Guide to Poetic Terms

This is a list of terms for describing texts, with an emphasis on terms that apply specifically to poetry, that appear most frequently in literary criticism, or for which dictionary definitions tend to be unenlightening. The list is intended as a quick-reference guide and is by no means exhaustive; similarly, the definitions given below aim for practical utility rather than completeness.

Further resources:
HOLLIS Catalog link The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms
HOLLIS Catalog link M.H. Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms
HOLLIS Catalog link The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics
 Harvard ID required Oxford Reference Online: Literature
  Glossary of poetic terms (Representative Poetry Online)
anaphora the repetition of a word or phrase, usually at the beginning of a line.  
alliteration the repetition of sounds in a sequence of words. (See alsoconsonance and assonance.)  
allegory narrative with two levels of meaning, one stated and one unstated.  
apostrophe direct address to an absent or otherwise unresponsive entity (someone or something dead, imaginary, abstract, or inanimate).  
assonance the repetition of vowel-sounds.  
beat a stressed (or accented) syllable.  
binary dual, twofold, characterized by two parts.  
blank verse unrhymed iambic pentameter.  
caesura an audible pause internal to a line, usually in the middle. (An audible pause at the end of a line is called an end-stop.) The French alexandrine, Anglo-Saxon alliterative meter, and Latin dactylic hexameter are all verse forms that call for a caesura.  
chiasmus from the Greek letter Chi ( Χ ), a "crossed" rhetorical parallel. That is, the parallel form a:b::a:b changes to a:b::b:a to become a chiasmus.  
climax the high point; the moment of greatest tension or intensity. The climax can occur at any point in a poem, and can register on different levels, e.g. narrative, rhetorical, or formal.  
consonance the repetition of consonant-sounds.  
couplet two lines of verse, usually rhymed. Heroic couplet: a rhymed iambic pentameter couplet.  
diction word choice, specifically the "class" or "kind" of words chosen.  
elegy since the 17th century, usually denotes a reflective poem that laments the loss of something or someone.  
end-stopped line a line that ends with a punctuation mark and whose meaning is complete.  
enjambed line a "run-on" line that carries over into the next to complete its meaning.  
foot the basic unit of accentual-syllabic and quantitative meter, usually combining a stress with one or more unstressed syllables.  
free verse poetry in which the rhythm does not repeat regularly.  
imagery the visual (or other sensory) pictures used to render a description more vivid and immediate.  
meter a regularly repeating rhythm, divided for convenience intofeet.  
metonomy a figure of speech in which something is represented by another thing that is commonly and often physically associated with it, e.g. "White House" for "the President."  
ode a genre of lyric, an ode tends to be a long, serious meditation on an elevated subject.  
prosody the study of versification, i.e. the form—meter, rhyme, rhythm, stanzaic form, sound patterns—into which poets put language to make it verse rather than something else.  
refrain a phrase or line recurring at intervals. (N.b. the definition does not require that a refrain include the entire line, nor that it recur at regular intervals, though refrains often are and do.)  
rhythm the patterns of stresses, unstressed syllables, and pauses in language. Regularly repeating rhythm is called meter.  
scansion the identification and analysis of poetic rhythm and meter. To "scan" a line of poetry is to mark its stressed and unstressed syllables.  
simile a figure of speech that compares two distinct things by using a connective word such as "like" or "as."  
speaker the "I" of a poem, equivalent to the "narrator" of a prose text. In lyric poetry, the speaker is often an authorial persona.  
speech act the manner of expression (as opposed to the content). Examples of speech acts include: question, promise, plea, declaration, and command.  
stanza a “paragraph” of a poem: a group of lines separated by extra white space from other groups of lines.  
symbol an image that stands for something larger and more complex, often something abstract, such as an idea or a set of attitudes. (See imagery.)  
symbolism the serious and relatively sustained use of symbols to represent or suggest other things or ideas. (Distinct from allegory in that symbolism does not depend on narrative.)  
synecdoche a figure of speech in which a part of something is used to represent the whole, e.g. “wheels” for “car.”  
tone the speaker’s or author’s attitude toward the reader, addressee, or subject matter. The tone of a poem immediately impresses itself upon the reader, yet it can be quite difficult to describe and analyze.  
topos a traditional theme or motif (e.g. the topos of modesty).  
trope a figure of speech, such as a metaphor (trope is often used, incorrectly, to mean topos)  
valediction an act or utterance of farewell.