Poetic Elements and How to Use Them

Understanding the various elements of poetry is essential to bringing your creative vision to life. There are so many different poetic elements out there that it can take years to list all of them down, but we’ve compiled a list of essential tools, techniques, and literary devices to get the ball rolling. Read on to discover 15 of the most useful poetic elements out there!

  1. Structure

Poetry is an extremely diverse literary tradition, and the best way to explore its inexhaustible variety is by seeing the differences in structure. The basic structural poetic element is the stanza, or a group of lines, but you can also break them down into lines and syllables. Sonnets consist of 14 lines, villanelles contain 19, and haikus are short poems of 17 syllables arranged into three lines. Some poems, like free verse, eschew structure entirely, so there’s lots of room for experimentation!

  1. Theme

No matter what type of structure you go for, your poem will almost certainly have a poetic element known as the central theme. This is the idea or concept you’re trying to encapsulate, as well as the core message that the poem is supposed to convey. Some poems have relatively simple themes, such as haiku and their straightforward description of seasons, but there’s often a deeper meaning to explore. Other poems can have complex and obscure themes. 

  1. Subject

There are a few similarities between your poem’s subject and theme, but they’re not quite the same thing. A subject is the specific object, individual or concept that a poem is about. Elegies are often about death, and death is also the central theme. However, some subjects shouldn’t be taken literally. They represent ideas and concepts that form the poem’s theme, so it’s important to distinguish between them.

  1. Rhyme scheme

Rhyming is one of the core elements of most forms of poetry, but the rhyming scheme varies from poem to poem. An AABB rhyme scheme is the simplest of all, since the rhyme occurs in each successive line. An ABAB rhyme scheme implies that the last word of the first line will rhyme with the last word of the third line. The second will rhyme with the fourth, and so on. Here’s an example of an ABAB rhyme scheme from the poet Robert Frost:

The people along the sand

All turn and look one way.

They turn their back on the land.

They look at the sea all day.

Other rhyme schemes exist as well, such as AABA, or in the case of limericks, AABBA.

  1. Assonance

In poetry, assonance is when the vowels of certain words closely match each other. Rhyming is technically a form of assonance, but the term applies even if the words don’t have identical endings. Samuel Taylor Coleridge used it quite effectively in his poem “Frost At Midnight”, here’s how it sounds:

That solitude which suits abstruser musings.

As you can see, the constant repetition helps to create a sense of rhythm. The words “repetition” and “rhythm” aren’t used lightly here, since they’re a couple more poetic elements that you need to know. 

  1. Repetition

Assonance can create a distinct momentum in your poem, but it’s not the only kind of repetition you can use. Some poets repeat words for and phrases intentionally to emphasize them. It also helps develop and reinforce the poem’s central theme, so just remember that you don’t have to make every word unique. Sometimes you can repeat certain things to give them more of a punch, although it’s best to do so sparingly to avoid watering down the effect.

  1. Rhythm

Your choice of structure, rhyme scheme, assonance and repetition can influence the rhythm of your poetry. Different syllables are stressed based on the rhythm of each line, and that can influence how your reader interprets your themes. Another term for the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables is meter. A great example of this is iambic pentameter, famously used by Shakespeare, which consists of lines of five pairs of stressed and unstressed syllables.

  1. Diction

These poetic elements influences your rhyme scheme, rhythm, and how effectively you convey your theme. In a nutshell, diction refers to your choice of vocabulary, syntax, and phrasing or more simply, which words you choose and how you use them in a sentence. Figuring out your diction is important if you want to have a distinct voice as a writer. 

  1. Enjambment

A phrase doesn’t always end when you’ve started a new line. If you extend the phrase into the subsequent line without any punctuation, you’ve done something called enjambment, which breaks some traditional rules but creates an exciting kind of rhythm in the process. One line can flow into the next without a stop. This helps build momentum and add some tension or ambiguity to the theme.

  1. Symbolism

Some ideas are too complex to explain without using symbols and metaphor. Comparing a concept or idea to an object can add layers of meaning to your poetry, such as referring to a rose as a symbol for love. Symbolism doesn’t always have to be explained. Sometimes you can add symbols in your language and let the reader enjoy the evocative imagery they create. The goal is to leave your poem open to interpretation, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions.

  1. Personification

Consider this a form of symbolism that attributes human characteristics to animals and inanimate objects. In fact, you can even personify abstract concepts. Death is often personified as the Grim Reaper, for example. This allows other characters in a poem or even the authors themselves to talk to this personification about death. Clever use of personification can make your emotional themes more resonant, and you can also use it for comedic effect.

  1. Alliteration

Here we’ve got another useful method for spicing up your poem’s rhythmic flow. Alliteration is when the first letter of each word in a line is the same, creating memorable and lyrical passages that can add emphasis to any rhyme scheme you’re deploying. Again, this is something you should use sparingly, but it can add some real oomph to your poems if used appropriately.

  1. Irony

Meaning is a subjective concept. Sometimes a phrase or a word can mean something entirely the opposite of its dictionary definition. That’s the essence of irony, and it’s one of the most powerful poetic elements if you want to inject some satire into your poem. It’s not just a comedic tool, though. Irony can also draw attention to the absurdity of certain situations and society in general.

  1. Simile

Similes are like symbolism except they draw direct parallels between two objects or concepts, and you probably use them all the time in casual conversation. Have you ever called something as cold as ice? That’s a simile, albeit a simple one. It’s best to use more complex and evocative similes in your poems, but they don’t have to be too complicated either. All Wordsworth had to do was compare his lover to a red rose for maximum effect.

  1. Hyperbole

Hyperbole is a poetic method for exaggerating your statements to alter their impact. Calling a minor scuffle a world war is just one example of how you can use hyperbole in your poetry. It serves an important role in comedic poems especially, but you can try them in more serious poems as well.

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