Aspects of Poetry
By Michael McGoodwin 2000, amended 2009-10

And so their spirits soared
as they took positions down the passageways of battle
all night long, and the watchfires blazed among them.
Hundreds strong, as stars in the night sky glittering
round the moon's brilliance blaze in all their glory
when the air falls to a sudden windless calm ...
all the lookout peaks stand out and the jutting cliffs
and the steep ravines and down from the high heavens bursts
the boundless bright air and all the stars shine clear
and the shepherd's heart exults— so many fires burned
between the ships and the Xanthus' whirling rapids
set by the men of Troy, bright against their walls.
(Homer Iliad VIII transl. R. Fagles)

Now glow'd the firmament
With living sapphires; Hesperus, that led
The starry host, rode brightest, till the moon,
Rising in clouded majesty, at length
Apparent queen unveil'd her peerless light,
And o'er the dark her silver mantle threw.
(John Milton Paradise Lost IV)

Rembrandt: Aristotle with a Bust of Homer (detail)
Rembrandt: Aristotle with a Bust of Homer (detail)


Acknowledgement: These notes are based in part on Frances Mayes' The Discovery Of Poetry1 and Mary Oliver's The Poetry Handbook2


Poems [usually] are written in lines (a line art), whereas prose is [usually] written in sentences.

"Poems must, of course, be written in emotional freedom. Moreover, poems are not language but the content of the language. And yet, how can the content be separated from the poem's fluid and breathing body?"1 "There is no satisfactory definition of poetry."2 The emphasis in poetry may be on recreating an experience, taking delight in the sounds of language, etc.

"The poem is a confession of faith... The poem is not an exercise, not wordplay—it has a purpose other than itself... The writer must take care of and nourish the sensibility that houses the possibility of poems... Poetry is a life-cherishing force. And it requires a vision-a faith... For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry."1 "Poetry is a serious business. Literature is the apparatus through which the world tries to keep intact its important ideas and feelings"1.

"Writing a poem ... is a kind of possible love affair between something like the heart ... and the learned skills of the conscious mind."1 "...The part of the psyche that works in concert with consciousness and supplies a necessary part of the poem-the heat of a star as opposed to the shape of a star, let us say-exists in a mysterious, unmapped zone, not unconscious, not subconscious, but cautious.... It can stay silent a lifetime... that wild, silky part of ourselves without which no poem can live?..."1 All poems exist in a historical context and none are timeless.1 In writing poetry, the poet should avoid excessive glitter and weight which sacrifices the energy of the poem.1


Lyric: A traditional form, brief, song-like narrative, concentrated, usually no more than one subject (once was given to lyre accompaniment), often 1st person voice.

Dramatic: A traditional form, demonstrates a conflict, often in 3rd person voice.

Narrative: A traditional form, discursive, tells a story, pauses for moments of humor and slowly unfolding description, sequential events.

The Longer Poem: Includes but not limited to epic poems. E.g., The Waste Land, Paradise Lost.

Free Verse: Free verse is fluid but not free from design, organic, composed, considered, and effective. Whitman was the first American poet to write in free verse (Leaves of Grass 1855) and Dickenson and Emerson also used it, but its widespread use began in the early 20C. Devices such as alliteration, repetition, assonance, and refrain are still important. It reflects a trend away from a teacherly tone to a more democratic, classless voice, in which the reader has a growing relationship with the writer. It incorporates ordinary speech and is no longer a lecture, often seems improvisational, frequently employs blank space, has no taboos.2

The Prose Poem: Looks like prose, hard to define.


Diction refers to a poem's entire word choice, the overall effect, like the ingredients selected for a recipe, creating the tone or mood of the poem.

The voice is the speaker (agent who is speaking through the poem, not necessarily the author), the persona. Voice may also determine who is presumably being spoken to or listening/reading the poem. Voice may represent the public or the inner thoughts of the speaker (dramatic monologues are often the latter).2 The persona may be the invented "I" (who is not the poet), the poet himself (Personal "I"), the public voice ("We"), a mysterious voice, a combination, etc. The speaker may also be invisible [anonymous, unidentified] if a 3rd person voice narrates a story. In dramatic monologue, one person speaks to another-in epistle, one writes a letter to another. In contemporary poetry, as compared to more traditional poetry, the speaker is less inclined to assume who the listener is, or that the audience is universal and homogeneous.

