An introduction to poetic terms and devices.

Basic Terms

connotation: the implied or suggested meaning connected with a word

couplet: a pair of lines, usually rhymed

denotation: the dictionary meaning of a word

literal meaning: limited to the simplest, ordinary, most obvious meaning

figurative meaning: associative or connotative meaning; representational

meter: measured pattern of rhythmic accents in a line of verse

rhyme: correspondence of terminal sounds of words or of lines of verse

quatrain: four-line stanza or grouping of four lines of verse

stanza: unit of a poem often repeated in the same form throughout a poem; a unit of poetic lines (“verse paragraph”)


Figurative Language

apostrophe: a direct address of an inanimate object, abstract qualities, or a person not living or present
Example: “Beware, O Asparagus, you’ve stalked my last meal.”

hyperbole: exaggeration for emphasis (the opposite of understatement)
Example: “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.”

metaphor: comparison between essentially unlike things, or the application of a name or description to something to which it is not literally applicable
Example: "[Love] is an ever fixed mark, / that looks on tempests and is never shaken.”

metonymy: a word or phrase that replaces the name of an object or concept for another to which it is related
Example: “We have always remained loyal to the crown" instead of "We have always remained loyal to the monarchy."

paradox: a situation or phrase that appears to be contradictory but which contains a truth worth considering
Example: “In order to preserve peace, we must prepare for war.”

personification: the endowment of inanimate objects or abstract concepts with animate or living qualities
Example: “Time let me play / and be golden in the mercy of his means”

pun: play on words, or a humorous use of a single word or sound with two or more implied meanings; quibble
Example: “They’re called lessons . . . because they lessen from day to day.”

simile: comparison between two essentially unlike things using words such as “like," "as," or “as though”
Example: “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”

synecdoche: a part substituted for the whole
Example: “All hands on deck" instead of "All sailors on deck."

Poetic Devices

alliteration: the repetition of consonant sounds, particularly at the beginning of words
Example: ". . . like a wanderer white”

allusion: a reference to a person, event, or work outside the poem or literary piece
Example: “Shining, it was Adam and maiden”

assonance: the repetition of similar vowel sounds
Example: “I rose and told him of my woe”

elision: the omission of an unstressed vowel or syllable to preserve the meter of a line of poetry
Example: “Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame”

imagery: word or sequence of words representing a sensory experience (visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile, and gustatory)
Example: “bells knelling classes to a close” (auditory)

irony: a contradiction of expectation between what is said and what is meant (verbal irony) or what is expected in a particular circumstance or behavior (situational), or when a character speaks in ignorance of a situation known to the audience or other characters (dramatic)
Example: “Time held me green and dying / Though I sang in my chains like the sea”

onomatopoeia: the use of words to imitate the sounds they describe
Example: “crack” or “whir”

slant rhyme (off rhyme, half rhyme, imperfect rhyme): rhyme formed with words with similar but not wholly identical sounds
Example: barn / yard

synesthesia: an attempt to fuse different senses by describing one in terms of another
Example: the sound of her voice was sweet

symbol: an object or action that stands for something beyond itself
Example: white = innocence, purity, hope


anapestic (anapest): a metrical foot containing three syllables—the first two are unstressed, while the last is stressed

dactylic (dactyl): a metrical foot containing three syllables—the first is stressed, while the last two are unstressed

falling meter: meter containing metrical feet that move from stressed to unstressed syllables

iambic (iamb): a metrical foot containing two syllables—the first is unstressed, while the second is stressed

iambic pentameter: a traditional form of rising meter consisting of lines containing five iambic feet (and, thus, ten syllables)

pause (caesura): a pause for a beat in the rhythm of the verse (often indicated by a line break or a mark of punctuation)

rising meter: meter containing metrical feet that move from unstressed to stressed syllables

spondee: a nontraditional metrical foot in which two consecutive syllables are stressed

stress: greater amount of force used to pronounce one syllable over another

trochaic (trochee): a metrical foot containing two syllables—the first is stressed, while the second is unstressed

Poetic Forms

Blank Verse: unrhymed iambic pentameter

Closed Form: poetic form subject to a fixed structure and pattern

Found Poem: a collage-like form consisting entirely of language taken from outside texts.

Free Verse: lines with no prescribed pattern or structure

Haikua form that originated in Japan, is traditionally composed of three lines with seventeen syllables, written in a 5/7/5 syllable count, and often focuses on images from nature.

Open Form: poetic form free from regularity and consistency in elements such as rhyme, line length, and metrical form

Sonneta fourteen-line poem traditionally written in iambic pentameter, employing one of several rhyme schemes, and adhering to a tightly structured thematic organization. 

For more poetic terms and forms, visit "Browse Poems and Poets" from the homepage, then click on the "Forms" menu in the Poem Index. You can also browse our texts for more information on poetic terms and forms, as well as essays, interviews, and articles about poets and poetry.