Poetic Devices: 27 Essential Definitions and Examples
Emerging poets tend to fall into one of two camps.
The first are those who seek to embrace any and all poetic devices they can find and pile them one on top of the other, creating an architectural marvel not entirely dissimilar to a literary jenga puzzle—also known as Art.
The second are those who sit down at a desk/café table/riverside and throw up a beautiful storm of emotions onto the page, creating something so full of shadow and light and colour that it could easily be mistaken for a post-impressionist painting or the remnants of a small child’s lunch. This, they assure us, is also Art.
The truth is, most poetry will fall somewhere in the middle. Many poets will begin learning about the technical literary devices used in poetry, read other poets who have used poetic devices successfully, and practice them in their own work until they become a part of their poet’s voice. Then they’ll allow them to surface naturally as they put their emotions down onto the page. If you read any poetry at all (and if you haven’t, stop reading this, go do that, and come back), you’re probably well on your way. Many of the things we’re going to show you in this list of poetic devices are things you’ll probably recognize from other poems and stories you’ve read in the past.
What Are Poetic Devices?
Poetic devices are the interlocking puzzle pieces that make up all poetry, from snappy haikus to Greek epics. These poetic devices work on the basic levels of line and rhythm, which make your poetry engaging and memorable, and they work on the deeper, thematic level, which makes your poetry matter to the reader. Poetic devices the literary techniques that give your poetry shape, brightness, and contrast.
Some of these poetic devices you probably already use instinctively. All poetry comes from a place within ourselves that recognizes the power of story and song, and poets have formed these poetic devices over time as a way for us to communicate that with each other. While you’re reading about these elements of poetry, see if you can look back at your own work and find where these poetic devices are already beginning to shine through naturally. Then you’ll be able to refine them even more to make your poetry the best it can be.
Here are some of the poetic devices you’ll be able to add to your poet’s toolkit:
Hearkening back to the days when poetry was mostly sung or read out loud, this poetic device uses repeating opening sounds at the start of a series of successive words, giving them a lovely musical quality. The “Wicked Witch of the West” is an example of alliteration. So are “political power play” and “false friends.”
“Cold cider” is not an example of alliteration, because even though the words begin with the same letter, they don’t have the same sound. A ”sinking circus,” on the other hand, kicks off each word with the same sound even though they look different on the page.
Allusion is where the poet makes an indirect reference to something outside of the poem, whether that’s a real person, a well-known mythological cycle, or a struggle that’s happening in the world we know. Sometimes this is simply to draw a parallel that the reader will easily understand, but often allusions are used to hint at something that it would be insensitive, or even dangerous, to directly acknowledge.
In Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven, the bird in question is described as “perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door.” Some of the poem’s readers may recognize Pallas as a reference to Pallas Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom. This allusion shows that the narrator has a high respect for learning.
Anaphora is the act of beginning a series of successive sentences or clauses (sentence fragments) with the same phrase. It’s an older poetic device that many writers instinctively still use today, knowing that it lends a unique emphasis and rhythm even if they don’t know the specific term for it. You may have even used it yourself without realizing it!
One of the most famous uses of anaphora in literature comes from Charles Dickens’ 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 goes on like this for a while, and the audience falls into not only a comfortable rhythm but a sense of audience participation; they begin to anticipate the words as they come, giving them a feeling of singing along to a song they’ve never heard. The repetition at the beginning of each line also draws attention to the contrasting ideas that Dickens is introducing.
Also called “vowel rhyme,” assonance is a poetic device that repeats vowel sounds in a word or phrase to create rhythm (we’ll talk about rhythm a little more later on). “Go slow down that lonely road” is an example of well-balanced assonance: we hear the same “oh” sound in “go” and “slow,” and then later in “lonely” and “road” (there’s also a bit of a clever eye rhyme in “slow down”—you’ll learn about eye rhymes when we talk about rhyme down below). Don’t the deep, repetitive vowels just make you want to snuggle down into them?
You’ll probably find yourself using assonance in your poetry already, because the words just seem to naturally settle in together. As you progress, you’ll be able to see where those balanced vowels are beginning to shine through and then emphasize them even more.
5. Blank Verse
Blank verse is poetry written in a regular meter, but with unrhymed line. It falls somewhere between formal and free verse poetry. While blank verse never has a formal rhyme scheme, it does have a formal meter (you’ll read more about meter a bit further on). Most blank verse is written in iambic pentameter, which was popularized by Shakespeare in his plays. “But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?” is a famous example—it doesn’t rhyme, but it follows a pattern of a ten syllable line with alternating unstressed and stressed syllables. Try reading it out loud.
