Read our guide that covers poetic devices with everything from rhyme to metaphor; if you’re going to read or write poetry, this helpful guide is for you!
Have you ever found yourself wondering what makes a poem a poem? It’s not always the fact that the lines rhyme. Amanda Gorman, the youngest inaugural poet in U.S. history, wrote one of her most famous poems, ”We Rise,” with only a handful of lines that rhyme, so it can’t be rhyming alone. The answer to what makes poetry is the use of poetic devices.
Poetic devices are words, phrases, patterns, sounds, and even shapes used in poetry to deliberately convey meaning. This definition sounds broad because there are many different poetic devices you can use in your poetry to make it sound pleasing, polished and meaningful. In many ways, you can think of a poetic device as the ingredients to a recipe—these literary devices and writing tips for poetry work together to create meaningful and beautiful poetry.
Why Should You Learn Poetic Devices?
First, understanding poetic devices will help you better appreciate poetry when you read it. Second, understanding poetic devices is essential to write meaningful and impactful poetry. Either way, taking a closer look at the different ways poets create poetry is important if you are going to understand English literature.
As a final note, make sure you understand moderation when using poetic devices. These should be used to enhance and develop your poetry, but not in excess. Too much of any good thing is simply that – too much. You don’t want metaphors, similes or hyperbole to overpower the main point of your poem.
Types of Poetic Devices
1. Sound Devices
Sound devices are a key to effective poetry. Sound devices use sounds to convey and reinforce meaning in the poem. These use sounds to create meaning, help move the verse along, and make it sound like a poem instead of prose.
Alliteration uses the same starting letter or sound with adjacent or closely connected words. This literary device doesn’t have to cover every word, but it should be enough to be obvious. Edgar Allan Poe used this device in “The Raven.”
In this example, each line has an alliteration: weak and weary, quaint and curious, nodded, nearly and napping. Even though quaint and curious do not have the same starting letter, they have similar consonant sounds and count as alliteration.
“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,Edgar Allan Poe, “The Raven”
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,”
Assonance occurs when the vowel sounds within the words are repeated in the same line of poetry. For example, if you said, “The cat flapped its hat,” the short “a” sound is repeated in three of the words in the sentence. This is another literary device that Poe often used, which is seen in his poem “The Bells” In this stanza, the short “e” sound appears five separate times.
“Hear the mellow wedding bells,Edgar Allan Poe, “The Bells”
What a world of happiness their harmony foretells!”
Consonance is the repetition of consonant sounds in a line of poetry. This is similar to alliteration, but alliteration can be both consonant and vowel sounds, but always at the start of the word. Consonance can be any point within the line, so saying “take and create” has consonance with the repetition of the hard “k” sound and the repetition of the “t,” even though they’re at different points in the words. Shel Silverstein uses this poetic device in his poem “The Acrobats” by repeating the “g” and “z” sounds.
“I’ll swing by my anklesShel Silverstein, “The Acrobats”
She’ll cling to her knees.
As you hang by your nose,
From a high-up trapeze.
But just one thing, please,
As we float through the breeze,
Rhyme is one of the most common poetic devices used in English literature. Most poems use an end rhyme, which has the final syllable of a pair or group of lines rhyme with each other. Virginia Hamilton Adair uses this type of rhyme in “Midstairs.”
“And here on this turning of the stair,Virginia Hamilton Adair, “Midstairs”
Between passion and doubt
I pause and say a double prayer,
One for you, and one for you,
And so they cancel out.”
Sometimes, poets will use internal rhyme, which occurs when two words n the same line rhyme. William Shakespeare used this line scheme in the Song of the Weird Sisters in Macbeth.
“Double, double, toil and trouble:William Shakespeare, “Macbeth”
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.”
Slant rhyme is a kind of rhyme in which the words don’t quite rhyme but have similar sounds. This contrasts a perfect rhyme, where the words rhyme exactly. Emily Dickinson was famous for this style of rhyme. In “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass,” she uses slant rhymes with words like “rides,” “is,” “seen,” and “on.”
“A narrow Fellow in the grass
Occasionally rides –
You may have met him – did you not
His notice sudden is–
The Grass divides as with a Comb-Emily Dickinson, “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass”
A spotted shaft is seen –
And then it closes on your feet
And opens further on”
Onomatopoeia is a literary device that uses a word that sounds like the thing it is describing. For example, the cuckoo bird makes a sound similar to the word cuckoo; thus, the word “cuckoo” is an example of onomatopoeia. Other words, like clap, pitter-patter, gurgle, zap and clang, are also examples.
