Literary Tools for a Poem

Though poetry differs from prose in the manner in which words are laid out on the page, the two genres share some of the same techniques used to elicit emotion and feeling in a reader. An effective poem relies on such tools as allegory, metaphor, rhyme and alliteration, which is the repetition of words beginning with the same letter.


Allegories are tools that allow a writer to create a work that has a literal and a symbolic meaning. Poets use allegories by writing about something as seemingly simple as nature, which allows them to make a deeper statement about another subject. For example, in Robert Frost's 1923 poem, "Nothing Gold Can Stay," the literal subject is the inevitability of leaves turning from gold to green to decay. But Frost's use of allegorical language such as "But only so an hour," and "So dawn goes down to day, nothing gold can stay," indicates that the real subject is about mortality and the sadness of watching people that were once so bright and beautiful turning old and dying.


Metaphors are often used by poets to compare things that don't have an obvious connection. For example, a poet might describe a person's courage in this way: "Her courage was that of a lioness shielding her cubs from a hunter." The use of metaphor allows poets to create powerful imagery through the comparison of one subject with another. The contrasting of the two dissimilar subjects creates an emotion or image in the reader's mind that makes the poet's words come alive. For example, in Langton Hughes' 1926 poem, "Dreams," he writes, "For if dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird," and "For when dreams go, life is a barren field." By comparing dreams to a bird that can no longer fly, and to an empty field, Hughes evokes an indelible sense of loss in the reader.


Rhyming allows poets to display a facility with language and provides an artful flow when a poem is read aloud. The pattern a rhyme assumes is known as the rhyme scheme. There are many different rhyme schemes that a poet can use, but the most common is the straight rhyme, such as, "Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall, Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. All the King's horses, and all the King's men, couldn't put Humpty together again." In this poem, the scheme is AABB, which means the first two stanzas (A) rhyme and the second two stanzas (B) rhyme.


Alliteration is a technique in which a writer uses the repetition of consonant sounds in words that are strung close together. A poet can use alliteration to create fluidity and beauty through a series of words. In Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Kubla Khan," first published in 1816, one of the stanzas reads, "Five miles meandering with a mazy motion," which helps to evoke the image of a winding river through the use of words that begin with the same consonant.

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