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        What Is a Poem? Poetry Definition, Elements, & Examples

        • calenderMar 13, 2024
        • calender 8 min read

        We’ve all read one, but what is a poem, exactly? Is there a poetry definition that can pinpoint where poetry and prose separate from each other? What is a stanza in a poem? We’ve answered all the questions for you, complete with a rundown of all the parts of a poem.

        We’ll begin with a poem definition, understand the poetry elements, and survey some well-known types of poems. So are you ready to find out what makes a poem a poem? Let’s begin!

        Elevate your poetry with expert feedback!

        What is a poem?

        A poem is a form of literary expression that uses rhythmic and figurative language to convey vast meaning and emotion. Unlike prose, which uses language in a conventional and straightforward manner, poetry defies language norms to please, and sometimes shock, the reader. Prose has to only be understood while poetry invites interpretation.

        A poet uses literary devices like rhyme, meter, symbolism, and imagery to pack complex ideas and themes in sparse words. These words often take the form of verse which is often arranged in stanzas. If this poem definition isn’t enough, let’s dig some more.

        Poem vs. poetry: What’s the difference?

        Often used interchangeably, the terms “poem” and “poetry” have distinct, although related, meanings. What is poetry and how is it different from a poem? Let’s take a look:

        Poem: A single literary work that embodies various aspects of poetry such as rhyme and meter.

        Still I Rise by Maya Angelou is a powerful poem about endurance in the face of oppression.”

        Poetry: The art of writing poems as well as the collective body of poetic work.

        “African American poetry is an important part of the American literary tradition.”

        So, poetry refers to both, the genre of poetic literature and the artform that makes it possible. Here’s one last example to clear things up:

        “Including Maya Angelou’s poem Still I Rise is essential while studying African American poetry.”

        Now that we have a satisfactory poetry definition, it’s time to understand the characteristics of a poem.

        What is a stanza in a poem?

        A stanza is a basic structural unit in a poem, similar to a paragraph in prose. It is composed of some lines that are connected in terms of rhyme, meter, and theme. Stanzas in a poem are separated from each other by a space or a line break. This visual separation guides the reader through the developing mood, tone, and thought in a poem.

        Here are some common names for a stanza based on the number of lines in it:

        • Couplet: A stanza consisting of two lines
        • Tercet: A stanza consisting of three lines
        • Quatrain: A stanza consisting of four lines (the most common stanza form in English poetry)
        • Quintain: A stanza consisting of five lines (also called a quintet)
        • Sestet: A stanza consisting of six lines
        • Septet: A stanza consisting of seven lines
        • Octave: A stanza consisting of eight lines

        Traditional poetry in cultures throughout the world has had a rigid stanza structure. The English Elizabethan sonnet, for example, always has 14 lines divided into 4 stanzas while the French rondeau comprises 13 lines in 3 stanzas. The Spanish seguidilla and the Arabic ghazal also have fixed stanza structures.

        Over the course of history, however, poets began to favor free verse over structured stanzas in a poem. For English poetry, this move was gradual at first but was given an explosive impetus by World War I.

        The image explains the history of poetry through the ages.

        As the world becomes more connected, poetic forms from various cultures have started intermixing. The haiku and ghazal have become major poetry types in English while free verse has been embraced worldwide.

        We’ve been discussing rhyme, meter, form, and metaphor, but what exactly do these terms mean? What are the elements of poetry? It’s time for some definitions and a whole lot of poetry examples!

        Poetic elements

        Poetic elements are the parts of a poem responsible for its aesthetic appeal. Poets don’t always use them deliberately or actively: No one’s listing off poetry elements to include in their work. But knowing them can help you better understand the art of composing a poem and its enduring power.

        What is a rhyme scheme in a poem?

        A rhyme scheme in a poem is the pattern of rhyming words at the end of each line. It is a way of organizing and structuring the rhyme relationships between the lines in a poem. Aside from the aesthetic pleasure they offer, rhyme schemes can also be used to add an additional layer of meaning.

        Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 is a good poetry example for understanding rhyme scheme:

        Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? (A)

        Thou art more lovely and more temperate: (B)

        Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May (A)

        And summer’s lease hath all too short a date: (B)

        Since “day” and “May” are rhyming words, the lines are said to rhyme with each other. If we denote them both the letter A and the other rhyming pair of lines the letter B, we get a rhyme scheme of ABAB. Similarly, different poems have varying rhyme schemes, depending on their tone, mood, and theme.

        What is a blank verse?

        A blank verse is an unrhymed verse typically written in iambic pentameter. It lacks a specific rhyme scheme but relies on the rhythmic structure of the lines.

        What is a meter in a poem?

        The meter in a poem refers to its rhythmic structure, determined by the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in each line. In the lines of a poem, a fixed combination of stressed and unstressed syllables called a poetic foot, is repeated over and over again:

        “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”

        While reading this line, try to focus on the sounds you unwittingly stress. It’ll give you this structure, with an unstressed syllable (unbolded) followed by a stressed syllable (bolded):

        “Shall I / compare / thee to / a sum / mer’s day?”

        In this line, there are 5 poetic feet, each with an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. Such an arrangement of poetic feet, responsible for the rhythm and musicality in a poem, is precisely what meter is! The above type of meter is called iambic pentameter, which is the most common type in English poetry.

        What is the structure of a poem?

        The structure of a poem, or poetic form, refers to the organization of syllables, lines, and stanzas in it. The art of poetry is most distinct from other types of writing, a large part of which is due to its structure. From deliberately organized syllables (meter) to carefully composed stanzas (rhyme scheme), poetic form helps make a poem meaningful.

        The form is immensely important to sonnets, haikus, villanelles, and ghazals. In these cases, it offers the poet a framework to channel their creativity. Readers can also analyze a poet’s use of the poetic form to better appreciate the poem itself.

        What are alliteration, assonance, consonance, and repetition in a poem?

        Since poetry is rooted in oral traditions, sounds are immensely important to it. One of the simplest ways to achieve a poetic effect is to manipulate sound. Alliteration, assonance, consonance, and repetition are tools that help a poet manipulate sound.

        1. Alliteration: Repetition of initial consonant sounds in a sequence of closely placed words in a line.

        “Five miles meandering with a mazy motion” —Kubla Khan by S. T. Coleridge

        “In a sort of Runic rhyme” —The Bells by Edgar Allan Poe

        “The woods are lovely, dark, and deep” —Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost

        2. Assonance: Repetition of vowel sounds in closely placed words. 

        “Where thoughts serenely sweet express” —She Walks in Beauty by Lord Byron

        “With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,” —The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot

        “Monuments of unageing intellect.” —Sailing to Byzantium by W.B. Yeats

        3. Consonance: Repetition of consonant sounds, especially at the end of words, in closely placed words.

        “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood” —The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost

        “And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain” —The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe

        “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;” —The Second Coming by W. B. Yeats

        Note: Alliteration is a type of consonance in which the repeating consonants are placed at the beginning of words.

        4. Repetition: Repeated use of words, phrases, sounds, or structures within a poem. It can occur at various levels within a stanza or throughout the poem.

        “Break, break, break,

        On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!” —Break, Break, Break by Alfred, Lord Tennyson


        “Water, water, everywhere,

        And all the boards did shrink;

        Water, water, everywhere,

        Nor any drop to drink.” —The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by S. T. Coleridge


        “Leaving behind nights of terror and fear

        I rise

        Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear

        I rise

        Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,

        I am the dream and the hope of the slave.

        I rise

        I rise

        I rise.” —Still I Rise by Maya Angelou

        As you may have observed, alliteration, assonance, and consonance lend a rhythm to a poem and set its tone. Repetition, on the other hand, helps reinforce the central emotion or a recurring theme.

        What are metaphors and similes in poetry?

        About 95% of all poetry consists of comparison: Poets compare their beloved to the moon, the moon to a lover, a lover to a rose, and so on. Metaphor and simile are the two figures of speech that allow poets to make these comparisons.

