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Glossary of Poetic Terminology
By Paul Williams
Last edited: Wednesday, February 11, 2009
Posted: Monday, December 27, 2004

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I originally produced this reference guide for my students. I have posted this for those who are not familiar with poetic terminology and just general interest. I know it's basically a list, but I hope you find it useful in pursuing your art. I guess I can't help being a teacher.

Glossary of Poetic Terminology


Aesthetics: the philosophy or theory of artistic beauty.

Allegory: a figurative device in which abstractions are personified as individual characters. Common in medieval poetry.

Alliteration: the repetition of consonants for certain effects. Before rhyme was used in English poetry, alliteration was the chief means of achieving musical and memorable effects, as in alliterative verse.

Ballad: a short narrative poem, originally a song and maintaining strong links with the oral tradition. The ballad usually deals with a single event in straightforward language.

Blank verse: poetry written in unrhymed iambic pentameters, as in Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Caesura: a discernible pause, usually occurring about the middle of a line of poetry, sometimes used by poets for particular effects.

Closure: the ending of the poem.

Couplet: paired lines of verse, often rhyming.

Dramatic monologue: poem in which a particular persona speaks to a supposed audience.

Elegy: a serious, formal poem of celebration or commemoration, usually though not always written on the occasion of a death.

Epic: a long, serious narrative poem, typically articulating a historical, national or mythological narrative.

Foot: a regularised, repeated unit of stress in a poetic line; a pattern of stressed (/) and unstressed (x) syllables. These are some of the most common metrical feet:

anapaest x x /

choriamb / x x /

cretic ( or amphimacer) / x /

dactyl / x x

dibrach (or pyrrhic) x x

iamb x /

spondee / /

trochee / x


Free verse: poetry not structured according to a set metrical pattern and usually irregular in line length.

Haiku: a three-line poem, usually imagistic, derived from the Japanese tradition. The first and third lines have five syllables and the second line has seven. A tanka has five lines with a five, seven, five, seven, seven-syllable pattern.

Heroic couplet: rhyming couplets in iambic pentameters, characterized by internal symmetry or parallelism across the couplet and, within lines, across the caesura. Historically associated with Augustan poetry.

Image: a word or words usually used figuratively, invoking sense perceptions; Imagery: is the collective term for images, usually in the single poem.

Internal rhyme: the rhyming words within the line of poetry.

Limerick: almost exclusively used for comic (often rude or indecent) verse, made up of five lines of varied length, rhymed aabba with a distinctive anapaestic rhythm.

Long line: a non-metrical poetic line of greater than usual length.

Lyric: literally meaning to be sung accompanied by the lyre, lyric has come to mean a short poem usually expressive of the poet’s emotions.

Metaphor: a figure of speech whereby one thing or idea is represented by implicit comparison with another. It is distinct from simile in making a more compressed and implicit association between the things or ideas, and from metonymy in that there be no prior association between them.

Metonymy: figure of speech whereby a thing or idea is represented by another thing or idea that has some association with it, as in ‘the gate’ being used to represent the attendance at a football match.

Metre: stress patterns; the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in verse.

Narrative poem: a poem that tells a story. Types of narrative poem include ballad, epic and romance.

Ode: an extended meditative lyric, especially associated with the commemoration of public events and often ceremonial in tone and diction.

Pentameter: a poetic line of five metrical feet.

Prose poem: a poem which although printed as prose, usually of a paragraph or so in length, exploits linguistic resources such as compression, imagery and non-literal language that are characteristic of poetry.

Quatrain: a four-line stanza.

Rap: a form of performance poetry, often improvised, similar to dub in being mixed with distinctive music having a heavy beat.

Reggae: West Indian music with a heavy beat, often utilised by dub poets.

Rhyme: the matching of sounds of syllables at the ends of lines of verse. Since the Middle Ages rhyme has been a significant element in aiding poetry’s memorability,

and while it continues to have an importance in poetry, it is by no means a distinguishing characteristic of poetry in English.

Rhyme scheme: a way of representing the pattern of rhyme in a poem or stanza. The first vowel sound is designated ‘a’ and each similar sound is also designated ‘a’, the second ‘b’ and so on.

Rhythm: the pattern of beats or stresses in a poetic line, conveying a sense of movement or harmony.

Romanticism: a literary movement of the early nineteenth century typically characterized by self-expression and emotionalism, and sometimes by the use of informal poetic language and radical politics. More generally taken to denote any poetry or poetics founded on self-expression.

Simile: an explicit comparison between two things or ideas, usually signalled by ‘as’ or ‘like’.

Sonnet literally ‘little song’, a poem of fourteen iambic pentameter lines with various rhyme schemes.

Stanza a group of poetic lines, often repeated according to a fixed pattern throughout a poem.

Stress: the emphasis placed on a particular syllable or syllables in a word. For instance, in the word crimson, the first syllable is stressed and the second unstressed. Metre is the formal patterning of stressed and unstressed syllables.

Symbol: an image that represents itself and or one or more other things or concepts.

Synecdoche: figure of speech, a variation of metonymy, in which a part is made to represent the whole, as in ‘hands’ meaning ‘workers’.

Trope: figurative use of language, often recurring within the poem or genre.

Vernacular: colloquial or spoken language; originally, the indigenous or native language of a place, as opposed to the language of its colonisers or cultural elite.


P Williams



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Reviewed by m j hollingshead

enjoyed reading your interesting article
Reviewed by Sophia Simmons
Thank you for sharing such an informative piece of material....Very useful
Reviewed by Sara Coslett
Where were you four years ago when I first started writing poetry again after a 30-year hiatus? This is very helpful. Thank you. ~ Sara
Reviewed by Joy Marsh
Thank you for posting this educational guide!!
Reviewed by Shoma Mittra
This is a great help. Especially since my poetry is going steadily from bad to worse . I had forgotten all about scantion and metres . Refreshed my memory with yoiur helpful online guide. Thanks a ton.

:-) shoma
Reviewed by Gwen Dickerson
Thanks, Paul! This is very helpful!
Reviewed by ~Indigo~ Elga
Dear Paul

Where were you last year in November :( ???? this would have been ideal ! All the same I now know where to get valuable information, which is very often desparately needed. Thank you for posting this, It is really great.

warm hugs

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