20 Essential Poetry Terms to Know

Updated June 16, 2021
20 Essential Poetry Terms to Know

    If you've ever taken an interest in poetry, you might've been intimidated by all the technical terms. In truth, some are more important than others. The key is not to take a big bite out of a poetic dictionary but rather start with a small foundation. The rest will come naturally as you continue to embrace this form of art. To get you started, here are 20 essential poetry terms to know, from alliteration to trochee.

    1. Alliteration

    Alliteration is a fun sound device to play around with. When used well, you can create a standout phrase in poetry. It is a simple yet effective repetition of initial consonant sounds. An example might be "the cerulean sky" or "the flighty fox."

    2. Allusion

    An allusion is a reference to a person, place, thing, or event. Typically, writers allude to something they suppose the audience will already know about. The concept may be real or imaginary, referring to anything from fiction, to folklore, to historical events.

    For example, Seamus Heaney wrote an autobiographical poem titled "Singing School." The title itself alludes to a line from fellow Irish poet William Butler Yeats. In "Sailing to Byzantium," Yeats writes:

    Not is there singing school but studying
    Monuments of its own magnificence


    3. Anaphora

    An anaphora is the repetition of the same word or phrase at the beginning of each line. This is done for emphasis and typically adds rhythm to a passage. In Joanna Klink's poem "Some Feel Rain" the phrase "some feel" is repeated throughout, creating a nice rhythm.

    Some feel rain. Some feel the beetle startle
    in its ghost-part when the bark
    Slips. Some feel musk. Asleep against
    each other in the whiskey dark, scarcely there.

    4. Anapest

    Anapest is a metrical foot containing two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable. It is the reverse of dactyl meter. Lord Byron provided us with a great example of anapestic tetrameter in his poem "The Destruction of Sennacherib." Here's a sample:

    Like the leaves of the forest when Summer is green,

    That host with their banners at sunset were seen:

    Like the leaves of the forest when Autumn hath blown,

    That host on the morrow lay withered and strown.


    5. Assonance

    Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds within a tight group of words. This, too, is done for emphasis and can reinforce a central message. Here's a short example from Carl Sandburg's "Early Moon." Notice the repetition of the vowels O and A.

    "Poetry is old, ancient and goes back far."

    6. Blank Verse

    In blank verse poetry, we usually see iambic pentameter that doesn't rhyme. We'll still enjoy a line with 10 syllables where the first syllable is unstressed and the second is stressed. There just won't be an aim to rhyme the lines.

    Wallace Stevens' "Sunday Morning" is an excellent example of a poem written in perfect blank verse.

    7. Caesura

    This is a deliberate pause, break, or pivot within a line. We typically see these marked by punctuation, including periods, exclamation marks, question marks, and especially dashes and double slashes (//). Caesuras often appear in the middle of a poetic line but can appear near the beginning or end too. Here's an example from Emily Dickinson's "I'm Nobody":

    I'm nobody! Who are you?

    Are you - Nobody - too?

    Then there's a pair of us!

    Don't tell! They'd advertise - you know!


    8. Couplet

    A couplet, as the name suggests, consists of two lines. Typically, those two lines will have the same meter or rhyme. In the case of the latter, you'd refer to it as a rhyming couplet, which is very common in poetry. Together, the two lines usually make up a complete thought. In William Shakespeare's Hamlet, the title character says:

    "The time is out of joint, O cursed spite

    That ever I was born to set it right!"

    9. Dactyl

    Dactyl is a metrical foot containing a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables. A well'known example of dactylic meter is Alfred Lord Tennyson's "The Charge of the Light Brigade:"

    Half a league, half a league,

    Half a league onward,

    All in the valley of Death

    Rode the six hundred.

    "Forward, the Light Brigade!

    Charge for the guns!" he said.

    Into the valley of Death

    Rode the six hundred.


