20 Poetry Terms Every Writer and Reader Should Know

Whether you want to study poetry or write it, understanding basic poetry terms is essential.

The beauty of poetry is in both rhyme and rhythm, yet many who appreciate poetry do not quite understand it. What is it about the forms of poetry that make it so endearing? A basic understanding of poetry terms will help make this loved artistic form of writing even more appreciated.

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Common Poetry Terms Every Poet Should Know

Poetry terms every writer and reader should know

If you are serious about poetry, whether you want to dabble in writing it or enjoy reading it, these are the terms you should become familiar with to further your knowledge and understanding of this form of art:

1. Alliteration

Alliteration is a poetic device that uses the same starting letter and consonant sounds for each word. Here is an example from Dr. Suess’s book Fox in Socks:

“Through three cheese trees three free fleas flew. While these fleas flew freezy breeze blew. Freezy breeze made these three trees freeze. Freezy trees made these trees’ cheese freeze. That’s what made these three free fleas sneeze.”

This passage uses “f” and “b” as the initial consonant of many of the words.

2. Rhyme Scheme

The rhyme scheme is the pattern of rhyme found in the lines of a poem. It is described using letters to represent lines, and each rhymed line has a matching letter. For example:

  • ABAB: In this rhyme scheme, the first and third lines (A) rhyme and the second and fourth lines (B) also rhyme.
  • ABAB CDCD EFEF GG: In this pattern, commonly seen in sonnets, every four lines of poetry have an alternating line rhyme scheme, except for the final couplet, which rimes with itself.
  • CDECDE: In this rhyme pattern, every third line of poetry rhymes. This was commonly found in Italian petrarchan sonnets.

3. Couplet

A couplet is a two-line grouping in poetry. Often couplets will be part of a rhyme scheme. An example from William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is:

“Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.”

4. Quatrain

LIke a couplet, a quatrain is a group of lines of poetry, but in a quatrain, the group contains four lines, not two. Many sonnets are made up of three quatrains and a couplet. Here is a quatrain from John Keats’ famous sonnet “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer:”

“Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold”

5. Metrical Feet

Metrical feet are two or more syllables grouped together to make up the smallest part of the meter of a poem.

6. Iamb

An iamb is a metrical foot made up of two syllables with one syllable stressed and the other unstressed. “Come live with me and be my love” has several iambs in short succession. 

7. Iambic Pentameter

A favorite literary device of Shakespearean sonnets, Iambic pentameter is not a rhyming scheme, but rather a scheme of stressed and unstressed syllables. A line of iambic pentameter will have ten syllables with a pattern of unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable so that every other syllable has an accent. Here is an example from the Shakespearean classic “Romeo and Juliet:”

“For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.”

8. Simile

Simile is a poetic device that compares an item, often a person, to something that it is nothing at all like. For example, in “A Red, Red Rose,” poet Robert Burns compares his love to a red rose when he says:

“Oh my Luve is like a red, red rose, Newly sprung in June.”

Clearly, his romantic interest is not like a red bloom, but using simile he compares the two unlike things to draw a romantic picture. Simile always uses the word “like” or “as” when making these comparisons.

9. Metaphor

A metaphor makes a connection between the qualities of two different things

Metaphor is also used in poetry to compare unlike things with each other, but without the terms “like” or “as.” In Emily Dickinson poem “Hope is a Thing with Feathers,” the poet describes hope as a bird, saying:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all”

10. Assonance

Assonance occurs when most of the vowel sounds in a line of poetry are the same. The line “How now brown cow” is an example of assonance.

11. Hyperbole

Hyperbole intentionally over-exaggerates something to make a point. this is commonly used in poetry. Homer uses this often in his epic The Illiad. At one point in the poem, he says that the god Mars cried, “as loudly as nine or ten thousand men,” which was a classic example of hyperbole.

12. Onomatopoeia

Onomatopoeia is a poetic form that uses words that sound like the noises they make. The word “bang” sounds like a loud, sharp sound, which is what it means. Poets often use onomatopoeia when writing about items that make sounds.

13. Enjambment

Enjambment happens when the poet extends the sentence beyond the stanza of the poem. Ann Carson’s poem “The Glass Essay” uses this well:

“I can hear little clicks inside my dream. Night drips its silver tap down the back. At 4 A.M. I wake. Thinking of the man who left in September. His name was Law.”

14. Personification

Personification takes a non-human item and gives it human characteristics. Saying “the leaves danced in the wind,” is an example of personification. 

15. Spondee

This group of two syllables has both of the syllables as stressed syllables. The word “bus stop” is an example of spondee.

16. Trochee

Trochee is the reverse of the iamb. This metrical foot is made up of two syllables with the first syllable stressed and the second unstressed. The word “tyger” used by Edgar Allan Poe is an example.

17. Dactylic

Dactylic is a type of metrical foot composed of three syllables where the first syllable is a stressed syllable and is followed by two unstressed syllables. The word “happily” is an example of this.

18. Haiku

Haiku is a form of Japanese poetry that has three lines of 5, 7 and 5 syllables each. 

19. Scansion

Scansion is the analysis of a poem’s meter, often through analyzing the metrical feet of the poem.

20. Tetrameter 

A tetrameter is a line of poetry that has four metrical feet. 

A Final Word on Poetry Terms

Whether you are looking at a piece of blank verse or a classic Shakspearean sonnet, understanding these basic poetry terms will make the poetry more appealing and understandable. If you’re a budding poet, you might find our guide on what an anthology is helpful.

FAQs About Poetry Terms

What are the different types of meter?

The meter of a poem is often named by the number of metrical feet in a line. Hexameter, heptameter, tetrameter, dactylic, iamb and iambic pentameter are all examples of different types of meter in poetry.

Do all poems use rhyming lines?

No, not all poems use rhyming lines. Blank verse and free verse are examples of poems that do not rhyme. Many poems that do not rhyme use metrical foot and rhythm to create poetry.