One famous example of onomatopoeia in poetry is “The Bells” by Edgar Allan Poe, which uses many sound words to mirror the noises of bells. In this snippet, the words “clang,” “clash,” “roar,” “twanging” and “clanging” are all words representing sounds, making them good examples of this poetic device.
“How they clang, and clash, and roar,Edgar Allan Poe, “The Bells”
What a horror they outpour
On the bosom of the palpitating air!
Yet the ear it fully knows
By the twanging,
And the clanging,
How the danger ebbs and flows.”
Imagery uses words that appeal to the person’s senses to create images in their mind of what the writer is talking about. In poetry, imagery can paint a picture and portray a particular experience’s sensation and emotions. There are five senses, and thus there are five common types of imagery used in poetry: visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile and gustatory.
Visual imagery uses words to describe colors, sizes, patterns, shapes and similar visual elements. It may incorporate other literary devices, such as similes, to compare an abstract item to something people can visualize and touch.
William Wordsworth uses this device in “I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud,” comparing his lonely existence to a cloud in the sky, which people can visually imagine. Here, Wordsworth uses visual imagery of a cloud over a field of daffodils by a lake, with words like fluttering and dancing, to convey his meaning.
“I wandered lonely as a cloudWilliam Wordsworth, “I Wandered Lonely A
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of folded daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.”
Auditory imagery appeals to the reader’s sense of hearing using onomatopoeia or other words that stimulate thoughts of auditory experiences. This stanza of “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost creates an auditory picture of the shaking harness bells on the horse in contrast to the quietly falling slow and wind. The phrases “bells a shake” and “sweep of easy wind” both use auditory imagery.
“He gives his harness bells a shakeRobert Frost, “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening”
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.”
Olfactory imagery appeals to one’s sense of smell. This poetic device helps people imagine the scent of the scene the poet is writing about. “Rain in Summer” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow uses this poetic device to leave the reader with the thought of the pleasant scent of nature on a summer day. After reading this stanza, you can easily incision the scent of clover and the earthy soil smell wafting on the morning mist.
“They silently inhaleHenry Wadsworth, “Rain in Summer”
The clover-scented gale,
And the vapors that arise
From the well-watered and smoking soil.”
With tactile imagery, poets appeal to someone’s sense of touch. They describe physical sensations in the body, textures of the items around the person or even the temperature of the air. Poet Reginald Shepherd uses this poetic device in “To Be Free,” a poem about music and its effect on a person.
The words “burning” and “like damp sheets” are tactile words. The phrase “As if I were a coat wearing my bare body out on loan” conveys tactile meaning because most people can picture the feeling of wearing a winter coat.
“It’s winter in my body all year long, I wake up
with music pouring from my skin, morning
burning behind closed blinds. Dead
light, dead warmth on dead skin
cells, the sky is wrongReginald Shepherd, “To Be Free”
again. Hope clings to me like damp
sheets, lies to my skin. As if I were a coat
wearing my bare body out on loan.”
Gustatory imagery refers to wording that appeals to the reader’s sense of taste. It describes the sweet, sour, salty, or savory taste of food, and it can be applied to things that aren’t meant to be eaten, as Walt Witman’s poem “This Compost” does so well.
In this poem, he explores how tasty things, like herbs and grains, grow from the ground that houses the sour taste of death far below the surface. The phrase “herbs, roots, orchards, grains,” and the word “sour,” are all examples of gustatory imagery.
“O how can it be that the ground itself does not sicken?Walt Witman, “This Compost”
How can you be alive, you growths of spring?
How can you furnish health you blood of herbs, roots, orchards, grain?
Are they not continually putting distemper’d corpses within you?
Is not every continent work’d over and over with sour dead?”
3. Figurative Language
When a poet uses words differently than conventional writing styles to make a more complex idea more understandable or to make writing more colorful and impactful, it is a literary device known as figurative language.
This device is common in poetry because it can refer to or imply something without stating it directly. Figurative language goes beyond just the literal meaning of words, and it asks the reader to understand a concept in connection to its relationship to something else.
A metaphor is a literary device that compares two unlike things, either directly or indirectly. It does not use words such as “like” or “as” to make this comparison but simply does so through the writing. This poetic device aims to get the reader to think about the subject in a new way by making a comparison.
