About Poetry

By John Kagebein


In this discussion of the various elements and stylistic devices found in poetry, I will refer to some concrete examples found in what is arguably the greatest poem by one of history's greatest poets: Edgar Allen Poe's The Raven. Poe's masterpiece of narrative poetry utilizes every poetic device that I will discuss here. I will only be quoting various selected portions of The Raven herein, but the poem is in the public domain and can be found in its entirety on a multitude of websites. For the greatest reading enjoyment, I highly recommend the beautiful, freely downloadable PDF designed and released by my friend Klaus Nordby, found at: www.KlausNordby.com/poe.

I want to begin with a definition of poetry. After scouring myriad sources in search of a viable definition and not finding one that satisfies me, I decided to define it myself: Poetry is art created by means of structured, rhythmic, audible language.

How did I formulate my definition? I identified the four attributes that must be present for any collection of words to qualify as poetry. There are many other possible attributes which can be present, and I will discuss those later, but these four qualifications are absolutely essential: that it qualifies as art, that the concrete medium involved is audible language and that the composition has structure and rhythm.

What is Art? The best definition of art was formulated by Ayn Rand: "Art is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist's metaphysical value judgments." ("Art and Cognition"; The Romantic Manifesto, 45). What this means is that an artist, regardless of art-form, presents only that which he deems to be important in his subject and omits that which he considers to be unimportant. Every aspect of every artwork, from the most attention-grabbing element of subject to the subtlest nuance of style, is a choice that is made by the artist.

More than a century before Rand formulated her definition of "art," Poe wrote the following piece of marginalia:

"Were I called on to define, very briefly, the term 'Art,' I would call it 'the reproduction of what the senses perceive in Nature through the veil of the soul.' The mere imitation, however accurate, of what is in Nature, entitles no man to the sacred name of 'Artist.' . . . I have mentioned 'the veil of the soul.' Something of the kind appears indispensable in Art. We can, at any time, double the true beauty of an actual landscape by half closing our eyes as we look at it. The naked Senses sometimes see too little — but then always they see too much." (Southern Literary Messenger, Vol. 15, 1849).

Note the many parallels between Poe's and Rand's understanding of the nature of art.

A work of art can re-create any aspect of reality, present any subject or theme and be presented in any style that the artist chooses. The only limitations are imposed by the nature of his art-form and the fact that his work must be intelligible. Intelligibility means that it must represent something that can be recognized and understood. A meaning-less compilation of colors, images, materials, noises or words that signifies nothing may be pleasing, irritating, boring, decorative or soothing, but it does not amount to art.

Every art-form has a medium. For literature, of which poetry is a distinct sub-form, that medium is language. The specific medium of poetry is audible language. Poetry is meant to be heard and the aural perception of the arrangement of the sounds of language is fundamental to what poetry is. Though the sound of words is a necessary criterion in their selection by the poet, language expresses conceptual content, in the form of individual words and, when combined into phrases and sentences, the accumulated whole of each phrase or sentence must also be an intelligible expression of conceptual content. Thus, "Lynch linger brush || Finch finger thrush!" is not poetry. It has meter, rhyme, alliteration and assonance, but it signifies nothing. It is unintelligible nonsense.

Poetic structure is the way in which the words, lines, and stanzas are related in the poem as a whole. Poetic structure can range from the very simple to the extremely complex. Lines, couplets, stanzas and (in very long, epic, poems) cantos are the basic structural divisions of poetry. There are many standard poetic formats for structure and most poems fit into some established structural formula. It is not a requirement that a poem's structure conform to any established formula, but it must have a discernible structure of some design.

Rhythm is the repetition of a combination of stressed and unstressed syllables within a poem. It can be simple and steady or it can be varied and highly complex, with repetition coming in short intervals or stretched across long expanses of verse. Repetition of a specific rhythmic pattern can occur any number of times throughout a poem, or only once. A poem can employ only a single rhythm throughout, or multiple rhythms that vary in a linear or alternating progression. There can even be a progression of sub-rhythms, which vary and repeat, contained within a longer, over-arching rhythm. Poetic rhythm can be as complex as the poet is able to make it, but its simplest form is the basic alternation of stressed and unstressed syllables.

