Bevin Mccullough and Shelley Valdez


  • A DEFINITION – “A poem is a concentrated composition in verse with a lavish use of rhetorical devices and figures of speech.” It also concentrates on the line – its makeup, length, structure, arrangement, rhythm, and the way the lines come together to form a whole.
  • Poems can often be recognized by metrical language, sound, length, line breaks/visual appearance on the page
  • Dominant figures associated with poetry:
    • Simile – makes an explicit comparison using “like” or “as”
    • Metaphor – makes an implied comparison that identifies two unlike things on the basis of a common element
    • Symbol – not comparison, but substitution, where a word, object, or action stands in for something else, often something abstract
  • Poetry is both the product of history and the product of the reader
    • The Canon is expanding – including previously excluded voices and contemporary work
    • The way we analyze poetry is expanding – through semiotics, structuralism, intertextuality, and deconstruction (the way the words sound, the way the poem is put together, the way the poem interacts with literature as a whole, the way the poem contradicts itself)
    • Theories of poetry – all based in history, ideas, philosophical positions, and literary values that were current at the time. But those are also subjective!
      • Ex: the way a love sonnet was written and read
    • As readers, we approach the poem with knowledge of both our own histories and cultures and the histories and cultures that shaped the poem at the time it was written. BUT THOSE ARE ALSO SUBJECTIVE
      • Ex: the way WE acknowledge the way a love sonnet was written and read, the way we read it with those contexts and with the contexts of our own experience. Can be applied to all types of poetry.


  • Read the poem a first time – carefully, taking in meaning on the surface
  • Read it a second time – slower, annotating, asking questions: asking, “What’s up with that?” Noting shifts, divisions, imagery
  • Genre – what’s the poem about? How is that revealed through form and subject matter? What categories (genres) does the work fit into? Is it about family or love or duplicity or death? Is it romantic or gothic or confessional? How do we know?
  • Themes and Structure – what are the controlling ideas and patterns? How is the work arranged or divided?
  • Tone – the attitude, the nuance, the shifts, the feelings! Between the authors, readers, subjects. Think Adjectives: Playful, sarcastic, ironic, mournful, intimate, spiteful?
  • Character – Who are the characters? Are there fictional, historical, social links, and where’s the evidence? Who is the speaker in the poem? Who’s the audience?
  • Setting – can be physical, spiritual, psychological, in space, time, and history. What are the characteristics? How and why are things described this way, and how does it relate to everything else?


    • Prosody – sound patterns, rhyme scheme, meter, and stanzaic form, and how they enhance the poem’s meaning – look out for special characteristics, ear/eye rhymes, off rhymes, the way lines are divided, traditional form, and things like alliteration assonance onomatopoeia euphony cacophony???
    • Syntax – sentence structure and grammatical details –  kinds of sentences: Questions, exclamations, simple, compound, complex? VERBS, tense, locations, nouns, pronouns, adjectives/adverbs, etc.
    • Diction – word choice – what kinds of words are used? Are they from special areas of knowledge? Slang? Related to genre? Why did the author pick them?


  • Imagery – images major and minor, material and immaterial, and how they control the poem, create tension, and are arranged into patterns, themes and structures


  • Figures of Speech – tropes (figurative and metaphorical uses for words; recurring images. Ex: similes, metaphors, puns, euphemisms, personification) and schemes (words used literally but arranged artfully. ex: anaphora, parallelism, inversion)


    • Prosody – from Greek prosodia – accompaniment to a song set to music, or the tone or accent on a syllable, or the mark to show it – science of versification (expressing things in verse). Pretty much the theory of how things sound.
  • Rhythm – the musical beats that live within the sounds. It’s in everything everywhere.
    • Rising duple (one-two, one-two) – falling duple (one-two, one-two)
    • Rising triple (one-two-three, – falling triple (one-two-three,

one-two-three, )  one-two-three)

  • Rising and falling units (or the nature of the sound) are combined to fill the line. Most English poetry is written with 4-5 units to the line

Example of prosody:  “shall I comPARE thee TO a SUMmer’s DAY?” (falling duple, 5 units)

  • Meter – the regular rhythmic patterning of stressed and unstressed syllables at the level of the line. Each line is called a verse, and a “paragraph” of verses is called a stanza
  • iamb    x / (rising duple) – trochee      / x (falling duple)
  • anapest   xx /  (rising triple) – dactyl     / xx (falling triple)


  • The method for recording the particular meter of a poem by marking out its feet and indicating the patterning of beats and off-beats or stressed and unstressed syllables

Example of scansion:

x        /         x      /          x         /     x       /      x          /

Shall      I      compare     thee    to    a    Summer’s    Day?

(basically – x for unstressed, / for stressed)


Poems are made up of FEET. These are the STRESSED and UNstressed syllables that make up a line. Line length depends on the different numbers of feet. The feet of the poem have large influence of the poem’s cadence. They have influenced the creation of Iambic pentameter, also known as heroics (used by John Dyrden, 17th century poet) and blank verse (used by Shakespeare, 16th century).

