Wednesday, April 26, 2006

April 26: The ABCs of Poetry Day

April is National Poetry Month and the 26th day of the month is a reminder that in the 26 letters of the alphabet we have all we need to write poetry. For more on National Poetry month visit

What follows are the ABCs of poetic terms, 26 tools you can use to craft your own poems:

Alliteration: In poetry, it’s not just what you say, it’s also how you say it; in other words, there is sense, but there is also sound. Alliteration is a sound device where you repeat the beginning consonant sounds of your words. If you do it too much, your poems will sound childish, which is okay if that’s what you want. The occasional use of alliteration, however, will help you emphasize a particular line or phrase for effect.

Ballad: A ballad is basically storytelling in verse. Think of a specific incident or anecdote, and tell your story in verse. For classic examples see Casey at the Bat or The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Consonance: Consonance is a sound device in poetry. It is simply the repetition of consonant sounds within words. Consonance’s twin brother is assonance, the repetition of vowel sounds.

Diction: Diction is simply choosing the appropriate words, something that every writer and every poet does. Since English provides so many alternatives, it is important to select the word with the right denotations (dictionary definition) and connotations (associations, feelings).

Epic and Epigram: The epic and the epigram are the long and the short of poetry. An epic is a long narrative poem, such as the Iliad or Paradise Lost. An epigram is a short witty saying of one to four lines.

Free verse: Free verse releases you from the constraints of rhyme and meter. In free verse you chose what sounds best to you; you chose where to begin and where to end a line.

Genre: There are all kinds of different genres of verse. These are simply different types or forms of poetry: acrostic, ballad, cinquain, dramatic monologue, elegy, found poem, ghazal, haiku, Italian sonnet, jingle, kenning, limerick, malediction, narrative, ode, pantoums, quatrain, requiem, sonnet, tanka, univocalic, and villanelle.

Haiku: A three-lined form of Japanese poetry made up of 17 total syllables: Line 1 – five, Line 2 – seven, and Line 3 - five.

Imagery: Imagery is painting a picture for your reader with words. Don’t limit yourself, however, to just visual description; include other sensory language, describing sounds, smells, tastes, and textures.

Juxtapostion: When you write poetry you are free to couple words that you don’t normally see together. Put logic aside and experiment by playing with combinations, such as adjective – noun combos: delicious weathervane, omnivorous umbrella, angry textbook. Also, play around with words that have opposite meanings (oxymorons), such as intelligent stooge or merciful punishment.

Kenning: A Kenning is a compact two-word metaphor used as a synonym for a common noun. Kenning are an important feature of Old English, where the sea is called a whale-road or a king is the ring-bestower. We use these in modern times too: an old car is a gas-guzzler or a lazy person is a coach potato. Look at an everyday object, such as a paperclip, and re-name it using a kenning. How about silent staple?

Limerick: A five line poem that has a rhyme scheme of AABBA.

Metaphor: A comparison between two unrelated nouns. Metaphor is the most common type of figurative language in poetry and prose. Example: Power is a hellish fire that scorches those who use it for their evil.

Nounce word: Another benefit of poetry is that you don’t have to stick with words in the dictionary. You can create your own words, by combining or blending existing words. The only rule is that your reader should be able to make some sense out of what you’re saying. For the classic example of this type of poetry, read Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky.

Onomatopoeia: Onomatopoeia is the use of words that imitate the sounds of nature and other things in the real word, such as the buzz of a bee or the tap, tap of your computer keyboard.

Personification: Personification is the use of human terms to describe non-human things, such as: My stubborn computer would not wake up this morning. Play around with personification by making a list of adjectives and verbs that are usually used to describe people, such as angry, joyful, loquacious, pondered, sprinted, and lifted. Then match these human words with something that is not human, such as the morning sun, the afternoon traffic, or an evening rain shower.

Quatrain: A quatrain is a stanza made up of four lines. A stanza by the way is a collection or grouping of lines, kind of like a paragraph in prose. Quatrains are the most common stanza form in English poetry.

Rhyme: Rhyme is probably the most traditional way to write poetry. You can rhyme every line if you want to, you can use rhyming couplets for emphasis at specific places in your poem, or you can avoid rhyme all together.

Simile: Similes are just LIKE metaphors, except they use the words like or as. Power is like a hellish fire that scorches those who use it for their evil.

Tone: Tone is the writer’s attitude about his or her subject. The words you select and the connotations of those words should match your attitude about your subject whether you’re writing about a place you love or a person you dislike.

Understatement: Understatement is the opposite of hyperbole. It’s the intentional description of something to make it appear less than it really is.

Viewpoint: In poetry you can write from any point of view you want, just try to be consistent. You can write from the first person point of view or from the all-seeing omniscient third person point of view. You can even write from the point of view of someone else or someTHING else. What would your coffee cup say if it could talk?

Word Order: In prose you need to stick to logical word order, but in poetry all bets are off. Experiment with different ways of chaining words together.

X –out: Read your poetry aloud, and cross out anything that you don’t like. Just like any type of writing, your poetry will be improved by X-ing out any unnecessary words.

hYperbole: Hyperbole is exaggeration for effect. When you write a poem, you can exaggerate as much as you want. Don’t let reality keep you down. Go over the top: sing the praises of your number two pencil, or imagine that you are the King of the World.

Zeugma: Okay, so it’s hard to find a poetic term that starts with Z. Zeugma is a little known type of figurative language where one word applies to two other words in different senses of the word, as in the following line from The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien:
"He carried a strobe light and the responsibility for the lives of his men."

Today’s Challenge: Write a poem of your own. Don't worry about using all 26 techniques explained above, just try a few. But do play around with the 26 letters of the alphabet and have fun.

Quote of the Day: The poet is a liar who always speaks the truth. --Jean Cocteau

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