What is a Poem? - Definition, Origin, Elements & Types of Poetry

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This article discusses some fundamentals that will help place casual readers or students of literature in a position to read poetry effectively and enjoy it. It will also help place students in a better position to critically respond to poetry.

The Principles and Art of Poetry Appreciation

Poetry is one of the three main genres of Literature, and probably the oldest of them. It is particularly different from the other genres by the way it is presented, which is verse (that is, in lines). This presentation in verse form (together with some other peculiarities) makes the way it is read equally different. Having some knowledge of these peculiarities and how to read it are quite crucial to enjoying poetry.

Origin and Definition of Poetry

Trying to trace the origin of poetry to a specific space and time in the past may well be an exercise in mere academic speculations. As a verbal art, poetry, without doubt, dates back to the pre- literacy age. Originally sung, chanted, recited, and often performing archival function, poetry could not have been limited to some places or societies only.

In other words, poetry must have been a cultural possession of all societies across ages. Beyond spatial and temporal origins, Dasylva and Jegede (2005) have traced sources of poetry to the orderliness of nature: the cycles of birth and death and night and day; the movements of the sun, the moon and the stars; the rotation the planets on their orbits; the rotation of the Earth on its axis; all with precision. This orderliness is said to be poetic and equally serves as sources of inspiration for poetry creation.

What is Poetry?

Like many concepts and human activities, poetry is not easily definable using a cut and dried formula. Different writers and poets have, however, attempted to define it from their respective subjective points of view. William Wordsworth defines it as, 'the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings recollected in tranquility'.

In W.H. Auden's view, poetry is 'the clear expression of mixed feelings'. S.T. Coleridge describes it as, 'the best words in the best order' while Robert Frost thinks, 'poetry is a way of taking life by the throat'.

Although some of the definitions place emphasis on feeling, they do not necessarily refer to the emotional response of love, sympathy, anger and so on. They mean something experienced physically and, mentally. The idea of feeling in this sense basically underscores the rhythmical essence in poetry. There are several other definitions by poets and scholars, and this diversity of perceptions and definitions further demonstrates the richness and beauty of poetry.

Facts about Poetry

Facts worth knowing about poetry are:

  • Poetry is read slowly, carefully and attentively;
  • Poetry is read not only with sight but with the other senses as well;
  • Poetry is not necessarily read line by line (that is, one can read from one line to another or read several lines together without a pause);
  • Poetry is meant to be revisited; and
  • Poetry is better read aloud or voiced in one's mind.

Elements or Features of Poetry

1. Line

It refers to a basic unit of expression in poetry; it is the equivalence of sentence in prose. However, unlike the sentence in prose, it is structurally independent, but may not be independently meaningful. A poem may comprise as few as two lines or as many as thousands of lines.

2. Verse

It is a term used in referring to a composition arranged into lines, stanzas and so on. It is also loosely used as another term for poem/poetry. It has nothing to do with scriptural verses. The term 'verse' is sometimes used in a contrastive sense with prose, where arrangement of composition is usually in sentences, paragraphs, sections, chapters and so on.

3. Stanza

This is a structural division of a poem. It is similar to paragraph in prose. The length of stanza is variable, and a poem may comprise one or several stanzas depending on the ideas, length or style of the writer.

4. Canto

This is another structural division of a poem. Longer than stanza, canto is actually a combination of a couple of stanzas. Cantos are often used in very long to demarcate sub- thematic or narrative boundaries akin to chapter in prose writing.

5. Enjambment

It is a feature of poetry associated with lines and stanzas. It basically refers to a condition of having an idea initiated in a particular line continuing or flowing into the next or subsequent lines of a given stanza. It is also referred to as run-on lines. Most poems have this feature but in varying degrees. 

6. Caesura

Also connected with lines of poetry, caesura refers to an internal pause in a line of poetry. Traditionally, it is signified by a double bar (||). In modern times, the term has been extended to embrace pauses signified by non-terminal punctuation marks such as the comma and the semi-colon.

7. Imagery

As noted in Chapter Four, imagery is connected to figures of speech. It is, essentially, the effects generated by words or figures of speech used in the reader or audience's imagination. As already noted too, imagery evoked is usually of different types, ranging from visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, thermal and kinesthetic to gustatory.

8. Rhythm

This simply refers to the sound pattern engendered in a poem due to the arrangement of stressed and unstressed syllables in the lines of a poem.

9. Meter

It is the formal arrangement of stressed and unstressed syllables in poetry. The following meters are well known:

  • lamb - an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. Trochee syllable. a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed
  • Anapest - two unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable.
  • Dactyl - a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed - syllables.
  • Spondee - two stressed syllables.
  • Pyrrhic - two unstressed syllables.
  • Amphoral/Amphibrachy - a stressed syllable between two unstressed syllables.

10. Rhyme

It refers to the occurrence of identical or similar sounds in words which end the lines of a poem. Consider this example:

The splendor falls on castle walls

And snowy summits old in story: The long light shakes across the lakes,

And the wild cataract leaps in glory.

