53 Basic Poetry Terms

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Here are the 53 most important poetry terms explained simply:

From the allegorical style of writing to blank verse, and to a more classical poetry technique such as the Shakesperean sonnets, you can learn these and apply them to your poems.

Poets train themselves to look for techniques and apply various styles in writing.

So if you want to know the fundamentals of poetry, then you’re in the right place.

Let’s jump right in!

53 Poetry Terms Explained (Techniques & Types & Examples).

What Are the Most Common Poetry Terms? (53 Techniques and Types)

Poetry can seem daunting since there are so many difficult-sounding terms attached to poetic techniques and forms. 

However, most of the terms are simply ways to describe natural parts of the language. 

Every sentence you speak has stressed and unstressed syllables, for example. 

The difference is that poets slowly train themselves to look for these techniques, trying to squeeze every possible use out of individual words because of the brevity of the poetic form.

While you certainly don’t need to fit every poetic technique into your writing, and probably shouldn’t, it can still be helpful to know what they are and why they’re used. 

A skilled writer will gradually develop an eye for these techniques, instinctively looking for chances to use them when they happen to work well with the topic or the individual line.

So here’s a quick run-down of some of the more common terms that you might hear thrown around by your favorite poets:

#1 Abecedarian 

A poem in which each letter of a line starts with the next letter of the alphabet in sequence.

Sometimes adapted so that each stanza starts with the next letter instead.

#2 Acrostic 

A poem in which the first letters of the lines spell a particular word. 

Especially long acrostics may even reveal a second, shorter poem using this technique. 

Below is an acrostic poem that spells out “POEM:”

Part of each day
Owes itself, always
Emphatically to the
Memory of yesterday

#3 Allegory

An extended metaphor in which the details of the narrative carry some sort of deeper meaning, often with religious or ethical undertones. 

Much more common in prose since the brevity of most poems is not typically conducive to allegory.

#4 Alliteration

The repetition of a consonant sound at the beginning of several words throughout one or more lines for rhythmic effect. 

The following example uses the w- sound:

The wind whipped wildly over the white snow.

#5 Allusion

An indirect reference to something else, often treated as a throwaway line, usually acts to contextualize a moment or situation. 

Commonly used to establish a setting in an efficient and concise way. 

Relatively rare in poetry but used in all forms of writing.

He’d been nervous around foreigners ever since the war.

#6 Ambiguity

Though not so much a “technique” as a concept, it has been argued by some that poems require some degree of ambiguity to be successful. 

This is often achieved in the concluding moments of the poem by leaving behind some concept that is difficult to interpret in the moment so that it can be said to have multiple meanings.

#7 Anachronism

Utilizing an image or phrase that does not fit the setting due to a conflict in historical timing.

With great resolve, George Washington looked dead into the eyes of Benjamin Franklin and announced, “My webcam is bugging out again.”

#8 Anaphora

Repetition of a word or phrase at the start of successive lines or statements for emphasis. 

Commonly used in political speeches but can be applied to poetry.

I once believed in love, before she stole my heart.
I once believed in hope, before she ripped it apart.
I once believed in her, before she and I did start.

#9 Apostrophe

A device wherein the speaker addresses a person or that isn’t actually there or an abstract concept with an exclamation. 

Especially common in older forms of poetry.

O Winter, why do you not save me from this heat?

#10 Assonance

The repetition of a vowel sound throughout one or more lines for rhythmic effect. 

Often has a subtle comedic effect. 

The following example uses the short “a” sound.

He ran like a madman as we pan-handled at the van.

#11 Ballad

Usually uses rhymed quatrains. 

A form of spoken poetry intended for entertainment that often recounts comedic, tragic, or heroic stories. 

Much like a folk story in poem form. 

Not to be confused with “Ballade.”

#12 Ballade

An Old French form, utilizing three eight-line stanzas and a four-line envoy (the traditional ending stanza in certain French poetic forms). 

The rhyme scheme is ABABBCBC BCBC. 

The last line of the first stanza is repeated in the last line of each other stanza.

#13 Beat Poetry

Poetry inspired by a counterculture movement that took place in the 1950s. 

This movement rejected conformity, and as such, the poetry was nearly always in free verse, usually with cross-cultural influence.