PAUSES – in poetry are controlled by punctuation, and dictate the pace/cadence of the line. Lines with punctuation are considered end-stopped, those without are run-on (using enjambment). A caesura is the “cutting” of lines into halves with a ( // ), and the two separate halves produced are hemistitches.


REPETITION – is a repeated sound in a syllable, no matter the spelling (Example: ware/where or know/no). Rhyme is another component of poetry. Rhyme is the repetition of a vowel or final consonant, using a different consonant before the vowel sound (Example: bar/tar/ajar/gnar).

More variations of rhyme:

Assonance: repetition of a vowel, but not the final consonant, and may use a different consonant before the vowel (many/ending/every/men)

Alliteration: repetition of the first consonant (or its sound) in two or more words or accented syllables; the vowel sound may vary. (touch/tame/trickery/trapped)

Consonance: the repetition of the inner or final consonant in two or more words or syllables, but with a change in the intervening vowel. (live/love or instead/homestead)


RHYME – is the relationship between two or more words that sound alike. For instance, rhyme and thyme is a perfect rhyme. To provide a brief history of rhyme: it was traditionally used as a way to memorize. Yugoslavian oral storytellers used sound devices and repetition to make long tales easier to remember epic stories. Here are some more fundamentals of rhyme:

  • Rhyme scheme: structure of rhyme that comes at the end of each verse
  • Masculine rhyme: the rhyme sound is one accented syllable (bag/nag)
  • Feminine rhyme: rhyme sound is one accented syllable, followed by one unaccented syllable (raking/faking)
  • Triple rhyme: three rhyming syllables (vanity/humanity)
  • Perfect/imperfect rhyme: (hello, mellow) versus (Shakespeare: temperate/date)
  • Rhyme placement: Rhyme can give weight to words, lines or stanzas. When close reading, looking for recurring rhymes can lead to a deeper reading.
    • Initial rhyme: at beginning
    • Internal rhyme: rhyme within, found in Poe’s “The Raven”, Tennyson’s “The Revenge”
    • End rhyme: at end
    • Crossed rhyme: rhyming within lines with words in other lines, found in Swinburne’s “Hymn to Prosperpine”


STANZAS –  are the chunks of text in poetry. They are often compared to paragraphs in an essay. Technically speaking, a stanza is a collection of lines that make up a verse paragraph. These can come in couplets, triplets, quatrains, etc.

Versification is the breakdown of the poetic structure into rhyme schemes, lines, stanzas, and analyzing poetic convention. It is also a method of finding meaning in each component of poems.


[2 Little Whos] by E.E. Cummings

There are so many pieces a reader can pull out of this poem by E.E. Cummings. For instance, his diction, stanzas, the text size, figurative language, and so on show the overarching theme of youth and innocence. All of these parts add up to the poem’s total versification.

DICTION – is another word for word choice. Chaucer, a 14th century poet wrote in English at a time when Latin was the norm. He completely reshaped diction and modern English.


AMBIGUITY AND IRONY – are the shifts in tone, and the trust or mistrust in poetic voice. Ambiguity in writing is often considered a flaw. Yet following New Criticism of the 20th century, people have recognized the virtue of ambiguity in poetry. Through the use of ambiguity, poets can convey multiple different meanings in just one word. There are multiple forms of ambiguity: ambivalence, paradox, pun, double entendre. Ambiguity demands close reading of text, necessary in works such as Donne’s “The Canonization”.

Irony in poetry is the poet saying one thing and meaning/suggesting another. Or a character says one thing and means something else. Irony is abundant and sometimes hard to find.

Types of Irony:

  • Dramatic: audience knows, character does not
  • Situational: actions produce an outcome different than what’s expected
  • Cosmic: characters are freely acting, fate toys with human expectation
  • Rhetorical: gap between literal and concealed meaning


  • Blank Verse (16th and 17th): unrhymed, iambic five-beat lines; Shakespeare used Blank verse, Percy Shelley “Cenci”
  • The Quatrain (as old as 13th century): any four line stanza; Wordsworth’s “Lucy Gray”
  • Ballads, elegiacs, Tennyson’s “In Memorium”
  • The Sonnet (13th century): 14-lined poem in iambic pentameter
  • Petrarchan (octave and sestet), English sonnet (three quatrains and a couplet): Spenserian (abab, bcbc, cdcd, ee) and Shakespearean (abab cdcd efef gg)
  • Free Verse (20th): dominant verse form of 20th century contemporary writing. Intentionally unorganized short lines, typically no rhyme, E.E. Cummings structured his poem “O Sweet Spontaneous” visually
  • Concrete: visual representative poetry, “The Altar” by Herbert
  • Language Poetry: Inclusion of natural human sound in poetry (uhh, ahh, um, interjections, fragments of words)

Works Cited:

Whitla, William. The English handbook: a guide to literary studies. Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

Cummings, E. E. “[2 Little Whos] by E. E. Cummings.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation,




Introduction to Literary History and Interpretation Copyright © by Bevin Mccullough and Shelley Valdez. All Rights Reserved.

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