One simple way to impress the examiner in your literature exams is to demonstrate your understanding of poetic and literary techniques and analyse their different effects. Not only does this titillate the examiner into thinking you are an absolute genius, it is an easy way to extend your comparative analyses. For example, focusing on why two poems are both written in free verse leads you to explore what this implies about the different characters in each poem.
There are different categories of techniques, explored in detail below. Furthermore, there is a very simple and pleasant task to complete at the end.
How the Words Sound:
Words or portions of words can be clustered or juxtaposed to achieve specific kinds of effects when we hear them. The sounds that result can strike us as clever and pleasing, even soothing. Others we dislike and strive to avoid. These various deliberate arrangements of words have been identified.
Alliteration: Repeated consonant sounds at the beginning of words placed near each other, usually on the same or adjacent lines. A somewhat looser definition is that it is the use of the same consonant in any part of adjacent words.
- Example from Clown Punk: every pixel of that man’s skin is shot through with indelible ink
- Example from Medusa: My bride’s breath soured, stank
Assonance: Repeated vowel sounds in words placed near each other, usually on the same or adjacent lines.
- Example from Horse Whisperer: when their horses snorted
- Example from Clown Punk: three times out of ten you’ll see the town clown
Consonance: Repeated consonant sounds at the ending of words placed near each other, usually on the same or adjacent lines.
- Example from Singh Song: vee share in di chapatti, vee share in di chutney, after vee hav mad luv like vee rowing through Putney
Onomatopoeia: Words that sound like their meanings
- Example from Medusa: my thoughts hissed and spat on my scalp
Repetition: The purposeful re-use of words and phrases for an effect. Sometimes, especially with longer phrases that contain a different key word each time, this is called parallelism.
- Example from Checking Out Me History: Dem tell me, Dem Tell me, Wha dem want to tell me
- Example from Brendon Gallacher: Oh my Brendon, my Brendon Gallacher
Rhyme: This is the one device most commonly associated techniques used in poetry. Words that have different beginning sounds but whose endings sound alike, including the final vowel sound and everything following it, are said to rhyme.
- Example from The River God: So I brought her down here to be my beautiful dear
Rhythm: Rhythm is all about vocal patterns. Such patterns are sometimes referred to as meter. Meter is the organization of voice patterns, in terms of both the arrangement of stresses and their frequency of repetition per line of verse. Poetry is organized by the division of each line into “feet,” metric units which each consist of a particular arrangement of strong and weak stresses. The most common metric unit is the iambic, in which an unstressed syllable is followed by a stressed one (as in the words reverse and compose).
A simple guide to meter can be found here: http://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88/meter.html
You don’t need to need to analyse the different section of stressed and unstressed feet, as this would just stress you out. However, knowing the rhythm could add to your analysis:
- Example from Clown Punk : The poem consists of a single stanza of 24 lines. Every line is written in pentameters (they have ten syllables each) which could suggest that the speaker will never change his opinion, much like the meter of the poem.
What the Words Mean:
Most 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. Often, some of the more significant words may carry several layers or “depths” of meaning at once and if you can analyse these different layers, you will achieve very high marks.
Allusion: A brief reference to some person, historical event, work of art, or Biblical or mythological situation or character.
- Example from Medusa: And here you come, with a shield for a heart and a sword for a tongue (an allusion to Perseus, the killer of the mythological Gorgon, Medusa)
Ambiguity: 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 meanings await those who contemplate the poem.
- Example from Give: It’s not as if I’m holding out for frankincense or myrrh, just change
Apostrophe: In a dramatic monologue, this is when the speaker is speaking directly to a real or imagined listener or inanimate object; addressing that person or thing by name.
- Example from My Last Duchess: Will’t plase you sit and look at her?
Connotation: The emotional, psychological or social overtones of a word; its implications and associations apart from its literal meaning.
- Example from Les Grands Seigneurs: a bit of fluff = sexual plaything
Contrast: Closely arranged things with strikingly different characteristics.
- Example from Les Grands Seigneurs: The best and worst of times were men
Denotation: The dictionary definition of a word; its literal meaning apart from any associations or connotations.
Hyperbole: An outrageous exaggeration used for effect.
- Example from Clown Punk: every pixel of that man’s skin is shot through with inedible ink
Irony: A contradictory statement or situation to reveal a reality different from what appears to be true.
- Example from Give: You give me tea. That’s big of you.
Metaphor: A direct comparison between two unlike things, stating that one is the other or does the action of the other.
- Example from Les Grands Seigneurs: Men were my dolphins, my performing seals
Oxymoron: A combination of two words that appear to contradict each other.
- Example from On a Portrait of a Deaf Man: his tie discreetly loud
Personification: Attributing human characteristics to an inanimate object, animal, or abstract idea.
- Example from The River God: I may be smelly and I may be old – The poet uses the technique of personification to show the qualities of a river
Simile: A direct comparison of two unlike things using “like” or “as.”
