The literal or dictionary definition of a word or phrase.

Example: The denotation of “greasy” is “covered in grease.” A plate can be greasy.


The implicit or associative meaning of a word or phrase.

Example: The connotation of “greasy” is often sly, slick, corrupt, criminal, or otherwise bad, especially when the adjective is applied to people.

Literal Meaning

Limited to the simplest, ordinary, most obvious meaning. The surface level meaning.


The symbolic, associative, connotative, or representational meaning. What is below the surface, or what might be understood through interpretation and association.

Double Meaning (Double-Entendre)

When a word has more than one meaning in context. Puns are double-meanings, though when we call something a pun we tend to mean it is humorous or clever but not necessarily all that complex.

Example: Shakespeare has two meanings in Sonnet 138 where he uses the word “lies” to refer to both lying (dishonesty) and sexual union (lying in bed).


Language is ambiguous or the meaning of a line is ambiguous when it could signify multiple things and is therefore open to interpretation.


A word or sequence of words presenting a sensory experience: visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile, and gustatory.

Examples: Yellow flowers fluttering in the breeze (visual); the rumble and crash of falling waves (auditory)


An comparison of two unlike things using “like” or “as.” A quality of an object is used to describe another object.

Examples: Your eyes are like stars in the sky; “Dumb / As old medallions to the thumb”


A comparison of two unlike things that doesn’t use “like” or “as” but simply states that the objects being compared are the same or replaces the figurative term with the literal one (the one actually being described). A quality of an object is used to describe, metaphorically, another object. When you say, “I got caught in her spider’s web” you may be substituting “spider’s web” for “her love” or “a relationship with her.” When dealing with metaphors it is important to pay attention to their connotations or what they imply. “Spider’s web,” when used to describe the way a lover has you stuck in love, implies that it may be difficult to get away and, perhaps, that you are in some danger from the figurative spider.

Examples: I got caught in her spider’s web; Love is an arrow; “All the world’s a stage”;

Extended Metaphor

A metaphorical comparison that is extended over several lines.


Repetition of consonant sounds at the beginning of words.

Examples: Speak the Speech… Trippingly on the Tongue”; Hungry Henry Had Heaping Helpings


Repetition of consonant sounds, not necessarily at the beginning of words. Note: sometimes different letters make very similar sounds in words

Examples: Tom thumb hummed; They even lived in eleven villages


Repetition of similar vowel sounds

Examples: Yellow elephants mentioned temperance


The use of words to imitate the sounds they describe

Examples: crash, whir, thwack


When formal (sound/sense) or thematic (symbol/idea) patterns are repeated


When a phrase or line is repeated more than once, usually more than twice.


The patterned recurrence, within a certain range of regularity, of specific language features, usually features of sound. *Not to be confused with “Meter,” which is a regular, pre-decided rhythmic patterning relying on arrangements of stressed and unstressed syllables.


In poetry, words have stressed or unstressed syllables. Sometimes which syllable is stressed depends on how you read a word along with the words around it.

Examples: TodayOnly; Happenstance


A strong pause in a poetic line, often created by an element of punctuation like a period.

Example: “To err is human; to forgive, divine.”


The breaking up of writing into individual lines. Usually, we distinguish poetry from prose by saying that poetry is lineated (though there are also poems written in prose). See also “Enjambed” and “End-stopped”

  • What can line breaks do?
    • They can work like periods or commas
    • Break up or keep together ideas, images, or syntactical units
    • Can be rhyme driven
    • Be weird/counterintuitive
    • Give rhythm to disconnected things
    • Make you more conscious of the words

Example: Consider how lineation is working in the fourth line of this stanza. The shortness of the line contributes to the suddenness of the sudden event the line is describing.

“The nineteenth Autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.”

(W.B. Yeats, “The Wild Swans at Coole”)


Measured pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in a line. The names of poetic meters consist of the name of the metrical foot used, plus a word denoting how many feet are used in each line. Iambic pentameter uses the iamb five times (“pent,” as in pentagon, means five). Trochaic tetrameter uses the trochee four times in each line. A poem does not have to perfectly fit a metrical pattern in order to be described as being written in a meter; some deviations from the pattern are allowable

  • What does meter do? Why use meter?
    • Helps you remember lines
    • Creates tension between senses of freedom and restriction
    • Musical pleasure
    • Refers to tradition or parodies/breaks from it

Examples: iambic pentameter; trochaic tetrameter


A metrical unit defined by number of syllables and location of stress in those syllables


Iamb (Iambic)  |  Unstressed + Stressed  |   Two Syllables: Today
Trochee (Trochaic)  |  Stressed + Unstressed   |  Two Syllables: Only
Spondee (Spondaic)  |  Stressed + Stressed  |  Two Syllables: Bright Stars 
Anapest (Anapestic) | Unstressed + Unstressed + Stressed | Three Syllables: Underneath
Dactyl (Dactylic) | Stressed + Unstressed + Unstressed | Three Syllables: Happenstance
Pyrrhic  |  Unstressed + Unstressed  |  Two Syllables: Go on