#14 Blackout Poetry

A specific type of “found poetry” in which most of a body of text is completely marked over with black ink or marker, leaving behind only a small selection of words that make up the poem when read in order.

#15 Blank Verse

Poems that are metered but not rhymed. 

A relatively uncommon form that is sometimes appreciated for its sobriety. 

Frequently uses iambic pentameter as the “default” meter.

He longs again, I think, for thrill and theft.
Desire does test his will to act behaved.
It simply is. His life is not my own.

#16 Cadence

The natural rhythm that occurs in speech or nonmetered poetry.

#17 Caesura

A pause mid-line, usually achieved through punctuation.

We then looked—oh, we did look—and there he was.

#18 Chorus

A recurring part of a poem, also called a refrain. 

Choruses can be a phrase, a line, or an entire stanza that occurs multiple times throughout the poem. 

These are commonly used both for rhythm and to cycle back to a core concept that the writer wants to emphasize.

#19 Circumlocution

Purposely using a roundabout syntax to complicate a line. 

A technique instinctively used by young academics to meet the arbitrary and largely meaningless word counts set by their instructors.

He saw, for some distance many tens of hundreds of meters away, a tree.

#20 Consonance

The repetition of consonant sounds throughout one or more lines, but not necessarily at the beginning of each word (see: Alliteration). 

The following example uses the “r” sound.

Wretched fire, burning, searing right through.

#21 Elegy

A melancholic poem that mourns a recent death but usually ends on an uplifting note.

#22 Ellipsis

Omitting common words purposely. 

The example below omits several verbs that would normally be required for grammatical correctness.

I’ll to the sun, nothing where I stood.
Footprints, nothing more.
He to me, as if to whisper secrets.

#23 Enjambment

The continuation of a sentence into the next line or even the next stanza without a punctuated pause.

A softly used
technique can build

#24 Epitaph

A poem specifically imagined as if to be placed on a tombstone, whether it actually will be or not. (see: Elegy)

#25 Foot

One unit of rhythm, usually only measured for the sake of a metered poem, made up of stressed and unstressed syllables. 

An unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable is an iambic foot. 

A stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable is a trochaic foot. 

Other combinations include spondaic, anapestic, and dactylic, each with its own combination of stressed and unstressed syllables.

#26 Formal Poetry

Also referred to as metrical or metered verse, formal poems follow set patterns of rhymes, rhythms, line lengths, etc. 

The rules vary from form to form. 

The goal of formal poetry, in modern usage, is typically to challenge the writer to be as creative as possible within a challenging formulaic structure. 

There are various examples, including: 

  • Sonnet
  • Villanelle
  • Ballade
  • Epigram
  • Haiku
  • Limerick
  • Terza rima
  • Sestina
  • And more

#27 Found Poetry

A type of poetry in which words and phrases from other sources will be reframed into a new poem. 

This process is often compared to a collage, made with words instead of images.

#28 Free Verse

Poetry that is not obligated to any particular form. 

Often considered the antithesis to formal poetry, free verse has no particular rhyme or meter. 

However, the writer may choose to use elements of rhyme or meter intentionally and sporadically to complicate the poem.

#29 Haiku

A popular form of short poem that has three lines. These lines have 5 syllables, then 7, then 5 again. 

The form originates in Japan, where the traditional form is actually significantly stricter and is expected to have a kireji, a “cutting word,” and some reference to the seasons. 

English haikus typically only carry over the 5-7-5 structure.

So wise this willow
who weeps over the graveyard
beside so many.

#30 Hymn

A religious poem written to offer praise to God or to divine forces, commonly designed to be sung aloud.

#31 Hyperbole

A phrasing that is purposely written to be absurdly exaggerated. Usually used to express emphasis or the passion of the speaker.

Her baby-blue eyes shone bright enough to blind the unworthy.

#32 Imagery

The use of descriptive, concrete images in poetry to facilitate visualization in the reader. 

As a general rule of thumb, try to use nouns and verbs that your reader can easily imagine. Imagery is fundamental to poetry.

The tossing, salty waves licked at the bow of the ship.

#33 Invocation

Also called “invocation of the muse.” 

A tradition that started with the Greek performing arts in which a poem or drama will begin with an explicit statement inviting inspiration to the writer or performer. 

Almost never used in modern works.

Before I begin, allow me to call the muses so that I might be humorous in my speech.

