A Glossary Of Poetry

Many thanks to OU Poet, Nigel Pearce, for starting us off with the beginnings of a glossary of poetry. Contributions are welcome and we thank those of you who have already contributed to the original glossary. Please send your additions to webdesk@oupoets.org.uk

Allegory

Allegory often takes the form of a story in which the characters represent moral qualities. The most famous example in English is John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, in which the name of the central character, Pilgrim, epitomizes the book’s allegorical nature. Kay Boyle’s story Astronomer’s Wife and Christina Rossetti’s poem Up-Hill both contain allegorical elements.

Alliteration

The repetition of consonant sounds, especially at the beginning of words. Example: “Fetched fresh, as I suppose, off some sweet wood.” Hopkins, In the Valley of the Elwy.

Anapaest

Two unaccented syllables followed by an accented one, as in com-pre-HEND or in-ter-VENE. An anapestic metre rises to the accented beat as in Byron’s lines from The Destruction of Sennacherib: “And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea, / When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.”

Assonance

The repetition of similar vowel sounds in a sentence or a line of poetry or prose, as in “I rose and told him of my woe.” Whitman’s When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer contains assonantal “I’s” in the following lines: “How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick, / Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself.”

Aubade

A love lyric in which the speaker complains about the arrival of the dawn, when he must part from his lover. John Donne’s The Sun Rising exemplifies this poetic genre.

Awdl gywydd – (owdl gow widd)

A Celtic (Welsh) form that complicates the ending rhyme scheme by interlacing an internal rhyme throughout the poem on the second and fourth lines of each stanza. There are no limitations on the number of stanzas you can use, but each stanza must be a quatrain consisting of seven syllable lines. The end rhyme scheme is as follows: a,b,c,b… d,e,f,e, etc.. however the internal (cross-rhyme) can be placed in either the 3rd, 4th, or 5th, syllable position.

Ballad

A narrative poem written in four-line stanzas, characterized by swift action and narrated in a direct style. The anonymous medieval ballad, Barbara Allan, exemplifies the genre.

Beat Poetry

A form developed by Allen Ginsberg in Howl (1956) associated with ‘outsider’ experiences, here are the first few lines:

Howl
For Carl Solomon

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,
starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking
for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly
connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night…

Blank Verse

A line of poetry or prose in unrhymed iambic pentameter. Shakespeare’s sonnets, Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, and Robert Frost’s meditative poems such as Birches include many lines of blank verse. Here are the opening blank verse lines of Birches: When I see birches bend to left and right / Across the lines of straighter darker trees, / I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.

Caesura

A strong pause within a line of verse. The following stanza from Hardy’s The Man He Killed contains caesuras in the middle two lines:

He thought he’d ‘list, perhaps,
Off-hand-like–just as I–
Was out of work-had sold his traps–
No other reason why.

Clerihew

A clerihew is a whimsical, four-line biographical poem invented by Edmund Clerihew Bentley. The first line is the name of the poem’s subject, usually a famous person put in an absurd light. The rhyme scheme is AABB, and the rhymes are often forced. The line length and metre are irregular. Bentley invented the clerihew in school and then popularized it in books.

Closed Form

A type of form or structure in poetry characterized by regularity and consistency in such elements as rhyme, line length, and metrical pattern. Frost’s Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening provides one of many examples. A single stanza illustrates some of the features of closed form:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though.
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

Confessional Verse

A school of poetry pioneered by Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and Robert Lowell in which the poets write directly about intensely personal experiences often related to mental health issues.

Connotation

The associations called up by a word that goes beyond its dictionary meaning. Poets, especially, tend to use words rich in connotation. Dylan Thomas’s Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night includes intensely connotative language, as in these lines: “Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright / Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay, / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Convention

A customary feature of a literary work, such as the use of a chorus in Greek tragedy, the inclusion of an explicit moral in a fable, or the use of a particular rhyme scheme in a villanelle. Literary conventions are defining features of particular literary genres, such as ballad or sonnet.

Couplet

A pair of rhymed lines that may or may not constitute a separate stanza in a poem. Shakespeare’s sonnets end in rhymed couplets, as in “For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings / That then I scorn to change my state with kings.”

Cyhydedd Hir

The Cyhydedd Hir is an octave stanza (8 lines) made up of two quatrains (4 lines). The syllable count is 5-5-5-4-5-5-5-4 and the rhyming scheme is aaaBaaaB. If you do more than two quatrains the rhyming scheme would be as follows: aaaBaaaBcccDcccD. The five syllable lines all have the same end rhyme and the four syllable lines carry the second rhyme pattern from stanza to stanza.