            (From Alfred, Lord Tennyson's 'The Splendor Falls on Castle Walls')

However, while similar or identical letters or spellings may sometimes give the same sound, they do not always do so, and may therefore not signify rhyme. Sometimes, such occurrence is described as eye rhyme. The following is an example:

Thy lot belong the grace, boys!

Thine mercy and blessing, girls.


In the example, letter 's' terminates each of the lines but the sound realised in both cases is not /s/. While we have /z/ at the end of the first line, we have /s/ at the end of the second line. From a mere look at the letters, there is rhyme, but there is actually no rhyme in the sounds.

11. Rhyme Scheme

This is the sound pattern that emerges at the end of rhyming lines. It is usually indicated by lower case letters, with the same letter used to identify same sounds. For instance, the sampled extract used in illustrating rhyme 'above has the rhyme scheme "abab".

12. Couplet

It is a sequence of two rhyming lines. For example:

For we, which now behold present days,

Have eyes to wonder, but lacks tongues to praise.

(From William Shakespeare's 'Sonnet 106')

13. Triplet/Tercet

It is a three rhymed or unrhymed lines of poetry of a three-line verse. For example:

O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being. Thou, from whom unseen presence the leaves dead Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing.

(From Percy Bysshe Shelley's 'Ode to the West Wind')

14. Quatrain

It is a sequence of four lines or a full poem of four lines with its own separate theme or sub-theme. It is particularly associated with the ballad and it has different types; some of which are, halian quatrain, Elegiac quatrain and ballad quatrain/stanza. Its rhyme scheme varies depending on its type.

For instance, the Italian quatrain has "abba" as its rhyme scheme, with iambic pentameter; the elegiac has it as "abab", with iambic pentameter: while the ballad has it as "abab" with iambic tetrameter. An example of ballad quatrain is given below.

Hope is the thing with feathers

That perches in the soul,

And sings the tune with words,

And never stops at all.

(From Emily Dickinson's 'Hope is the Thing with Feathers')

 15. Refrain

These are words, phrases or lines that are repeated at intervals in a poem. Traditionally, it is a song attribute. In poetry, when a refrain comes at the end of a stanza it is called terminal refrain while one that appears within a stanza is called internal refrain. Sometimes, there may be minor changes in the words that make up a refrain. Such a refrain is called incremental refrain.

16. Blank Verse

It is a type of poem written in iambic pentameter but without rhyme. For example:

He moves in darkness as it seems to me,

Not of woods only and the shade of tree.

He will not go behind his father's saying,

And he likes having thought of it so well

He says again, 'Good fences make good neighbour.'

(From Robert Frost's 'Mending Wall')

17. Free Verse

It is a poem without any metrical pattern. It neither has rhymes nor meters. It is also called vers libre. The following poem is an example of a free verse:

The flood is rising...

Blood still dripping from the paintings

In our museum of misery...

Run, country, run

The exhibitions of fire still burning

The fairy tales of peace

In the flair of bombs and abduction...

(From Remi Raji's 'Run, country, run')

18. Allusion

This can be described as an indirect reference to a figure, place or events, which may be historical, literary or otherwise in another literary work. We speak of historical allusion when an allusion is drawn from history, literary allusion when drawn from a literary work, and biblical allusion when drawn from the Bible.

While allusion is not peculiar to poetry, its use is more prevalent in poetry because of its economic import. With one allusion, hundreds of words could be saved. Allusion enriches poetry a lot but it usually tasks the reader to do extra literary readings or findings. In the following extract is an example of a literary/ Classical allusion:

Why should I blame her that she filled my days With misery, or that she would of late

Have taught to ignorant men most violent ways,

Or hurled the little streets upon the great,

Had they but courage equal to desire?

What could have made her peaceful with a mind

That nobleness made simple as a fire,

With beauty like a tightened bow, a kind

That is not natural in an age like this,

Being high and solitary and most stern?

Why, what could she have done, being what she is?

Was there another Troy for her to burn?

(From W.B. Yeats's 'No Second Troy')

The poet's reference to Troy right from the title of the poem and his subsequent repeat of the reference, as well to a certain 'she' in the poem, easily recalls the Greek myth about Helen of Troy to a reader who is familiar with Homer's Iliad and Aeneid or the Greek civilisation. Helen was a matchless Greek beauty generally credited with the cause of the Trojan War and the destruction of the city of Troy in ancient Greece.

In the above poem, Yeats is actually referring to another woman, Maud Gonne, who was also a matchless Irish beauty, a revolutionary activist and a nationalist. By the reference to Troy or Helen of Troy in the poem, Yeats is drawing attention to the shared attributes of these women and the possibility of Gonne causing the destruction of Ireland.


This refers to the emotional condition, often of the writer or poetic persona, which percolates a poem. The mood is usually reflected in the tone. It may be sad, solemn, serious and so on.

20. Tone

It refers to the prevailing attitude that comes across to the reader from the way a writer uses words to convey his or her feelings. The tone may be angry, bitter, apologetic, haughty, sarcastic, ironic and so on.

