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Poetry is a literary work in which the expression of feelings and ideas is given intensity (concentration/power) by the use of distinctive style and rhythm. It is an art form in which human language is used for its aesthetic qualities in addition to, or instead of, its theoretical and semantic (of or relating to meaning or the study of meaning) content. It consists largely of oral or literary works in which language is used in a manner that is felt by its user and audience to differ from ordinary prose.

It may use condensed or compressed form to convey emotion or ideas to the reader's or listener's mind or ear; it may also use devices such as assonance and repetition to achieve musical or incantatory (Dealing by enchantment; magical) effects. Poems frequently rely for their effect on imagery, word association, and the musical qualities of the language used. The interactive layering of all these effects to generate meaning is what marks poetry.

Because of its nature of emphasizing linguistic form rather than using language purely for its content, poetry is very difficult to translate from one language into another. In most poetry, it is the connotations and the "baggage" that words carry (the weight of words) that are most important. These shades and nuances (significance) of meaning can be difficult to interpret and can cause different readers to "hear" a particular piece of poetry differently. While there are reasonable interpretations, there can never be a definitive interpretation.

The basic elements (features) of poetry which distinguish it from other genres of literature are:
  • Expression
  • Word-Game
  • Music
Expression refers to the meditative and emotive quality of poetic expression, which means that in its pure form poetic expression is done by meditating or thinking aloud like the soliloquy (monologue/speech) of a drama. Poetry can also bring the techniques and features of expression from other forms of literature (such as story, drama, painting) and art. From story it borrows the narrative technique, from the genre of drama it can borrow the dialogue and dramatic elements of expression, and from the art of painting it can borrow the technique of creating word-pictures or imagery with the help of description.

The Elements of Word-Game in poetry refers to the playful and creative use of language in poetry. Word-game is also called rhetorical language or figurative language. Poets play with the creative potential of language while it expresses deeper and more powerful feelings and ideas. It plays with words in two ways: by comparing different entities (things/objects), and by indirectly exposing contrasts between apparently similar entities. The language of comparison is also called metaphorical language or metaphor in general. Metaphorical language includes the metaphor, the simile, the symbol, the conceit, the pun, animation and personification. The language of exposing contrast is called irony.  Verbal irony reveals the gap between what is being said and what the reality is.

Metaphor: A metaphor is a word or phrase that is used to make a comparison between two people, things, animals, or places. In simple English, when we portray a person, place, thing, or an action as being something else, even though it is not actually that “something else,” we are speaking metaphorically. “He is the black sheep of the family” is a metaphor because he is not a sheep and is not even black. However, we can use this comparison to describe an association of a black sheep with that person. A black sheep is an unusual animal and typically stays away from the herd (crowd), and the person we are describing shares similar characteristics.

Furthermore, a metaphor develops a comparison which is different from a simile i.e. we do not use “like” or “as” to develop a comparison in a metaphor. It actually makes an implicit or hidden comparison and not an explicit one.

Simile: A simile is a figure of speech that compares two things by using the words ‘like’ or ‘as’ something else. They are compared indirectly. Similes are used in poetry to create different effects, to create an image of comparison in the reader’s mind of what the writer is describing.

Symbol: Symbolism is the use of symbols to signify ideas and qualities by giving them symbolic meanings that are different from their literal sense. Symbolism can take different forms. Generally, it is an object representing another to give it an entirely different meaning that is much deeper and more significant. Sometimes, however, an action, an event or a word spoken by someone may have a symbolic value. For instance, “smile” is a symbol of friendship. Similarly, the action of someone smiling at you may stand as a symbol of the feeling of affection that person has for you. Thus, symbolic meaning of an object or an action is understood by when, where and how it is used. It also depends on who reads them.

Conceit: A conceit is a kind of metaphor that compares two very unlike things in a surprising and clever way. Often, conceits are extended metaphors that dominate an entire passage or poem. Because conceits make unusual and unlikely comparisons between two things, it allows readers to look at things in a new way. Similes and metaphor may explain things vibrantly but they tend to become boring at times because of their predictable nature. Conceits, on the other hand, surprise and shock the readers by making farfetched comparisons. Hence, conceit is used as a tool in literature to develop interest in readers. Metaphysical poet John Donne was known for his conceits (often called metaphysical conceits). Let us take an example of Donne’s poem The Flea:

Oh stay! three lives in one flea spare
Where we almost, yea more than married are.
This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage-bed and marriage-temple is

In the above lines, the poet tells his darling that she has no reason to deny him sexually as the flea has sucked blood from both them and their blood has mingled in its gut (belly), so the flea has become their “wedding bed”, though they are not married yet.

Pun: A pun is a play on word in which a humorous effect is produced by using a word that suggests two or more meanings or by exploiting similar sounding words having different meanings. Humorous effects created by puns depend upon the ambiguities (doubts) words entail (cause). For instance, in a sentence “A happy life depends on a liver”, liver can refer to the organ liver or simply the person who lives.

