Understanding the meaning of poetry

Prose is when all the lines except the last go on to the end.
Poetry is when some of them fall short of it.

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832)


Form: Ballad, Concrete, Elegy, Epic, Free Verse, Haiku, Lyric, Ode, Sonnet, Villanelle, Slam
Stanza pattern: Couplets, Triplets, Quatrains, etc.
Rhyme Schemes: ABAB;  ABA, ABA;  AA;  etc.
Rhythm: The "flow" of the poem. Does the poem have a regular "beat?"
Iambic: unstressed;  stressed
Trochaic: stressed;  unstressed
Anapestic: stressed;  unstressed; unstressed
pattern of stresses
Line length:
monometer dimeter trimeter
tetrameter quatrameter pentameter
Enjambment: When the idea or grammar does not stop naturally at the end of the line but flows into the next line without a pause.
Catalectic: To stop short.
Caesura: A special kind of pause, usually in the middle of a line.
  • I don't care too   much for money,
    Money can't buy me love.


Figures of speech

Connotation: An idea associated with a word or phrase.
Denotation: The explicit meaning of a word
Hyperbole: Exaggeration used for effect.  "tons of money", "a million thanks,"
Imagery: What do you see in the poem?
  • Whirl up sea --
    whirl your pointed pines

(the image of a forest of pine trees swaying back and forth
like the cresting waves of a stormy sea.)

Irony: One thing is said, but the opposite meaning is intended.
Metaphor: A comparison without "like" or "as":
  • Where were the greenhouses going,
    Lunging into the lashing
    Wind driving water
    So far down the river
    All the faucets stopped?
Metonymy: A person or thing is not named directly, but by some associated thing.
  • The prisoner addressed the bench.
Motifs: Ideas, or elements that recur throughout the poem.
Oxymoron: Words with opposite meanings.
tight slacks Old New York bitter-sweet
sweet sorrow good grief sanitary landfill
Paradox: A statement, which at first, seems contradictory or absurd.
Personification: Human qualities are attributed to an animal, object, or idea:
  • I am silver and exact.
    I have no preconceptions.
    Whatever I see I swallow immediately
    Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.
    I am not cruel, only truthful--
Pun: Words with a double meaning.

A bear walks into a bar and says:
"How about a gin and.............................. tonic?

The bartender asks:  "What's with the big pause?"
The bear replies:  "Just born with them, I guess."

Repetition: A word or phrase is used more than once for emphasis.
  • See the flags; snow-white tent,
    See the bear and elephant,
    See the monkey jump the rope,
    Listen to the Kallyope, Kallyope, Kallyope!
Simile: A comparison using "like" or "as".
  • her lower lip
    was like an orange
    mint. and
    i was a crying
    little boy
    in the candy store.
Synechdoche: A part represents the whole:   A fleet of a hundred sail.
Symbolism: Something that stands for something else. (Myths & Legends)

Sound devices

Alliteration: Two or more words in close succession beginning with the same letter or sound.
I caught this morning morning's minion, kingdom
of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn
Falcon, in his riding
Assonance: Repetition of vowel sounds:
  • Presume not on thy heart when mine is slain;
    Thou gavest me thine, not to give back again.
Consonance: Repetition of consonant sounds:
  • You crash over the trees,
    You crack the live branch:
    the branch is white,
    the green crushed,
    each leaf is rent like split wood.

    "bra" and "cr" mimic the sound of branches cracking.
    "sh" and "ch" imitate the sound of wind and rain.

Onomatopoeia: The word imitates the sound associated with an object or action.
  • crack, splash, squeak, creak,
    ding dong of the bells,
    pitter patter of raindrops, buzzer,
    the gong, murmuring, etc.

Interpreting meaning

PLAIN SENSE using just the words and punctuation.
FEELING awe, tenderness, anger, amusement, etc.
TONE Attitude towards the reader:  confidential, appealing, etc.
INTENTION What is the poet trying to say?
SUBJECT love, death, family, nature, the city, the country, age, youth, war, civilization, pestilence
THEME better to have loved and lost... respect your elders... absence makes the heart grow fonder... the rolling stone gathers no moss... etc...
MORAL Is some kind of a lesson being taught?

A Few Samples

The Unusual Song