    10. Enjambment

    Enjambment is the continuation of a sentence or phrase from one line of poetry to the next. You can spot this when you notice a lack of punctuation at the end of a line. In other forms of writing, a run-on sentence is considered a no-no. However, in poetry, if one line runs into the next, it's simply an enjambment. Here's an example from Derek Walcott's "The Bounty":

    Between the vision of the Tourist Board and the true

    Paradise lies the desert where Isaiah's elations

    force a rose from the sand. The thirty-third canto

    cores the dawn clouds with concentric radiance,

    the breadfruit opens its palms in praise of the bounty,

    bois-pain, tree of bread, slave food, the bliss of John Clare,

    11. Epigraph

    In literature, this is a short verse or quote that appears at the start of a poem, book or chapter, after the title. Typically, it touches upon a theme the poem will elaborate upon, as in Joel Brouwer's "Last Request." An epigraph can also be used as an opportunity to provide a summary or background information.


    12. Foot

    A foot is a basic unit of measurement in poetry. It usually consists of two or three syllables. The most common feet in poetry contain either a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable (trochee) or an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable (iamb).

    13. Iamb

    This is one of the most common metrical feet in poetry. It consists of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. Words like "attain" and "describe" are iambic. We don't stress the first syllable and the second one is more pronounced.

    14. Iambic Pentameter

    Iambic pentameter describes a pattern wherein the lines in a poem consist of five iambs, making up a total of 10 syllables. This means the line reads as an unstressed syllable, then a stressed syllable, then an unstressed syllable, and then a stressed syllable for ten beats.

    William Shakespeare's "Sonnet 18" contains iambic pentameter. In this example, notice there are 10 syllables. The first is unstressed, the second is stressed, and so forth.

    "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?"


    15. Meter

    Meter is the rhythmic measure of a line. It defines the pattern of the beats. Meter is often interchanged with foot and feet. In poetry, you can use the following terms to describe the number of feet in a line.

    • Monometer - A line with one foot
    • Dimeter - A line with two feet
    • Trimeter - A line with three feet
    • Tetrameter - A line with four feet
    • Pentameter - A line with five feet
    • Hexameter - A line with six feet
    • Heptameter - A line with seven feet

    16. Rhyme Scheme

    Rhyme scheme refers to the pattern of rhymes at the end of each line. It's annotated with letters. For example, a four-line stanza with an ABAB rhyme scheme means the first and third lines rhyme and the second and fourth lines rhyme.

    Many of Shakespeare's sonnets follow this rhyme scheme. Letters that are joined together like this form a stanza. Here's an example of a Shakespearean sonnet (Sonnet 130) that follows an ABAB CDCD EFEF GG rhyme scheme:

    My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun; (A)

    Coral is far more red than her lips' red; (B)

    If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun; (A)

    If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head. (B)

    I have seen roses damasked, red and white, (C)

    But no such roses see I in her cheeks; (D)

    And in some perfumes is there more delight (C)

    Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks. (D)

    I love to hear her speak, yet well I know (E)

    That music hath a far more pleasing sound; (F)

    I grant I never saw a goddess go; (E)

    My mistress when she walks treads on the ground. (F)

    And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare (G)

    As any she belied with false compare. (G)


    17. Rhythm

    Rhythm is the beat or movement of a line. This includes the rise and fall of, say, an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable.

    18. Sonnet

    A sonnet is a poem containing fourteen lines of iambic pentameter that rhyme. The best-known forms of sonnets include:

    • English (Shakespearean) Sonnet - Three quatrains and a couplet, usually following a rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG.
    • Italian (Petrarchan) Sonnet - An octave followed by a sestet, with rhyming iambic pentameter and a volta (turning point) around the eighth line, usually following a rhyme scheme of ABBAABBA CDECDE.

    19. Stanza

    Similar to how sentences make up a paragraph, a group of lines make up a stanza. A stanza is usually named based on the number of lines it contains.

    • Tercet - Three lines
    • Quatrain - Four lines
    • Quintain - Five lines
    • Sestet - Six lines
    • Septet - Seven lines
    • Octave - Eight lines

    20. Trochee

    Trochee is a metrical foot containing a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable. William Blake's "The Tyger" opens with a trochaic line:

    Tyger Tyger, burning bright,

    In the forests of the night;

    What immortal hand or eye,

    Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

    Develop a Love of Poetry

    For some, a love of poetry can develop more slowly than for others. Whether your love dribbles in like rain or flashes down like lightning, it's important to know the "lingo" so you can fully understand and discuss poetry. What do you say? Will you give it a try? Why not put a Shakespearean twist on a modern-day sonnet? Here are some tips on writing poems. You might also want to explore poetry awards and honors, like the distinction of poet laureate.