The contemporary poem typically uses diction suggesting the poem was not formally composed, tone is natural and with friendly intimacy, uncomplicated word order, not self-conscious or pretentious, more like a neighbor than a professor.1 The choice of words (and their connotations as well as denotations) contributes to the aural texture of the poem. Tone can be formal, stately, noble, didactic, informal, playful, ironic, angry, tense, exuberant, boisterous, teasing, bored, sad, querulous, nostalgic, etc.

Negative capability: Keat's concept in which the poet should be a kind of neutral or unbiased force, remaining empty in order to fill himself/herself with an understanding or sympathy for or empathy with the subject of the poem: "Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason... With a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration. [Keats]"1


Poetry should be read aloud [except perhaps for certain poems whose effect depends on the visual layout on the page]. MO emphasizes why a rock is not a stone1. The "ding dong" theory of Heyse, that maintained that language consists of sounds which are induced by sensory impressions, is now discredited.1 Many poets emphasize their love for the sounds of language. Good poems use fresh language, not cliches, and often choose concrete words over abstract. Verbs are often action verbs, not passive. A high density of one syllable words creates a vigorous impression.2 Some poets like to use "forgotten" words (e.g., archaic words) to add to texture, etc. Inclusion of vivid details is essential for texture creation. MO emphasizes that contemporary poets should avoid old-fashioned stylistic devices such as poetic diction, cliches, and inversion of word order, as well as informational (non-poetic, prosaic) language.1

The alphabet contains families of sounds1:

vowels: a e i o u (sometimes w and y)
consonants: [asp = aspirate liq=liquid]
    semivowel [imperfectly sounded without a vowel]:
        c (soft, asp) f (asp) g (soft asp) h (asp)
        j (asp) l (liq) m (liq) n (liq) r (liq) s (asp) v w x (asp) y z
    mute [cannot be sounded w/o a vowel]: b c (hard) d g (hard) k p t

MO discusses the felt qualities of sounds and the role of mutes (hard and abrupt) versus liquid sounds (softer) etc.- example given is Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening". Words are selected for their sounds as well as their meaning. Poems often include an unusual use of familiar words to introduce an element of surprise.2


Onomatopoeia: Word sounds imitate the natural sound. This remains a small but sometimes important element of language in poetry.

Alliteration: Repetition of initial consonant sounds of words, typically in the same line ("summer season")

Consonance: Repetition of the non-initial consonant sounds of a word, especially at the stressed syllables w/o vowel rhyming, typically in the same line ("boat/night", "And drunk the milk of Paradise")

Assonance: Repetition of vowel sounds within a line or lines of verse without repeating consonant sounds ("date/fade")

Euphony: The property of having flowing pleasing sounds without interruptions.

Cacoph´ony: The property of having harsh discordant sounds.

Sibilance: The property of having many S- and hissing sounds.


In poetry, an image is a word picture of any physical sensation, not just visual-i.e., the imaginative recreation of a sensation (touch, auditory, smell, visual, taste, kinetic/motion).2 Images are most appealing when the language employed is graphic and concrete rather than abstract or vague. "We respond immediately to language that seems to be experience, rather than language that seems to describe experience from a distance."2 A literal image aims to replicate an object or experience.2

Imagery (or figurative language) is the representation of one thing by another (using a figure, figure of speech, figurative image, or trope).1 Poetic imagery imparts the dash and tenderness to the poem. The image of a familiar thing is evoked and then linked to an unknown thing, extending the known essence to it. As a result, we see something about the unknown thing in the light of the known.1 Figurative images can do one or more of the following 2:

Expand sensory perception beyond the literal meaning.
Give pleasure or surprise to the imagination.
Impart vigor by the inclusion of another active sensory detail.
Intensify the deeper intention in the poem by adding the new dimension of the figurative image.

Figurative images include:

Simile [fr. L. "comparison"]: An explicit comparison or equation of one thing to another using the words "like", "as", "as if", "seems", or "appears". An unusually long simile is a characteristic of Homeric epics (epic simile).