Blank verse is a great way to add a poetic levity to writing that would otherwise read like prose.
A chiasmus (a word that brings to mind the word “chimera”, coincidentally enough) is a stylized poetic device that plays with the reversal of words or ideas. Sometimes the words might be used together in a different way—“Never let a Fool Kiss You, or a Kiss Fool You”—or sometimes it may be the concepts of the idea that are presented in reflection—“My heart burned with anguish, and chilled was my body when I heard of his death”—with “heart” and “body” as parallels bookending the contrasting ideas of “burned” and “chilled.” Like anaphora, chiasmus can draw attention to a contrasting idea and make a memorable impression on the reader.
Compared to assonance, consonance is the repetition of consonants in a word or phrase. Repeated consonants can occur at the beginning, middle, or ending of a word. You may recognize this from classic children’s tongue twisters like “Betty Botter bought some butter but she said the butter’s bitter” … the repeated B’s and T’s add a jig-and-reel quality to the speech. You can also use this technique to add musicality and tone to the names of characters, such as Holly Golightly’s gentle L’s or the Dread Pirate Roberts’ guttural R’s.
In poetry, this type of rhythm often causes the reader to stop and linger over the phrase a little longer, teasing out both its music and its meaning (notice the consonance in “linger, little, longer” and “music” and “meaning”?).
Enjambment, from a Middle French word meaning “to step over,” is a poetic device in which a thought or an idea in a poem carries over from one line to another without pause. For example, T. S, Eliot’s The Waste Land says, “April is the cruelest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire”… instead of ending his lines on the comma, where we would normally think to pause in our speech, he includes the verb in the line before moving into the next one. This gives the poem a very different rhythm and complexity than it otherwise would have had.
Enjambment can also be used to create tension and surprise as the story you’re telling through your poem twists and turns.
Unlike to anaphora, epistrophe is a poetic device in which successive sentences or sentence fragments end with the same phrase. Our ears naturally attune to the landing point of any given word grouping, and so writers and speakers can use this tool to draw particular attention to a word or idea.
One famous example is Abraham Lincoln’s speech, “A government of the people, by the people, for the people”. We hear this word grouping “the people” landing three consecutive times. This same technique can be used to instill a mood in your poem by landing on evocative words such as “dark,” “gone,” or “again.”
Imagery is the essential poetic device used in poetry—it’s how you make the big ideas in your poem come alive for the reader. Poets will make the most of their limited space by using strong visual, auditory, olfactory, and even tactile sensations to give the reader a sense of time and place.
In T. S. Eliot’s Preludes, he says, “…the burnt-out ends of smoky days. And now a gusty shower wraps the grimy scraps of withered leaves about your feet.” This little excerpt is brimming with an intense vision of the scene that plays with all five of the senses. It makes us feel like we’re there.
Juxtaposition is contrast—comparing dark with light, heroes with villains, night with day, beauty with cruelty. “All’s fair in love and war” is a famous example of juxtaposition—the idea puts two normally conflicting concepts side by side to make us reconsider the relationship they have to each other.
Juxtaposition as a poetic device can be lighthearted, such as a friendship between a lion and a mouse, or it can give power and emotional resonance to a scene, such as young soldiers leaving for grim battle on a perfectly beautiful summer’s day.
Metaphor is a poetic device most people will recognize, both from literature and from day to day speech. It presents one thing as another completely different thing so as to draw a powerful comparison of images. “Love is a battlefield” is a metaphor that equates a broad, thematic idea (love) with something we all have at least a basic understanding of (a battlefield). It shows us that there are aspects in each that are also present in the other.
Metaphors can also be implied, when the poet uses a colourful image to suggest something about a character or an action; for instance, “the article sparked a new conversation,” giving the article a quality akin to a flame struck in the darkness.
Meter is the way in which rhythm is measured in a poem. It’s a pattern that functions on two basic premises: the number of syllables in a line of poetry, and how each syllable is either stressed (given emphasis, such as the first syllable of “nature”) or unstressed.
We express the type of meter the poem follows also in two parts: the structure of stressed and unstressed syllables, and how many of them there are in one line.
There are many kinds of formal meter. Perhaps the most famous one is iambic pentameter, made famous by Shakespeare, in which the iamb (an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one, like “toNIGHT,” “beLONG,” “beCOME”) is repeated five times in a line. But there can be many other kinds of meter, depending on how many metrical feet (like an iamb) appear per line.
