Poetic Devices (and Forms) You Might Not Have Heard of
Some poetic devices are simply Must-Knows if you want to even begin writing poetry, like rhyming, meter, and syllables. Others are not as necessary but are still pretty well known, like alliteration and onomatopoeia. And then there are devices and forms, such as the ones in this list, that you might not know, unless you have taken poetry classes or done some research. I’ve compiled this list to help you spruce up your writing or learn about how the structure and word choice of a poem can affect how readers consume it.
Anaphora is a type of repetition in which the same word or phrase appears at the beginning of multiple lines (Academy of American Poets, n.d.-a; Glatch, 2020). It is one of the world’s oldest poetic techniques, as it is found in religious texts, and I exemplify it here (Academy of American Poets, n.d-a):
I am a feather on the bright sky
I am the blue horse that runs in the plain
I am the fish that rolls, shining, in the water
I am the shadow that follows a child
I am the evening light, the lustre of meadows
I am an eagle playing with the wind
I am a cluster of bright beads
I am the farthest star [...] (Momaday, 1992).
Repetition generally is used to add emphasis; in anaphora specifically, emphasis falls on what follows the repeated phrase (Glatch, 2020). The meaning and emotion of the words that follow are thus enhanced and stick out more, especially if the lines are on the same topic; for example, if you can say the same thing in several ways, that one thing must be very important. In the above example, the sheer amount of ways Momaday described himself demonstrates the importance of his identity (Academy of American Poets, n.d-a).
Similarly, epistrophe is a type of anaphora in which the repeated phrase appears at the end, rather than the beginning (Academy of American Poets, n.d-a).
Not to be confused with the punctuation, a poetic apostrophe is when the narrator addresses something or someone that isn’t physically present (Brinks, 2019), such as in the following example, when Collins (2001) addresses someone in the future:
O stranger of the future!
O inconceivable being!
whatever the shape of your house,
no matter how strange and colorless the clothes you
I bet nobody there likes a wet dog either.
This device derived from Ancient Greek when writers addressed their muses (Brinks, 2019; Glatch, 2020) and often by starting with, “O(h),” (Allen, 2019). Now, the device has expanded to include addressing practically anything, but common addressees are the deceased or ex-lovers (Glatch, 2020). Some authors still even use, “O(h),” to add an archaic flair (Allen, 2019). This device is used to evoke feelings of admiration, longing, and wistfulness due to the separation of the narrator and the addressee, and is often meant to praise the addressee (Glatch, 2020), but the beauty of art is the creator’s power to explore and experiment.
Assonance and Consonance
While you may have heard of alliteration (the repetition of the first letter of a word in one line), there are two other kinds of sound repetition that you might not have noticed. The first is assonance. Also called “internal rhymes”, assonance refers to one vowel sound being repeated within words of the same line (CLPE, n.d.-a). This differs from conventional rhyming because it doesn’t necessarily mean that the last word of one line has to rhyme with the last
word of another. Here is an example with [aj].
She spied on our lives through the little dolls eyes
And saw that we weren’t happy. (Selick, 2009, 0:59:39).
Assonance affects flow and rhythm by emphasizing specific syllables or controlling pace. Longer vowels, like [aj] in the above example, can slow down the pace, while shorter vowels, like [ɛ] (“eh” like “bed”), can quicken the pace. Manipulating flow also allows you to manipulate the mood, such as how [u] (“oo”) sounds can mimic fear (MasterClass Staff, 2021).
Contrastively, consonance refers to the repetition of consonants within a line (Brinks, 2019; LiteraryDevices, n.d.-a). It differs from alliteration in that this repetition does not have to fall on the first letter of a word.
Our seam is silky sandpaper
Smoothing the barbarian bristles
Of brushes with coarse thoughts
Ironing wrinkles of weaker weeks
Silencing specificity and singularity [...] (Bourgon, 2016).
Consonance draws attention to the sounds being repeated, and thus to the meaning of the word containing the sound; if you really want to describe something as negative, the repetition of [g] in a phrase like “gross, disgusting, gruesome, and ugly” will drive home that meaning. The uses of consonance extend beyond poetry too; in writing in general, character names with consonance are more memorable (LiteraryDevices, n.d.-a).
You might have heard of a concrete poem, in which the shape of the poem mimics the topic. Calligrams are similar except it is the shape of a word rather than the whole piece (CLPE, n.d-b; How to Create..., 2019). In the example from Rise (2021), the word “shattered” has been separated into pieces to reflect the meaning of the word.
Other examples of calligrams include font types (CLPE, n.d-b). A word like “hefty” might be written in a bolded, thick font, while a word like “delicate” could be written in something thin and dainty. A calligram can make a piece more playful or witty. This device from the Hellensitic period of ancient Greece is found internationally, including 20th century Hispanic literature and the calligraphy of Islamic culture. It has even been adapted for modern North American consumerism as it is often used in logos to increase the brand’s memorability (How to Create..., 2019).
How like a winter hath my absence been
From thee, the pleasure of the fleeting year!
What freezings have I felt, what dark days seen!
What old December's bareness everywhere! [...] (Shakespeare, 1609).
Often the metaphor is complex or surprising and takes a bit of intellect to decipher, so the purpose of conceit is to grab the reader’s attention via intrigue as they try to unravel the complicated metaphor (Conceit, n.d.). It can also help the writer practise their ability to use metaphors, as it allows them to delve as deep as they can into one metaphor (Glatch, 2020).
Enjambment is when a sentence is not finished at the end of a line, but continues onto the next, or...