Dactyl

A stressed syllable followed by two unstressed ones, as in FLUT-ter-ing or BLUE-ber-ry. The following playful lines illustrate double dactyls, two dactyls per line:

Higgledy, piggledy,
Emily Dickinson

Décima

Décima is a Spanish term of the 14th and 15th centuries referring to any 10 line stanza. In the 16th century, the poet adventurer Vencinente Espinela developed the Décima into the verse form of today the Décima or Décima Espinela or simply Espinela. By whatever title, it is commonly referred to as “the little sonnet”.

The Décima is:

    • stanzaic, written in any number of 10 line stanzas.
    • syllabic, 8 syllables per line.
    • rhymed, abba : accddc . The colon represents a pause, therefore L4 should be end stopped.
    • composed with the seventh syllable of every line stressed. (This is probably easier to do in Spanish than in English.)
    • variable. There is a variation of the Espinela that is written in 12 line stanzas rhyme abba: accddcxd, x being unrhymed.

Denotation

The dictionary meaning of a word. Writers typically play off a word’s denotative meaning against its connotations, or suggested and implied associational implications. In the following lines from Peter Meinke’s Advice to My Son the references to flowers and fruit, bread and wine denote specific things, but also suggest something beyond the literal, dictionary meanings of the words:

To be specific, between the peony and rose
Plant squash and spinach, turnips and tomatoes;
Beauty is nectar and nectar, in a desert, saves–

and always serve bread with your wine.
But, son,
always serve wine.

Diction

The selection of words in a literary work. We can refer to a poet’s diction as represented over the body of his or her work, as in Donne’s or Plath’s diction.

Ekphrastic

An ekphrastic poem is one that is inspired by another work of art – Keats Ode to a Grecian Urn is probably the most famous ekphrastic poem in the UK.

Elegy

A lyric poem that laments the dead. Robert Hayden’s Those Winter Sundays is elegiac in tone. A more explicitly identified elegy is W.H. Auden’s In Memory of William Butler Yeats and his Funeral Blues.

Elision

The omission of an unstressed vowel or syllable to preserve the metre of a line of poetry. Alexander uses elision in Sound and Sense: “Flies o’er th’ unbending corn…”

Englyn

1. Englyn unodl union

The straight one-rhymed englyn. This consists of four lines of ten, six, seven and seven syllables. The seventh, eighth or ninth syllable of the first line introduces the rhyme and this is repeated on the last syllable of the other three lines. The part of the first line after the rhyme alliterates with the first part of the second line.

This is an englyn unodl union:

Ym Mhorth oer y Merthyron – y merthyr
Mwya’i werth o ddigon
A hir-fawrha y fro hon
Wr dewr o Aberdaron

—Alan Llwyd

2. Englyn unodl crwca

The crooked one-rhyme englyn. This englyn is made up of four lines of seven, seven, ten and six syllables. The last syllable of the first, second and last lines rhyme and seventh, eighth or ninth syllable of the third line all rhyme.

Enjambment

A run-on line of poetry in which logical and grammatical sense carries over from one line into the next. An enjambed line differs from an end-stopped line in which the grammatical and logical sense is completed within the line. In the opening lines of Robert Browning’s My Last Duchess, for example, the first line is end-stopped and the second enjambed:

That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now…

Epic

A long narrative poem that records the adventures of a hero. Epics typically chronicle the origins of a civilization and embody its central values. Examples from western literature include Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, and Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Epigram

A brief witty poem, often satirical. Alexander Pope’s Epigram Engraved on the Collar of a Dog exemplifies the genre:

I am his Highness’ dog at Kew;
Pray tell me, sir, whose dog are you?

Etheree

The Etheree is a popular internet verse form, it can be found mentioned at most sites that provide verse form descriptions. It is a simple progressive syllabic verse. It is attributed to American poet Etheree Taylor Armstrong and can be found at Poetry Base and Shadow Poetry.

The Etheree is:

    • a decastich. (10 line poem)
    • syllabic, 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10 syllables per line.
    • unrhymed.
    • focused on 1 idea or subject.

Etheree by Judi Van Gorder

One
subject
to explore
within ten lines,
each avoiding rhyme.
Sequential syllables,
numbers run from one to ten
creating a staircase of words
for the expectant reader to climb.
A popular verse from the internet.

Falling Metre

Poetic metres such as trochaic and dactylic that move or fall from a stressed to an unstressed syllable. The nonsense line, “Higgledy, piggledy,” is dactylic, with the accent on the first syllable and the two syllables following falling off from that accent in each word. Trochaic metre is represented by this line: “Hip-hop, be-bop, treetop–freedom.”

