Elements of poetry

As we established in the ‘Introduction to poetry’ unit, the power of poetry – its ability to affect us in distinctive ways and to award us an experience and understanding of its topics that are unlike those we are given by other forms of literature or art – derives ultimately from its distinctive formal devices. In this unit, we will familiarise ourselves with those devices and develop strategies for identifying how they contribute to the workings and effects of individual poems.

It is worth reiterating from the outset, though, that the same device does not work in the same way or convey the same set of meanings in every poem in which it appears. Instead, it makes its contribution through its interaction with all the other elements out of which that poem is fashioned. Since these building blocks will never be entirely the same in different poems, moreover, the contribution each of them makes can never be entirely the same in every case either.

This is why an analysis of a poem must ultimately treat that poem as a whole and must seek to explain how the combination of its individual parts enables that poem to do what it does and say what it says.

The four devices distinctive to poetry we will interrogate here are line, stanza, metre and rhyme. Of these, only the first (line) absolutely has to be present for a piece of writing to qualify as a poem. The others are optional and many poems dispense with one or more of them. All four of these devices have, nonetheless, featured prominently in the history of English-language poetry. Furthermore, they either never (stanza) or only very seldom and then only fleetingly (metre and rhyme) appear in prose. For these reasons, it is vital we know how to interpret them and assess the contribution they make to individual poems.

Every poem will of course consist of elements that are also common to other forms of literature, such as word-choice, imagery, syntax and other kinds of aural effects beyond those associated with rhyme (such as assonance, alliteration and onomatopoeia). It is therefore imperative that you consider these aspects of a poem too when you come to produce your interpretation of that poem (for tips and guidelines on how to analyse these elements, see the Literature module).

The difference between poetry’s use of these devices and what we find in other forms of discourse, such as prose literature or everyday conversation, is at most one of degree. Because of its distinctive layout and sound, that is – because of its distinctive use of line, stanza, metre and rhyme – poetry often makes us more conscious of the language it uses and the devices it employs than other forms of linguistic practice. For instance, whenever we are told that poetry is ‘more metaphorical’ than other kinds of language use, we should not understand this to mean that poetry contains a greater number of metaphors but that it causes us to be more aware of and thus more attentive to its use of metaphors.

Poetry’s tendency to elicit from us a state of heightened attention is a crucial aspect of its artistic practice in a more general sense as well. By turning up the dial on our cognitive and emotional awareness to a greater intensity than usual, poetry actively engages the reader in the production of meaning. As such, it is especially effective at conveying the sensation of thoughts in the process of being thought, feelings in the process of being felt, and so on, rather than simply presenting the conclusions of those thoughts and feelings in the form of a static report to which the reader does not necessarily have any personal or subjective relationship.

This once again is a product of poetry’s distinctive formal devices and it is vital that as we read and analyse a poem we seek at all times to register the frame of mind a poem elicits from us and how it then plays upon the expectations this mind-set brings with it, whether by affirming, toying with or thwarting those expectations. This process starts very early: we expect something different from a set of words if they are set out as a poem than if those same words are set out in regular prose (try it for yourself or see again the experiment we conducted on R. S. Thomas’s poem ‘Comparisons’ here).

Once we have recognised that a particular work of literature either looks or sounds like a poem, moreover, and have tuned our cognitive and emotional faculties into what we (perhaps subconsciously) assume to be the appropriate frequencies for the task of reading and responding to poetry, we are then almost certain to finesse those tunings still further if we are able to recognise the particular genre to which that poem appeals, as well as where on the spectrum running from fixed-form to free-form poetry it appears.

For this reason, I would recommend that before you proceed any further, you read about

Genres of poetry

Fixed-form and free-form poetry

We will now familiarise ourselves with the four significant elements of poetry that are either entirely distinctive (line and stanza) or largely distinctive (metre and rhyme) to poetry alone. In so doing, we will also develop strategies for determining how we might interpret the contribution these elements make to the meaning and workings of individual poems as a whole:





Once you have completed this second unit in the poetry module, you may either return to the module’s front page or proceed directly to the next unit: Guidelines for interpreting poetry.