Poetic Techniques

A poet’s medium is words. Poets manipulate words to create images or ideas that inspire deep thought. In order to express intense emotion in a limited space, poets carefully select words and arrange them in patterns. Poets use devices that utilize the effects of sound and meaning to further enhance their expressions.

Sound Matters

The sound of a word influences the way we perceive it. Poets use several devices that incorporate the use of sound. For instance, alliteration uses the repetition of the initial consonant sound, such as in “Once upon a midnight dreary while I pondered weak and weary.” Consonance is the repetition of a consonant sound that appears anywhere in the word, such as the “k” sound in “I’ve cause to cling to anchors.” Assonance is the repetition of a vowel sound, as in these lines by Jack Prelutsky: “Whatever one toucan can do / is sooner done by toucans two.” When poets use words that sound like their meaning, they are employing a poetic technique called “onomatopoeia” as in these lines from Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Bells”: “How they clang, and clash, and roar! / What a horror they outpour.”

Comparison Devices

Poets use comparison devices to create vivid images or to express strong feelings. For example, a poet may use a simile, which is a comparison using "like" or "as," or a metaphor, which is a comparison that does not use "like" or "as." In Sylvia Plath’s poem “Metaphors,” she compares her pregnant self to an elephant, a melon and a loaf of bread. Sometimes poets use allusion, which is a literary or historical reference. These references can add depth to a poem because they conjure up many associations with the use of just one word. For example, inferences can be drawn from the use of “Judas” in this line from a poem by Peg Boyers: “the Judas boy, who wants you.”

Rhythm and Rhyme

Some poets use meter and rhyme when they are creating poetry. Meter consists of patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables. For instance, in the line “the moon has a face like a clock on the wall,” we hear a recurring pattern of two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed syllable. The use of meter gives rhythm to a poem, which in itself creates different tones and moods. Poets incorporate rhyme in several ways. End words can rhyme, or there can be internal rhyme, such as “the bright light of knowledge.” Poets often follow a rhyme scheme, in which the end rhyme follows a pattern. Rhyme schemes are identified by a series of letters that repeat themselves when a rhyme appears. For instance, in a rhyme scheme of ABAB, the first and third lines will rhyme, and the second and fourth lines will rhyme.

Following Forms

Poetry form is a sort of template. Forms provide certain boundaries for the arrangement of words. Some of these forms are quite complex, such as a sonnet, which is a 14-line poem about a single theme or idea. Sonnets are usually written in iambic pentameter, which means that each line contains five iambic feet, or five groups of two syllables that create a pattern of one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable. A couplet consists of two-lined rhymes, and a quatrain is a four-lined stanza. A haiku is an unrhymed poem that consists of three lines; the first line has five syllables and is followed by a seven-syllable line and a five-syllable line. An acrostic poem uses the letters of one word as the first letters in lines of poetry.

About the Author

Debbie McCarson is a former English teacher and school business administrator. Her articles have appeared in "School Librarians’ Journal" and "The Encyclopedia of New Jersey." A South Jersey native, she is a regular contributor to "South Jersey MOM" magazine.

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