Metaphor [fr. Gk "to transfer"]: An implicit comparison of unlike things by perceived common qualities [so that our understanding of the presumably more commonplace implied object is transferred to and increases our understanding of the original subject]. An overly extended or elaborate metaphor or simile is termed a conceit. A mixed metaphor is the combining of two incompatible metaphors.

Personification: is the giving of an animate quality to something that is inanimate-it is often enlivening but can be foolish ("the sleeping sea"). In the pathetic fallacy, nature personified echoes and exhibits sadness about the subject's plight.

Synesthe´sia: One sensory perception is expressed in terms of a different sense, doubling and interweaving the physical sense ("fragrances of the rainbow", "green wind", "blind mouths")2

Meton´ymy: An identifying emblem (not a part of the object being described) is substituted for the whole name ("old salt" for sailor, "the pen is mightier than the sword")

Synec'doche: A part of the object being described is used to represent the whole, or vice versa ("fifty head" for fifty cattle, "was this the face that launched a thousand ships?")

Oxymoron: Juxtaposition of contradictory words ("feather of lead ... cold fire")2

Symbol: Use of an image or action that stands for more than itself or what is explicitly stated [cf. metaphor, wherein two specified things are compared]. A symbol suggests a range of connections.2 Archetypal symbols such as mother ocean, life giving sun and other images deriving from nature are commonly and effectively employed in poetry.1 Symbols may also be private to the author.

Allusion: A reference, not necessarily figurative, to something that belongs properly to a world beyond the specific sphere of the poem (such as an historical event or personage, a well-known quotation from literature, or a famous work of art). This can deepen the quality of the poem, and can link the values of literature and art.1


The word verse implies a turning at the end of lines at various possible points-where to turn the line entails decisions about the visual presentation on the page. Line breaks should be purposeful and not employed randomly.

In metrical verse, each metrical line can be divided into feet (metron, pl. metra), each foot consisting of a pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. The poet selects a suitable metrical line to convey the desired effect. Meter conveys rhythm, which can be inherently pleasurable and can help to convey the meaning of the poem2, but the poet (and the reader) should not be slavishly exact and unvarying (sing song) regarding meter.1  Because of variations in the number and pattern of metrical feet in some poetic lines, the majority rules in determining what meter to attribute to a given line.  A switch of the timing of rhythm called syncopation can be used for variety. Scansion is the act of dividing a line while reading it into feet, a process that may include the use of elision to combine what would ordinarily be separate syllables into one sound. Scansion often employs the symbols / for accented or long, and – for unaccented or short.  The types of feet include

Iamb: light stress (or short) + heavy stress (or long) [ – / ]
Example: "If mu- | sic be | the food | of love, | play on" [Shakespeare, Twelfth Night Act 1, scene 1, 1–3]
Common in English and Shakespeare (usually iambic pentameter), German and Russian verse.   Iambic meter is termed a rising rhythm because of the stressed final syllable.

Trochee ("run"): heavy (long) + light (short) [ / – ]
Example: "Double, | double, | toil and | trouble" [Shakespeare, Macbeth Act 4, scene 1]
meter is termed a falling rhythm because of the unstressed final syllable.

Dactyl (like a "finger"): heavy (long) stress + 2 light (short) [ / – – ] 
Examples: "keeping their | difficult balance" 
"This is the | forest pri- | meval. The | murmuring | pines and the | hemlocks" [Henry W. Longfellow "Evangeline"]
Dactylic hexameters were used in Greek and Latin epic poetry, and here in Evangeline.

Anapest ("struck back"): two light (short) + a heavy (long) [ – – / ]
Example: "For the moon | never beams | without bring- | ing me dreams
    Of the beau- | tiful Ann- | abel Lee;" [Edgar A. Poe, Annabel Lee
Anapestic meter is used in limericks and Annabel Lee.

Spondee ("of a libation", adjective = spondaic): two equal [heavy or long] stresses [ ? / ]
Examples: "breadboard", "deadhead"

Amphibrach ("short at both ends", adjective = Amphibrachic): a light (short) + a heavy (long) + a light (short) [ – / – ]
Example: "The wind in | the willows | is rustling | in whispers"

Pyrrhic (fr. Greek for war dance, adjective = Pyrrhic): two light (short) syllables [ – – ]
This is a hypothetical metrical unit sometimes called upon to clear up problems of traditional scansion by feet, a usage which is deprecated by some.

