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An A to Z Guide to Poetry and Poetic Terminology

One of my favorite magazines is the creativity-based Uppercase. This quarterly publication offers a look at various artists, art forms, and design across the world, and it’s packed with colors and shapes that make it not just fabulous to read, but inspiring to simply page through.

Each issue contains an A–Z feature on a topic and no matter what the focus is, I find myself revisiting this particular piece again and again. It’s a highly designed double spread, and always leads me to leaning new things about arts and crafts I never knew before.

I wanted to take that idea and see it applied to the book world, running a periodic A–Z feature. This time, let’s take a look at poetry and poetic terminology. Some of these will be familiar terms, while others may be new or historical in nature and thus, not as broadly known or used.

What makes poetic terminology especially fun is how applicable it is to literature more broadly, as well as how applicable it is to exploring lyrics. Why is it that one song really speaks to you? Perhaps it has to do with one (or several) of the reasons below.

Think of this as a handy guide to trivia knowledge and to up your familiarity with poetry and how to talk about aspects of poetry/poetic language in new ways. his won’t be and isn’t meant to be comprehensive, but rather an opportunity to learn a little bit more about a topic that might inspire you to explore even more.

An A to Z Guide to Poetry and Poetic Terminology

A

Assonance: The repetition of internal vowel sounds in words which are close together. An example from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Bells”: “Hear the mellow wedding bells.”

B

Ballad: From poetry to music, ballads are among the most diverse forms of poetic writing. It’s simply a poem that tells a story. There are, of course, elements of a piece of work which give them an “official” mark as a ballad. A ballad, according to the poetic definition from 13th century France, has three eight-line stanzas, followed by a four-line envoy (i.e., a short stanza), and often, the last line of the first stanza is repeated at the end of subsequent stanzas and envoys. These ballads also often have a rhyme scheme of ABABBCBC BCBC.

What makes ballads fascinating, though, isn’t the strict adherence to the form. Rather, nearly every culture has its own form of ballad. Often they’re epic poems that explore cultural mythology. An outstanding example of a ballad that both uses the traditional form and breaks free from it is Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”

C

Consonance: The companion to assonance, consonance is the repetition of consonant sounds in words that are close together. “Bed” and “bad” in close proximity would constitute consonance (as would “constitute consonance!”).

D

Dramatic Monologue: A technique borrowed from theater, where the poem’s speaker addresses a listener who may or may not be the reader. T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is an excellent example of this technique, as are many of the works of Robert Browning.

E

Enjambment: An aspect of the visual presentation of a poem, wherein a line doesn’t have punctuation at the end but instead runs over into the following line or lines. Think of it like a run-on sentence. Enjambment allows flow throughout a piece, whether it’s a poem or a song. “Harlem” by Langston Hughes uses enjambment, as does “This Is Just To Say” by William Carlos Williams (who uses it often in his work).

Compare enjambment to an end stop, which is where a poem’s line has a solid ending identified with a punctuation mark.

F

Free verse: Poetry that doesn’t stick to a rhyme scheme or meter but instead follows a more natural form of speech. The majority of modern and contemporary poetry can be described as free verse.

G

Genre: In literature, genre describes texts which are similar in theme, form, style, or subject. Poetry also falls into genre in this manner, but poetic genre also refers to the type of poem (i.e., epic, lyric, ballad, and so forth).

H

Heroic couplet: Where the couplet is two successive lines, usually of the same length, which rhyme, the heroic couplet takes it one step further. The lines are written in iambic pentameter (see below!).

I

Iambic pentameter: The most common meter in poetry and one which most mimics common speech patterns. Iambic pentameter consists of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. The pentameter portion of “iambic pentameter” refers to the number of unstressed-stressed patterns in a line; in this case, it’s five sets. Shakespeare used iambic pentameter in all of his plays and poems — the line “If music be the food of love, play on” from Twelfth Night demonstrates the five sets of unstressed-stressed syllables perfectly.

J

Jabberwocky: Nonsense language. The word was coined by Lewis Carroll in his poem of the same name.