Personification: Personification is a part of figurative language where non-humans are given human characteristics. A writer can either say something literally, or figuratively. If it's literal, then the words mean exactly what they say. But the meaning of figurative words is hidden behind description. When a writer uses figurative language, the description brings a deeper meaning and understanding to the words. For instance, to describe rain, one might say, 'The clouds wept.' Clouds obviously cannot cry, but we can imagine them crying when it's raining. Let us take another example from 'The Sick Rose,' by William Blake. It reads:
O Rose thou are sick,
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm:
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy,
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
Roses aren't like people who become ill. Also, a rose doesn't have a bed or a secret love. But the poet uses personification to enhance both the description of the rose and our understanding of the destruction of something beautiful.

Animation: Animation is giving life to non-living objects. If a poet treats a lifeless concrete thing as having life, emotion, will power etc. that is called animation. The use of animation can make an expression very striking. For example, if the poet says, “The moon is smiling at me”, he animates the moon. He gives the human power and quality of smiling to the moon. Indirectly, there is also a metaphoric comparison between the moon and probably a young woman. Animation can make scenes more lovely and ideas more acute in meaning.

Allusion: Allusion is a brief and indirect reference to a person, place, thing or idea of historical, cultural, literary or political significance. It does not describe in detail the person or thing to which it refers. It is just a passing comment and the writer expects the reader to possess enough knowledge to spot the allusion and grasp its importance in a text. The use allusions are not confined to literature alone. Their occurrence is fairly common in our daily speech. For example, “Don’t act like a Romeo in front of her.” Romeo is a reference to Shakespeare’s Romeo, a passionate lover of Juliet, in Romeo and Juliet. Likewise, We find a number of allusions in Keats’s “Ode to the Grecian Urn”. For example:

Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?

Sylvan is a goat-like-man deity of Greek mythology. Tempe alludes (refers) to the “Vale of Tempe” in Greece, a place (from Greek mythology) frequently visited by Apollo and other gods. Likewise, “the dales of Arcady” refers to the home of “Pan”, the god of rustic music.

The use of allusions enables writers or poets to simplify complex ideas and emotions. The readers comprehend the complex ideas by comparing the emotions of the writer or poet to the references given by them.

Analogy: An analogy is a comparison in which an idea or a thing is compared to another thing that is quite different from it. It aims at explaining that idea or thing by comparing it to something that is familiar. Metaphors and similes are tools used to draw an analogy. Therefore, analogy is more extensive and elaborate than either a simile or metaphor. We use analogy in our everyday conversation. For example, “Life is like a race. The one who keeps running wins the race and the one who stops to catch a breath lose.” John Donne in his poem The Flea uses analogy of a flea to describe his love with his beloved.

This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is

Writers use analogies to link an unfamiliar or a new idea with common and familiar objects. It is easier for readers to understand a new idea, which may have been difficult for them to understand otherwise. Their comprehension of a new idea picks up the pace (speed) when they observe its similarity to something that is familiar to them. In addition, by employing this literary tool, writers catch the attention of their readers. Analogies help increase readers’ interest as analogies help them relate what they read to their life.

Irony (The Anti-Metaphorical Language): Irony is a figure of speech in which words are used in such a way that their intended meaning is different from the actual meaning of the words. It may also be a situation that may end up in quite a different way than what is generally anticipated (expected). In simple words, it is a difference between the appearance and the reality.

Dramatic/Verbal irony is a kind of irony in a situation, which the writers frequently employ in their works. Verbal irony occurs when a speaker speaks something contradictory to what he intends to. It is an intentional product of the speaker and is contradictory to his/her emotions and actions. To define it simply, it means when a character uses statement with underlying meanings contrasting with its literal meanings, it shows that the writer has used verbal irony. Writers rely on audience’s intelligence for distinguishing hidden meanings they intend to convey. Writers also use ironic similes to convey exactly the opposite of what they intend to say, such as “soft like concrete.” For example, the title of the poem, “The Unknown Citizen” employs verbal irony, as poet describes a person as the one whom everyone knows, but he is still unknown. Also by deliberately (purposely) capitalizing the common words, speaker makes them sound meaningless, ironic and sarcastic (satirical/ironic): “the Greater Community”, “Social Psychology”, “Union”, “Public Opinion” and “High Grade Living” etc. These all words sound formal, pompous (affected), bureaucratic (official/complex) and arrogant (superior). Simply, through verbal irony, the poet shows how governmental agencies, which should serve human beings, have rather enslaved them.

Situational irony is a literary device that one can easily identify in literary works. Simply, it occurs when incongruity (unsuitability/oddness) appears between expectations of something to happen, and what actually happens instead. Thus, entirely different happens from what audience may be expecting or the final outcome is opposite to what the audience is expecting. It is also known as irony of situations that generally include sharp contrasts and contradictions. The purpose of ironic situations is to allow the readers to make a distinction between appearances and realities, and eventually associate them to the theme of a story.

