coleridge poem that has ways to remember all of these): two stressed syllables, DA-DA. (Coleridge's thing is, 'Slow spondee stalks.' I just think a spondee must be a cute creature. Who knows?)
Those are the kinds of feet that you can have. The pattern of poetic stresses is called meter, and, much like in music, the sound patterns that result can be referred to as rhythm.
Poetry or Prose?
You've probably heard someone refer to a song or a novel or a phrase as poetic. But what are the exact qualities of poetry that distinguish it from normal, everyday writing?
The term we use for the everyday writing that you find in letters and novels is prose. When you think about it, meaning in prose comes from the actual definition of the words being used. In contrast, in poetry, additional meaning is found by looking at the layout and formal qualities of the words, such as their sound.
Most of the time, you know when you're reading a poem simply by the way that it looks. Poems tend to be arranged with shorter lines than prose and have other features that make them recognizable, such as rhyming. In this lesson, we'll look at the main formal features of poetry, including:
- Rhyme schemes
- Common poetic forms
In English, all words can be broken up into a word's basic sound, called syllables. The word is, for example has one syllable, while the word to-day has two syllables. The word to-mor-row has three syllables, and the word un-for-got-ten has four syllables.
When speaking in English, we emphasize some syllables in words more than others. To see this, think of the difference between the words pro-duce and pro-duce. Although both words are spelled the same, when we emphasize the first syllable we mean fruit and vegetables, as in pro-duce at the market, and when we emphasize the second we mean creating, as in cars pro-duce pollution.
English poetry is often organized around this emphasis to create patterns of sound. More specifically, meter is the term we use to describe organizing poetry around how words are emphasized to produce a rhythm. Meter is broken down into specific patterns of emphasis that are made up of two or three syllables called feet.
The four most common feet in poetry are:
An iamb is made up of two syllables, in which the second is more pronounced than the first. Some examples are be-tray and col-lide. A trochee has two syllables and is the reverse of an iamb; that is, the first syllable is emphasized and the second isn't. Examples are: pep-per and strong-er.
A dactyl has three syllables: the first is emphasized and the second two are not. Examples are: buf-fa-lo and scor-pi-on. Finally, an anapest has three syllables: the first two are not emphasized but the last is. Examples are: in-ter-vene and o-ver-come.
So, now you have the basic idea of feet in meter. Lines generally use only one type of foot and repeat each foot multiple times. Although one could write a poem with quite a few feet in each line, most include around three to eight repetitions of the same foot. The numbers we use to count the feet are in Greek, and here are the most common:
- Trimeter = three feet
- Tetrameter = four feet
- Pentameter = five feet
- Hexameter = six feet
- Heptameter = seven feet
- Octameter = eight feet
So, now all we have to do is put the name of the foot used with the number of feet used in each line to describe meter. When a poem has six iambs, for example, we call it iambic hexameter. Or, when we have a line with four spondees in it, we would call that a spondaic tetrameter. There's a lot of terms here, and the important thing to remember is that the meter of a poem is named simply by noting the foot and the number of feet in each line.
If you listen closely to rhymes in poems, you'll find that there are actually quite a few ways to arrange them. These specific arrangements of rhymes are called rhyme schemes.
Key Terms Overview:
Suggestions for Reading Poetry:
- Read the poem several times to get accustomed to the poet’s style.
- Read the poem slowly. Notice where sentences begin and end.
- Apply what you already understand about part of the poem to the parts that seem more difficult.
- Listen to the sound and the rhythm of the words.
- Pay attention to the title for clues about the topic and the theme.
- Identify the speaker of the poem.
- Grasp the literal meaning of the poem. Infer the suggested meaning if there is one.
Understanding the Language of Poetry:
- Poetic language often appeals to the senses.
- Poets use literal and figurative language.
- Literal descriptions can help you visualize the physical appearance of a person, place, or thing. The central purpose of purely descriptive poetry is to help you “see” a detailed image.
Figurative language describes observations, ideas, and feelings:
- A simile is a comparison using the word like or as.
- A metaphor is an implied comparison in which the writer states that something is something else.
- Personification is a figure of speech that represents non-living things as humans or animals.