Poetry can feel ambiguous or confusing to readers at any level. However, if students learn key poetry terms, they can learn to independently understand and enjoy poems. At the elementary level, students need sufficient tools to be able to summarize the poem and identify its central message.
Similar to a paragraph in prose, a stanza is a section of a poem; it is how the lines are grouped together. Stanzas can group certain images or ideas together, and can shape the rhythm and meaning of the poem. Some stanzas are dictated by strict poetic rules. For example, a sonnet has three four-line stanzas followed by one two-line stanza.
The theme is the message or idea of a poem, of which there can be more than one. The theme can be the author's opinion about society, life or nature, and it is often continuously developed throughout the poem. The poet uses key words and images to communicate the theme and the poet's attitude or feelings about it. Examples of themes in poetry include friendship and love, jealousy, crime and punishment, growing up and honesty and deception.
A metaphor compares two different things as if they are the same thing. A metaphor creates an image in the reader's mind and enriches the meanings of the things being compared by embedding one another with their respective connotations. For example, in the poem "Dreams" by Langston Hughes, the author writes that if a person lets their dreams die, then "Life is a broken-winged bird/That cannot fly." This metaphor gives a wasted life the aspects of a broken-winged bird, including the potential for flight and the tragedy of obstacles to realizing that potential.
A simile compares two things using "like" or "as." It serves to link together different parts of a poem and creates relationships that may enhance or change the meaning of the things being compared. For example, in Langston Hughes' poem "Harlem," the poet compares deferred and unrealized dreams, using the word "like," to "a raisin in the sun" and "rotten meat."
A poem may repeat a word, phrase or sound to add rhythm and emphasize a mood or theme. For example, in Edgar Allan Poe's poem "The Raven," the poet repeats the word "nevermore" throughout the text. Sometimes repetition stresses an image or a feeling, thereby telling the reader what is important in the poem. Other times, repetition may be used to point out the varying meanings of a particular word or phrase.
Personification involves instilling human qualities to non-human things like inanimate objects and animals. For example, in the poem "Testimonial," Rita Dove personifies the whole world when she writes that "the world called, and I answered." She uses personification to imply a personal relationship between the world and the speaker. Personification, like metaphor and simile, can add a new dimension of meaning to the thing being described.