K

Kenning: Most frequently seen in Old English poems, a kenning is when two or more words are substituted for the more common name of a person or thing. Kennings are used today and among ones which might be most familiar include ankle biter for a child or bookworm for someone who loves to read. “Beowulf” utilizes the kenning throughout.

L

Litotes: The opposite of a hyperbole, litotes are an understatement used for deliberate effect. “Not half bad” for something that’s good is an example. Litotes can be related to irony in poetry or prose.

M

Motif: An image or action in a work of poetry or prose which is shared by other works. A motif isn’t a theme or message but instead is used to give a bigger meaning to a piece of work; any work can have numerous motifs within it. When it comes to poetry, the use of a long journey can be a motif. Motifs can resemble archetypes.

N

Neologism: A new word. It may or may not be adapted into use. See “Jabberwocky.”

O

Ode: A formal but often celebratory style of poetry which addresses a person, place, or thing. There’s not a single stanza nor form which constitutes an ode, as odes are more about the content than the styling. While odes existed before the English Romantic Poets — Greeks used odes to celebrate athletic victories, for example — the Romantic ode might be the most recognizable and can include highly emotional addresses at the beginning of a piece.

P

Poet Laureate: Thank the Greeks for seeing poets as worthy of laurels. British and U.S. Poet Laureates are awarded for their contributions to poetry, and it’s an honor wherein they’re to promote poetry through public lectures, education, and more. Take an even closer look at what a Poet Laureate does.

Q

Quatrain: A four-line stanza. There are a number of rhyme schemes for the quatrain, including ABAC or ABCB, often seen in ballads; AABB, the double couplet; ABAB, seen often in heroic poetry; ABBA; and AABA.

A quintain is a five-line stanza and it, too, can vary in rhyme scheme.

R

Refrain: A line repeated throughout a poem. Refrains are similar to the chorus of a song.

S

Sonnet: A 14-line poem that can have varying rhyming patterns. A sonnet usually explores a single sentiment with a shift in perspective in the final lines. There are three primary types of sonnets, each of which has branched out to several other variations. The three main types are Petrarchan, which begins with an eight-line stanza in the rhyme scheme of  ABBAABBA and a six-line stanza rhyming CDCDCD or CDECDE; the Italian sonnet is similar in setup to the Petrarchan, though the rhyme scheme of the six-line stanza is CDDCEE; the Shakespearean/English sonnet uses three quatrains and a final couplet with the rhyme scheme ABABCDCDEFEFGG.

T

Trochee: The opposite of an iamb, a trochee is a foot consisting of a stressed syllable, followed by an unstressed syllable.

U

Ubi Sunt: A motif in poetry which poses the question “Where are they?” (“Ubi Sunt” in Latin). Early use of the motif indicated poetry that questioned the nature of life and death. Ubi sunt is still used today and is both a motif and as a means of addressing themes of life and death.

V

Villanelle: A verse form where there are five three-line stanzas, followed by a final quatrain. The first and third lines of the first stanza repeat in the following stanzas and become the last two lines of the quatrain. See Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art.”

W

Wit: Intellectual humor. When it comes to poetry, wit is often associated with metaphysical poetry, as well as works by and during Shakespeare’s time. Wit might be heavy on word play and be far less about laugh-out-loud humor.

X

Xenophanic: Taken from Xenophanes, the wandering poet of classical Greece, the phrase refers to wandering poets who utilize satire and witticism.

Y

Yūgen: A concept in traditional Japanese aesthetics that, when applied to poetry, means something is so mysterious as to be beyond what can be said — even though it is grounded in this world completely.

Z

Zeugma: A figure of speech wherein a verb or preposition allows two other objects to join. An example of a zeugma would be “she broke his car and his heart.” In Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, the song ”Fear No More the Heat o’ the Sun” features a great example of a zeugma: “Golden Lads, and Girles all must / As chimney-sweepers come to dust.”


If you can’t get enough literary nerdery, check out this handy guide to literary terminology — many of the terms, naturally, also apply to poetry. Another outstanding resource, which helped in the research of this piece, is The Poetry Foundation’s Glossary of Poetic Terms.

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