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Secret Treasures in Poetic Devices

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Sun Mar 08, 2009 3:36 am
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Hannah says...


I think that poetic devices are the most amazing things I've come across in my experience with reading, analyzing, and writing poetry. If you've ever taken an English class with a poetry unit, you might remember being forced into alliteration, meter, and rhyme, but there is a brilliance behind these devices that can only shine when used properly and naturally.

To start off with let's define a few poetic devices.

Alliteration: The repetition of consonant sounds at the beginning of a word, or sometimes the repetition of any stressed consonants.

For example: Baby boomer benefits; lazy linen lullabies along a lily lane.

Rhyme: Rhyme is sometimes considered an opposite of alliteration, because it refers to the making the last part of a word similar to the last part of another word.

For example: Bat, cat, rat, hat.

Meter/Rhythm: This is a harder term to understand. Meter refers to stressed and unstressed syllables. There are 'feet' which are groupings of syllables in a specific order of stressed versus unstressed, which I'll list briefly. Say the example words out loud to get a feel for the rhythms. ^_^

Note: Stressed syllables are often topped with a marking similar to this: /, while unstressed syllables are marked with this: ˘ .

Iambic foot: Unstressed followed by stressed. { ˘ / } {today}
Trochaic foot: Stressed followed by unstressed. { / ˘ } {daily}
Spondaic foot: Two stressed syllables. { / / } {daybreak, forehead}
Anapestic foot: Two unstressed followed by one stressed. { ˘ ˘ /} {intervene}
Dactylic foot: Two stressed followed by one unstressed. { / ˘ ˘ } {yesterday}
Monosyllabic foot: One stressed syllable. { / } {day}

There are also a few other feet which are less common, but we'll deal with these for now.

Meter, then is the combination of these different feet into lines of poetry. This can be defined by counting how many feet were used in one line. Generally, this results in tetrameter (four feet per line), pentameter (five feet per line), or hexameter (six feet per line), though there can be more or less. Those meters come with different prefixes.

So, do you see now where the term 'iambic pentameter' comes from? Good.

Alright, so now you know these terms and could probably put them to good use, but there are many elements of these techniques you might want to be aware of.



As mentioned before, alliteration can be the repetition of beginning consonants, but it can also deal with internal consonants being repeated. To take a closer look at how this is being used, we can look at each letter and the sound it makes, then at the mood that such a sound portrays. Take, for reference, these excerpts from Alfred Lord Tennyson's The Lady of Shalott and Break, Break, Break.

Willows whiten, aspens quiver,
Little breezes dusk and shiver
Through the wave that runs for ever
By the island in the river


Break, break, break
At the foot of thy crags, O Sea!
But the tender grace of a day that is dead[/i]
Will never come back to me.

When you read these examples, what moods do you feel? For the first, you see empty, soothing consonants like 'wuh', 'ss', 'vvv' or 'rrr'. Soothing sounds like these can produce a calming or lazy mood. In The Lady of Shallot Tennyson uses them to show the lackluster life of the lady and contrasts the consonants in her descriptive passages with harsher ones in passages describing the life outside her tower.

In this second example, you can see the example of harsher consonants like 'kuh', 'guh' and 'duh'. These explosive consonants make the passage more exciting to read and can represent surprise, life, or violence.

Consider what your consonants say when you write!


So, whenever you write poetry, you're supposed to make that every rhyme is absolutely perfect, right? Wrong! In fact, using different types of rhymes can call attention to different parts of your poem or even add to the tone you're trying to portray. Consider these different types of rhymes as defined by the article on Wikipedia:

# imperfect: a rhyme between a stressed and an unstressed syllable. (wing, caring)
# semirhyme: a rhyme with an extra syllable on one word. (bend, ending)
# oblique (or slant): a rhyme with an imperfect match in sound. (green, fiend; one, thumb)
# assonance: matching vowels. (shake, hate) Assonance is sometimes used to refer to slant rhymes.
# consonance: matching consonants. (rabies, robbers)
# half rhyme (or sprung rhyme): matching final consonants. (bent, ant)

Now, use these special rhymes sparingly to produce the maximum effect. If you keep the rest of your rhymes perfect and slip in one of these, it will definitely call attention to itself and you can use this to your benefit. Take, for example, the last stanza of one of my poems, Shattered.

Crashing through the dreams we dream
as if to ruin and meant to ream
essence-sands and heat from man-made source, o, whence this crystal rose.
Sound cracks two fine halves apart.
The glass caves in around my heart.
Materials of sea and fire turn now to bitter, sharp echoes.

As you can see, the rhyme scheme goes AABCCB throughout the poem (and stays with mostly perfect rhymes). Here, though, we see an example of an imperfect rhyme, because 'echoes' is a trochaic foot. Because the stress doesn't fall on the rhyming part of the word, it leaves the rhyme sort of empty, which adds to the destroyed and shattered tone in my piece. There are so many ways to use different rhymes!


I suppose that rhyming can be intertwined with meter, as it was in the last example, but there are other ways that meter can be changed to influence a piece of poetry. Take for example, Shakespeare's Sonnet 20. It speaks about the addition of 'one thing' to a person (and if you've studied Shakespeare and this sonnet, you'll know what I'm talking about), so rather than having perfect iambic pentameter as a sonnet is supposed to have, every single line of the sonnet has eleven syllables instead of ten. That really adds to his message, doesn't it?


As you can see from these few examples, poetic devices can be fun to incorporate into poetry for school, but can also serve a much deeper purpose! Rhyme, alliteration, and meter are all elements that can add to the tone or message of your poem if you know how to work them in carefully. Just be cautious that you don't let these techniques appear forced. They are most effective if the reader doesn't even notice them the first time, but only realizes the work of the writer upon further investigation.

Good luck!