Figurative Language

A form of language use in which writers and speakers convey something other than the literal meaning of their words. Examples include hyperbole or exaggeration, litotes or understatement, simile and metaphor.

Foot

A metrical unit composed of stressed and unstressed syllables. For example, an iamb or iambic foot is represented by u /. Frost’s line “Whose woods these are I think I know” contains four iambs, and is thus an iambic foot.                               u/ u/ u/ u/

Free Verse

Poetry without a regular pattern of metre or rhyme. The verse is “free” in not being bound by earlier poetic conventions requiring poems to adhere to an explicit and identifiable metre and rhyme scheme in a form such as the sonnet or ballad. Modern and contemporary poets of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries often employ free verse. Williams’s This Is Just to Say is one of many examples.

Ghazal

The ghazal is a form of poetry common in Arabic, Persian, Urdu and Bengali poetry. In classic form, the ghazal has from five to fifteen rhyming couplets that share a refrain at the end of the second line. Each line has an identical metre, and there is a set pattern of rhymes in the first couplet and among the refrains. Each couplet forms a complete thought and stands alone, and the overall ghazal often reflects on a theme of unattainable love or divinity. The last couplet generally includes the signature of the author.

Haiku

A verse form of Japanese origin traditionally consisting of 17 syllables arranged in lines of 5 – 7 – 5, unrhymed and without a title. As syllables do not have equal weight in English, the count is considered a lesser factor for haiku in that language. Other more important factors include: a focus on some aspect of nature or the seasons, predominance of images over ideas and statements, and avoidance of metaphor and similes.

Hyperbole

A figure of speech involving exaggeration. John Donne uses hyperbole in his poem: Song: Go and Catch a Falling Star.

Iamb

An unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one, as in to-DAY. [u /]

Image

A concrete representation of a sense impression, a feeling, or an idea. Imagery refers to the pattern of related details in a work. In some works one image predominates either by recurring throughout the work or by appearing at a critical point in the plot. Often writers use multiple images throughout a work to suggest states of feeling and to convey implications of thought and action. Some modern poets, such as Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, write poems that lack discursive explanation entirely and include only images. Among the most famous examples is Pound’s poem In a Station of the Metro:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Irony

A contrast or discrepancy between what is said and what is meant or between what happens and what is expected to happen in life and in literature. In verbal irony, characters say the opposite of what they mean. In irony of circumstance or situation, the opposite of what is expected occurs.

Metaphor

A comparison between essentially unlike things without an explicitly comparative word such as like or as. An example is “My love is a red, red rose,”

From Burns’s A Red, Red Rose. Langston Hughes’s Dream Deferred is built entirely of metaphors. Metaphor is one of the most important of literary uses of language. Shakespeare employs a wide range of metaphor in his sonnets and his plays, often in such density and profusion that readers are kept busy analyzing and interpreting and unraveling them. Compare Simile.

Metre

The measured pattern of rhythmic accents in poems. See Foot and Iamb.

Metonymy

A figure of speech in which a closely related term is substituted for an object or idea. An example: “We have always remained loyal to the crown.”

Narrative Poem

A poem that tells a story.

Octave

An eight-line unit, which may constitute a stanza; or a section of a poem, as in the octave of a sonnet.

Ode

A long, stately poem in stanzas of varied length, metre, and form. Usually a serious poem on an exalted subject, such as Horace’s Eheu fugaces, but sometimes a more lighthearted work, such as Neruda’s Ode to My Socks.

Onomatopoeia

The use of words to imitate the sounds they describe. Words such as buzz and crack are onomatopoetic. The following line from Pope’s Sound and Sense onomatopoetically imitates in sound what it describes:

When Ajax strives some rock’s vast weight to throw,
The line too labors, and the words move slow.

Most often, however, onomatopoeia refers to words and groups of words, such as Tennyson’s description of the “murmur of innumerable bees,” which attempts to capture the sound of a swarm of bees buzzing.

Open Form

A type of structure or form in poetry characterized by freedom from regularity and consistency in such elements as rhyme, line length, metrical pattern, and overall poetic structure. E.E. Cummings’s [Buffalo Bill’s] is one example.

Pantoum

The pantoum is a fifteenth-century Malaysian form, which started out as a folk poem, made up of rhyming couplets. This changed as the pantoum spread in popularity, especially with French and British writers of the nineteenth-century, including Victor Hugo and Charles Baudelaire. The twentieth century saw a resurgence in its popularity, with John Ashbery, Donald Justice and Wendy Cope producing notable examples.

As the pantoum spread, its folk poem format changed. Modern pantoums are of any length, composed of four-line stanzas where the second and fourth lines of each stanza serve as the first and third lines of the next stanza, until the final verse.

