Structural Elements of Poetry
Some may think poetry is just a way of confusing people. And yes, while it can oftentimes be more difficult to understand than a novel, my hope is that after this video you’ll have a better appreciation for poetry and may be able to actually enjoy it.
Today, we’re going to be working through the structure of poetry from largest to smallest.
Introduction to Form
Let’s begin with the superstructure of a poem, the form. According to The Poetry Archive:
“Form, in poetry, can be understood as the physical structure of the poem: the length of the lines, their rhymes, their system of rhymes and repetition. In this sense, it is normally reserved for the type of poem where these features have been shaped into a pattern, especially a familiar pattern.”
That is, there are many different kinds of poems, some of which don’t really have any regular patterns. Many, however, do follow a pattern, especially classical and ancient poems.
You may have heard of the term stanza. A stanza is a grouping of lines within a poem.
The author of Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll, was also a poet. His poem, “The Crocodile,” has two stanzas of four lines each:
How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail,
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!
How cheerfully he seems to grin,
How neatly spreads his claws,
And welcomes little fishes in,
With gently smiling jaws!
Another type of poem is an acrostic, where the first letter of each line spells something. Isaac Watts, who was born in 1674, wrote an acrostic that spelled out his name when he was just seven years old:
I am a vile polluted lump of earth,
So I’ve continued ever since my birth,
Although Jehovah grace does daily give me,
As sure this monster Satan will deceive me,
Come therefore, Lord from Satan’s claws relieve me.
Wash me in thy blood, O Christ,
And grace divine impart,
Then search and try the corners of my heart,
That I in all things may be fit to do
Service to thee, and sing thy praises too.
Moving smaller, let’s discuss patterns within lines. One of these patterns is feet, which is related to meter. Of course, we all know there are about 3 feet to a meter, right? Well, yes, but that’s not what we’re talking about. In poetry, a “foot” is a basic repeated sequence of meter composed of two or more accented or unaccented syllables. The accent is where the emphasis falls on the word: as in when you put the emPHAsis on the wrong syLLAble.
There are four primary feet:
- Iambic: as in the word destroy [des-TROY] (unaccented/accented)
- Anapestic: as in the word intervene [in-ter-VENE] (unaccented/unaccented/accented)
- Trochaic: as in the word topsy [TOP-sy] (accented/unaccented)
- Dactylic: as in the word merrily [MERR-i-ly] (accented/unaccented/unaccented)
A common foot and line length combination is iambic pentameter, which was generally how Shakespeare wrote. This means there are five unaccented/accented feet per line. Line length generally varies from one foot to eight feet. You are forgiven if you’re thinking that I’m talking about buying lumber.
Now we get another layer smaller, with the structure of individual words, known as meter.
Paul Fussell, in his crucial book on poetry, defines meter as “what results when the natural rhythmical movements of colloquial speech are heightened, organized, and regulated so that [repetition] emerges from the relative phonetic haphazard of ordinary utterance.”
Let’s unpack that. What Fussell is talking about is organizing words so that they have a rhythm to them, like a song has rhythm. Think of a basic drum beat: boom TISH boom-boom tish boom TISH boom-boom tish. In English, we accent words, which means that some syllables receive more emphasis than others. This creates opportunity to create rhythm.
According to the Purdue OWL, there are four common ways to view meter.
- Syllabic: A general counting of syllables per line.
- Accentual: A counting of accents only per line. Syllables may vary between accents.
- Accentual-syllabic: A counting of syllables and accents.
- Quantitative: Measures the duration of words.
So we’ve discussed the major structure of a poem, the lines, and the words. Now let’s talk about the smallest structural element of poetry: rhyming.
According to the Poetry Foundation, a rhyme is the repetition of syllables, typically at the end of a verse line. And just to be confusing, there are several different types of rhymes:
- Eye or visual rhymes, which are words that look similar but are not pronounced similarly, as in flood and wood.
- End rhyme, the most common type, is the rhyming of the final syllables of a line, like in the previous example of crocodile and Nile.
- Feminine or slant rhyme, applies to the rhyming of one or more unstressed syllables, such as dicing and enticing.
- Identical rhyme employs the same word, identically in sound and sense, twice in rhyming positions, like when Isaac Watts ends two of his lines from the earlier example with me.
- Internal rhyme is when a word from the middle of a line is rhymed with a word at the end of the line.
- Masculine rhyme describes those rhymes ending in a stressed syllable, such as “hells” and “bells.” It is the most common type of rhyme in English poetry.
- Monorhyme is the use of only one rhyme in a stanza.”
- Alliteration or head rhyme is self-explanatory. The first syllables rhyme, like in the sentence “The careful cat burglar crept through the corridor.”
- Forced or pararhyme is an unnatural rhyme that forces a rhyme where it should not otherwise be. For example, most of you will think that nothing rhymes with orange. The famous rapper Eminem vehemently disagrees and has forced orange to rhyme with many other words in his songs, like the following lines from “Business”:
- Set to blow college dorm room
- Doors off the hinges
- Oranges, peach, pears,
- Plums, syringes
There’s usually a pattern in poems with rhyming schemes, such as ABBAABBA or CDCDCD. The individual letters represent lines that rhyme with each other.
Alliteration, Assonance, Consonance, and Onomatopoeia
Up next we have alliteration, assonance, consonance, and onomatopoeia.
Assonance and consonance are similar to rhyme, but they’re not quite the same. Because this is English, there’s no black-and-white definition or categorization of these terms or of alliteration. Should they be categorized under rhyme? Depends on who you ask.
Encyclopaedia Britannica defines assonance as the “repetition of stressed vowel sounds within words with different end consonants, as in the phrase ‘quite like.’” Consonance is “the recurrence or repetition of identical or similar consonants; specifically the correspondence of end or intermediate consonants unaccompanied by like correspondence of vowels at the end of two or more syllables, words, or other units of composition.” All of that mostly means that consonance is related to alliteration. Listen for the repeated L sounds in Emily Dickinson’s “Poem 315”:
Your breath has time to straighten
Your brain to bubble cool,
Deals one imperial thunderbolt
That scalps your naked soul.
Onomatopoeia is the term for a word that has been created to articulate a sound, such as thunder, or the tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock of a clock. Using onomatopoeia is a way for a poet to use more sounds in their poems.
Alright, this is probably enough for one video. Remember, the form of the poem describes the overall patterns—the number and/or length of lines, the stanzas, etc. The feet tell you how many patterns of syllables are within a line, and the meter is the rhythm of the words.
Thanks so much for watching! We hope this video on the structural elements of poetry leaves you prepped and empowered!