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Elements of Poetry

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January 2010
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Part I

Do you know the difference between a simile or metaphor? These are important firgures of speech, and elements of a good poem. There are others, such as voice, diction, and imagery. Knowing these elements of poetry will help you understand the meaning of a poem, teach you how poets compose their poems, and help you to write your own poetry. The following is an explanation of each important element of poetry:

Speaker, Subject, Theme, Tone

Speaker. The speaker refers to the narrative voice of the poem.  You can use the first person “I” to speak in the poem. You can also use the invented “I” to narrate a poem. This is a persona—it is an imaginary voice. The persona or voice of a poem can be first person “I”, second person “you”,  the third person “he or she”, or the public person (large audience, like society). 
When the speaker narrates the attire poem, this is called a dramatic monologue—a poem in which you use a narrative voice other than your own to tell the poem.
It is important to remember that the speaker doesn’t need to be the poet. You can use an invented persona who speaks in the poem.

Subject. The subject is the topic of the poem—what the write about. In modern and contemporary poetry, any topic is acceptable. You can write about love, death, abortion, sex, or a taboo subject.

Theme. The theme is one of the most important aspects of a poem. The purpose of the theme is to make an important point about the topic. For instance, if the subject is about “love”, the theme of the poem might be that “love is doesn’t last forever.” In modern and contemporary poetry, your poem can have almost any theme. 

Tone. The tone of the poem refers to your attitude toward your subject and readers. Your tone can be informal or formal, serious or humorous, sad or happy. You can identify your tone by the way in which you use diction, syntax, rhyme, meter, and so forth.


Poetic Devices

You can use several poetic devices to create meaning and make your poem memorable, including:
Allusion. Reference to a historical figure, another literary work, work of art, or a quote from a famous person. Its purpose is to add meaning to the poem.
Hyperbole. Use of exaggeration for emphasis. It is not to be taken literally. Example: He died laughing. It is old as the hills. He drinks like a fish.
Paradox. A statement that appears to be self-contradictory, but is actually true. Use when you want to stimulate the reader to think about the meaning.
Oxymoron. A form of parody where two contradictory terms are combined to make a phrase. Example: Honest thief, coloured fire, darkly lit. Use when you want to stimulate the reader to think about the meaning.

Sound Devices

Besides communicating meaning, you can craft a poem to evoke an emotional response. To do this, you can apply the following sound devices:
Alliteration. Refers to the repetition of one or more initial sounds, usually the same consonant sounds, at the beginning of words within a line of a poem. It is the sound, not the letter that is important. Example: “Bright black-eyed creature, brushed with brown” from Robert Frost’s, “To a Moth Seen in Winter.”
Assonance. Refers to the repetition of vowel sounds within a line of poetry. Example: “Burnt the fire of thine eyes” from “The Tiger” by William Blake.
Onomatopoeia. Use of words or phrases to imitate or suggest the sounds they describe. Examples include “buzz,” “whisper”, “ bang”.


Symbolism is the use of a specific object or an image to represent an abstract idea. A symbol is a word or phrase that represents something other than its literal meaning.
You can use different symbols, such as objects, things, and places, to express deep meaning in a poem—most often abstract meaning. Examples of symbolism include a rose to represent love, a dove to represent peace, the owl symbolizes wisdom, the phoenix symbolizes rebirth, and the cross to represent Christianity.

In the following poem, the poet, William Blake uses the “rose” to represent all that is beautiful, natural, and desirable. And he uses the “worm” to symbolize the evil that destroys natural beauty and love.


The Sick Rose

By William Blake

O rose, thou art sick!

The Invisible worm

That flies on the night

In the howling storm,

Has found out thy bed

Of crimson joy,

And his dark secret love

Does thy life destroy.


Line and Syntax

When writing free verse, you need to be aware that there are no rules about line breaks. You have many options, unless you are writing metrical verse, or a limerick, or Haiku poetry, and so forth. So, you must rely on your own judgement. Yet, there are a few guidelines. To break a line, follow these suggestions:
  • Emphasis. The most emphatic positions on a line are at the beginning or end of the line. To emphasize an idea, place the idea at the beginning or end of the line.
  • End stop. You can break a line of poetry with a period, comma, or semi-colon.
  • Pause. You can break a line to create a brief pause.
  • Enjambment. You can break a sentence, clause, or phrase into two parts, and then move the second part of the unit to the next line.
  • Rhyme. You can break a line of poety to create an end rhyme.
  • Meter. You can break a line of poetry to create a pattern of meter.
Next, I will continue explaining the “elements of poetry.”


  1. Inez Breden says:

    Definitely agree with what you stated. Your explanation was certainly the easiest to understand. I tell you, I usually get irked when folks discuss issues that they plainly do not know about. You managed to hit the nail right on the head and explained out everything without complication. Maybe, people can take a signal. Will likely be back to get more. Thanks

  2. maricar says:

    galit ka pa ba xken//

  3. Jenny says:

    This has been a helpful post!
    I have an exam on English Literature in just a few hours and this is definitely going to help me.
    Just one tiny mistake: under the subheading of theme, I think it should be “love doesn’t last forever” instead of “love is doesn’t last forever.”
    I apologise if that was actually deliberate. 🙂

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