21. Atmosphere

It is the psychological background that surrounds or pervades a poem, or the ambience in which a poetic rendition or textualisation is recorded. This is often influenced by mood. There is, obviously, an inter-relationship cutting through mood, tone and atmosphere.

22. Diction

Simply put, diction means choice of words. Diction is extremely vital to poetry because poetry is essentially about how words are arranged to say ordinary things in extraordinary ways. Poets are expected to choose their words with extreme sensitivity. They must be sensitive to the different nuances a given word is susceptible to.

Their ability to deploy appropriate words in what has been called 'the best order' is what distinguishes their work. Diction is used to convey clarity in much the same way that it is used to create indirectness and ambiguity. This is because poetry makes use of both denotative and connotative meanings of words.

Types of Poetry

Types of Poetry according to Subject/Function

  • Lyric: Traditionally, lyric is a poem sung to the accompaniment of a musical organ called 'lyre'. Thus, any poem that is musical in terms of sound components is sometimes described as lyric, However, speaking formally, it is a poem that treats personal or private subjects, as well as expresses tender feelings. It is usually short or of moderate length. Other poems like ode, sonnet, dirge, epigram, elegy and ballad are also described as lyric when they deal with personal feelings or are suffused with musicality.
  • Dirge: It is a song of lamentation meant to mourn the dead.
  • Elegy: It is a poem of lamentation written on subjects such as death, war and other disastrous events. A popular example is 'Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard' by Thomas Gray. It is sometimes used interchangeably with a 'dirge'. The main difference between the two is that while a dirge is always meant to mourn the dead, an elegy could be for mourning the dead or lamenting other calamitous events. Besides, a dirge is more associated with oral than scribal tradition.
  • Ode: It is a poem addressed to a person, thing or personified entity, usually in an elevated language and dignified style. It is usually fairly long and tends to celebrate its object. Many examples of ode are found in the English Romantic tradition; these include John Keats' 'Ode to Nightingale', 'Ode on a Grecian Urn'. Percy Shelley's 'Ode to the West Wind', and so on.
  • Ballad: It is a poem that tells a story; it is a narrative poem. Traditionally, ballads are in the oral form and usually anonymous. Traditional ballads are also called folk ballads. However, there are literary ballads with known authors such as, S.T. Coleridge's The Ancient Mariner and William Wordsworth's The Last of the Flock. It is usually written in quatrains.
  • Epic: It is a narrative poem about the great exploits of heroic personalities, often national legends. Its language is highly dignified, with formal, elaborate and ornate style such as epic simile. Some of its other rett und include vast setting, the Jonernatural, action beginning in media res and so on. It is such a long poem that is often of book length. Examples include the Epic of Sanjata, John Milton's Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, Homer's fliad and Odyssey and so on.
  • Mock Epic: Like the word mock suggests, it is imitative of real epic. It is a narrative poem that celebrates unheroic events in a manner typical of real epic. A very good example in English poetry is Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock.
  • Pastoral: It is a poem with setting in the countryside, which depicts the simple life of rural folk, especially that of shepherds. Edmund Spenser's The Shepherds Calendar is a good example.
  • Panegyric: It simply refers to a poem that is written to praise a person, an entity or an event. Examples can be found in the traditional poetry of many African societies.
  • Lullaby: It is a poem composed to lull children to sleep.
  • Epithalamium: It is a poem written to commemorate a wedding.
  • Epigram: It is a short satirical poem.
  • Doggerel: This is more of a descriptive term used to describe a poem bereft of any sense.

Types of Poetry according to Number of Lines/Verse Forms

  • Sonnet: It is a poem of fourteen lines, written in iambic pentameter and with a given rhyme scheme. The rhyme schemes are: abab, cdcd, efef, gg for Shakespearean/Elizabethan sonnet; abba, abba, cde, cde for Petrachan/Italian sonnet; and ababbebccdcdee for Spenserian sonnet. The Italian/Petrachan sonnet is usually divided into octave (first eight lines) and sestet (last six lines), while the Shakespearean sonnet is divided into three quatrains and a couplet, the last two lines.
  • Limerick: It is a short unserious poem of five lines, with aabba as its thyme scheme.
  • Rondeau: It is a fifteen-line poem in iambic pentameters, with the rhyming scheme aabba aabR aabbaR. The R stands for a refrain that in not rhyming.
  • Triolet: It is an eight-line poem, rhyming abaaabab. Its fourth line is a repetition of the first while the last two are repetitions of the first two.
  • Villanelle: It is a poem of nineteen lines arranged in five tercets and one quatrain. Its arrangement is somewhat complex. Its 'first line is repeated at the end of the second and fourth tercets and the third line at the end of the third and fifth; then the final quatrain ends with the first and third lines'.
  • Terza Rima: It is a stanza form in iambic pentameters rhyming aba bcb cde ded efe and so on. However, it ends a couplet or quatrain so as to avoid leaving a line unrhymed.
  • Ottava Rima: It is a stanza form of eight iambic pentameters rhyming abababcc.

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