Beyond Metaphor and Irony: Images

Imagery means to use figurative language to represent objects, actions and ideas in such a way that it appeals to our physical senses. Usually it is thought that imagery makes use of particular words that create visual representation of ideas in our minds. The word imagery is associated with mental pictures. However, this idea is but partially correct. Imagery, to be realistic, turns out to be more complex than just a picture. The function of imagery in literature is to generate a vibrant and graphic presentation of a scene that appeals to as many of the reader’s senses as possible. It aids the reader’s imagination to foresee (envision/foresee) the characters and scenes in the literary piece clearly. Imagery needs the aid of figures of speech like simile, metaphor, personification, onomatopoeia etc. in order to appeal to the bodily senses. 

Metaphor and irony are two broad and simple categories of word game, and it is useful to understand them. But poet sometimes may go beyond the simple and easily recognizable metaphors and irony. Especially modern poets use such devices which are neither genuine metaphors and nor they are genuinely ironical. For example “She is the sun” (a simile) contains imagery of light and warmth (the senses of sight and touch). Much of the best modern poetry combines images and ideas so disconnected that they go beyond metaphors, and yet they are so serious and appropriate that they go beyond irony also. We find a great many images ironically disconnected, but nevertheless suggesting metaphorical connections. So, it is quite a challenge to approach such modern poems.

Imagery of light and darkness is repeated many times in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Consider an example from Act I, Scene V:

O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiope’s ear;

Romeo praises Juliet by saying that she appears more radiant than the brightly lit torches in the hall. He says that at night her face glows like a bright jewel shining against the dark skin of an African. Through the contrasting images of light and dark, Romeo portrays Juliet’s beauty.

Musical Devices/(Sounds) in Poetry: Music is the most distinctive element of poetry, along with its expressive and playful qualities. Ordinary readers consider idea first of all; next they consider the situation, and then language, and music last of all. But music must be regarded first of all if we are to appreciate poetry as poetry. A first reading of a good poem is likely to suggest some emotion and feeling through its rhythm, rhyme and other musical qualities. This is what T. S. Eliot suggested when he said, Good poetry communicates even before it is understood.

Since poetry is an art form written on paper, we might not realize the effects of sound within a poem until we read it out loud. Once we hear the words, we might gain a different perspective of the poem’s mood, tone and imagery. Poetry and music share common elements, and musical devices make up some of the most important and powerful tools in a poet’s toolbox.

The most recognizable sound effect used in poems is rhyme. When two words rhyme, they have a similar ending sound. Poets organize rhyming words in a variety of patterns called rhyme schemes. End rhyme is the rhyming of words at the ends of lines of poetry. Internal rhyme is the rhyming of words within one line of poetry. Poetry also makes use of near rhymes (or slant rhymes), which are words that almost rhyme, but not quite - such as "bear" and "far." Some of the examples of rhymes are: aabb, aabcb, ababcb, abcbdefe, etc.

Trees by Joyce Kilmer (aabb)

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree that may in summer wear

A nest of robins in her hair.

Rhythm and Meter English poetry employs five basic rhythms of varying stressed (/) and unstressed (U) syllables. The meters are iambs, trochees, spondees, anapests and dactyls. Each unit of rhythm is called a foot of poetry.
The meters with two-syllable feet are:

       Iambic (U/): That time of year thou mayst in me behold
       Trochaic (/U): Tell me not in mournful numbers
       Spondaic (//): Break, break, break/ On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!

Meters with three-syllable feet are:

       Anapestic (UU/): And the sound of a voice that is still
   Dactylic (/UU): This is the forest primeval, the murmuring pines and the hemlock (a trochee replaces the final dactyl)

Each line of a poem contains a certain number of feet of iambs, trochees, spondees, dactyls or anapests. A line of one foot is a monometer, two feet is a diameter, three feet is a trimeter, four feet is a tetrameter, five feet is a pentameter, six feet is a hexameter, seven feet is a heptameter, and eight feet is a octameter. The number of syllables in a line varies therefore according to the meter.

Repetition: Repetition is the recurring use of a sound, a word, a phrase, or a line. Repetition can be used to appeal to our emotions, create mood, and to emphasize important ideas.

Alliteration: Alliteration is the repetition of beginning consonant sounds. For example, "the big brown bear bit into a blueberry" is an example of alliteration because several words close together begin with the letter b. Alliteration is easy to use, but it is a challenge to use it well when writing poetry.

Assonance: Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds. If the letters or sounds that are repeated are vowels instead of consonants - as in "I might like to fight nine pirates at a time" - it is known as assonance. Assonance can be pretty subtle sometimes, and more difficult to identify than consonance or alliteration.

Consonance: Consonance is the repetition of consonant sounds anywhere within words, not just at the beginning. The statement "mummy's mommy was no common dummy" is an example of consonance because the letter m is repeated.

Onomatopoeia: Onomatopoeia is the use of words that create the sounds they describe. Sometimes a poet might want to make the reader imagine they are hearing something. This is part of a concept called auditory imagery, or giving an impression of how something sounds. One common way to create auditory imagery is through the use of onomatopoeia. Words like buzz, meow, and crash represent a sound. When we say them aloud, they kind of sound like what they are describing. For example, the "zz" in the word buzz kind of sounds like the noise a bee makes. Let us take an example of Full Fathom Five Thy Father Lies written by William Shakespeare:

Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell: Ding-dong.

Hark! now I hear them,—ding-dong, bell.


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