Let us consider the first two stanzas of The Raven.

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,

Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,

While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,

As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.

`'Tis some visitor,' I muttered, `tapping at my chamber door

— Only this, and nothing more.'


Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,

And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.

Eagerly I wished the morrow — vainly I had sought to borrow

From my books surcease of sorrow — sorrow for the lost Lenore —

For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels named Lenore

— Nameless here for evermore.

In these two stanzas we can see and hear all the necessary elements of poetry.

It is art — Poe doesn't attempt to present every detail that would be present in reality. He evaluates reality and describes only those elements he deems essential. It is reality as Poe sees it, through the "veil of his soul".

Its medium is audible language — the full effect of the words Poe has chosen can only be fully experienced by hearing them. Yes, there is much to appreciate in a silent reading, but if one listens to a spoken recitation, it is a different, richer, more poignant experience and Poe's linguistic choices were made with regard to the audible affects they would create.

There is an obvious structure that establishes relationships between each stanza, line, word and even every syllable that Poe has meticulously selected and placed.

There is a rhythmic flow which Poe's choice of words imposes upon the reader. The rhythm weaves a complex pattern, ebbing and flowing; some repetitions occur in short succession, other recurrences are farther removed. These patterns and patterns within patterns carry the listener along, manipulating his focus and imposing a perceptual experience that matches the expressed conceptual content.

The rhythmic flow of poetry is called prosody. Prosody is most commonly accomplished through meter. Meter is a standardized system of measuring and identifying the patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables that create poetic rhythm. The terms "prosody" and "meter" are often used synonymously when analyzing poetry, but I prefer to distinguish them — prosody refers to a poem's rhythmic flow, meter refers to a formal system of measuring that rhythmic flow by breaking it down, syllable by syllable, and comparing it to a standard, recognized pattern.

The basic unit of metrical prosody is the metrical foot. There are five variants of metrical feet, which are commonly employed in English verse:

There are also three other recognized, though not commonly utilized, variants of metrical feet:

A metrical line consists of one or more metrical feet, most often, but not necessarily, of the same variant. The meter of a line is identified according to the type and number of metrical feet it contains. Some examples: a line which consists of a single iamb is identified as iambic monometer; a line containing two dactyls is identified as dactylic dimeter; a line of three trochees is identified as trochaic trimeter, etc. A Heroic Couplet, a unit of structure made famous by Chaucer and commonly employed by Shakespeare, consists of two lines of rhyming iambic pentameter (five iambic feet).

Let's consider the first line of The Raven. I will break it down by metrical feet, with stressed syllables in bold red italic.

Once u|pon a| midnight| dreary,| while I| pondered |weak and| weary,

As you can see, there are eight feet, each consisting of a stressed syllable, followed by an unstressed syllable. This is trochaic octameter. The first and third lines of each stanza follow this pattern.

The second, fourth and fifth lines of each stanza are also trochaic but they are missing the final syllable, thus, rather than consisting of eight feet, these lines consist of seven and one-half trochaic feet. Let's take a look:

Over| many a |quaint and |curious |volume |of for|gotten |lore,

This technique is called catalexis — the absence of syllables in a metrical line of verse. Catalexis is most often achieved through the shortening of the metrical foot at the end of a line, but when it is employed at the beginning of a line that line is called headless. The second, fourth and fifth lines in each stanza of The Raven are catalectic.

I know what you may be thinking: what's going on with the second and fourth feet, there seems to be syllables that are uncounted and ignored? Well, yes and no. If read as one reads prose, then "many a" and "curious" would each be enunciated with three distinct syllables. But here, Poe is making use of strong-stress accentuation. The heavy natural stress that is inherently placed upon the single syllable "quaint" and the opening syllable of "volume" causes the two unstressed preceding syllables to blend together when spoken aloud within the imposed rhythmic flow. Poe does not count on this strong-stress accentuation in the majority of his lines, but it can be disturbing to a novice poetry reader who is conscientiously attempting to account for every visible syllable.

