How Poetry Works


You can think of poetry as word play and a poet as an artist of words.
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Chances are you've probably read a poem or two in school, had to memorize a poem at some point, or maybe even wrote a poem yourself. But what exactly is poetry?

A good way to think of poetry is to consider it word play. Like a painter uses paint or a sculptor uses clay, a poet creatively uses words to make a poem. In that sense, a poet is an artist of words. And, like other art forms, creating poetry can be an enjoyable or moving experience.

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Many think that a poem has to rhyme, follow a certain format, or be deep and meaningful. But that isn't entirely true. While a poem can be any or all of these, it doesn't have to be. Instead of thinking in such limiting terms, it's better to think of poetry as a creative form of expression -- one that has many tools and is constantly evolving.

So how is a poem different from other types of writing? Most text that you read and write on a daily basis -- novels, essays, newspaper articles, magazines, and blogs -- are written without any poetic styling. This writing, which is referred to as prose, is made up of sentences and paragraphs, and usually is just placed on a page with little attention to where lines break and where words fall.

Poetry, on the other hand, is written for its evocative qualities -- those qualities that produce an emotional response in the reader or create an experience. Poems can be written to sound beautiful, to tell a story or to share a message. They can have alternative meaning, they can share a feeling or experience -- really, they can express just about anything. But the main difference between poetry and other forms of writing is the attention the poet pays to structure, form, tone, word choice and all of those things that create the effect the poet is trying to achieve.

So, if poetry can be about anything, can be written in any way and can be written by anybody, how do we know how to create it? Well, a good place to start is by looking at what other poets have done. In the sections that follow, we'll look at what types of poems there are, what tools a poet uses to create a poem and how the idea of what poetry is has changed over time.

 

Types of Poetry

Plays by William Shakespeare are good examples of dramatic poetry.
Plays by William Shakespeare are good examples of dramatic poetry.

Poetry can be divided into several genres, or categories. Not all poems fit neatly into a category, but to understand what poetry is all about, it's helpful to group poems based on some common characteristics.

Narrative poetry is poetry that tells a story. Just like a literary narrative, there's a plot or some sort of action taking place. One popular type of narrative poetry is epic poetry. An epic poem is a long narrative poem that usually follows the life and adventures of a hero. The ancient Greeks loved their epic poetry and produced great works that we are still fascinated by today, such as Homer's "Iliad" and "Odyssey."

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Another genre is dramatic poetry. If you've ever read a play by William Shakespeare, you're reading dramatic poetry. Basically, dramatic poetry is written with the intention of being performed.

Lyric poetry is the type of poetry that comes to mind for most people when they think of what a poem is. Lyric poetry doesn't necessarily tell a story, have a plot, or follow a logical progression. It's more about using elements like rhyme and rhythm to create an overall effect or feeling. A good way to remember this is to think of lyrics in music, because at times, lyric poetry is set to music.

There are other genres that you could group poetry into, including satirical poetry and prose poetry, but in general, most poetry can be classified as either narrative, lyric or dramatic.

Now that you understand the main categories of poetry, let's look at how poems are constructed. A poet, like an artist, has many tools for crafting a poem -- each having a different effect on how the poem sounds, feels, looks and is read. In the next section, we'll explore some of the sound effects that can be used when writing a poem.

Sound Effects in Poetry

Poets have many tools that they can use to create their poems. The one you might be most familiar with is the effect of sound. When words are spoken aloud, they have lots of great sound qualities that poets can incorporate into their poems.

The most recognizable sound effect used in poems is rhyme. When two words rhyme, they have a similar ending sound. Words that end in the same letters, such as "take" and "make" rhyme, or words with different endings but the same sound rhyme, such as "cane" and "pain." Poetry also makes use of near rhymes (or slant rhymes), which are words that almost rhyme, but not quite -- such as "bear" and "far."

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Other sound effects make use of repeating letters or combinations of letters. Consonance is repeating the same consonants in words that are near each other. The statement "mummy's mommy was no common dummy" is an example of consonance because the letter m is repeated. If the repeated letters appear only at the beginning of the words, this is known as alliteration. For example, "the big brown bear bit into a blueberry" is an example of alliteration because several words close together begin with the letter b.

If the letters or sounds that are repeated are vowels instead of consonants -- as in "I might like to fight nine pirates at a time" -- it is known as assonance. Assonance can be pretty subtle sometimes, and more difficult to identify than consonance or alliteration.

