Characteristics of Poetry
Poetry is an art form that uses language in creative and imaginative ways to evoke emotions, convey complex ideas, and paint vivid images in the reader’s mind. As a literary genre, poetry has its own unique characteristics and features that distinguish it from other forms of writing. In this article, we will explore the essential characteristics of poetry, examining each in detail to provide a comprehensive guide to this fascinating art form.
I. Figurative Language
Figurative language is one of the most important and distinctive features of poetry. This is a technique used to create imaginative and evocative descriptions using words or phrases that are not meant to be taken literally. Some common examples of figurative language used in poetry include metaphor, simile, and personification.
Metaphor is a comparison between two things that are not alike but share some similarities. For example, “her smile is a ray of sunshine,” compares a smile to a ray of sunshine, suggesting that the smile is warm, bright, and uplifting, just like the sun.
Simile is also a comparison between two things, but it uses “like” or “as” to make the comparison. For example, “his eyes are like pools of water,” suggests that his eyes are deep, clear, and full of emotion.
Personification is a technique that gives human qualities or attributes to non-human objects, such as animals, objects, or ideas. For example, “the wind whispered through the trees,” suggests that the wind is a sentient being with a voice and personality.
II. Rhythm and Meter
Poetry also has a distinctive rhythm and meter that sets it apart from other forms of writing. Rhythm is the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in a line of poetry. Meter is the number of syllables in a line and the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables that gives the poem its musical quality.
The most common meter used in poetry is iambic pentameter, which consists of ten syllables per line, with the stress falling on every other syllable. For example, the opening lines of William Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18” are in iambic pentameter:
Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Other meters include trochaic meter, which places the stress on the first syllable of each foot, and anapestic meter, which places the stress on the third syllable of each foot.
III. Line Breaks
The way lines are broken and arranged on the page is another important characteristic of poetry. The length of each line can vary, and poets use line breaks to create pauses, emphasis, or to control the pace of the poem. The way lines are broken can also contribute to the meaning and impact of the poem.
For example, in T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land,” the fragmented and disjointed lines contribute to the sense of confusion and despair that the poem conveys:
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Imagery is another important characteristic of poetry, and it is used to create vivid and sensory descriptions that engage the reader’s imagination. Poets use words and phrases that appeal to the senses, such as sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell, to create images that transport the reader to a different time, place, or emotional state.
For example in “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” Robert Frost uses imagery to describe the scene of a snowy forest at night. The phrase “lovely, dark and deep” creates a sensory image of the woods, while the repetition of the phrase “and miles to go before I sleep” adds to the sense of distance and coldness.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
The imagery in this poem creates a mood of stillness and contemplation, as the speaker reflects on the beauty of the natural world while also acknowledging his own responsibilities and obligations.
Themes are the underlying ideas or messages that a poem communicates. Poetry can explore a wide range of themes, from love and loss to social and political issues. Themes can be implicit or explicit, and they are often open to interpretation. Some common themes in poetry include nature, mortality, identity, and relationships.
For example, Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem” explores the theme of deferred dreams, suggesting that when dreams are postponed or unfulfilled, they can lead to frustration, despair, and even anger:
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?
VI. Sound Devices
Poetry also uses sound devices to create a musical quality and enhance the impact of the words. Some common sound devices used in poetry include alliteration, consonance, and rhyme.
Alliteration is the repetition of consonant sounds at the beginning of words in close proximity. For example, in Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Raven,” the repeated use of the “s” sound creates a sense of ominous and haunting atmosphere:
And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating “
‘Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door—
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door;—
This it is and nothing more.”
Consonance is the repetition of consonant sounds in the middle or end of words, creating a sense of harmony or dissonance. For example, in Emily Dickinson’s poem, “I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died,” the repeated “s” and “z” sounds create a sense of stillness and silence:
I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –
Rhyme is the repetition of similar sounds in words, usually at the end of each line. Rhyme can create a sense of musicality and rhythm, and it is often used to emphasize certain words or phrases. For example, in Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” the repeated use of end rhyme creates a sense of balance and harmony:
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.
The tone of a poem refers to the attitude or feeling that the poet conveys through their words. Tone can be expressed in a variety of ways, including through the use of language, imagery, and other literary devices. The tone of a poem can range from light and playful to serious and somber, and it can also shift throughout the poem.
For example, in Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise,” the tone is confident and defiant, as the speaker celebrates their resilience and perseverance in the face of adversity:
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
The structure of a poem refers to the organization of its lines, stanzas, and other elements. The structure of a poem can vary widely, depending on the poet’s intentions and the effect they want to create. Some poems have a strict structure, such as a sonnet or a villanelle, while others have a looser, more free-flowing structure.
For example, in William Carlos Williams’ poem “The Red Wheelbarrow,” the structure is simple and straightforward, consisting of four stanzas of two lines each:
so much depends upon
a red wheel barrow
glazed with rain water
beside the white chickens
Symbolism is the use of objects, images, or actions to represent abstract ideas or concepts. Symbolism is a common feature in poetry, as it allows poets to convey complex ideas and emotions in a condensed and memorable way. Symbols can be found in many forms in poetry, from recurring images and motifs to specific objects and characters.
For example, in Robert Burns’ poem “A Red, Red Rose,” the rose is a symbol of love and passion:
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.
Irony is the use of language to convey a meaning that is the opposite of its literal or expected meaning. Irony can be used to create humour, sarcasm, or to convey deeper truths and insights. Irony can take many forms in poetry, including situational irony, verbal irony, and dramatic irony.
For example, in Emily Dickinson’s poem “Because I Could Not Stop for Death,” the use of irony creates a sense of both humour and irony:
Because I could not stop for Death—
He kindly stopped for me—
The Carriage held but just Ourselves—
Allusion is a literary device in which a writer refers to a person, place, or event from history, literature, or mythology. Allusions can add layers of meaning and depth to a poem, and they can also create connections between different works of literature.
For example, in T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land,” the allusion to the biblical figure of Tiresias adds a mythical and prophetic dimension to the poem:
The change of Philomel, by the barbarous king
So rudely forced; yet there the nightingale
Filled all the desert with inviolable voice
And still she cried, and still the world pursues,
“Jug Jug” to dirty ears.
Persona is a literary device in which the poet creates a character or speaker who speaks the words of the poem. This speaker is not necessarily the same as the poet, and may have different beliefs, values, and experiences. Persona can create distance between the poet and the poem, and allow the poet to explore different perspectives and ideas.
For example, in Robert Browning’s poem “My Last Duchess,” the persona is a male speaker who reveals his jealousy and possessiveness towards his deceased wife:
That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall, Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now; Fra Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Poetry is a unique and powerful form of artistic expression that uses language in creative and imaginative ways to convey complex ideas, evoke emotions, and create vivid imagery. The essential characteristics of poetry include figurative language, rhythm and meter, line breaks, imagery, theme, and sound devices. By understanding these features, readers can gain a deeper appreciation and understanding of this beautiful and profound art form.