Dictionary of Poetic Terms

Have you ever wondered what a teacher was talking about when they mentioned an “apostrophe” or a “paradox”? These words and other common poetry terminology might seem a bit confusing at first. Luckily, you’ve come to the right place. Let’s take a look at a list of the most commonly used poetic terms along and their definition. But first…

What is Poetry?

When checking a dictionary for the definition of “poetry”, I came across a confusing loop. It says poetry is defined as “A verse.” Okay, but what is verse? It is “poetic form in general.” What a confusing loop! And what is poetic form? “A form of writing which has been relaxed over time.” Got it? Because I don’t.

Here is what poetry really is: a form of art which has been developed for thousands of years and is continuing to change as time goes on. Over the years, we have seen strict poetry with a direct set of rules about meter, rhyme, and length. And we have seen poetry so relaxed that nonsense words made up poems. Nowadays, poetry isn’t as relaxed as it once was, but we definitely have more freedom than we once did. For more information about present day poetry, check out this article on contemporary poetry.

Common Poetic Terms

Alliteration – The repetition of identical consonant sounds, usually at the beginning of words with the words near to each other. Example: Suffering succotash.

Allusion – A reference to an unmentioned quote, person, or event that the author assumes the reader will recognize.

Anaphora – The repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of lines or sections throughout a poem.

Apostrophe – Where the speaker addresses a person not present (either dead, legend, or myth) or an animal, inanimate object, or concept as though it is a person.

Assonance – The repetition of vowel sounds in different words which are close in proximity.

Caesura – A short but definite pause within a line of poetry.

Chiasmus – The reversal of two elements within a poem. Example: Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.

Consonance – The repetition of partial or identical consonants across two or more words with only their vowels differing. Example: Shadow/Meadow, Pressed/Passed, Chair/Cheer

Diction – The level of formality used – usually categorized as formal, neutral, or informal.

End-stopped line – A line ending in a full pause, usually with a period or semicolon

Enjambment – A line running over to the next line without end punctuation.

Explication – A complete detailed analysis of a work of literature, usually going word-by-word and line-by-line.

Foot (Prosody) – A measurement for stressed and unstressed syllables. For example, the line: The dog is happy here. Contains three feet with the first syllable being unstressed and the second being stressed and is repeated three times in the line. This line is an iambic-trimeter. For more information, view this article detailing feet and meter.

Hyperbole – An exaggeration.

Litote – An understatement.

Imagery – References used to trigger the mind to create a vivid effect with sight (visuals), sounds (auditors), tastes (gustatory), smells (olfactories), an touch (tactile).

Metaphor – A comparison between two unlike things not using the words like or as. This is usually used as if describing one thing as if it were something else.

Metaphysical conceit – An extended metaphor or simile which uses an elaborate and often unusual and surprising conjunction of ideas. This term is usually used to describe metaphysical poets like John Donne from the seventeenth-century.

Meter – The number of feet within a line. See the definition for “foot” above.

Onomatopoeia – Words created to describe sounds, such as moo, buzz, slurp, bang.

Paradox – A statement containing two elements which are true but are self-contradictory, but cannot be true at the same time. For example, I would go back in time to kill myself. This is a paradox because if I went back in time to kill myself I would not be alive to go back in time to kill myself.

Personification – The giving of human characteristics to nonhuman things.

Refrain – A repeated word or phrase used throughout a poem, especially when used as a response or counterpoint to the main verse(s).

Rhyme – The repetition of identical syllables in different words. Check out our rhymer to find words that rhyme with each other.

Eye rhyme – Words that are spelled the same at the end but pronounced differently. For example, fear/bear

Internal rhyme – An exact rhyme of vowels and consonants within a line or lines of poetry (not the end of the line(s)). For example, cat/hat or shelter/smelter

Slant rhyme – A near rhyme which has the same concluding consonant sounds but different vowel sounds. For example, Sun/noon

Scansion – The marking of beats within a poem.

Simile – The use of like or as to compare two different things. For example, Sting like a bee.

Stanza – A group of lines in poetry similar to paragraphs in prose.

Synaesthesia – The use of senses in totally different or opposite feelings. For example: “deafness heard” or “ghostly touch”.

Syntax – The word order and sentence structure.

Volta – This term is used to describe the turning point of a Petrarchan sonnet which normally occurs after the octave.