Sometimes a poet might want to make you imagine you're hearing something. This is part of a concept called auditory imagery, or giving an impression of how something sounds. One common way to create auditory imagery is through the use of onomatopoeia. Think about words that describe a sound -- words like buzz, clap or meow. When you say them aloud, they kind of sound like what they are describing. For example, the "zz" in the word buzz kind of sounds like the noise a bee makes.

There are many other types of sound effects that a poet can use, but these are just a few of the most common ones. Now that you understand how poets choose which words to use, let's look at how poets put these words together by choosing to (or not to) follow a structure.

Structural Effects -- Poetic Meter

Another tool poets have is structure. Even though not all poems follow a structure, many poems do.

When you write an essay or a story, you probably structure your text in paragraphs. Poems can be broken into paragraphs, too -- these are called stanzas.

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In addition, in most prose, when your text reaches the end of a line, it just continues on to the next line. In poetry, however, the breaking of text from line to line is usually planned. Sometimes a poet might choose to break a sentence in the middle of a line -- this is called enjambment, for example:

Sometimes poets put a whole sentence on one line.

Sometimes they choose to break a sentence

In the middle. Either way is fine.

In the short poem above, the second sentence is broken between the second and third lines. If you look at the third line in the poem, you'll also see that there is a period in the middle of the line. This is known as a caesura, or a pause in the middle of a line.

Another way to add structure to a poem is with a rhyme scheme, or a pattern in how the lines of a poem rhyme. In the poem above, the first line rhymes with the third line, so it has a rhyme scheme of a-b-a. If the second line rhymed with the third line instead, the rhyme scheme would be a-b-b.

Structure can even be found within each line of a poem. Meter is the poem's rhythm structure, and it is usually established by having a certain pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in the words on each line. A stressed syllable is a syllable that, when spoken aloud, may sound louder, have a longer duration or be higher in pitch than another syllable. An unstressed syllable, on the other hand, might sound softer, have a shorter length or be lower in pitch. For example, when you read aloud the phrase, "He'd like to have some pumpkin pie," you might notice that the syllables "like," "have," "pump-" and "pie" sound a bit louder or stronger than the syllables "he'd," "to," "some" and "-kin." You might also notice that the stressed and unstressed syllables alternate in a regular pattern. This creates a rhythm.

In poetry, a foot, the basic unit of rhythm, is made up of a set number of stressed and unstressed syllables. There are many types of feet that are made up of different combinations of stressed and unstressed syllables (for some examples, see the sidebar on this page).

In addition to deciding what words to use and how to use them, a poet can add some visual elements to enhance or change the meaning of the poem. Keep reading to find out how poets can make a poem actually look like something.

Visual Effects in Poetry

Concrete poetry, or shape poetry, is where the words or lines of a poem actually make a picture.
Concrete poetry, or shape poetry, is where the words or lines of a poem actually make a picture.
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Just as poets can use sound techniques like onomatopoeia to create auditory imagery, they can also enlist visual techniques to help create visual imagery, or the sense of how something looks. Most of the time, this is done with descriptive language that gives you a mental image of something, but another clever way that poets can create visual imagery is with visual effects, such as altering the poem's physical shape or placement on the page, or adding illustrations.

Word placement, line placement, line breaks -- these all can affect the visual imagery or even the meaning of the poem. One interesting example of this is concrete poetry, or shape poetry, where the words or lines of the poem actually make a picture or visually reflect what the poem is about. In concrete poetry, the words are arranged so that when you look at it as a whole, you can see an image formed by the placement of the poem's parts.

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A famous example of concrete poetry comes from Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland." In the story, a mouse tells Alice his "long and sad tale," which in the book itself is written as a shape poem. The words in the poem are placed so that the poem looks to be in the shape of a mouse's tail.

Other structural elements might be a bit more subtle. Acrostics, for example, are poems with hidden messages. In a basic acrostic, the first letters of each line might together spell out a word or a phrase. Acrostics that are more complicated might make the hidden message difficult to find by putting the essential letters elsewhere.

Other ways poems can make use of visual elements are by using fancy lettering, like calligraphy, or by including pictures on the page with the poem. Sometimes, the illustration enhances the meaning of the poem. One modern poet, Shel Silverstein, included illustrations with almost all of his poems. Sometimes, the poem itself could be vague or difficult to understand without looking at the picture that goes along with it. With some poems, however, the illustrations may just be ornamental.