#34 Limerick

A short, usually comedic or even crude, poem utilizing an AABBA rhyme scheme. 

Traditional limericks lean toward anapestic trimeter, but modern variants often respect only the rhyme scheme and the general premise.

There once was a lady from Spain
who was, admittedly, vain.
She wore high heels
but slipped on a peel
and now she is in pain.

#35 Metaphor

A comparison between two, unlike things or concepts that do not use comparative words in the statement, often using the various “to be” verbs instead. (Is, was, etc.) 

If a metaphor is expanded on and repeated across an entire poem it’s referred to as an “extended metaphor.” 

Tends to sound more confident and decisive than simile, a similar technique.

Her voice was an entire church choir in a single throat.

#36 Meter

Refers specifically to the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in a formal poem. 

Depending on the pattern, meters can be divided into iambic, trochaic, spondaic, anapestic, dactylic, etc. 

The length (see: Foot) is then signified by a prefix attached to meter. (Trimeter is three feet, tetrameter is four, pentameter is five, etc.) 

Below are two lines written in iambic tetrameter:

He knows it rude to speak of me,
for I would leave this fool, you see.

#37 Motif

A central idea or common setting that connects the work to a wider genre or literary conversation. 

One common example is the seafarer’s journey, exemplified by works as far back as Homer’s Odyssey.

#38 Ode

A poem dedicated entirely to a specific person, event, or topic, almost always in sobering reverence. 

The classic ode was a formal poem designed to be sung, split into the strophe, antistrophe, and epode. 

More modern odes frequently only carry over the theme of dedicating themselves to the topic, with far less regard for form.

#39 Onomatopoeia

A subset of words that were specifically made to describe a sound. Examples include zoom, zap, buzz, wham, etc. 

Often used to add a sense of playfulness or casual speech to a poem or to a character’s dialogue.

#40 Oxymoron

Using contradictory words together in a phrase to achieve a unique literary impact.

The horrible beauty of the woman tempted him towards such pure sin.

#41 Palindrome

A word or phrase in which reversing the order of the letters would reveal the same letters in the same order. 

Racecar” is a common example.

#42 Prose Poem

A passage written in prose that purposely demonstrates poetic techniques, with the key distinction being only that it isn’t broken up into any poetic form.

#43 Personification

Humanizing a non-human subject to exploit relatability. Frequently used to make a complicated or abstract concept more approachable by giving it a character.

Every time Love touches my heart, I remember how much I fear her presence.

#44 Refrain

See “Chorus.”

#45 Repetition

Though usually avoided in prose, repeated words or phrases are used frequently in poetry to express importance or emphasis.

Scream fast. Scream as if all lives depended on it.

#46 Rhyme

When two words share the same end sound. Commonly used across the ends of multiple lines (called end rhymes) or multiple times within a single line (called internal rhyme).

She flossed her teeth, then tossed her head back onto the bed.

#47 Rhyme Scheme

A method used to classify a poem by its end rhymes, using a new letter on each line that has a new end sound or matching a line to an existing letter by its end sound. 

Here is an example of an ABAB rhyme scheme:

A | I cannot hope to know
B | however long I live
A | or wherever I shall go
B | how much there is to give.

#48 Simile

A comparison between two unlike things or concepts that specifically uses comparative words (like, as, so, than, etc.) in the statement. 

Whereas metaphors are implicit, similes are explicit and tend to sound like the speaker is actively searching for a way to explain a thought or feeling. 

True love is like a wine that never loses its sweetness.

#49 Sonnet

A 14-line poem, usually metered.

The most common forms of sonnets are the English (or Shakespearean) sonnet and the Italian (or Petrarchan) sonnet. Both have specific, differing guidelines.

#50 Spoken Word Poetry

A very broad term referring to poetry that’s intended to be shared orally, usually as a performance in front of an audience.

Often prepared to utilize techniques of both speech writing and poetry.

#51 Stanza

One set of lines in a poem. A poem with multiple sets of lines will typically divide its stanzas with line breaks. 

Analogous to the paragraphs used in prose or the verses used in music.

#52 Strophe

Originally referenced the first part of a choral ode in ancient Greek drama. 

Sometimes used nowadays as a synonym for stanza, usually in reference to a nonmetered poem like free verse.

#53 Theme

The message, moral, or underlying idea that the poem keeps connecting back to in its details or implications.