This is my second post on this interesting topic about UNDERSTANDING AND ANALYSING POETRY @ High School. Please read the first post here:

Essential Words To Use When Understanding And Analysing Poetry – 1

writing-notes-idea-conference.jpgMost words convey several meanings or shades of meaning at the same time. It is the poet’s job to find words which, when used in relation to other words in the poem, will carry the precise intention of thought.


BELOW IS A LIST OF POETIC TERMS that can help you interpret, critique, and respond to a variety of different works of poetry. This list is by no means comprehensive, but instead, offers a primer to the language frequently used by students when tackling and analyzing a poem. This list and the terms included in it can help you begin to identify central concerns or elements in a poetry that might help facilitate your interpretation, argumentation and analysis

Often, some of the more significant words may carry several layers or “depths” of meaning at once. The ways in which the meanings of words are used can be identified.

ALLEGORY: It is a representation of an abstract or spiritual meaning. Sometimes it can be a single word or phrase, such as the name of a character or place. Often, it is a symbolic narrative that has not only a literal meaning, but a larger one understood only after reading the entire story or poem.

ALLUSION: This is a brief reference to some person, historical event, work of art, or Biblical or mythological situation or character.

Ambiguity: It is a word or phrase that can mean more than one thing, even in its context. Poets often search out such words to add richness to their work. Often, one meaning seems quite readily apparent, but other, deeper and darker meanings, await those who contemplate the poem.

ANALOGY: It is a  comparison, usually something unfamiliar with something familiar.

APOSTROPHE: This is speaking directly to a real or imagined listener or inanimate object; addressing that person or thing by name. Example: O Captain! My Captain! our fearful trip is done…

CLICHE: It is any figure of speech that was once clever and original but through overuse has become outdated. If you’ve heard more than two or three other people say it more than two or three times, chances are the phrase is too timeworn to be useful in your writing, eg: busy as a bee.

CONNOTATION: This is the emotional, psychological or social overtones of a word; its implications and associations apart from its literal meaning. Often, this is what distinguishes the precisely correct word from one that is merely acceptable.

CONTRAST: It is closely arranged things with strikingly different characteristics, eg: He was dark, sinister, and cruel; she was radiant, pleasant, and kind.

DENOTATION: This is the dictionary definition of a word; its literal meaning apart from any associations or connotations.

Students must exercise caution when beginning to use a THESAURUS, since often the words that are clustered together may share a denotative meaning, but not a connotative one, and the substitution of a word can sometimes destroy the mood, and even the meaning, of a poem.

EUPHEMISM: It is an understatement, used to lessen the effect of a statement; substituting something innocuous for something that might be offensive or hurtful, eg: She is at rest. (meaning, she’s dead)

HYPERBOLE: It is an outrageous exaggeration used for effect, eg: He weighs a ton.

IRONY: This is a contradictory statement or situation to reveal a reality different from what appears to be true. The three types of irony commonly used are: verbal irony; situational irony and dramatic irony.

METONYMY: This is a figure of speech in which a person, place, or thing is referred to by something closely associated with it, eg: The White House stated today that . . .

OXYMORON: It is a combination of two words that appear to contradict each other, eg: a pointless point of view; bittersweet.

PARADOX: This is a statement in which a seeming contradiction may reveal an unexpected truth. Example: The hurrier I go the behinder I get.

PUN: A word play in which words with totally different meanings have similar or identical sounds, eg: Like a firefly in the rain, I’m de-lighted.

LITOTES: It is a double negative is used for poetic effect, eg: not unlike, not displeased.

SYNECDOCHE: It indicates a person, object, etc. by letting only a certain part represent the whole, eg: All hands on deck.

REFRAIN: A line or lines repeated at intervals during a poem, usually at the end of each stanza. A refrain serves to establish meter and tone, but it often gives a hint about the poem’s message. A song’s refrain may be called the chorus.

EUPHONY: A series of musically pleasant sounds, conveying a sense of harmony and beauty to the language.

ANTITHESIS:  It is an opposition, or contrast, of ideas. Example: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”

STANZA: A division of poetry named for the number of lines it contains, eg: couplet: two line stanza; triplet: three line stanza, etc, Some people call it a VERSE.

OVERSTATEMENT (or hyperbole): An extreme exaggeration used for effect; ie: I’ve told you a hundred times…; I’m starving; The suspense is killing me.

UNDERSTATEMENT:  It means saying less than what is meant, for effect. It is the opposite of an EMBELLISHMENT.

SPEAKER: This is the PERSONA the poet takes on; like the narrator in the story, the writer takes on a character to present the words on the page.

CONCEIT:  It is a fanciful and elaborate figure of speech that makes a surprising connection between two seemingly dissimilar things, eg: John Donne’s comparison of separated lovers to the legs of a compass.

ANAPHORA: It is the exact repetition of words or phrases at the beginning of successive lines or sentences.

HYPOPHORA: It is a figure of speech in which the speaker both asks a question and immediately answers it.

CHIASMUS: The reversal of, or reversal of the order of, certain words, concepts, sounds or syntactic structures, eg: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” (JFK, 1961 Inaugural address)

APHORISM: It is a concise, pointed, epigrammatic statement that reveals a truth or principle, eg: A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” (Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare).

VERSE: It is a metric line of poetry; any division or grouping of words in a poetic composition, where others referred to as a STANZA.

SATIRE: It is a form of sarcasm, irony or wit used to expose abuses or follies, ridicule.

VOLTA: It is an Italian word for “turn.” In a sonnet, the volta is the turn of thought or argument: in Petrarchan or Italian sonnets it occurs between the octave and the sestet, and in Shakespearean or English before the final couplet.

ESSENTIALLY, when analyzing a poem and then carrying out an answer to a question, you will have been tackling three key issues:

  • What purpose does this poetic/literary device serve?
  • How does the poet communicate his or her purpose through this device?
  • Why do readers have this response to the poetic device?

This is a skill you need to harness at High School. It is not easy but with practice you will get the hang of it. To do so, I have one important posts I have done to help you achieve a top grade in English Literature essays. YOU can access it here:

With a lot of practice, you will see yourself improving.

Good luck in all your endeavours.

As of old: Be EMPOWERED and EXCEL!


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