One of the most famous examples of metaphor in English is from Shakespeare’s play As You Like It, where Jaques compares life to a dramatic play. Here, he uses metaphor to compare the world to a stage and the people in the world to the players on that stage.
“All the world’s a stageWilliam Shakespeare, “As You Like It”
An all the men and women merely players
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts.”
Simile is similar to metaphor, but the connection between the two items being compared is more direct because simile uses the word “like” or “as” to make the connection. In a simile, the writer compares two somewhat unlike things to make a point to the reader.
When you say, “I slept like a log,” you aren’t saying you are a log, but rather that you slept hard or slept without moving, similar to a log. Robert Burns used simile in his famous poem “A Red, Red Rose,” where he wrote:
“O my luve is like a red, red roseRebert Burns, “A Red, Red Rose”
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my luve is like the melody
That’s sweetly played in tune.”
Personification gives human characteristics to a non-human creature or inanimate object. If you said that the sun smiled down on you, wishing you peace and joy, you are using personification. The cliche phrase, “Time marches on,” is another example of personification.
Sometimes, an entire poem is an example of this literary device, as is William Blake’s open “The Sick Rose,” which compares a dying flower to a dying person. Here, the rose is given human characteristics by having a bed to lie on. The worm consuming the rose is also personified in having a secret love.
“O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:
Has found out thy bedWilliam Blake, “The Sick Rose”
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.”
Hyperbole is a figure of speech that uses strong exaggeration to make a point. The exaggeration drives the point the poet is trying to make, and you know that the writer didn’t mean the words literally. This type of wordplay gets you to think more deeply about the meaning of the words. In his poem “The Unfortunate Lover,” Andrew Marvell explains the emotions a forlorn lover feels.
The intensity of those emotions in the poem is an example of hyperbole. Most people who are unsuccessful in love are not always in tears, nor do their sighs create an actual wind. This grief is hard, but not as hard as the poem implies.
“The sea him lent those bitter tearsAndrew Marvell, “The Unfortunate Lover”
Which at his eyes he always wears;
And from the winds the sighs he bore,
Which through his surging breast do roar.
No day he saw but that which breaks
Through frighted clouds in forkèd streaks,
While round the rattling thunder hurled,
As at the funeral of the world.”
It only creates implied meaning in words that have seeming contradictions. For example, in “My Mistress’ Eyes Are Nothing Like the Sun,” Shakespeare says that his lover suffers because the beauty of nature outshines hers, but the reader realizes he is implying, ironically, that she is more beautiful than nature.
“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;William Shakespeare, “My Mistress’ Eyes Are Nothing Like the Sun”
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.”
Sometimes, irony is seen in the contrast between what is real and what the poet or character thinks or wants to be real. In the Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex by Sophocles, the irony is seen in the fact that King Oedipus spends his days searching for the man who murdered his father, only to find out that he, in fact, was that man.
In “The Convergence of the Twain,” Thomas Hardy explores the irony of the fate of the infamous Titanic. The irony here is that the stately, massive ship is now nothing more than the home for seaworms.
“Over the mirrors meantThomas Hardy, “The Convergence of the Twain”
To glass the opulent
The sea-worm crawls — grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent.”
The structure is the pattern of lines, stanzas and rhymes that build a poem. Most poetry has a distinct structure, and this is one of the tools that the poet can use to make the poem sound like lyrical verse. The pattern gives it the feeling of poetry and makes a poem stand out from prose. All poems use form, meter and stanzas, and many also use rhyme schemes to create verse.
Poetic form is the set of rules that dictates a poem’s rhyme scheme, rhythm, meter and overall structure. There are several types of poetic form, and these are some of the more common:
- Acrostic: In this poem, the first letter or each line of poetry spells out a word.
- Ballad: Ballads are written like narratives, so they have a plot and characters, but they are presented in poetic form, usually with four-line rhyming stanzas with a specific rhythm.
- Blank verse: A poem written in unrhymed iambic pentameter is known as blank verse.
- Cinquain: This poem has five lines that rhyme: ababb, abaab or abccb.
- Couplet: A couple is two lines of poetry that rhyme and have similar meter or length. Poems often consist of several couplets put together.
- Free verse: Free verse poems have no set meter or rhyme scheme, but it has intentional line breaks that show it is poetry.