So far, we've talked about sound effects, structural effects and visual effects, but another important part of creating a poem is deciding on its content, or what the poem is actually saying. In the next section, we'll look at how writing a poem can, in many ways, be similar to writing a story.

Literary Effects in Poetry

Since poetry is, essentially, a form of creative writing, it uses some of the same tools found in other types of literature. Do you remember all of those "literary devices" from English class -- foreshadowing, irony, allegory, personification and so on? Well, those can all be used in poetry as well. Each can be used by the poet to change the content and meaning of the poem.

One of the most popular literary devices used in many poems is symbolism, or when one thing is used to represent another. For example, Robert Frost's famous poem "The Road Not Taken" describes two different paths in the woods. While the poem makes sense if it's read literally, the roads he writes about are actually symbols for something else -- they represent the different choices you make in life.

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Metaphors and similesalso compare one thing to another thing, and can add a deeper layer of meaning to a poem. A simile compares two things using the words "like" or "as." For example, the phrase "a poem is like a beautiful painting" is a simile that compares a poem to a beautiful painting.

A metaphor compares things by saying something is something else. For example, "a poem is a blooming flower." Sometimes, however, a metaphor doesn't explicitly tell you what it's comparing. For example, "The Road Not Taken" never actually says that the roads represent choices you make in life. Because of this, metaphors can be interpreted in many different ways, and sometimes people can even perceive a metaphor in a poem when there really isn't one.

Some other common literary devices used in poetry include irony, puns, analogies, oxymorons, and many others. These are by no means the only literary devices that can be used in poems. In fact, when it comes to writing poetry, the sky's the limit on what you can use.

As you can see, there are plenty of tools a poet can use when writing a poem. Sometimes the devices a poet applies to a poem produce such a fantastic effect that the poet, or even other people, want to copy the style it's written in. As a result, there are a bunch of poetic traditions that poets over the centuries have used repeatedly. Find out more about these on the next page.

Poetry Terms and Poetic Traditions

With all of the different tools that poets can use to construct a poem, it's not surprising that poets sometimes like to recreate the structures and themes of other poems.

There are many existing structures and themes to choose from. These structures have rules, such as the number of lines in the poem, the type of meter that is used, the rhyme scheme needed or the subject of the poem. Some of the most popular include:

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  • A sonnet is fourteen lines long and has a specific rhyme scheme. Two of the most popular sonnet types are the Petrarchan sonnet (such as "1492" by Emma Lazarus) and the Shakespearean sonnet (such as "Altruism" by Molly Peacock), which each have slightly different rhyme schemes.
  • A ballad is usually written in stanzas of four lines each and has a meter that alternates between iambic tetrameter (four feet) and iambic trimeter (three feet). A famous example of a traditional ballad is Robert Burns' poem "A Red, Red Rose."
  • A haiku is structured based on the number of syllables in each line. A traditional haiku is three lines long, has five syllables in the first line, seven syllables in the second line and five syllables in the third line. A fun example of a haiku is "If Not for the Cat" by Jack Prelutsky.
  • A sestina is unusual because instead of a rhyme scheme, it repeats words. It's broken up into several stanzas, each with six lines. The six words that end each line in the first stanza are then repeated as end-words in every other stanza in a prescribed order. Take a look at how John Ashbery makes the repeated words flow in "Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape."
  • A villanelle is made up of only two end-rhyme sounds that are repeated throughout the poem. To make things more complicated, the first and third lines of the poem are repeated in a specific pattern all through the poem. A great example of a villanelle is Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night."
  • An ode is a poem written to celebrate a person or thing, such as the poem "The Snail," by Richard Lovelace.
  • An elegy is written for or about someone who has died, such as "An Elegy for Five Old Ladies" by Thomas James Merton.
  • An epigram, is a poem that is meant to be funny or satirical. See if you can catch the punch line in Stephen Crane's "A Man Said to the Universe."
  • An aubade is a poem about the arrival of the morning. It's usually a love poem expressing disappointment that an evening rendezvous has ended, such as Schuyler van Rensselaer's "Under Two Windows."
  • An epistle is typically a poem addressed to someone the poet is close to, though many are written as open letters to people the poet may or may not know, such as "Dear Mr. Fanelli" by Charles Bernstein.

Of course, there are many other poetic structures and forms that a poet can follow, if he or she chooses, but these are just a few.