The sixth line of each stanza is significantly shorter, consisting of only three and one-half trochaic feet and is also catalectic, missing the final unstressed syllable that would otherwise make it trochaic tetrameter:

Only| this, and |nothing| more.'

What is the purpose of catalexis? Why doesn't Poe just write all the lines with a uniform meter? The answer lies in the effect. Catalexis is used to create rhythms that cannot be achieved by the strict repetition of standard metrical feet. By dropping the final, unstressed syllable and ending these lines with a stressed syllable, Poe creates an abrupt emphasis on the final syllable of the catalectic lines. Note how it facilitates a change in rhythm, a shift in focus and an alteration in mood. Catalexis is often the best, and sometimes the only, way to create a specific rhythmic effect.

As I made clear in my definition of poetry and subsequent discussion of rhythm, I hold prosody, whether one of the standard metrical forms or some non-standard formula of the poet's own devising, to be an absolute requirement for any literary composition to be considered poetry. But if you study or read much poetry, you are likely to encounter something called free verse. I consider "free verse" to be nothing more than pretentious prose. Its practitioners eschew prosody and (usually) structure and other stylistic devices.

I will not delve into the esthetic and logical reasons why I do not accept the notion that "free verse" is legitimate poetry, which are well beyond the scope of this short primer. I will just say this: Words represent concepts and "poetry", to represent a valid concept, must mean something far more specific than simply "ideas expressed in words, presented any damn way a writer's whim decrees."

By way of full disclosure, I will admit that, in my youth, I dabbled in writing some "free verse." My only excuse is that I was young and had yet to fully grasp the nature of art and the crucial role it serves in man's life. For this, and so much else, Ayn Rand has my eternal gratitude.

I have alluded to other devices commonly used in poetry. While these devices are not fundamental necessities for a composition to qualify as poetry, the skillful use of one or more of them can greatly enhance the sensuality, beauty and emotion-evoking poignancy of a poemand they are usually employed in the best and most beloved poems. I will briefly discuss five of these devices.

Rhyme is the correspondence of the sounds of terminal syllables in utterances. In poetry, such "utterances" are syllables (or a concurrent progression of syllables) that, usually, occupy the same position in two related units of structurewhich can be metric feet, lines or even stanzas. It is the agreement between vowel sounds and f0llowing consonants which creates the rhyme effect. Thus, "wig" rhymes with "big", but not with "bid". It should also be noted that there is usually disagreement between the leading consonants of rhyming words, such as "wig" and "big". When a poet rhymes syllables without disagreement of leading consonant sounds it is called identical rhyme. An example of this is the end-rhyme in lines four and five of every stanza of The Raven. The most common structural position for rhyme is the end of lines. Rhyme is an effective tool for creating perceptual emphasis on an aspect of a poem's structure, amplifying the sensual qualities of prosody and can aid a variation in tempo.

In The Raven, Poe employs a complex rhyme scheme:

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary, (AA)

Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore, (B)

While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping, (CC)

As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door. (B)

"'Tis some visitor," I muttered, "tapping at my chamber door — (B)

Only this, and nothing more." (B)

As you can see, Poe employs an AA, B, CC, B, B, B rhyme scheme. The first and third lines (which we have previously identified as being the two lines in each stanza that employ strict trochaic octameter) have internal rhyme encompassing the fourth and eighth metrical feet. The second, fourth, fifth and sixth lines have a common end-rhyme, which is heavily emphasized by the effect of the catalexis which punctuates the final syllable. Also notice that throughout the poem's structure, each stanza follows this pattern, with the internal rhymes being unique to each stanza, while the end-rhyming lines match, utilizing the same " — or" rhyme, in every stanza.

In poetry, Alliteration is the repetition of sounds at the beginning of stressed syllables, also called lifts.It's a stylistic device that, when deployed skillfully, can produce extremely prominent sensual qualities within a poem and a resonance of sound that can be used to develop structural context. When used in conjunction with rhyme, alliteration can enhance the effects created by rhyme. Poe uses alliteration throughout The Raven:

While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,

Compare the sensual qualities created in the line above, with the qualities it might have had, if Poe had chosen to write it differently:

While I languished, almost napping, suddenly there came a tapping,

Can you hear and feel the difference? Note that, while the meter is identical, the rhythmic flow is somewhat altered. The rewritten line seems somehow slower, clumsier. The change in audible texture alters the way it is perceived.

