Poetry. It’s a single word that comes with a multitude of definitions. Poetry has existed since man first learned to invent a creative thought and long predates the history of human literacy. Oral poetry likely existed long before ink first hit parchment, and written poetry continues to evolve every year. For something that has been around as long as humanity, why does understanding poetry sometimes feel so complicated? Luckily, here are a few terms that can help you navigate the art of poetry.


Idiom: an expression that is not understood by it’s literal meaning but it refers to a figurative meaning that people understand by common use. One of the most famous examples of this is from Robert Frost’s poem, “Mending Wall.”

“He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbours.”

The idiom “Good fences make good neighbors” does not literally mean fences are good neighbors rather is an expression used to say that respecting the property of others is what makes a neighbor good!


2. Juxtaposition: a term used when a writer uses two or more dissimilar concepts within a piece in order to spark the reader’s attention with their contrast and comparisons. A good example of Juxtaposition comes from Charles Dickins novel A Tale of Two Cities.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…”


3. Imagery: imagery might be one of the most commonly used poetic techniques as well as one of the most effective. The term ‘imagery’ is used to describe writing that is meant to appeal to our physical senses. While the word itself seems to convey only mental images, imagery is about all of our senses including touch, smell, taste, sound, as well as sight. Writing in this way is what makes the reader really feel the poetry with their body. For example, Maya Angelou’s famous poem “Caged Bird.

“The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn bright lawn
and he names the sky his own”
This poem is full of words used to convey vivid images and sounds that invoke a powerful meaning to the underlying theme of the piece.


4. Synechdoche: this is a term for when a part of something is meant to represent the whole thing, or vice versa. Some common examples are refering to only “sails” when talking about a ship or a common phrase “boots on the ground,” where “boots” refers to soliders.  In the short story “The Lady or the Tiger” by Frank R. Stockton there is an example of Synechdoche.

“His eye met hers as she sat there paler and whiter than anyone in the vast ocean of anxious faces about her.”

In this sentences, faces refer to people as a whole rather than just the one part of them!


5. Pun: A pun, or a play on words, is used most often to add humorous effects to pieces of writing. A pun is made when a word used can have two different meanings depending on how the sentence is interpretated. A famous example of this comes from the Oscar Wilde play, “Importance of Being Earnest.”

“On the contrary, Aunt Augusta, I’ve now realised for the first time in my life the vital Importance of Being Earnest”

In the play, the character whose name is Jack Earnest is making a pun with his own last name.



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