So where did all of these styles and forms and structures and devices come from? Well, they've developed over many centuries. Let's look now at the poets who gave us these tools and how different movements in poetry over the years have both brought rules to poetry and taken them away.

The Evolution of Poetry

A good place to start when looking back at how poetry has evolved over time is with epic poetry. Most of the earliest known poetry was a form of epic poetry, some of which dates back centuries before humans began writing down their stories. One of the earliest poetic works, the "Epic of Gilgamesh," dates back to around 2000 B.C., when it was part of the oral tradition of the Sumerians. Researchers think that this suggests that poetry and poetic styling was originally developed to help storytellers, who often acted as historians, memorize their stories more easily. As a written text, the epic poem about King Gilgamesh dates back to around 1000 B.C.

The ancient Greeks and Romans, between about 1200 B.C. and A.D. 455, were also known for their great epic poetry. Two of the most famous Greek poets were Homer, who wrote the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey," and Hesiod, who wrote "Works and Days." The ancient Greeks used poetry in music and theater, and loved to write about their gods and the heroic deeds of great people.

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By medieval times -- about 455 to 1485 -- poets began to play with both the subject matter and language of their poems. Some medieval poets, like Geoffrey Chaucer, even experimented with writing in the language of the common people, known as vernacular. Before that, most scholarly and artistic works were written in Latin.

During the Renaissance period (1485-1660), poets got even more creative. They developed new structures and forms of meter. Playwrights like William Shakespeare and Thomas Marlowe incorporated poetry in their plays, in what is known as verse drama. Structures and styles, as well as adding layers of meaning to poems, became very popular.

During the Enlightenment period (1660-1790), there was a big interest in returning to the styles of the classical Greeks. There was a lot of emphasis on formal styles and discipline in writing during this time.

During the Romantic period (1790-1830), on the other hand, there was a big departure from the methods of poets during the Enlightenment. The Romantics were all about finding new ways to express themselves. Romantic writers focused on individuality and nature, and valued creativity over logic. Poets, like Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift, explored new forms and themes during this time. In the United States, new poetic styles emerged out of the transcendentalist movement. Transcendentalists wanted to break away from the established institutions of society. Like the Romantic writers in England, they focused on creativity, nature and individuality.

During the Victorian period (1832-1901), writers continued to break away from the established forms and structures that had been developing during the previous literary periods. Poets like Walt Whitman began writing in free verse, or completely without meter.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, there have been many changes to the way poetry is written and read. Read on to find out more.

Poetry in the 20th Century and Today

By the beginning of the 20th century, poetry had come a long way. Some poets loved using prescribed structures and forms, while others rejected these ideas completely and tried to do their own thing.

The early 20th century saw a lot of push against formal structure and style. The modernist movement of the early 1900s was in a way fighting back against the idea that poetry should be elegant and beautiful. Poems became shorter and more concise -- a much simpler, less ornate style was preferred. Some famous modernist poets include W.B. Yeats, Robert Frost and W.H. Auden.

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After about 1945, the postmodern movement brought more abstract and experimental styles to poetry. Text could be fragmented and sometimes very obscure. From the postmodern movement came the beat poets, such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, who rebelled against mainstream society in their themes and styles. From the beat movement emerged a style known as spoken word, which is a type of poetry that is both performed and makes some kind of a statement (typically something political).

Today, you can find poets and poetry of all sorts. While poetry may not be as much a part of the mainstream as it had been in previous generations, it's certainly not a lost art form if you know where to look. Many bars, cafés and schools still host poetry readings where experienced or novice poets can share their work with others.

One great way to hear modern poets today is to attend a poetry slam, which is a competition where poets battle against one another and are judged on their poem performances. Some poetry slams use an elimination system and a series of elimination rounds through which poets must progress.

Some people also look at music as a form of poetry. Musicians like Bob Dylan are well known for the poetic qualities of the lyrics they write. Rap music also is known to follow many of the structures, meters and rhyme schemes that are associated with poetry.

For more information about types of poetry, the history of poetry and the influence of poetry today, peruse the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

Sources

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  • Beye, Charles Rowan. "Ancient Epic Poetry: Homer, Apollonius, Virgil : with a chapter on the Gilgamesh poem." Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers. 2006.
  • Ciuraru, Carmela. "Beat Poets." Knopf. 2002.
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  • Drury, John. "The Poetry Dictionary, Second Edition." FW Publications. 2006.
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