The most common metrical foot in English poetry, consisting of an unstressed + stressed syllable pattern

Example: Today; Want

Iambic Pentameter

A poetic meter consisting of five iambic feet


“Shall I | compare | thee to | a sum | mer’s day?
Thou art | more love | ly and | more tem | perate;”


Another common metrical foot in English poetry, consisting of a stressed + unstressed syllable pattern

Example: Only; Yellow

Trochaic Tetrameter

A poetic meter consisting of four trochaic feet


“By the | shores of | gitchee | gumee
By the | shining | big-sea | water”


The process of reading or “scanning” lines of poetry in order to determine their stress pattern and metrical form. When scanning, one usually draws marks above syllables denoting whether they are stressed (“/” or unstressed “u”)

Blank verse

Unrhymed, iambic pentameter


“Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat, [5]
Sing Heav’nly Muse,that on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed,
In the Beginning how the Heav’ns and Earth
Rose out of Chaos: Or if Sion Hill [10]
Delight thee more, and Siloa’s Brook that flow’d
Fast by the Oracle of God; I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventrous Song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th’ Aonian Mount, while it pursues [15]
Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime.”
(from Milton’s Paradise Lost)

Free Verse

Poetry with no pre-given metrical pattern or rhyme. Free verse poetry may still be highly structured, however its structure is not traditional, but is invented by the poet.

Prose Poetry

Poetry written in prose paragraphs such that the line breaks are not decided upon by the poet.

Found Poetry

Poems made of language that is found (in other texts or overheard) and rearranged.

Sound Poetry

Poems in which the experience of sound is usually privileged over the experience of sense.


Lines of poetry in which syntactic units (phrases, clauses, sentences) correspond in length with their lines. See also “Enjambed”


“While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead
I played about the front gate, pulling flowers.
You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse,
You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums.
And we went on living in the village of Chokan:
Two small people, without dislike or suspicion.”

(Ezra Pound, “The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter”)


Lines of poetry in which syntactic units (phrases, clauses, sentences) are broken across the line


By the road to the contagious hospital
under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds driven from the
northeast-a cold wind. Beyond, the
waste of broad, muddy fields
brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen

(William Carlos Williams, “By the Road to The Contagious Hospital”)


Repetition of word or phrase at the beginning of lines


Out of the cradle endlessly rocking,
Out of the mock-bird’s throat, the musical shuttle,
Out of the Ninth-month midnight,
Over the sterile sands, and the fields beyond, where the child, leaving his bed,    wander’d alone, bare-headed, barefoot,
Down from the shower’d halo,
Up from the mystic play of shadows twining and twisting as if they were alive,
Out from the patches of briers and blackberries

(Whitman, “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking”)


A list. A poetic form consisting of a list


Correspondence of end sounds of words or lines


I looked at you
Out of the blue

Slant Rhyme

Rhyme that is imperfect or slightly off


“Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all.”

-Emily Dickinson, “Hope is the Thing with Feathers”

End Rhyme

Rhymed words that appear at the end of lines

Internal Rhyme

Rhymed words that appear internal to a line


A group of lines, described based on number of lines


Two line stanza, or group


Three line stanza


Four line stanza


Fourteen line poem in iambic pentameter with a prescribed rhyme scheme; its subject is traditionally that of love


The intellectual or tonal “turn” that comes in a sonnet, often after the second quatrain, but that it not always the case

Form, Formal Aspects of the Poem

Poetic form consists of all aspects of a poem that flow from its sensory qualities or material nature: sound, arrangement on the page, pattern of repetition, rhythm, meter etc…

Poetic Forms

A specific and conventional kind of poem.

Examples: Sonnet; Sestina; Haiku

Content, Content of the Poem (Thematic elements)

Poetic content consists of all aspects of a poem that flow from its symbolic, conceptual, and conventional qualities: the figurative implications of imagery, the subject matter of the poem, tone etc…

Lyric Poetry

A major poetic genre to be distinguished from epic and dramatic poetry

  • Some tendencies of lyric poetry:
    • Genre of private life
    • There may be an addressee. But addressee is always absent (Lyric is not dialogue)
    • Imagination at its most unfettered
    • Moment of inner meditation
    • Lets us inside a person’s mind
    • Short
    • Exists in a here and now
    • Sometimes lyric uses persona – transformation of self into a lyric identity
    • Suggestive rather than exhaustive
    • Emotional intensity
    • Formally interesting/engaged with poetic form
    • Enters conversation with its culture
    • Asks the reader to enter the speaker’s subject position
    • Tells us something about the satus of subjectivity within the cultural context that produced it

Epic poetry

Epics are long narrative poems usually on great and serious subject that tend to have historical significance.


Poetry that occurs on stage or in print in plays.


