How Poetry Uses Language and What Makes Poetry Different From Other Literary Genres?

Poetry Poetry is an ancient literary genre used to express emotions and ideas through highly crafted language.

Poetry, like fiction and drama, is a genre of literature. One of the qualities that makes poetry unique is that it deliberately employs few words to convey large, abstract or profound content. Oftentimes poetry can seem ambiguous, and the poet's single intention or main idea may not be easy to identify. However, like any art, poetry can express more than one message and is open to wide-ranging interpretation. As a result of poetry's economy of language , every word in a poem carries much weight in terms of its precision and how it relates--in terms of sound and meaning--to the words around it. Line breaks, rules of rhyme and meter, and use of imagery and figurative language define poetry as a literary genre.

Line Breaks

In metrical poetry, each metrical line can be divided into "feet," in which each foot is a pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. However even in poems that do not follow a strict metrical pattern, line breaks -- where the line in a stanza stops and continues in the next line -- can shift the meaning and cadence of the poem. In some cases, such as in William Carlos Williams' poem "The Red Wheelbarrow," line breaks can make the poem look like an object. Line breaks are unique to the genre of poetry and are not employed by the literary genres of fiction and drama.


Poetry is an ancient, international art form. Historically poetry had a close relationship with music and frequently followed strict rules of rhyme, meter, stanzas, syllabic count and rhythm. Poetry forms that follow these rules include the sonnet, haiku, blank verse, villanelle and ode. A free verse poem, however, does not follow any particular patterns or rules, though it is still a form of poetry. Whatever the limitations placed on the poem by its form, the care and craft the poet invests in the language, the multiple meanings of words and phrases, and the rhythm and music of the lines can prove difficult to preserve when translating a poem from one language to another.


Imagery consists of the pictures formed in the reader's mind when reading the poem. It is a literary tool that uses specific details to address the senses. Poetic imagery can serve to paint a picture, but also to reference other meanings or experiences. For example in Karl Shapiro's poem "Auto Wreck," he writes "And down the dark one ruby flare/Pulsing out red light like an artery." The image of a red flare pulsing like an artery is a vivid image through which the reader can connect with the poem; however it also serves to convey other images and ideas such as mortality and passion.

Figurative Language

Figurative language includes metaphor, simile, alliteration and personification. Metaphor compares two usually unrelated things by stating that one thing is the other. A simile is a comparison between two things using "like" or "as." Alliteration is the repetition of the same first letter or sound in a series of closely placed words. For example, Lord Alfred Tennyson employs alliteration in his poem "The Eagle" when he writes: "He clasps the crag with crooked hands." This tool be aesthetically enriching to the poem. Personification is when human characteristics are given to an animal or object. For example, Ted Kooser uses personification in his poem "Abandoned Farmhouse" when he writes "It was lonely here, says the narrow country road." Oftentimes an idea or feeling can more precisely and completely be expressed by being gestured to rather than explicitly named. Figurative language allows the poet to convey his or her message by relating the emotion, object or idea by relating it to something else.

About the Author

Soheila Battaglia is a published and award-winning author and filmmaker. She holds an MA in literary cultures from New York University and a BA in ethnic studies from UC Berkeley. She is a college professor of literature and composition.

Photo Credits
  • Hemera Technologies/ Images