Poetry is not just a skill of words. It has several elements that make a poetic piece worth reading. Although a poet simply writes to give vent his feelings or expresses his thoughts on some person, idea or thing, it depends on the readers how they interpret things. Even interpretation depends on the understanding of these elements. They enhance, increase, or intensify the feelings using which readers interpret poetry differently. Even theoretical perspectives have failed to identify a single method of interpreting poetry. Some of the significant elements of poetry are given below.
In poetic diction or poetry, voice comprises the author’s perspective expressed in poetry, tone, wording, syntax and attitude. The poetry could be in first person, second person or third person perspective expressed by the mouthpiece or by the poet himself or somebody else. It could be in a monologic or dialogic form. The main thing, however, is the uniqueness and distinction of the poet such as it is obvious in “Home Burial” by Robert Frost. The voice of Robert Frost is clear from these lines that he has written in third person with beautiful and yet simple syntax and a questioning attitude.
He saw her from the bottom of the stairs
Before she saw him. She was starting down,
Looking back over her shoulder at some fear.
She took a doubtful step and then undid it
To raise herself and look again. He spoke
Advancing toward her: “What is it you see
From up there always—for I want to know.”
This is the most important element of poetry. It is also called poetic diction. It demonstrates the linguistic choices poet has made to convey his point or perspective through his poetry. It could be academic, formal, informal, colloquial or some other particular type of diction. It could be archaic, simple, complex or even poetic diction. In fact, a poet has a wide choice from metrical rhythm to word form and from shape to type. Even the use of syntax, slang or other strategies depends on the choice of the poet as shown by Robert Browning in his poem “My Last Duchess.” It shows forceful diction that is informal as well as formal.
That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now; Fra Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will’t please you sit and look at her? I said
“Fra Pandolf” by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
It means the use of images. A poet has a free hand in using all sensory images ranging from sight to smell and taste to touch, including hearing. However, he requires a wide range of literary devices to give shape to his figurative language. Even in this arena, he has a free hand and a wide choice. He could use similes or metaphors or other sound devices to make his language appear to have feelings, emotions, passions, and persuasion. For example, this blank verse of Shakespeare from his play, Hamlet, has several images at work. It shows how he considers thinking, mind, fortune, troubles, sleep and death in terms of images. Below is the example from Hamlet by William Shakespeare,
To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die—to sleep,
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to: ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep.
Figures of Speech
A figure of speech means a part of speech or a sentence that creates a shape in the mind of the readers. In fact, the author/poet wants to create that image or figure or shape in the minds of the readers to make them understand what he/she wants to convey. The reason is it is hard to convey a linguistic equivalent of an abstract idea. Therefore, figures of speech come in handy and give them somewhat material shape to make it easy for the readers’ minds to have a clear picture. These figures range from metaphors to similes and from personifications to assonances and consonances etc. Some of them have been given in this poetic piece by William Wordsworth. It shows how Wordsworth has used metaphors, similes, and images to show the movement of a cloud.
I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
Despite having freedom of expression, sometimes it is very difficult to call a spade a spade. In other circumstances, expression and linguistic forms seem too limited to be used extensively for human feelings, emotions, thinking, and perspectives. Therefore, several things are used as symbols that stand for something else to make it easy to convey the real message through words. Interestingly, it also depends on the readers of the poetry how they take things at the face value and how they understand different things as symbols of something else. This beautiful poem “Caged Bird” by Maya Angelou, an African American poet, shows the use of symbolism as a bird stands for a woman, specifically an African American woman, and wind stands for suffering.
The free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wings
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.
Although an allegory is a type of story having a serious message, it is often in a narrative form. Sometimes, however, it could occur in poetic or verse form having clear characters which could be animals instead of human beings. The purpose of using allegorical forms in poetry is to have full freedom to say what the poet wants to convey to his readers but could not state openly. The allegorical poetic narratives usually have some moral lessons for the readers such as given in this poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by S. T. Coleridge shows. It presents the story of a sailor that stands for the story of a man or mankind as well.
It is an ancient Mariner,
And he stoppeth one of three.
‘By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp’st thou me?
The Bridegroom’s doors are opened wide,
And I am next of kin;
The guests are met, the feast is set:
May’st hear the merry din.’
Syntax is another element that is integral in poetry. It refers to the order of the words used in poetry. It means how different grammatical structures are used in an arrangement and how they impact the overall semantic message. Poets usually break the normal order of syntax to create different phrases and sentence structures to stress upon the main message of their poetry. These could be simple, compound, complex or compound-complex forms of syntax. This example shows how the poets play with syntax to suit their poetic purposes, as given in these lines of Lycidas by John Milton.
Yet once more, O ye laurels, and once more
Ye myrtles brown, with ivy never sere,
I come to pluck your berries harsh and crude,
And with forc’d fingers rude
Shatter your leaves before the mellowing year.
Bitter constraint and sad occasion dear
Compels me to disturb your season due;
For Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime,
Young Lycidas, and hath not left his peer.
Sounds is another integral part of poetry. In fact, poetry has been in oral form since time immemorial. Therefore, creating melody was the elementary purpose of the poetic forms following themes and main ideas. Different literary devices, such as consonances, assonances, alliterations, repetition, rhythm, and rhyme schemes, make up the total sound of a poem. This stanza of “Ode to Autumn” by John Keats shows the use of sound devices such as the consonant sounds of /m/, /s/ and /l/.
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.
Ancient and not-so-ancient poets used to take great care of rhythm in poetry. It means the use of metrical rhythm that syncs with the beat and makes the flow of the poem smooth. This beat and repetition of beats in verses make create music. There are four types of metrical rhythms that are spondee, dactyl, iamb, and troche. They could be classified and further categorized but after the arrival of the free verse, they have lost significance. Yet, their importance in creating melody has not lessened. This stanza from “Ode to West Wind” by P. B. Shelley shows it amply through its metrical pattern and rhyming scheme.
O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,
Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou,
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed
The winged seeds, where they lie cold and low,
Each like a corpse within its grave, until
Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow
Her clarion o’er the dreaming earth, and fill
(Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air)
With living hues and odors plain and hill:
Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;
Destroyer and preserver; hear, oh, hear!
A single unit of a beat in poetry is called a meter. It is a rhythmic unit that is also called a foot having a certain number of smaller units called syllables which could be stressed or unstressed. The arrangement of these units into different orders creates different categories of meters. These metrical patterns are the heart of the rhythm of a poem. Whereas meter is a pattern, rhythm is just a flow. Therefore, both are slightly different. There are five different types of meters such as trochee, iamb, spondee, dactyle, and anapest. The length, then, could be stated as a dimeter, trimeter, tetrameter, or pentameter upto to octameter. This sonnet “Sonnet 29” by William Shakespeare shows the use of material pattern.
When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Among elements of poetry, structure comes last because it has several other elements that make up the structure of a poem. For example, meter or metrical pattern is its elemental part apart from rhythm and regular beat created by it. Technically, it also includes syntax, verses, and lengths, stanzas and forms, consistency, and diction. Secondly, it could also mean forms such as a sonnet, lyric, panegyric, eulogy, sonnet type, and even narrative, blank or free verse structure. Annable Lee by Edgar Allen Poe shows its structure in several ways.
It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of Annabel Lee;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me.
I was a child and she was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea,
But we loved with a love that was more than love—
I and my Annabel Lee—