An account of an event or sequence of events occurring in time. Narrative poems are poems that show us events unfolding

Speech Act

Kind of utterance determined based on purpose: apology, prayer, praise, invitation, curse, condemnation, narration, description, eulogy, meditation etc…


First Person (I), Second Person (You), Third Person (He/She/They)

Antecedent Scenario

What may have been happening right before the poem? What state of affairs generated the poem.


The peak of emotional and/or narrative intensity in a poem


The quality of language resulting from vocabulary: colloquial, literary, academic, scientific etc…

Examples: if you use the word aurora” rather than “dawn” your diction is probably literary; if you use the word “gastrointestinal” instead of “stomach-related” your diction is probably medical or scientific.


The attitude that the style of the poem and its diction implies. The attitude we would ascribe to the speaker of the poem, if there is one. Tone can shift in a poem. It is useful to notice these shifts.

Example: the tone of Eliot’s “Prufrock” might be considered nervous or bitter; the tone of Whitman’s “Song of Myself” might be considered expansive and didactic

Genre / Lyric subgenre

Genre means “kind.” The novels, poems, plays, and works of nonfiction are major literary genres. There are also subgenres within poetry: elegy, ballad, pastoral etc…


A poem to or about dawn. Traditionally, a poem about two lovers parting at dawn.


A poem set at night.


A poem set in and/or about nature. Traditionally, pastorals were poems written from the perspective of shepherds.


A poem mourning the loss of a dead person. (A Eulogy is speech in praise of someone, not necessarily someone dead)


Existing in thought or as an idea but not having a physical or concrete existence. The quality of language that is not immediately accessible to interpretation by our senses, but is, rather, intellectual or conceptual. Ideas are abstract whereas images are concrete. Paradoxes or things otherwise impossible to conceive of in the real world are also abstract.

Examples: purity; love; the blueness of hunger; the smell of light


Existing in a material or physical form; not abstract. The quality of language that is more immediately accessible to interpretation by our senses.


A logical impossibility. Or something that at least seems illogical or contradictory.

Example: “Much madness is divinest sense”

Overstatement (Hyperbole)

Great exaggeration for rhetorical effect.

Example: “I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you / Till China and Africa meet, / And the river jumps over the mountain / And the salmon sing in the street.” – W. H. Auden in “As I Walked Out One Evening”


The (often ironic) deliberate understating of facts. Often the reader or listener will understand from context that what is meant is the opposite of what is said.

Example: Michael Jordan was a decent basketball player (because MJ was obviously a really really good ball player); It’s a little wet outside (said when it is raining very hard and you’ve just come inside, soaked from head to toe).


The attribution of a personal nature or human characteristics to something non-human, or the representation of an abstract quality in human form.

Example: the kettle hissed at the cook.


The substitution of a part or element associated with the thing in place of the thing meant.

Synecdoche is when the part is used to refer to the whole

Examples: “suit” for business executive, or  “wheels” for car.

Metonymy is when an object associated with a thing or person is used to refer to that person.

Example: when you wear a necklace because it reminds you of the person who gave it to you, the necklace is a metonym for that person. Or if you paint a picture and include the typewriter of a dead friend in it, the typewriter may refer to that friend in a metonymic fashion (rather than a metaphorical fashion, because there is nothing about the typewriter, save your association) that specifically describes your friend).


A rhetorical device involving direct address to a person or object who isn’t necessarily present. Apostrophe is often signaled with the word “O”

Example: “O Wild West wind, though breath of Autumn’s being,” wrote Shelley in “Ode to the West Wind.”


An object or figure with conventional figurative meaning.

Examples: “the heart” conventionally symbolizes love, as does the red rose. The color green may symbolize the natural world or envy.


A story, poem, or picture which can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral or political one. Often allegory employs a system of symbols, each with corresponding significations. It is comparable to extended metaphor but generally more complex. Aesop’s fables are often considered allegorical. Plato’s Allegory of the Cave is another well known example.


In poetry, a lyric persona is the identity of the imaginary speaker of the poem, as distinguished from the author.


A reference, sometimes a subtle one, made in a text to a historical or literary object, person, or event outside of the text. The title of Robert Frost’s poem “Out, Out” alludes to a phrase from Shakespeare’s Macbeth. It is important to figure out why the allusion is being made. For instance, in the Frost poem it is because both the scene from Shakespeare and Frost’s poem concern death or the brevity of life. The Shakespeare line in full is “Out, Out brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow.”


Typically, the expression of one’s intended meaning through language which, taken literally, appears on the surface to express the opposite—usually for humorous effect. The intended meaning is not in the message itself: the audience has to refer to context cues (for instance, nonverbal signals) in order to interpret its modality status (as literal, ironic, or a lie). Where only some members of the audience are able to identify the intended meaning, it can be seen as a form of narrowcasting. In rhetoric, it is a figure of speech and in semiotics, a kind of double sign.


An imitation of the style of a particular writer, artist, or genre with deliberate exaggeration or alteration for comic or subversive effect.


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