Read Poetry Like An Expert With These Advanced Poetic Terms

When it comes to talking about poetry, oftentimes the terminology can be as complex as the poems themselves. That said, you don't have to know the following prosody terms to do scansion, or to analyze the meters of poems, but they certainly help. In honor of National Poetry Month in April, we are reviewing our next-level poetry vocab, from anapest to zeugma.

 

If you're new to poetry terms, we recommend you start with our breakdown of essential poetic terms to begin with, and then come back here to take on an additional challenge.

anapest

Anapest means "a foot of three syllables, two short  followed by one long in qualitative meter, and two unstressed followed by one stressed in accentual meter." The term anapest comes from the Greek anápaistos, meaning "struck back, reversed.' Note: short syllables are indicated with a mark over a vowel known as a breve: ă. Long syllables are indicated with a mark over a vowel known as an acute accent: á.

One of the most famous examples of anapest comes from Clement Clarke Moore's poem, "'Twas the Night Before Christmas":

'Twăs thĕ níght bĕfŏre Chrístmăs, whĕn áll thrǒugh thĕ hóuse…

It follows a clear pattern: two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable. You might have noticed that there are three feet of this pattern, meaning this line is written in anapestic tetrameter.

anaphora

Anaphora, also known as epanaphora, is a rhetorical term for the "repetition of a word or words at the beginning of two or more successive verses, clauses, or sentences." The term anaphora comes from the Greek anaphorá, meaning "a bringing back, repeating." 

It's a rhetorical method that was especially popular with the Romantic poets. One example of anaphora comes from "The Waste Land" by T.S. Eliot: 

After the torchlight red on sweaty faces
After the frosty silence in the gardens
After the agony in stony places

The repetition of the words "After the" at the beginning of each line draws your attention to them and gives a sense of rhythm.

Perhaps the most famous example of anaphora is Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech,” which repeated “I Have a Dream” eight times.

 

You're curious about King's use of anaphora now, right? Read more about it and other poetic devices King employed.

caesura

In prosody, caesura means "a break, especially a sense pause, usually near the middle of a verse, and marked in scansion by a double vertical line." Caesura ultimately comes from the Latin caesus, meaning "cut." You can think about a caesura as acting similarly to a full stop, like a period.

One of the most famous examples of caesura comes from William Shakespeare's Hamlet:

To be, || or not to be || - that is the question.

This line has two caesuras, one after the comma, the other at the natural line break. You can hear the stop when you read the line aloud.

catalexis

Catalexis is kind of like a missing stair in a poem: it's "the absence of a syllable at the beginning or end of a line of metrical verse resulting in an incomplete foot, most often occurring in the last foot at the end of a verse." It comes from the Greek katálēxis meaning "ending, final syllable."

An example of catalexis comes from Maya Angelou's “Caged Bird”:

But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied

The last four lines alternate between four and five syllables in length, throwing the whole rhythm off a little bit (intentionally) and highlighting the awkwardness of the bird’s predicament.

chiasmus

A chiasmus is quite a witty rhetorical device; it's "a reversal in the order of words in two otherwise parallel phrases." You aren't seeing things, the word chiasmus does really come from the same root as the anatomical term chiasma.

Chiasmi (yes, that's the plural!) are often found in speeches, but you can find them in poems, too, such as this example from John Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn":

Beauty is truth, truth beauty

eclogue

An eclogue is a unique kind of poem. It's "a pastoral poem, often in dialogue form." The term is said to come from the Greek for "conversation between goatherds."

Examples of these classical poems include the Eclogues by Virgil and The Shepheardes Calender by Edmund Spenser. One example of an eclogue is this snippet from John Donne's "Eclogue":

What could to countries solitude entice
Thee, in this year's cold and decrepit time?
Nature's instinct draws to the warmer clime

enjambment

A common technique in poetry is enjambment, meaning "the running on of the thought from one line, couplet, or stanza to the next without a syntactical break." These examples of enjambment come from Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sonnet, “Pity Me Not”:

Pity me not because the light of day
At close of day no longer walks the sky

This have I known always: Love is no more
Than the wide blossom the wind assails

There is no terminal punctuation (like a period) at the end of the first lines in either case. The pause comes in the middle of the second line, meaning we have enjambment.

ictus

One of the strangest prosody terms is ictus, meaning "rhythmical or metrical stress." (In pathology, ictus refers to "an epileptic seizure.") In scansion, the ictus is a term used to denote the accented syllable (/ or '). It looks similar to the acute accent.

For example:

Tŏ bé ŏr nót tŏ bé.

As you can see from this short example from Shakespeare, every second syllable is ictic.

pyrrhic foot

A pyrrhic foot, also known as a dibrach, is a metrical foot consisting of two short or accented syllables. The name for the term actually comes from an ancient Greek warlike dance by the same name.

This was a meter more frequently used in classical Greek poetry, and examples of it are rare in modern English verse. That said, Lord Byron's "Don Juan" contains example of pyrrhic feet:

Mý wáy ĭs tŏ bégín wĭth thĕ béginníng.

spondee

One of the most fun terms to say in poetry is spondee, meaning "a foot of two syllables, both of which are long in quantitative meter or stressed in accentual meter." The word comes from the Greek spondeîos, meaning "libation," in reference to a ceremonial toast.

Spondaic meter is relatively unusual, but you can see an example of it in Adrienne Rich's poem, "Diving into the Wreck":

Wé áre, Í ám, yóu áre

trochee

Another fun term in poetry is a trochee, meaning "a foot of two syllables, a long followed by a short in quantitative meter, or a stressed followed by an unstressed in accentual meter." Trochee comes from the Greek trochaîos meaning "running." You'll understand why when you hear it.

The word poet is actually a trochee: ĕt—a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one.

zeugma

Zeugma (pronounced [ zoog-muh]) is "the use of a word to modify or govern two or more words when it is appropriate to only one of them or is appropriate to each but in a different way, as in to wage war and peace (since you can't "wage peace"). This term comes from the Greek zeûgma meaning "a yoking," a reference to the way the two parts of the sentence are tied together.

One example comes from an Alexander Pope poem, where he writes of a palace:

Here thou, great Anna! Whom three realms obey,
Dost sometimes counsel take—and sometimes tea.

In this short excerpt, the zeugma is the application of the verb take to "counsel" and "tea."

 

Did you memorize all of that? Put your skills to the test with this quiz on poetry terms!