- Haiku: This Japanese poetry style has three lines of five, seven, and five syllables.
- Limerick: Limericks are funny poems that have an aabba rhyme scheme. These poems typically have one iamb in the first, second and last lines and a pattern of one iamb and one anapest in the third and four lines. This pattern is common in Mother Goose nursery rhymes.
- Sonnet: The sonnet is a 14-line poem written in iambic pentameter with a specific rhyme scheme.
- Villanelle: This poem has five tercets (three-line stanzas) and one quatrain.
Many of the poetic forms listed above have a specific meter. Meter is the basic rhythm of the poem. The number of syllables and the emphasis on those syllables both impact the meter. Sometimes, poetry is broken down into “feet,” two- or three-syllable collections. What is meter in poetry? Find out in our guide!
There are five typical feet used in poetry:
- Trochee: This has a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable, such as the word “garden.”
- Iamb: This is the opposite, with an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, like the word “indeed.”
- Spondee: This has two stressed syllables, such as the word “bookmark.”
- Dactyl: This is a three-syllable pattern where the first is a stressed syllable, and the final two are unstressed, like the word “poetry.”
- Anapest: This three-syllable pattern has two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed one, such as the phrase “What the heck!”
These feet are put together to create a meter. A common meter used in Shakespearean plays and sonnets is iambic pentameter. This involves five iambs in a row, like this snippet from “Sonnet 114.” Each line has five feet, and the five feet follow the iambic structure. What is a sonnet? Read our guide to learn more.
“Or whether doth my mind, being crown’d with you.William Shakespeare, “Sonnet 114”
Drink up the monarch’s plague, this flattery?
Or whether shall I say, mine eye saith true,
And that your love taught it this alchemy.”
A stanza in a poem is a group of lines with a common rhyme and meter pattern. They are typically offset by a hard stop and skipped line. The stanza will have its ideas or concept. Like the other poetic structures, the stanza can be one of a few different types, all based on the number of lines it contains:
- Monostich: One line
- Couplet: Two rhyming lines
- Tercet: Three rhymes that rhyme or where the first and third lines rhyme.
- Quatrain: Four lines with the second and fourth lines rhyming.
- Quintain: Five lines
- Sestet: Six lines
- Septet: Seven lines
- Octave: Eight lines
Some poets kept the stanzas in the same structure throughout. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s entire epic “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” has quatrains, as seen in this snippet:
“It is an ancient Mariner,
And he stoppeth one of three.
‘By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp’st thou me?
The Bridegroom’s doors are opened wide,Samiel Taylor Coleridge, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”
And I am next of kin;
The guests are met, the feast is set:
May’st hear the merry din.’“
In contrast, other poets, like Walt Whitman, vary the stanza pattern based on their goals for the poem. In his poem “As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life,” Whitman varies the number of stanzas.
In this snippet from verse three, he has a stanza of four lines followed by a two-line stanza. You can visually see a stanza when looking at a printed poem because of the empty lines separating them.
“Ebb, ocean of life, (the flow will return,)
Cease not your moaning you fierce old mother,
Endlessly cry for your castaways, but fear not, deny not me,
Rustle not up so hoarse and angry against my feet as I touch you or gather from you.
I mean tenderly by you and all,Walt Whitman, “As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life”
I gather for myself and for this phantom looking down where we lead, and following me and mine.”
The final part of a poem’s structure is the rhyme scheme. This is the pattern of rhyming lines in the poem. They are typically labeled with a letter, indicating which line rhymes. So a poem with an abab rhyme scheme will have alternating lines that rhyme.
Several types of poetry have specific rhyme schemes. For instance, a limerick follows the aabba rhyme scheme, while a villanelle is a poem with three-line stanzas with an aba rhyme scheme and a four-line abaa scheme. Ballades have a rhyme scheme of abab bcbc. Some poems have a monorhyme style that ends every line with the same rhyme, such as William Blake’s “Silent, Silent Night”
“Silent silent night
Quench the holy light
Of thy torches bright
For posess’d of DayWilliam Blaker, “Silent, Silent Night”
Thousand spritis stray
That sweet joys betray”
Some poets also like to change the rhyme scheme, following one scheme for most of the poem and ending with a different one. However a poet chooses to use it, the rhyme scheme is one of the most commonly-thought-of poetic devices, but it’s just one of many at your disposal as you explore your poetic ideas.
What is acrostic poetry? Find out in our guide!