Elements of Poetry

Formal Elements of Poetry

Learning to read how a poem is lineated is an important skill to develop for understanding poetry. Lineation controls where lines of verse begin and end in a poem. These artistic choices can significantly impact the rhythm of a poem and in some cases can be used to create dramatic or thematic tension, as in the use of an enjambed line Enjambment is a French word that means ‘to step over.’ In poetry, the shifting from one line to the next without concluding a thought or without the use of closing punctuation creates a sense of connection and movement that can increase the pacing of the meter of a poem and/or can productively complicate the meaning of the ideas or images between one line and another.

The grouping of lines into organizational units in poetry is known as a stanza . Some poetic forms, such as the couplet , are identified by how many lines constitute a stanza. (A couplet has two lines per stanza; many poems are composed of a series of couplets rather than a single couplet.)

Rhythm is the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in a line of poetry. Everyday speech has rhythm, yet poets make conscious choices to arrange and highlight particular rhythms and rhythm patterns to create meter. Meter refers to specific syllabic patterns in the rhythm of a line of poetry. Learning to scan the rhythm and meter of a poem, a process referred to as scansion , focuses analysis on the line-by-line structure. A foot is the basic unit of rhythm, usually composed of two or three syllables, used in scansion. Four major types of feet are found in most verse: anapest dactyl iamb , and trochee :

Foot Names Syllable Arrangements Examples
Anapest X X / X X  /  X X  /  X X /
dactyl / X X / X X / X X
Take her up tenderly
iamb X / X / X / X / X /
The falling out of faithful friends.
X / X / X /
renewing is of love
trochee / X / X / X / X / X

Less frequently occurring types of feet in poetry are: pyrrhic and spondee .

Foot Names Syllable Arrangements Examples
pyrrhic X X / / X X / / X X X / X
My way is to begin with the beginning
spondee / / X X /  / X X /  /

The number of feet in a line of poetry determine its length. Although a line may be of any length, common line lengths in verse include: tetrameter pentameter and octameter .

Line Length Names Number of Feet Number of Syllables Examples
tetrameter four eight How dreary to be somebody!
How drear | y to | be some | body
pentameter five ten Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Shall I | compare | thee to | a sum | mer’s day?
octameter eight sixteen And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain.
And the | silken | sad un | certain | rustling | of each | purple | curtain.

William Shakespeare is renowned for his use of iambic pentameter. Read and listen to his poem “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day (Sonnet 18)” and pay close attention to how his rhythm and meter enhance the auditory effects of his poetry. As a famous playwright, Shakespeare was especially concerned with the verbal performance of poetic language. Some scholars have even argued that Shakespeare’s use of iambic pentameter resembles the lub-dub rhythm of the human heartbeat. (1)

“Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day (Sonnet 18)” (19)

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate. Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May, And summer’s lease hath all too short a date. Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines, And often is his gold complexion dimmed; And every fair from fair sometime declines, By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed; But thy eternal summer shall not fade, Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st, Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade, When in eternal lines to Time thou grow’st. So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Rhyme is created when two words are similar in sound, as found in the words ‘dog’ and ‘fog.’ End rhyme occurs when the last words in two lines of poetry rhyme. Rhyming between two words within the same line is called internal rhyme Slant rhyme (or approximate rhyme) is the term used to refer to the suggestion of a rhyme that is not exact, as found in the words ‘laugh’ and ‘taught.’

The larger pattern of rhyme in a poem is referred to as the rhyme scheme . Rhyme schemes are commonly indicated by a letter pattern where a different represents a new rhyme, as in abab cdcd efef gg . The effectiveness of a poem’s rhyme scheme is shaped not only by the repetition of, but the variation between, the types of rhyme and meter. Analysis of poetry frequently looks at the occurrence of ‘repetition and variation’ as a linked literary device.

Besides rhyme, poets also may make use of other sound patterns including assonance consonance , and alliteration . Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds, usually two or more times in short succession, whereas consonance is the repetition of consonant sounds. Alliteration is the repetition of the identical initial consonant in neighboring or consecutive words. (1)

Reading in Context

While it is important to ground our analysis of poetry in a close reading based on a detailed understanding of formal elements and poetic structure, we should not become so carried away that we neglect the roles history and cultural circumstance can play in shaping a poem. Likewise, as Edward Hirsch suggests, it is also important to recognize the contribution that you make as a reader to the construction of a poem’s meaning.

Consider, once more, “Dulce et Decorum est” by Wilfred Owen. The content of the poem is moving enough, yet the added emotional weight of understanding the poem’s context — the mass casualties in Europe during World War I — lends a potent specificity to the imagery in Owen’s poem. The poem’s effect is made all the more palpable by the knowledge that he was killed in action one week before the Armistice that ended the fighting in Western Europe. With this historical context in mind, it might be possible then to consider what your own experience or views on war might be. What is your response to Owen’s portrayal of the battlefield? What knowledge or insight can be gained from the way that the poem attempts to make the violence of war intelligible to its reader?

The context of a poem can play a major role in what gives it a lasting literary value. However, when a powerful historical context meets masterful formal execution, it can be tempting to assume everything in the poem is a direct line to the poet’s heart and mind. But when analyzing a poem, the speaker of the poem, the “I” voice, should not be conflated with the author of the poem. In written analysis we refer to “the author” when speaking of his or her craftsmanship and authorial choices, as in “the author repeats the symbol of the bird at the beginning and the end of the poem.” We use “the speaker” when discussing the point-of-view of the “I” speaking in the poem, as in “the speaker longs to be free” or “the speaker bemoans the impending loss of her child.” In our analysis we can suggest that “the poet” is closely aligned with “the speaker,” but we should not assume they are one in the same. The conventions of poetry veil a direct connection in contrast to a literary form, such as autobiography.

Even more than historical periods, we can connect the analysis of one particular poem to a wider literary movement. In our course readings, for example, are two writers whose poems exemplify the modernist movement known as Imagism: H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) and William Carlos Williams. Imagism valued precision and clarity of both image and language; it rejected the sentimentality of the previous generation of poets and sought to create poems around single, powerful images that might speak of the essential nature of a thing, person, or place. Understanding a poem’s historical and literary context is important, but it is equally important to acknowledge the active role that the reader plays in the construction of meaning, as Edward Hirsch suggests. (1)