        Metaphor: Direct comparison between two, unlike things by asserting that one thing is another. A metaphor suggests a similarity between two entities without using words such as “like” or “as”.

        “All the world’s a stage,

        And all the men and women merely players;” —Seven Ages of Man by William Shakespeare


        Love is an endless mystery,

        for it has nothing else to explain it.” —Love by Rabindranath Tagore


        “beautiful Signor

        my long ship,

        my opulence,

        my garland

        beautiful Signor” —Beautiful Signor by Cyrus Cassells


        Simile: Indirect comparison between two unlike things by using the words “like” or “as”. 

        “O my Luve is like a red, red rose

        That’s newly sprung in June;

        O my Luve is like the melody

        That’s sweetly played in tune.” —A Red, Red Rose by Robert Burns


        “Some words are open

        Like a diamond on glass windows

        Singing out within the crash of passing sun

        Then there are words like stapled wagers” —Coal by Audre Lorde


        “The body’s grave,

        so serious

        in its dying,

        arduous as martyrs

        in that task and as

        Glorious.” —The Cleaving by Li-Young Lee

        Comparison in poetry can be simple or complex—physical or philosophical—and in the best of poems, it is both. As you can see from the poetry examples above, though, metaphor and simile make a poem vivid, imaginative, and impactful.

        What is imagery in poems?

        Imagery in poems refers to the use of vivid and descriptive language that creates a mental picture or sensory experience for the reader. Poets use sensory details related to sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell to evoke an emotion or create an environment.

        Here’s an example of imagery in a poem:

        “The apparition of these faces in the crowd:

        Petals on a wet, black bough.” —In a Station of the Metro by Ezra Pound

        What is symbolism in poetry?

        Symbolism in poetry is a literary device where a symbol—a word, phrase, image, or object—is used to represent an abstract idea, concept, or theme. Poets use symbols to evoke images, reflect on a theme, or explore an idea with nuance.

        Symbols can be conventional or invented, and you often need some context to understand them. Here’s an example to illustrate symbolism in poetry:

        “What happens to a dream deferred?

        Does it dry up

        like a raisin in the sun?

        Or fester like a sore

        And then run?

        Does it stink like rotten meat?

        Or crust and sugar over

        like a syrupy sweet?


        Maybe it just sags

        like a heavy load.

        Or does it explode?” —Harlem by Langston Hughes

        In the poetry example above, the images of a raisin, a wound, and rotting meat symbolize burnout, degradation, and resignation. Notice how the poem combines imagery and symbolism to create a lasting effect on the reader.

        What is the tone/mood in a poem?

        The tone in a poem is the speaker’s apparent mood, attitude, or emotional stance. You can gauge this by observing the rhythm, imagery, and word choice in a poem. The tone is crucial for a poet in shaping the reader’s interpretation and emotional response to the poem.

        For example, the poet’s tone in Harlem (see above) starts out conversational but is undercut by word choice and imagery. So, the tone and mood in the poem reveal an oppressed person’s internal struggles.

        What is a theme of a poem?

        The theme of a poem is its central idea or underlying message. This isn’t necessarily the poet’s intended “message”, but more so what the poem is composed around and what it is about. All the same, the theme of a poem often reflects the poet’s perspective on a subject.

        Themes in poetry can range from human nature and emotions to society, relationships, and much more. They can be tragic, comic, grand, mundane, and everything in between. All the other elements of a poem help the poet articulate the theme to the best of their ability.

        That sums up everything you need to know under “What is a poem?” We hope we’ve answered the question sufficiently! If you’ve written a poetry manuscript, PaperTrue’s poetry editing services are at your disposal.

        If you’d like to keep reading, here are some more of our resources:

        Frequently Asked Questions

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        Prasanna Linkedin

        Prasanna is on a little break from academia and spends his time compiling fiction writing tips. He enjoys poetry, mythology, and drawing lotuses on any surface he can find.

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