Consonance is the repetition of consonant sounds within adjacent or near words, such as those falling within a single line of poetry. This device creates a sensual emphasis which can enhance or alter the rhythmic flow of verse. Consonance of sibilant sounds ("s" and "sh" sounds), for instance, can create a resonating "hissing" or "sighing" that permeates a phrase or line. The effect can dramatically affect mood and evoke specific emotions. Consider the fourth line of stanza two:

From my books surcease of sorrow — sorrow for the lost Lenore

Note the effect of the six sibilant consonant sounds in close succession. It creates the effect of a drawn out sigh that gives the impression of a soft ululation. Compare it to this, re-written, line that expresses the same concepts, but doesn't concretize the concepts with a matching sound:

From my tomes reprieve from anguish — anguish for the lost Lenore

The difference should be striking to the ear. Poe's line is a desolate lament, but in my re-write the narrator simply tells you that he was seeking a diversion from his sadness. It's the difference between telling and showing.

Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds within words that are close together, usually within the same line, and often adjacent. Like consonance and alliteration, assonance can be used to support the sensual and structural qualities of a poem. The length of the vowel sounds used can be an effective means of affecting mood and tempo. Assonance of long vowel sounds slows tempo and sets a more serious, somber or sinister mood. Assonance of short vowel sounds quickens tempo and sets a more energetic, vibrant or playful mood.

Consider the highlighted assonance in these two lines:

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,

Both lines employ assonance of two vowel sounds. In the first, Poe uses assonance of the long "I" and long "E" sounds. In the second, he uses assonance of the short "I" and short "E" sounds. Note the dramatic difference in tempo and mood, even though these lines employ identical meter.

In the first, the assonance imposes a slow tempo and creates a mood that matches the concepts it expresses — dark, dreary, ponderous, weary.

In the second, the assonance creates a quicker tempo that suits a lighter mood, one of wistful reminiscence. This change in tempo and mood elevates the listener to a state of "eagerness" which the narrator expresses having felt upon diving into his books, in search of a "surcease of sorrow". It makes the effect of the slowing tempo that follows all the more dramatic, as he learns that there is no refuge from his sorrow to be found — only more sorrow for his lost Lenore. It is a chilling plunge from the illusory expectation of solace to the depths of despair, rendered concrete and perceptual through the masterful use of assonance to manipulate tempo and mood.

Metaphor is a common literary device which creates a comparison between some concrete object or action and an abstraction, by depicting the one with the characteristics of the other. A metaphor can be simple, such as a figure of speech that applies an attribute to an object or action that does not literally apply. An example of simple metaphor would be, "The angry sky, scowled on high." Obviously, the sky does not feel the emotion of anger, nor does it make facial expressions, but figuratively imbuing the sky with such attributes invokes imagery, sets a mood and carries implications that would be much more difficult to achieve using only literally applicable terms.

A metaphor can also be very complex and serve as a symbolic embodiment of a continuing theme and made concrete throughout the entire composition. A poem that describes the noticing, inspection and plucking of a flower, employing language that would be appropriate to a description of meeting, wooing and consummating a relationship with a woman, would be an example of a more complex extended metaphor.

While metaphor, unlike rhyme, alliteration, consonance and assonance, does not enhance the sound qualities of a poem, it can be of enormous benefit in word economy. A well-conceived and executed metaphor projects multiple layers of meaning into the same linguistic "space". Even a simple metaphor can communicate more abstract meaning within relatively few words than a more literal description can. Consider the following:

My groping gaze enjoined her petulant posterior in a merry melee.

How many words, sentences and even paragraphs would be required to convey all the various nuances and implications of that sentence, if only literal descriptions were used?

I have only scratched the surface of the methods and devices employed in the creation of poetry. The collected poems in this book contain numerous instances, combinations and variations of every poetic element I have discussed. It is my sincere hope that this short, basic primer will serve as an aid to the understanding, appreciation and above all enjoyment of poetry.


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