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Poetry 101: Common Poetry Terms With Definitions

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 8 min read

Poetry is one of the most elegant and evocative forms of human expression, but its terminology can overwhelm even the most assiduous of students. Though you don’t need to be a master of poetic jargon to appreciate the artistry of a well-crafted poem, knowing the terms can help you discuss poetry in spoken conversation or in writing.

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In his first-ever online class, former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins teaches you how to find joy, humor, and humanity in reading and writing poetry.

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40 Poetry Terms and Their Definitions

Here you’ll find the 40 of the most common poetry terms with examples:

  1. Alliteration: Alliteration is the repetition of consonant sounds—particularly the sound of a word’s initial consonant—for aural effect.
  2. Anapest: An anapest is a metrical foot of poetry that consists of two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed syllable. Anapest is used in meter such as anapestic tetrameter (four anapests per line of poetry).
  3. Anaphora: In poetry, anaphora refers to a repeated word or phrase at the beginning of successive lines. As it comes at the beginning of a line, anaphora does not affect a poem’s pattern of rhyme.
  4. Apostrophe: An apostrophe is a poetic phrase addressed to a subject who is either dead or absent, or to an inanimate object or abstract idea.
  5. Assonance: Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds for aural effect. Learn how to employ assonance in your poetic verse with our complete guide here.
  6. Ballad: A ballad (or ballade) is a form of narrative verse that can be either poetic or musical. It typically follows a pattern of rhymed quatrains. From John Keats to Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Bob Dylan, ballads represent a melodious form of storytelling. Learn more about ballads here.
  7. Blank verse: Blank verse is poetry written with a precise meter—almost always iambic pentameter—that does not rhyme. William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, and John Milton are among the most famous purveyors of unrhymed blank verse. Learn more about blank verse poetry here.
  8. Caesura: In poetry, a caesura is a break between words within a metrical foot. A caesura can also simply indicate a pause occurring in the middle of a line.
  9. Couplet: Couplet-based poetry contains pairs of rhyming lines. Learn more about couplets here.
  10. Dactyl: A dactyl is a metrical foot of poetry consisting of one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables. It is used in poetic meters such as dactylic hexameter (six dactyl feet per line).
  11. Elegy: An elegy is a poem that reflects upon death or loss. Traditionally, it contains themes of mourning, loss, and reflection. However, it can also explore themes of redemption and consolation. Learn more about elegies here.
  12. Enjambment: Enjambment is the continuation of a poetic phrase beyond the end of a line, couplet, or stanza. A lengthy enjambment may continue over a large group of lines.
  13. Epic: An epic poem is a lengthy, narrative work of poetry. These long poems typically detail extraordinary feats and adventures of characters from a distant past. The word “epic” comes from the ancient Greek term “epos,” which means “story, word, poem.” Learn more about epics here.
  14. Free verse: Free verse poetry lacks a consistent rhyme scheme, metrical pattern, or musical form. While free verse poems are not devoid of structure, they allow enormous leeway for poets, particularly when compared to more metrically strict forms like blank verse. Much of contemporary free verse traces its influences back to Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass anthology. Learn more about free verse poetry here.
  15. Haiku: A haiku is a three-line poetic form originating in Japan. The first line has five syllables, the second line has seven syllables, and the third line again has five syllables. Haikus frequently explore nature as a topic. Learn more about haikus here.
  16. Heroic couplet: A heroic couplet is a pair of rhyming iambic pentameters, common in the poetry of Geoffrey Chaucer and Alexander Pope. Note that these rhymes occur at the end of a line; an internal rhyme cannot produce a heroic couplet.
  17. Hyperbole: Hyperbole is a form of dramatic exaggeration used in poetry and prose alike.
  18. Iambic pentameter: Iambic pentameter is a form of poetic meter where each line of poetry contains five metrical feet known as iambs—two syllable groupings where the second syllable is emphasized. Iambic pentameter is the basis of free verse poetry and is best known via the works of William Shakespeare and John Milton.
  19. Limerick: A limerick is a five-line poem that consists of a single stanza, an AABBA rhyme scheme, and whose subject is a short, pithy tale or description. Most limericks are comedic, some are downright crude—and nearly all are trivial in nature. Learn more about limericks here.
  20. Litotes: A figure of speech that makes a statement by articulating the negative of its contrary is a litotes. For instance the phrase “you won't be disappointed” can be used to mean “you will be pleased.”
  21. Lyric: Lyric poetry refers to the broad category of poetry that concerns feelings and emotion. This distinguishes the lyric poem from two other poetic categories: epic and dramatic. Learn more about lyric poetry here.
  22. Metonymy: Metonymy is a poetic and literary device where a name, term, or part of an object is used to represent the object as a whole. For instance, calling a businessperson a “suit” or a pundit a “talking head” would be metonymy.