Similar to a metaphor, a metonym is a poetic device which uses an image or idea to stand in place of something.
This can be visual, such as in road signs or computer icons, where a downwards arrow stands in place of the concept for “download,” or it can be literary.
To say “the White House is in discussion” usually refers to a group of elected government officials, rather than an actual constructed house that has been painted white.
A “mother tongue” is a native language, and “the press” is often used as a broad metonym for journalists. Some metonyms are no longer in use, and can be worked into poems to show setting and context—for instance, “hot ice” to mean stolen diamonds.
A motif is a symbol or idea that appears repeatedly to help support what the poet is trying to communicate. In poetry, motifs are often things with which we already have a cultural relationship—bodies of water to represent purity, sunrises to represent new beginnings, storm clouds to represent dramatic change.
When these ideas are used once in your poem, they’re a poetic device called symbolism. To be a motif, they’d need to be used in repetition, with each interval creating stronger and stronger links between the themes of the poem and the reader’s understanding of the world.
Myths and legends are perhaps the greatest reservoir of creativity the poet has at their disposal. Though often used interchangeably, myths are stories that tell of how something came to be—for example Noah’s ark, or the story behind the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland. Legends are stories that blur the lines of myth and history, for instance the Greek heroes in the saga of Troy.
It’s worth looking to the stories from your own region and cultural background for inspiration. Contrary to what some might say, there’s also nothing wrong with embracing the stories of other cultures so long as they are done with reverence and respect. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, an American poet of European descent, wrote beautifully about Native American myths in his Song of Hiawatha.
Onomatopoeia are great poetic devices for adding rhythm and sensory presence to your work. Onomatopoeia are words that, when spoken out loud, make a sound like what they’re intended to mean. “Buzzing,” for instance, is a verb that relates to the action of a traveling bee, but spoken aloud it sounds like the actual sound bees make. “Murmuring,” “humming,” and “smacking” all sound like the actions that they refer to. In poetry, you can have a lot of fun experimenting with onomatopoeia to make your reader feel like they’re in the poem alongside you.
Personification is a poetic device that gives a non-human entity—whether that’s an animal, a plant, or a cantankerous dancing candlestick—human actions and feelings. Sometimes this might be so extreme as to create an entirely human character with a nonhuman shape. Many, many Disney movies follow this pattern.
In poetry, very often the personification is more subtle; “the waves stretching their white fingers up towards the sun,” or “shadows leering down accusingly” are both examples of more subtle personification. These fanciful images come from the narrator’s relationship to the moment in time and their environment.
Repetition is used both as a poetic device and as an aspect of story structure, particularly when dealing in motifs. In poetry, using the same word or phrase repeatedly allows the reader or listener to settle into a comfortable rhythm, offering them a sense of familiarity even if they’ve never heard that particular piece before.
It can also be used to bring seemingly unrelated lines and stanzas back to the same idea. You can write poems with repeating words or phrases, or you can repeat broader ideas that you come back to again and again as the poem progresses.
When most people think of rhyming words they tend to think of what’s called a “perfect rhyme,” in which the final consonants, final vowels, and the number of syllables in an ending word match completely. These are rhymes like “table” and “fable”, or “sound” and “ground.”
But there are many different kinds of rhymes. Other types include slant rhymes (in which some of the consonants or the vowels match, but not all—for example, “black” and “blank”), internal rhymes (perfect rhymes that are used for rhythmic effect inside a line of poetry, for instance “double, double, toil and trouble)”, and eye rhymes (words that look like they should rhyme only when read and not heard aloud, like “date” and “temperate,” or “love” and “move”).
The true purpose of rhyme is to give your poetry rhythm, which is the shape and pattern a poem takes. What it comes down to is getting your words inside the reader’s bones. Rhyme is one way to do this, and meter is another. So are line-level poetic devices like assonance, consonance, and alliteration.
The length of your lines and your style of language will also play a part; quick, short words in quick, short lines of poetry give the poem a snappy feel, while longer, more indulgent lines will slow down the rhythm. The rhythm of the poem should match the story that it’s telling.
It’s a good idea to experiment with different kinds of rhythm in your poetry, though many poets develop a comfortable rhythmic place in which their poetry feels most at home.
Similes often get lumped together with metaphors as poetic devices that express the similarities between two seemingly unrelated ideas. They serve a very similar purpose in poetry, but are approached slightly differently. Where a metaphor uses one idea to stand in place for another, a simile simply draws a comparison between these two things.
