Glossary of Literary Terms: Poetry

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  • 0:05 Introduction
  • 0:58 Technical Terms
  • 5:27 Literary Terms
  • 9:58 Types of Poetry
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ellie Green

Ellie holds a B.A. with Honors in English from Stanford University. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University.

Before you start your study of poetry, you'll want to have these technical, literary and genre terms at your disposal. Read on to learn the basics of analyzing poetry!


Poetry is kind of terrifying. It's not like reading a book, where you generally expect things to follow normal patterns of human speech and thought processes and make sense and all that stuff. In poems, it seems anything can happen. Poems have no rules!

That's actually not true at all. Poems have tons of rules, but they're rules that maybe aren't that familiar to us. They're kind of obscure, and that's why poetry seems so foreign. We're going to help you try to make sense of poetry and all those rules and what they're doing. So we're going to make a list of key terms, and we're going to go over what you ought to know about poetry and what's going to help you parse it out and make it easier to understand. We're going to look at technical terms that apply to all poetry, we're going to look at literary terms that apply to poetry and also a bit of prose (well-written language) and we're also going have a general discussion of types of poetry you might encounter as you go through your Norton Anthology.

Technical Terms

First off: technical terms. It might make it easier if you think of poems in terms of songs. Well-written song lyrics really are poetry if you think about it. Poorly written song lyrics are just painful: 'So c-c-c'mon, you've got it wrong. To prove I'm right, I put it in a song' (One Direction). No! That's not poetry. Other song lyrics can be poetry. Just like there are all different kinds of songs - there's orchestra, there's opera, there's pop music, there's One Direction - songs generally have certain traits in common. They have melodies, they have time signatures, they have rhythms, etc. The same thing can be said of poetry.

So, first off: Poems are divided into verses. That's similar to music, little bits of chunks of words. Some poems might just have one verse, some might have just one line and some might have multiple verses. When they're arranged rhythmically, they're called stanzas. You often hear that in poetry: first stanza, second stanza. Depending on how the stanzas are divided, there are different terms you can use to refer to them. Popular types are:

  • Couplet: a two-line stanza that often rhymes (typically using end rhymes) but doesn't have to.
  • Triplet: a three-line stanza.
  • Quatrain: a four-line stanza.
  • Sonnet: a 14-line stanza that can be a single poem, or you can have a larger poem that has a bunch of sonnets as its stanzas, so you can get a little creative.

And while verses and stanzas subdivide into lines, lines themselves subdivide into feet, which are not like my feet but are the basic unit of measurement in poetry. It's kind of like how a drummer goes, 'one, two, three, four!' The count of the song, or the count of the poem, can be measured in feet. They typically follow patterns of stress and emphasis, and there are a bunch of different kinds. The most common ones are:

  • Iambs: one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable; this is really common in English poetry. It goes da-DA.
  • Trochee: the reverse of an iamb, a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable, so DA-da.
  • Anapest: two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable, so you've got da-da-DA.
  • Dactyl: the reverse of an anapest, one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables, DA-da-da
  • Spondee (my favorite because of a Coleridge poem that has ways to remember all of these): two stressed syllables, DA-DA. (Coleridge's thing is, 'Slow spondee stalks.' I just think a spondee must be a cute creature. Who knows?)

Those are the kinds of feet that you can have. The pattern of poetic stresses is called meter, and, much like in music, the sound patterns that result can be referred to as rhythm. This is all looking pretty familiar. You've probably heard of the meter 'iambic pentameter,' because it is super common in English poetry. To illustrate how we can think about feet, iambic pentameter includes five (penta) iambs (iambic), meaning we've got five sets of unstressed syllables followed by stressed syllables. Shakespeare is super fond of this: 'If MUsic BE the FOOD of LOVE, play ON.' That's iambic pentameter. He doesn't usually rhyme in it; that's called blank verse. A lot of poems have a rhyme scheme; some don't. Rhyme does not make a poem. A poem can be anything.

When you do what we've been doing, when you look at the elements of the lines, the rhythm, the meter and all that stuff, it's called scansion. Teachers love to talk about scansion. You just make little marks to indicate the stresses. Before we move on, it should be noted that poetry isn't always organized into these meters. The ones that aren't we refer to as being in free verse. That angsty poetry you wrote in your diary in middle school? Probably free verse. I don't think you were writing sonnets about the girl whose locker was next to you. Maybe you were, maybe I'm underestimating you, but you were probably writing free verse.

Literary Terms

Okay, we're moving on to literary terms. So, depending on what background you've had in English, you might have had a ton of detailed 'literary term' stuff, or you might have not. If you're having to analyze poetry, you're going to need to know a thing or two about poetic language and the kinds of devices people use, so I'm going to get you up to speed with that.

First of all, the most important thing to keep in mind is that in written language, especially in poetry because poetry is so compact, words mean more than they appear to at first. There are two different kinds of meanings of a word. There's the denotation, which is its literal meaning, and its connotation, which is the meaning its usage in the poem might suggest. If you're doing an in-depth analysis of poetry, you're usually more concerned with connotation, so what the poet's choice of words are implying even if they're not directly saying it. But, if you're stuck on the denotations, if you don't know what the words mean at all, you're going to have an awfully hard time getting to the 'meaning behind the meaning.' You need to know both, but connotation is usually the one we're more interested in.

Anyway, poets use words, and they like to be clever with their words because that lets them build more complicated connotations. All kinds of poetic tropes fall under the category, essentially, of wordplay. (These are things you do with words that are cool and interesting.) We're just going to go in alphabetical order. We've got:

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