Choriamb (adjective = Choriambic): two light (short) syllables between two accented (long) syllables. [ / – – / ] 
See Asclepiad.

Asclepiad: (named after Asclepiades of Samos c.300 BCE, adjective = Asclepiadean): A spondee followed by two or three choriambs and followed by an iamb.  For example, [ / / | / – – / | / – – / | / – – / | – / ]  .
Example: "Springtime, | Summer and Fall: | days to behold | a world" [W. H. Auden, In Due Season]
Found in Horace and the German poet Hölderlin but rarely in English.

Metrical line lengths include

Monometer: one foot per line

Dimeter: 2 feet per line

Trimeter: 3 feet per line

Tetrameter: 4 feet per line

Pentameter: 5 feet per line

Hexameter: 6 feet per line

Heptameter: 7 feet per line

Octameter: 8 feet per line

The use of the iamb is common and natural in English, German and Russian verse, and iambic pentameter is the most important meter in English. The epic meter of Homer and Virgil is said to be dactylic hexameter (though in fact it employs a combination of spondees and dactyls3,4). A metrical line of iambic hexameter with a caesura after the third iamb is an alexandrine line, the standard line in French poetry.3  Iambic tetrameter conveys a quickened tempo and intensifies the rhythm.

There are differing degrees of heavy and light stresses. A final light stress (tag) of words that rhyme on double syllables may be uncounted in scansion.

A caesu´ra is a structural or logical pause within a foot or line, e.g., "Forlorn! the very word is like a bell". There is usually a light pause at the end of a line. A line in which a logical or rhetorical pause occurs at the end of the line, usually marked with a period, comma, or semicolon, is termed end-stopped.3 A line end interrupting a logical phrase is enjambed or run-on (the process is called enjamb´ment)-this gives a sense of spurring on the pace and of forward motion.

Meter may also be sylla´bic meter, in which only the number of syllables per line are noted, not the accents (this is more commonly found in French and Japanese verse such as in haiku).

Blank verse is metrical but non-end rhyming iambic pentameter-e.g., most of Shakespeare, Paradise Lost, Tintern Abbey- and is not the same as free verse.

Repetition can convey a powerful effect (though in excess it can cause monotony):

Single word repetition: ("Kill, Kill, Kill" or "tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow")

Anaph´ora: Repetition of a word or expression at the end of successive phrases, clauses, sentences, or verses ("Among rocks.../among arrows...", "we cannot dedicate.../we cannot consecrate.../we cannot hallow"). Parts of lines, phrases, or whole lines can also be repeated, and various combinations are also possible ("O, my luve is like a red, red rose, / . . . . . / O, my luve is like the melodie / ...").

Epis´trophe: Repetition of a word or expression at the end of successive phrases, clauses, sentences, or verses ("of the people, by the people, for the people").

Refrains are the repetition of whole stanzas, or concluding lines of stanzas, or multiple lines.

Opening and closing repetition: A poem with an ending line which is the same or similar to the opening line (this gives a sense of closure to the poem).

Image repetition: Can also achieve a powerful effect (as in the recitation of images of whiteness in Moby Dick).

Syntactical repetition: Employing a sentence structure or part of a sentence structure that repeats.

Rhyme (correspondence of terminal sounds) can give pleasure, can convey a sense of unity of structure and harmony, is meant to be noticed, is often light-hearted or humorous, is common in slang, and can assist with memorization. English poetry in the 12C through the 19C usually rhymed, though prior to that the emphasis was on alliteration. In contemporary poems (after the breakdown of coherent society following WWI), the use of rhyme declined and is now an option to avoid if its use would force extra or inappropriate words or syntax.2 Good contemporary poets strive to avoid hackneyed rhymes drawn from the "poetry grab-bag" ("moon/June").2

Types of rhyme include1,2

True rhyme or masculine rhyme: Rhyme on a final stressed syllable ("hill/still")

Feminine rhyme: Rhyme consisting of words ending with a light stress ("buckle/knuckle")

Slant rhyme or Off-rhyme or half-rhyme: Final words almost rhyme (e.g., "down" and "noon")

End rhyme: Rhyme at the ends of lines

Internal rhyme: Rhyme within a line

Rising rhymes: End rhymes with a rising final syllable ("repress/undress")

