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Your poetic toolbox – some useful tools and helpful hints

Here, we explore some poetic terms to help you understand poetry a little further.
Variety of tools

There are lots of useful terms we can use to help us talk about types of poems, or patterns within poems. Knowing these terms will help you add to your poetic toolbox, ensuring that you have lots of resources to draw on as you read, think, and write about poetry.

Sometimes, these terms can feel like a new language that you don’t quite understand. You may even feel like these technical terms detract from your enjoyment of poetry – and, as you’ll see later in the course, it is good to be suspicious!

However, knowing these terms will give you some extra ways to think and talk about poetry. We’ve included a few questions, notes, and definitions below, which you might find useful as you progress through our course, ‘How to Read a Poem’. For example, our next article is from Professor Derek Attridge, and is all about the history of the sonnet form, so we’ve included a good definition of the sonnet, below.

You might find it helpful to copy these definitions into a document or notebook. You can add to them on your way through the course, either with other terms we introduce, like metre, intertextuality and poetic form, or with terms and ideas you discover through your wider reading of poetry. You can also add these definitions to our collective stock by sharing them in the comments on the way through the course.

What is poetic tradition?

Poetic tradition is a phrase which critics use to refer to the history of poetry. Poetic traditions can vary between countries and cultures. Often, we use ‘poetic tradition’ to refer to the western tradition of poetry, as we heard in Professor Derek Attridge’s video ‘A Very Short History of Poetic Tradition’. The phrase ‘poetic tradition’ can also be used to refer to the history of certain forms, such as the sonnet. Many poems are alert to poetic tradition and how poetry has developed – and they often like to play with tradition, and reinvent or renew old ideas and forms in their writing. We will see lots of examples of this throughout the course.

What is an ‘epic’ poem?

The epic is a form of poetry which is often very long, and has a clear narrative (or story) throughout. As we heard in Professor Derek Attridge’s video, ‘A Very Short History of Poetic Tradition’, The Iliad and The Odyssey by Homer are early examples of epic, written around 800 BCE. The Epic of Gilgames is one of the oldest surviving works of literature. The first surviving version dates to the 18th century BCE, and it adapts and brings together even older poems. Derek Walcott’s, Omeros, is a more recent example of this form of poetry, published in 1990. Often, the epic details impressive historical feats: – The Iliad is set during the Trojan War, for instance.

What is a ‘rhyme scheme’ and what does it look like when critics write about it?

A ‘rhyme scheme’ is the phrase which we use to talk about patterns of sounds, and particularly the similarities of these sounds. When lines ‘rhyme’, it means that the last word or syllable of each line sounds the same. To make it easier to write about this phenomenon, critics usually use the letters of the alphabet to denote changes in sound. So, if line one rhymes with line three in a poem, but line two is different, we would write it like this: ‘aba’. The ‘a’ shows the two sounds which rhyme together.

What is a sonnet?

The sonnet is a fourteen line poem which, traditionally, follows a strict rhyme scheme: the Petrarchan rhyme scheme (of which there are a few variations: abba cddc efgefg) and the Shakespearean rhyme scheme (abab cdcd efef gg) are, perhaps, the most common.

The Poetry Foundation website has a really useful and informative section called a ‘glossary’. This section includes a search function, so you can find any of the terms mentioned in this course really easily. You may like to bookmark this page, so you can return to it whenever you like.

The Poetry Foundation – Glossary of Poetic Terms.

Over to you

We’ll be adding more things to your poetry toolbox as we go – so keep your notes to hand, and let us know what you think about the toolbox in the comments.

What do you think it would be most useful to know in writing and thinking about poetry?

Are there any helpful ‘tools’ or ways of thinking you would like to recommend?

Let us know in the comments below.

© University of York
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Poetry: How to Read a Poem

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