Examples of similes are Shakespeare’s “Her hair, like golden threads, play’d with her breath” and Langston Hughes’ “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?” The word “like” in these examples is the hint that we’re looking at a simile, and not a metaphor.
Using similes is a great way to impart sensory imagery and to get your readers to think about something in a new way.
We looked at motifs earlier as recurring symbols in a poem. Not all symbolism is recurring, but all of it should support what the poet is trying to say as a larger whole.
Symbols in poetry might be sensory images, they might be metaphors for a real life issue, or they might be cultural icons with which we already have deeply-ingrained associations. Examples could be a skull to represent death, a dove to represent peace, or the sun and the moon to represent masculine and feminine polarities. By tapping into this pre-existing cultural consciousness, the poet has an entirely new language with which to communicate.
Synecdoche is similar to a metonym, in that it takes a small part of something to represent something bigger. But rather than looking at something symbolically representative of a whole, synecdoche is a poetic device that looks at a physical part of that whole. To say “give me a hand”, for instance, means “give me assistance” (which may or may not involve an actual hand), or “all hands on deck” to mean “all bodies, hands and feet included”.
It can sometimes be used in the opposite way too, using a larger picture to represent a smaller part. For example, to say “New York is up against Chicago” probably doesn’t refer to an actual civil war between two warring cities—most likely you’re just talking about a smaller part of a whole, like a sports team.
Tmesis, apart from being a word that kind of looks like a sneeze, is another dialectal poetic device. It comes from a Greek word meaning “to cut,” and involves cutting a word in half for emphasis. Sometimes this is colloquial, like “abso-bloody-lutely” or “fan-bloody-tastic” (really, any time an irate British person sticks “bloody” into a perfectly serviceable word).
It’s also used in poetry and poetic prose to add emphasis to the idea. In Romeo and Juliet, Romeo says, “This is not Romeo, he’s some other where”, interjecting “other” into “somewhere” for emphasis. Tmesis is a fun poetic device to play around with, that allows you to begin looking at words in a different way.
Tone is the not-entirely-quantifiable mood, or atmosphere, of your piece. Some poets are great at crafting dark, haunting poetry; others write poems full of soft sunshine that make you think of a languid summer morning in the grass. You may find that different themes and messages require different moods, but very likely you’ll find yourself settling into one signature atmosphere as you develop your poet’s voice.
The best way to do this is to read poems of all different tones and styles to see which resonate best with you. You could also try making “mood banks” of words to play around with in your poetry, either as lists or as little bits of paper á la “magnetic poetry.” Words like “night,” “silence,” and “howl” conjure up one idea; words like “sunday,” “popcorn,” and “sparrow” conjure up something very different.
A zeugma, as well as being your new secret weapon in Scrabble, is a poetic device that was used quite a lot in old Greek poetry but isn’t seen as much these days—largely because it’s difficult to do well. It’s when a poet uses a word in one sentence to mean two different things, often meaning a literal one, and one meaning a figurative one. For example, “he lost his passport and his temper” or “I left my heart and my favourite scarf in Santa Fé” are two instances where the verb is used in both literal and figurative ways.
How to Use Poetic Devices
Seeing the range of word-level tools available to you as a writer can be both exciting and a little overwhelming. As you can see, the twenty-six unassuming little letters of the English language carry within them a world of possibility—the poet just needs to know how to make them dance.
There are two ways to begin working with poetic devices, both of them essential: the first is to read. Read classic poetry, modern poetry, free verse, blank verse, poetry written by men and women of all walks of life. Look at ways other artists have used these poetic devices effectively, and see which moments in their work resonate with you the most. Then ask yourself why and what you can do to bring that light into your own poetry.
The second is to write. The poet and novelist Margaret Atwood famously said, “You become a writer by writing. There is no other way.” Reading poetry and reading about poetry is an important part of understanding technique, but the only real way to get these poetic devices in your bones and blood is to begin.
If you’ve started writing your own poetry already, go back and look at some of your earlier work. Can you spot any of the poetic devices from this list? Many of these work because they resonate with our innate human instincts for rhythm and storytelling. You probably already use some of them without realizing it. See where you can pick out these little seeds and bring them to life even more.
As you progress, your awareness of technical terms such as assonance, epistrophe, and metonymy will become as natural as a musician who no longer needs to look at the keys—they simply form a part of your poet’s voice.