Enjambment is when
A sentence is not
Finished at the end of
The purposes and uses of enjambment are numerous. The poem does not make sense until it has reached an end-stopped line (one that is not enjambed). Therefore, readers must continue reading and cannot stop until the piece has, which it creates feelings of urgency, mystery, and movement. I like to use it to show that the narrator is rambling or talking really fast, but authors like Atwood in her (1974) piece “Siren Song” use it to trick readers into reading.
[...] I will tell the secret to you,
to you, only to you.
Come closer. This song
is a cry for help: Help me!
Only you, only you can,
you are unique
at last. Alas
it is a boring song
but it works every time.
In this excerpt, enjambment forces readers to continue through the piece, drawing them unwittingly and unknowingly to the danger at the end of the piece in the same way sirens draw sailors to their deaths (Margaret Atwood Siren..., n.d.).
This technique also allows you to control the flow of your piece by controlling the pauses (Enjambment, n.d.). Further, it allows you to shift where the reader’s focus will fall. If several lines are enjambed, focus will fall on the end-stopped line (Glatch, 2020). It also will draw the reader’s attention to the last word of the enjambed lines; since words like “when” or “of” in my first example do not typically exist at the end of a line, they will stand out more (Enjambment, n.d.).
Kenning describes defining a noun by its qualities; the Kenning replaces the name of the person or thing with a noun and a verb with the nominalizer (-er) suffix (CLPE, n.d.-d; Examples of Kenning, n.d.). For example, I once used “landwalkers” to describe humans from the point of view of aquatic animals. Interestingly, this device originated in Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse cultures and was originally intended to name swords (CLPE, n.d.-d). Its purpose nowadays is to describe common people and things in a more inventive, illustrious, and interesting manner (Examples of Kenning, n.d.).
To describe this one, I have to define some linguistic terms. A sentence must have a subject and a verb; the verb describes whatever is happening, while the subject describes who or what is making the verb happen. For example, in “I kick,” the verb is “kick” and the subject, the thing doing the kicking, is “I”. A sentence can also have an object, which is the thing the verb is being done to. For example, in “I kick the ball,” the object is “the ball.”
Now, zeugma describes the usage of one verb with at least two different objects that enable different meanings of the verb (Glatch, 2020; LiteraryDevices, n.d.-b). So, using our above example, a zeugma would be, “I kicked the ball and the bucket,” wherein the second object “bucket” makes the verb “kicked” have a different meaning—you don't literally kick a bucket, you die.
Derived from Ancient Greek and Latin poetry (Glatch, 2020), this technique provides a bit more flair to your writing by making the piece more unique, interesting, dramatic, and vivid. The contrast between the two objects using the same verb will make the meaning stand out more and may appear witty or clever. It can also help with concision, if that is a concern for you. However, if it isn’t used correctly, it can make the line confusing (LiteraryDevices, n.d.-b).
These two are actually poetic forms rather than devices, but I still feel that they often go under-the-radar. They can both be very helpful in the writer’s decision as to how to structure their poem to best express its intent and message.
A Clerihew is a four-line poem in which the first two lines rhyme with each other and the last two lines rhyme with each other (therefore in AABB style). More than that, however, a Clerihew is meant to be funny and describes a specific person (or two) by explicitly mentioning their name, usually as the final words of the first line so that the second line will rhyme with it (CLPE, n.d.-c; van Dyk, n.d.).
It only irritated Brahms
To tickle him under the arms.
What really helped him to compose
Was to be stroked on the nose. (Bentley, 1905).
This form was invented by Edmund Clerihew Bentley while he was bored in science class (van Dyk, n.d.) (and I don't blame him—I wrote a good chunk of one of my books in grade 10 history). A Clerihew is incredibly playful on its own, but can be made even more so; you can make something up about the character, mix languages together to help it rhyme (van Dyk, n.d.), or force words to rhyme like in this example (CLPE, n.d.-c):
You had to goe
I felt so sad,
I wrote this poe. (Hegley, n.d.)
However you decide to play with it, the main goal of a Clerihew is to describe a person’s life or main personality trait through one incident, creating a caricature through words (van Dyk, n.d.).
Found poetry creates a new piece out of a text that already exists via keeping the words intact but rearranging or restructuring them. In its purest sense, a found poem is taken from one source and no words are omitted or added (Academy of American Poets, n.d.-b), but, as always, art leaves room to explore. For example, I used to write found poems for the vocal group I was in during my undergrad based off the definitions of the title of our concerts. The is my favourite one, called “Blue” (Rose, 2019). This would not be considered a “pure” found poem because I have removed words and drawn from multiple sources: “blue” from Lexico, “the blue” from Merriam-Webster, and the closing message is even a lyric from one of our songs, “Your Way,” written by one of our talented members Max Tojicic—but there is nothing here that I have written anew, and therefore it is still a found poem.
An important thing to remember when using found poetry is that the words have been written by someone else and therefore you must give credit to the original writer. By not doing so, you are claiming it as your own, and not only is that something you can potentially get sued over, but it illegitimizes the products we create and thus artists as workers in an industry.
I hope you can take some of these devices and use them in your pieces! If you'd do, I’d love to see what you've come up with, so feel free to share them with me!
Bentley, E. C. (1905). Brahms. Biography for Beginners. Dover Publications.
Collins, B. (2001). To a Stranger Born in Some Distant Country Hundreds of Years from now. Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems. New York: Random House.
Selick, H. (Director). (2009). Coraline [Film]. Laika.
Shakespeare, W. Sonnet 97: How like a winter hath my absence been. Shakespeare’s Sonnets. London: Thomas Thorpe.
References for the Poem “Blue” by Ris V. Rose