Poetry Analysis: Key Terms To Help You Make The Grade

Ah, Poetry Analysis… have you ever wished it could all be a little more, well, straightforward? 

If you answered a resounding ‘YES’ to the above, then you most certainly are not alone. For hundreds of years, students have been tasked with memorising, reciting, or analysing poetry at school, and the task hasn’t gotten any easier! 

Poetry-lovers often claim that the true beauty of the art form lies in the hidden meanings and clever play of words, structure and phrasing. It’s your job in an exam to identify these techniques as you answer the specific questions. 

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the task, start by learning the following terminology and techniques.

You’re bound to be able to use these in your IGCSE, GCSE, or A Level exam, no matter which poem you’re presented with.

Our English expert Paul advises that all English Language and Literature students familiarise themselves with the key terms in this blog post, and then practices using them to answer exam-style questions. 

When you’ve finished reading and memorising, keep extending your knowledge with our full set of Poetry Analysis notes here

Structural Terms

Stanza:  Like a paragraph in a poem, a stanza is made up of lines. Pay attention to the length of each stanza – are they of regular length throughout the poem? What are the differences and similarities between each stanza? 

Metre: The arrangement of ‘beats’ (stressed and unstressed syllables) within a poem is called the metre. This can be a clear, regular beat pattern throughout the poem, a weaker, hard-to-discern beat, or an irregular pattern of stresses. Read the poem in your head (or out loud when you are revising) to get a feel for the spoken sound of it. 

Technical Terms

Rhyme: A rhyme is the repetition of a final syllable sound. Look out for ABAB rhyme:

“Out tonight, the shooting star (A)
Streaks the pitch-dark sky (B)
Sending light from galaxies far (A)
History in your eye(B) 

A half-rhyme (also often called slant rhyme or imperfect rhyme) is a rhyme in which only the stressed syllables of ending consonants match (the vowels are different) For example: hold and bald, bridge and grudge

Assonance:  When the poet repeats vowel sounds, this is called assonance. For example “The moon shone through the gloom” 

The repetition of a consonant at the start of successive words is called alliteration – “Bright blue birds break the brittle peace of dawn

The repetition of a soft consonant sound like ‘s’ is called sibilance: “several scarlet skirts swooshed from side to side

Using vivid descriptive language (lots of adjectives!) to ‘paint a picture’ in the mind of the reader or listener is an example of imagery.  For example – “The lush emerald green canopy of the rainforest was teeming with palm-sized, jet-blue hummingbirds, furiously searching for sugar-sweet nectar”

Poems are usually awash with metaphors! A metaphor directly references one thing by mentioning another – they are often used to suggest a hidden similarity between the two things mentioned. For example, if  “the grandfather clock was the army general governing the battle of household life”, this means that the grandfather clock is being metaphorically referred to as an army general – most likely to emphasise its power and control. 

Don’t confuse metaphors with similes: similes are direct comparisons. For example: “the sky was like a never-ending ocean” or “His voice was like an angel’s song”

Other Common Poetic Techniques

Pathetic Fallacy: This is a literary term for the attribution of human characteristics (emotion or behaviour) to a natural phenomenon or being. It’s a kind of personification which is occurs in poetic descriptions – like  “a dancing stream” or “angry storm clouds”. 

Juxtaposition is created when two ‘opposites’ are placed next to each other in the poem for impact. For example, ‘She was lost in the bright darkness’ ‘The pauper’s riches were incredible to behold’ 

The artistic technique of describing a familiar or ordinary event or object in a way which makes it seem strange or unusual is called ‘defamiliarization’. For example, if a cheese sandwich was described as:  ‘chalk-white, bacteria-treated lactose product encased in a shroud of once-baked processed wheat’. 

Well done! You’ve finished our introduction to key terms in poetry analysis. All you need to do now is learn these terms, look out for them when you next read a poem, and practice using them in your exams answers! Easy, right?

When you’re confident with the terms above, boost your grade further by checking out our our complete guide to poetry analysis and essay writing here.