Falling rhymes: End rhymes with an unaccented last syllable ("partly/smartly")

Apo´copated rhyme: Rhyme in which the last syllable of one of the rhymes is cut off ("gain/painless")

Linked rhyme: Rhyme in which the first syllable of a line echoes the last syllable of the previous lne ("Night weighs down the rooftop/stops the flashlight of a scared cop")

Triple rhyme: Rhyme of three syllables in which the first syllable of each is the accented one, often used for comic effect ("higgledy/piggledy")

Head rhyme: Another name for alliteration or initial rhyme

Eye rhyme: Words that look similar on the printed page, though they are pronounced differently ("cough/rough")

Unpatterned rhyme: Randomly placed rhyming words.


Metrical poetry is often arranged in stanzas (from "room", where by analogy the poem is the whole house; in music, a stanza is also termed a strophe).   A stanza is a recurring pattern of meter and rhyme—there is no exact definition of stanza.  (Bold indicates accented syllable):

Couplet: pairs of lines, often with end rhyme scheme aa bb cc dd ee, etc. The heroic couplet is rhyming iambic pentameter couplet.

Tercet or Triplet: triplets of lines, often with end rhyme scheme aaa bbb ... or aba bcb ...

Terza Rima: tercets with interlocking rhyme scheme aba bcb cdc ded, etc.   Used by Dante in the Divine Comedy (which employs hendecasyllable or eleven syllable lines), but often iambic pentameter when written in English.

Quatrain: a stanza or poem of four lines abab cdcd, etc. In common measure quatrains, a 4-foot iambic line alternates with a 3-foot iambic and the rhyme scheme is abcb.

Quintet: 5 lines.

Chaucerian stanza or rhyme royal: 7-line (septet) stanzaic pattern with rhyming scheme ababbcc, used by Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales.

Octave: 8-line stanza. Ottava rima is abababcc, used in Don Juan, by Lord Byron.

Spenserian Stanza: 9 lines ababbcbcc, devised by Spenser for The Faerie Queene

Sonnet ("little song"): 14 lines in iambic pentameter

English (Shakespearean) Sonnet: 3 quatrains and a concluding often epigrammatic couplet rhyming abab cdcd efef gg.

Italian (Petrarchan) Sonnet: An octave and a sestet rhyming abbaabba cdecde or abbaabba cdccdc3

Spenserian sonnet: links the quatrains with a chain or interlocked rhyme scheme, abab bcbc cdcd ee3

Other forms: Villanelle, sestina, triolet, rondeau, rondel, haiku (3 lines of 5-7-5 syllables), pantoum, and tanka.

Additional possible poetic structural forms include:

Refrain: Whole stanzas, or concluding lines of stanzas, or multiple lines, that repeat (as in a choral section of a hymn).

Syllabic Verse: Verse in which a pattern is established in which the number of syllables in each of the lines of the first stanza is exactly repeated in the following stanzas.

Continuous form: Verse with no stanzaic breaks.

Concrete poetry (Shaped poetry): Attempts to convey meaning through the graphical layout or shape of the words on the page.

Open form (nonce form): Having a form unique to the particular poem.


The following are some of the recurring subject types for traditional poetry (bold indicates accented syllable):

Pastoral: rural landscape, nymphs, shepherds.....

Ars poetica: Written on the subject of the art of poetry

Carpe diem: Urging to live in the moment because time passes quickly

Dithyramb: Originally about Dionysos, it evolved to mean any poem about the adventures of the gods, or one or revelry or praise, or any exaggeratedly passionate composition.

Elegy: Written about someone deceased.

Encomium: Celebration of a hero, heroine, or any laudatory poem about a real or legendary person.

Epithalamium: Celebrates a wedding.

Palinode: Poem retracting a regretted derogatory or negative statement.

Madrigal: A short poem about nature and love

Rune: A magical chant of incantation.

Aubade: About the dawn


1) Oliver, Mary The Poetry Handbook. Harvest Original, 1994
2) Mayes, Frances The Discovery Of Poetry. Harcourt Brace, 1994.
3) Shubinski, Robert G. Glossary Of Poetic Terms (new URL 4/1/02)
4) Curley, Dan.  Introduction to the Dactylic Hexameter.  Link updated here 8/5/2009.