  23. Narrative: Similar to an epic, a narrative poem tells a story. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” exemplify this form. Learn more about narrative poems here.
  24. Ode: Much like an elegy, an ode is a tribute to its subject, although the subject need not be dead—or even sentient, as in John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Learn more about odes here.
  25. Onomatopoeia: Onomatopoeia describes a word that emulates the sound it is describing. Examples include “woof” and “ping pong.”
  26. Oxymoron: A phrase containing words that appear to be logically incompatible, such as “jumbo shrimp” or “deafening silence” is an oxymoron.
  27. Pastoral: A pastoral poem is one that concerns the natural world, rural life, and landscapes. These poems have persevered from Ancient Greece (in the poetry of Hesiod) to Ancient Rome (Virgil) to the present day (Gary Snyder). Learn more about pastoral poetry here.
  28. Petrarchan sonnet: The Petrarchan sonnet is named after the Italian poet Francesco Petrarch, a lyrical poet of fourteenth-century Italy. Its 14 lines are divided into two subgroups: an octave and a sestet. The octave follows a rhyme scheme of ABBA ABBA. The sestet follows one of two rhyme schemes—either CDE CDE scheme (more common) or CDC CDC. Learn more about Petrarchan sonnets here.
  29. Quatrain: Quatrain-based poetry contains four-line groupings where alternate lines typically rhyme, as exemplified in the poetry of Emily Dickinson. A four-line stanza need not always rhyme in quatrain-based poetry. Learn more about quatrains here.
  30. Rhymed poem: In contrast to blank verse, rhymed poems rhyme by definition, although their scheme varies. Some of the common rhyme schemes include ABAB and ABCB. Learn more about rhymed poetry here.
  31. Scansion: The rhythm of a line within a work of poetry is known as its scansion.
  32. Shakespearean sonnet: The Shakespearean sonnet is a variation on the Italian sonnet tradition. The form evolved in England during the Elizabethan era. These sonnets are sometimes referred to as Elizabethan sonnets or English sonnets. They have 14 lines divided into four subgroups: three quatrains and a couplet. Each line is typically 10 syllables, phrased in iambic pentameter. A Shakespearean sonnet employs the rhyme scheme ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. Learn more about Shakespearean sonnets here.
  33. Simile: A simile is a figure of speech that compares one thing to another and uses the word “like” or “as” in order to do so.
  34. Soliloquy: A soliloquy is a monologue in which a character speaks to him or herself, expressing inner thoughts that an audience might not otherwise know. Soliloquies are not definitionally poems, although they often can be—most famously in the plays of William Shakespeare. Learn more about soliloquies here.
  35. Sonnet: A sonnet is a 14-line poem, typically (but not exclusively) concerning the topic of love. Sonnets contain an internal rhyme scheme; the exact rhyme scheme depends on the style of sonnet. The word “sonnet” itself stems from the Italian word “sonetto,” which itself derives from the Latin “suono,” meaning “a sound.” The commonly credited originator of the sonnet is Giacomo da Lentini, who composed poetry in the literary Sicilian dialect in the thirteenth century. Learn about the various types of sonnets with our complete guide here.
  36. Spondee: A spondee is a foot of poetry consisting of two back-to-back stressed syllables. It is used in meter such as spondaic heptameter (seven spondees per line of poetry).
  37. Synecdoche: Synecdoche is a poetic and literary device in which a part is used to represent a whole, or a whole is used to represent a part. For instance, the governing body of the European Union is sometimes referred to as “Brussels,” when in fact the EU is a governing body that convenes in the city of Brussels.
  38. Tercet: Tercet-based poetry contains three-line groupings. Sometimes all three lines rhyme with one another. Not to be confused with trimeter, which refers to three poetic feet per line. Learn more about tercets here.
  39. Trochee: A trochee is a foot of poetry consisting of one stressed syllable followed by one unstressed syllable. As stressing the first syllable is common among English words, trochaic poetry is popular in forms like trochaic tetrameter (four trochees per line) or even trochaic dimeter (two trochees per line).
  40. Villanelle: A villanelle is a 19-line poem consisting of five tercets and a quatrain, with a highly specified internal rhyme scheme. Originally a variation on a pastoral, the villanelle has evolved to describe obsessions and other intense subject matters, as exemplified by Dylan Thomas, author of villanelles like “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.”

Want to Learn More About Poetry?

Whether you’re just starting to put pen to paper or dream of being published, writing poetry demands time, effort, and meticulous attention to detail. No one knows this better than former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins. In Billy Collins’s MasterClass on the art of poetry writing, the beloved contemporary poet shares his approach to exploring different subjects, incorporating humor, and finding a voice.

Want to become a better writer? The MasterClass Annual Membership provides exclusive video lessons on plot, character development, creating suspense, and more, all taught by literary masters, including Billy Collins, Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, Dan Brown, Judy Blume, David Baldacci, and more.

Billy Collins Teaches Reading and Writing Poetry
Billy Collins Teaches Reading and Writing Poetry
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