In other words, the pantoum is a type of structured verse made up of cycling refrains, a line that is repeated. Each verse is a quatrain, either unrhymed or rhymed ABAB.

Parody

A humorous, mocking imitation of a literary work, sometimes sarcastic, but often playful and even respectful in its playful imitation. Examples include Bob McKenty’s parody of Frost’s Dust of Snow and Kenneth Koch’s parody of Williams’s This is Just to Say.

Personification

The endowment of inanimate objects or abstract concepts with animate or living qualities. An example: “The yellow leaves flaunted their color gaily in the breeze.” Wordsworth’s I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud includes personification.

Pyrrhic

A metrical foot with two unstressed syllables (“of the”).

Quatrain

A four-line stanza in a poem, the first four lines and the second four lines in a Petrachan sonnet. A Shakespearean sonnet contains three quatrains followed by a couplet.

Rhyme

The matching of final vowel or consonant sounds in two or more words. The following stanza of Richard Cory employs alternate rhyme, with the third line rhyming with the first and the fourth with the second:

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,       (a)
We people on the pavement looked at him;     (b)
He was a gentleman from sole to crown           (a)
Clean favoured and imperially slim.                   (b)

Rising Metre

Poetic metres such as iambic and anapestic that move or ascend from an unstressed to a stressed syllable.

Rondeau

The rondeau was originally a French form, written on two rhymes with fifteen lines, using the first part of the first line as a refrain.

A Rondeau is created from three stanzas. A quintet, a quatrain and a sestet.

The first half of the first line in the quintet forms a refrain line. This refrain is used for lines 9 and 15.

The quintet has a rhyme scheme of b-b-c-c-b.

The quatrain has a rhyme scheme of b-b-c-A, where A is the refrain drawn from the first half of the first line of the poem.

The sestet is rhymed b-b-c-c-b-A, where A is again the refrain line.

Being a French form the metre is accentual syllabic. The refrain line is usually four syllables or two verse feet.

Sestet

A six-line unit of verse constituting a stanza or section of a poem; the last six lines of an Italian sonnet. Examples: Petrarch’s If it is not love, then what is it that I feel, and Frost’s Design.

Sestina

A poem of thirty-nine lines and written in iambic pentameter. Its six-line stanza repeat in an intricate and prescribed order the final word in each of the first six lines. After the sixth stanza, there is a three-line envoi, which uses the six repeating words, two per line.

Simile

A figure of speech involving a comparison between unlike things using like, as, or as though. An example: “My love is like a red, red rose.”

Sonnet

A fourteen-line poem in iambic pentameter. The Shakespearean or English sonnet is arranged as three quatrains and a final couplet, rhyming abab cdcd efef gg. The Petrarchan or Italian sonnet divides into two parts: an eight-line octave and a six-line sestet, rhyming abba abba cde cde or abba abba cd cd cd.

Spondee

A metrical foot represented by two stressed syllables, such as KNICK-KNACK.

Stanza

A division or unit of a poem that is repeated in the same form–either with similar or identical patterns or rhyme and metre, or with variations from one stanza to another. The stanzas of Gertrude Schnackenberg’s Signs are regular; those of Rita Dove’s Canary are irregular.

Style

The way an author chooses words, arranges them in sentences or in lines of dialogue or verse, and develops ideas and actions with description, imagery, and other literary techniques. See Connotation, Denotation, Diction, Figurative language, Image, Irony, and Metaphor.

Symbol

An object or action in a literary work that means more than itself, that stands for something beyond itself. The glass unicorn in The Glass Menagerie, the rocking horse in The Rocking-Horse Winner, the road in Frost’s The Road Not Taken–all are symbols in this sense.

Synecdoche

A figure of speech in which a part is substituted for the whole. An example: “Lend me a hand.” See Metonymy.

Tercet

A three-line stanza, as the stanzas in Frost’s Acquainted With the Night and Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind. The three-line stanzas or sections that together constitute the sestet of a Petrarchan or Italian sonnet.

Triolet (TREE-o-LAY)

Eight line poem with a refrains and a rhyme scheme of ABaAabAB

A (first line)
B (second line)
a (rhymes with first line)
A (repeat first line)
a (rhymes with first line)
b (rhymes with second line)
A (repeat first line)
B (repeat second line)

Trochee

An accented syllable followed by an unaccented one, as in FOOT-ball.

Villanelle

A nineteen-line lyric poem that relies heavily on repetition. The first and third lines alternately throughout the poem, which is structured in six stanzas–five tercets and a concluding quatrain. Examples include Bishop’s One Art, Roethke’s The Waking, and Thomas’s Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.

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