- Example from Horse Whisperer: So I could lead the horses, like helpless children, to safety
Symbol: An ordinary object, event, animal, or person to which we have attached extraordinary meaning and significance:
- Example from Casehistory: Alison (Head Injury): (She looks at her photograph)
The Structure of Words:
Words follow each other in a sequence determined by the poet. In order to discuss the arrangements that result, certain terms have been applied to various aspects of that arrangement process. Although in some ways these sequences seem arbitrary and mechanical, in another sense they help to determine the nature of the poem. These various ways of organizing words have been identified.
Point of View: The author’s point of view concentrates on the vantage point of the speaker, or “teller” of the poem. This may be considered the poem’s “voice” — the pervasive presence behind the overall work. This is also sometimes referred to as the persona.
Line: The line is fundamental to the perception of poetry, marking an important visual distinction from prose. Poetry is arranged into a series of units that do not necessarily correspond to sentences, but rather to a series of metrical feet. Generally, the line is printed as one single line on the page. If it occupies more than one line, its remainder is usually indented to indicate that it is a continuation.
There is a natural tendency when reading poetry to pause at the end of a line, but the careful reader will follow the punctuation to find where natural pauses should occur.
Stanza: A division of a poem created by arranging the lines into a unit, often repeated in the same pattern of meter and rhyme throughout the poem; a unit of poetic lines (a “paragraph” within the poem). The stanzas within a poem are separated by blank lines
Stanza Forms: The names given to describe the number of lines in a stanzaic unit, such as: couplet (2), tercet (3), quatrain (4), quintet (5), sestet (6), septet (7), and octave (8).
Rhetorical Question: A question solely for effect, which does not require an answer. By the implication the answer is obvious; it is a means of achieving an emphasis stronger than a direct statement.
- Example from The Ruined Maid: O didn’t you know I’d been ruined?
- Example from Medusa: Wasn’t I beautiful? Wasn’t I fragrant and young?
Rhyme Scheme: The pattern established by the arrangement of rhymes in a stanza or poem, generally described by using letters of the alphabet to denote the recurrence of rhyming lines, such as the ababbcc of the Rhyme Royal stanza form.
Enjambment: The continuation of a line of poetry.
- Example from Ozymandias: Round the decay / Of that colossal wreck
- Example from Les Grands Seigneurs: But after I was wedded, bedded, I became / (yes overnight) a toy, a plaything, little woman
Caesura: The pause in the middle of a line of poetry.
- Example from Give: I’m on my knees. I beg of you.
- Example from My Last Duchess: I gave commands; / Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands,
Volta: the turn in thought in a poem that is often indicated by such initial words as But, Yet, or And yet.
- Example from Les Grands Seigneurs: But after I was wedded, bedded,
Form: The arrangement or method used to convey the content, such as free verse, ballad, haiku, etc. In other words, the “way-it-is-said.”
Examples of different forms:
- Free Verse: lines with no prescribed pattern or structure — the poet determines all the variables as seems appropriate for each poem: Give, Medusa, Checking Out Me History, Horse Whisperer, The River God
- Ballad: a narrative poem written as a series of quatrains in which lines of iambic tetrameter alternate with iambic trimeter with frequent use of repetition and often including a refrain: On a Portrait of a Deaf Man
- Elegy: a poem in memory of someone who is deceased: On a Portrait of a Deaf Man and Brendon Gallacher
- Sonnet: a fourteen line poem in iambic pentameter with a prescribed rhyme scheme; its subject was traditionally love: The Clown Punk
The Image of Words:
A poet uses words more consciously than any other writer. Although poetry often deals with deep human emotions or philosophical thought, people generally don’t respond very strongly to abstract words, even the words describing such emotions and thoughts. The poet, then, must embed within his work those words which do carry strong visual and sensory impact, words which are fresh and spontaneous but vividly descriptive. He must carefully pick and choose words that are just right. It is better to show the reader than to merely tell him.
Imagery: The use of vivid language to generate ideas and/or evoke mental images, not only of the visual sense, but of sensation and emotion as well. While most commonly used in reference to figurative language, imagery can apply to any component of a poem that evoke sensory experience and emotional response, and also applies to the concrete things so brought to mind.
- Example from On a Portrait of a Deaf Man:
But now his mouth is wide to let
The London clay come in.
…maggots in his eyes
…now his finger-bones
Stick through his finger-ends.
Sensory Language: The poet’s careful description of sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. Related images are often clustered or scattered throughout a work, thus serving to create a particular mood or tone.
- Visual: the deflated face and shrunken scalp (Clown Punk)
- Auditory: my thoughts hissed and spat on my scalp (Medusa)
- Tactile (touch): For silver swallow swords, eat fire (Give)
- Gustatory (taste): He like old City dining rooms, potatoes in their skin (Portrait of Deaf Man)
- Ofactory (smell): I may be smelly and I may be old (River God)
Now that you have revised all the key poetic and literary terms, try to find at least two example of the same technique. This will be extremely helpful when comparing the poem in your exam. Focus on the different effects the same technique evokes in the reader. Think about whether they are similar or different, and whether they add to the overall attitude or tone of the poem. Post you comments below for others to see!
Finally, if you happen to know of any additional terms, please feel free to add them to the list.
Should you have any further questions, please do not hesitate to ask.