Elements: Poetry

As with narrative, there are "elements" of poetry that we can focus on to enrich our understanding of a particular poem or group of poems. These elements may include, voice, diction, imagery, figures of speech, symbolism and allegory, syntax, sound, rhythm and meter, and structure. While we may discuss these elements separately, please keep in mind that they are always acting simultaneously in a story. It is difficult, for example, to discuss voice without talking about imagery, sound, meter, diction and syntax. Above all, these elements reveal something about the poem's "theme," meaning, or function.

Voice: Speaker and Tone-

As DiYanni notes, tone refers to the poet's "implied attitude toward its subject. Tone is an abstraction we make from the details of a poem's language: the use of meter and rhyme; the inclusion of certain kinds of details and exclusion of other kinds; particular choices of words and sentence pattern, of imagery and of figurative language" (479). A poem could convey reverence toward its subject, or cynicism, fear, awe, disgust, regret, disappointment, passion, monotony, etc. Tone has a great deal to do with meaning, for a description of a parent would be radically different depending on a poet's attitude toward that parent.

Diction, Imagery, Figures of Speech, Symbolism and Allegory-

Simply put, diction refers to word choice and is intimately related to imagery and figures of speech because a poet chooses a word to achieve a certain sensory, emotional, or intellectual effect. Choosing "wandered," for example, suggests something different than, say, "walked around," "shuffled," "drifted," "floated," etc., for each word suggests a different attitude, image, or connection. Your job is to explore the possibilities, always broadening the meaning and linking it with other words and images. For example, placing words in new contexts creates metaphors, for the word suggests one meaning and the context another.

As noted earlier, word choices creates images, the "concrete representation of a sense impression, feeling, or idea. Images may invoke our sight, hearing, sense of smell and taste, and tactile perceptions." Imagery refers to a pattern of related details. When images form patterns of related details that convey an idea or feeling beyond what the images literally describe, we call them metaphorical or symbolic. The details suggest one thing in terms of another. For example, images of light often convey knowledge and life, while images of darkness suggest ignorance or death. This leap from one image to its symbolic counterpart is based on an interpretive act and must be done in context. For example, white is usually associated with purity, cleanliness, and virginity, but in Moby Dick the great whale is white and suggests absolute evil, but the use that symbolic color is consistent within the novel. Figures of speech refer to special kinds of language use. We already mentioned metaphor and simile, but there is also personification (giving inanimate objects or abstract concepts human qualities), synecdoche (using a part of something to convey the whole), metonymy ("substituting an attribute of a thing for the thing itself"), or litotes (understatement). Again, these figures of speech depend on word choice within a specific context. Saying, for example, "My pen sings on paper" is an example of personification because we have given a human quality to an object, but to achieve this effect we had to choose the verb "sings" instead of something else. The result is also metaphorical because we the verb "to sing" is usually not used when we talk about pens. Another example of how all these elements work together is the phrase, "My son growled as he entered the room, clawing at the carpet, bearing his teeth until he noticed the cake, his voice now a gentle purr." Choosing certain words creates a series of metaphorical actions suggesting animal imagery.

Symbol and allegory is merely the widespread or extended use of metaphor. In other words, if we use a single metaphor to structure an entire poem or story, we are in the realm of allegory. If the poet uses a metaphor that has often been used in a particular way (i.e. water to convey birth and death; spring to convey birth, and winter to convey death; green suggests fertility and growth while black suggests death or evil; deserts suggest death or infertility, etc.) then we are in the realm of symbolism, but symbolism also refers to any use of an object, person, or place that represents something beyond itself. The "symbolic" significance always depends on interpretation and therefore must be read in context.

Syntax, Sound, Rhyme, Rhythm, and Meter

Syntax refers to word order, but word order creates certain sounds, images, and attitudes. As I noted in the Elements of Fiction handout, the way a writer chooses words, arranges them in sentences and longer units of discourse, and exploits their significance relates to his or her style which conveys more than the verbal identity of a writer; in fact, syntax reflects the way a writer sees the world. For example, Faulkner's convoluted, complicated, long, and often formal prose conveys something about the way Faulkner sees the South that he writes about. Hemingway, on the other hand, with his minimal, fragmented, often interrupted and staccato style reveals something about his typical preoccupation as well, World War I and its devastating effect on relationships. Again, "form is content." How something is said is just as important as what is said.

While sound is important in narrative, it is especially important in poetry because of poetry's connection to song and dance, and sound has everything to do with syntax. Using harsh sounds to convey a harsh environment is particularly effective, as is the use of soft sounds to convey more delicate emotions or actions. How sentences are arranged often determines how a sentence sounds. Rhyme, arranging a sentence so that one word rhymes with another, can help organize a poem, but it can also emphasize or contrast actions or emotions.


Structure refers to how a poem is organized. There are set forms like sonnets, but also free forms which have no "rules" to follow, and the choice of form can either reinforce or contrast with the theme (i.e. a sonnet about free love may be used ironically to suggest that free love is also constrained). A poem can be organized much like an essay (problem, exploration, then conclusion; unenlightened to enlightened), or it can visually look like what is being described (a poem about religion may look like an altar), or it can mimic the action described in the poem itself and reinforce the theme (see page 546).

As DiYanni notes, "all the elements of a poem work together harmoniously to convey feeling and embody meaning" (479). Exploring these elements does not ruin the pleasure of reading but enriches it. Poetry gives us the pleasure of making connections, of noticing how one element of a poetry works with another. Perhaps it's the same pleasure we derive when we attempt to solve a mystery; readers are detectives who must ferret out separate clues to arrive at a coherent conclusion. While narrative offers the same pleasure, poetry is more economical, giving us a distilled version of what narrative provides but forcing us to pay even closer attention to the words on the page.

Interpretation also depends on the same methodology we discussed earlier:

• First, use the details in the poem to orient yourself in it, to locate and understand the characters, their situations, and their actions.

• Second, look for repetitions and oppositions in people, places, language,

objects, movement, and actions. Decide what or who is valorized and


• Third, uncover the implications of the repetitions and oppositions by exploring the relationships of similarity and difference that link the poem's images, sounds, structure, etc.. This is where you look for the metaphorical content in the people, places, language, objects, movement, and decisions and where you try to identify the allusions, the "subtexts," the connections between other texts.

• Fourth, use your observations to make sense of the poem, to come up with a "theme," interpretation, or "reading." That is, "this poem suggests that ______ " or "this poem is saying that _______" and this is why I think so....

• Finally, evaluate and critique the poem's "literary" merit.