Talk About Poetry With These Introductory Poetic Terms

April is National Poetry Month in the United States and Canada. It's an opportunity for poetry writers and readers to share poems they love, participate in activities around poetry, and generally celebrate one of the oldest literary arts. From poetry slams to new poetry releases to the occasional giveaway, expect to see all kinds of poetry-themed events in April.

But, it can be hard to talk about and celebrate the poems you love if you don't have the right vocabulary for it. That's where we come in—we're going to break down the basic elements of a poem, from syllables to stanzas. With this terminology under your belt, you'll be poetry-ready not just for the month of April, but all year long.

syllable 

One of the smallest units of a poem is the syllable. You're no doubt somewhat familiar with syllables already. But, just as a refresher, a syllable is "an uninterrupted segment of speech consisting of a vowel sound, a diphthong, or a syllabic consonant." In other words, it's a single sound—like playing a single note on an instrument.

For example, the word poetry is made up of three syllables: po·e·try. Each syllable makes a different sound: [ poh-i-tree ].

You may have been taught in school to count syllables by clapping every time you hear a new sound in the word. We endorse this method!

meter

While in most cases a meter is a unit of measurement for length, in poetry it means something a little bit different. Poetic meter is the "arrangement of words in regularly measured, patterned, or rhythmic lines or verses."

Essentially, meter is the measure of the number and stress of syllables in a line or verse of a poem. Often, poetic meter follows some kind of pattern. We will get more into that in a minute, but for now you might be wondering, "Wait, the syllables are stressed?"

No, we don't mean that your syllables are anxious or under a lot of pressure. Read on to find out more about this unique kind of stress.

stress

In poetry, stress means "accent or emphasis on syllables in a metrical pattern; beat." In English, there usually aren't accent marks, so you have to rely on your knowledge of the language to know where the stress goes.

A stressed syllable is typically:

 

  • Loud: It is pronounced at a higher volume.
  • Long: It is slightly longer.
  • Large: When you say it, your mouth opens more widely.
  • High: It is higher-pitched.

Say the word poem aloud to yourself. Which of the syllables is stressed? That's right, it's the first one: ĕm.

Sometimes, the stress changes depending on context. For example, the noun présĕnt, meaning "gift," has a stress on the first syllable, but the verb prĕsént, meaning "to show or exhibit," has a stress on the second syllable.

feet

What do podiatrists and poets have in common? They both work with feet. Except, in the poet's case, the feet are "a group of syllables constituting a metrical unit of a verse."

Basically, a foot is a regular combination of unstressed or stressed syllables. If a syllable is a single note, a foot is a bar of music.

The most common type of foot in English-language poetry is the iamb. An iamb is a foot of two syllables, an unstressed followed by a stressed. Take the verb present that we mentioned on the last slide, for example. It is an iamb, an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one: prĕsént.

Some other examples of iambs are:

 

  • Ĭ ám
  • sŏ glád
  • crĕáte

iambic pentameter

The most well-known type of meter in English-language poetry is iambic pentameter. This is the meter Shakespeare used to write his plays in.

As we have seen, iambic means that each foot is made of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. So, what about the pentameter part of the term? Well, the form penta- means "five." Iambic pentameter means "five iambs."

Here's an example of iambic pentameter, from The Merchant of Venice:

Ĭn sóoth, / Ĭ knów / nŏt whý / Ĭ ám / sŏ sád.

In general, when talking about poetic meter, the first part of the expression (iambic, trochaic, spondaic, etc.) indicates the kind of foot used. The second part of the expression (trimeter, tetrameter, pentameter, etc.) indicates the number of feet per line. But what do we mean by line?

line

A line of poetry is sort of like a sentence in prose. It is a group of feet printed together on the page. A line is "a row of written or printed letters, words, etc.: "

It's easy to identify a line in poetry—they stand alone in a row on the page.

Look at this excerpt from the poem "Jabberwocky" by Lewis Carroll. How many lines can you count?

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Even though this poem is made up of nonsense words, it's easy to see: there are four lines.

verse

A verse of a poem is "a succession of metrical feet written, printed, or orally composed as one line; one of the lines of a poem." The word comes from the Latin versus, meaning "a row, line (of poetry)."

For example: we just read four verses of "Jabberwocky" by Lewis Carroll.

But, confusingly, the word verse isn't always used to mean "a line of poetry." It can also refer to a poem or a piece of poetry. Surprisingly, verse is also used to mean stanza.

Not sure what a stanza is? Read on.

stanza

A stanza is "an arrangement of a certain number of lines, usually four or more, sometimes having a fixed length, meter, or rhyme scheme, forming a division of a poem." In other words, a stanza is a group of lines in a poem.

If a line in poetry is like a sentence in prose, then a stanza is similar to a paragraph.

Certain kinds of stanzas have special names. For example, a stanza of four lines is known as a quatrain.

Let's take another look at the "Jabberwocky." How many stanzas are there? How many lines are in each stanza?

"Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!"

He took his vorpal sword in hand
Long time the manxome foe he sought—
So rested he by the Tumtum tree
And stood awhile in thought.

In this excerpt, we can see two stanzas of four lines each—two quatrains. We don't even have to know what the poem means to see that much.

rhyme

Rhyme is "verse or poetry having correspondence in the terminal sounds of the lines," meaning that the sounds at the ends of the lines sound similar. (Rhyme is also occasionally used to mean "a poem" more generally, but we aren't going to focus on that here.)

Along with meter, poems sometimes use rhyme patterns as part of their structure. These are often labelled using letters to represent the different sounds. Let's take another look at "Jabberwock" to understand this a little bit better:

"Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!"

The words son and shun sound similar. We will call them Rhyme A. The words catch and Bandersnatch sound similar. We will call them Rhyme B. So, this poem uses an ABAB rhyme scheme

 

A kind of poetry that relies a lot on its rhyme scheme is the limerick. You can learn more about limericks here.

scansion

Now that you know how to break down poetry from its largest unit—the stanza—all the way down to the syllable, you're well prepared to do scansion on your own.

Scansion is "the metrical analysis of verse." The usual marks for scansion are ˘ for a short or unaccented syllable, ¯ or ′ for a long or accented syllable, and, | for a foot division.

You use a system of scansion to figure out the meter of a line of poetry. Let's practice with a line from our now-favorite poem, "Jabberwock":

The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!

First, let's mark all of the unstressed syllables with ˘ and all of the stressed syllables with ′.

Thĕ jáws thăt bíte, thĕ cláws thăt cátch!

You might notice that there is a pattern of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one. We know what that means: iambs. Now, we have to break the line down into feet:

Thĕ jáws | that bíte,| thĕ cláws | that cátch! |

We have four iambs. So, we can say that this line of poetry is written in iambic tetrameter.

 

If you're interested in learning more about not just how to read poetry but write it, too, check out our article 5 Crafty Ways To Get Your Kid (And You) Into Poetry.