20 Poetic Devices High School Students Must Know – With Examples
June 15, 2023
Think of poetic devices as specific tools for poetry. Poets use these tools to construct a form and fabricate interesting language, making their poems structurally sound, as well as aesthetically and emotionally evocative. For readers, poetic devices act like keys. They allow us to unlock a difficult genre in order to investigate texts that often seem dense and impenetrable. High school students will grow more comfortable analyzing poetry once they can recognize poetic devices. In fact, these tools may encourage some to write their own poetry. To note: while poetic devices are a type of literary device, not all literary devices are poetic devices. Both prose and poetry may use alliteration, for example, but only a poem contains lines and stanzas. Because poetry is particularly aesthetic, emotive, and sensory-driven genre, many poetic devices work to enhance these effects rather than create meaning. In the following poetic device examples, we’ll see how both contemporary and classic poets have employed poetic devices to achieve an array of effects.
20 Poetic Devices High School Students Must Know – Examples
Poetic Devices Examples 1-5
An allusion means an indirect reference to something else. That something else could be anything—an event, character, idea, or even something referenced earlier in the text. Poets even use allusions to refer to other texts. In Emily Dickinson’s poem “All Overgrown by Cunning Moss,” she uses an allusion to reference the nom de plume of another writer:
“All overgrown by cunning moss,
All interspersed with weed,
The little cage of “Currer Bell”
In quiet “Haworth” laid.”
The name Currer Bell alludes to Charlotte Brontë, one of Dickinson’s literary idols, who lived in a town called Haworth. It’s fitting that Dickinson uses allusion to refer to Brontë, rather than name her outright, because the poem itself is about looking for something you cannot find.
Apostrophe occurs when the narrator addresses a person or personified thing who isn’t there. (Apostrophe is also a punctuation mark, though this apostrophe isn’t a poetic device.) Here’s a famous apostrophe if there ever was one: “O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” Shakespeare’s character Juliet speaks to herself, up on her balcony. She doesn’t intend to ask Romeo anything, because she doesn’t know he’s listening below in her courtyard.
3) Blank Verse
Italian poets began experimenting with blank verse, or verse sciolti da rima, during the Renaissance. This poetic form made its way into English poetry via a man named Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, who wanted to replicate Virgil’s meter in translation. Henry Howard would die young, beheaded at age 30 by King Henry VIII, but blank verse would live on.
This poetic device involves iambic lines of verse, meaning that unstressed and stressed syllables alternate, creating a da-DUM da-DUM pattern. Each line contains 10 stresses, and the final word of each line remains unrhymed. The lack of rhyme allows for more flexibility and permits the poet to come closer to colloquial speech. For this reason, John Milton preferred blank verse for his work Paradise Lost:
“Men called him Mulciber and how he fell
From heav’n, they fabled, thrown by angry Jove
Sheer o’er the crystal battlements: from morn
To noon he fell, from noon to dewy eve…”
Cacophony refers to an intentional combination of sharp, harsh, hissing, and unmelodious sounds. Like alliteration and assonance, cacophony grabs the reader’s attention, sometimes consciously, sometimes subconsciously. All three devices work to produce a sound that mimics the thing being described. Because cacophony attempts to create a clash of noises, poets often use it when describing disorder, destruction, general chaos, confusion, and other forms of ruckus.
Lewis Carroll uses cacophony in his poem “Jabberwocky” to conjure up the idea of a mystical creature. The more cacophonous the words in the poem become, the stranger and spookier the jabberwocky and its environment sound. (Carroll’s neologisms also contribute to the feeling of the odd and unknown.)
“’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.”
A caesura is a break in the flow of sound in the middle of a line of verse. It works to create a pause, like a breath, between ideas. It can also be used stylistically. Caesurae often occur in the middle of a line, though they can also appear near the end or beginning. When not represented through traditional punctuation, they appear as two parallel lines: ||.
In Robert Browning’s poem “My Last Duchess,” the caesurae increase in frequency near the end of the poem, as the speaker begins to reveal what happened to his wife. These pauses could be interpreted as nervousness on the speaker’s part. They could also be deliberate pauses, made so the speaker can gather his thoughts and conceal his guilt:
“Then all smiles stopped together. || There she stands
As if alive. || Will’t please you rise? || We’ll meet
The company below, || then. || I repeat…”
Poetic Devices Examples 6-10
In literature, a conceit is an elaborate, convoluted, or unlikely comparison between two things or ideas. Like metaphor, simile, and allegory, a conceit allows the reader to better understand something based on their understanding of a second thing. Conceits work particularly well in poetry because poems invite interpretation while aiming for originality. Conceits help poetry achieve both.
When Anne Carson’s principal characters first meet in Autobiography of Red, she describes their confrontation using a conceit:
“Then he met Herakles and the kingdoms of his life all shifted down a few notches.
They were two superior eels
At the bottom of the tank and they recognized each other like italics.”
Consonance occurs when consonant sounds repeat. If this sounds a lot like alliteration, it’s because alliteration falls under the umbrella category of consonance. While alliteration often involves the same consonant sounds repeating at the beginning of nearby words, consonance arises when any part of the word involves consonant repetition. Still, we most often refer to consonance when the last syllables of words create a repetition of sound.
Take a look at “The Acrobats” by Shel Silverstein. In this poem, the repetition of “g” and “z” sounds creates consonance.
“I’ll swing by my ankles
She’ll cling to your knees.
As you hang by your nose,
From a high-up trapeze.
But just one thing, please,
As we float through the breeze,
Enjambment occurs when a thought spills over from one verse or couplet into another without any interruption in punctuation. Sometimes, enjambment works to create verses that sound and read more like sentences. They can also work to surprise the reader by changing direction in terms of the idea being expressed, all while continuing along the same syntactical phrase.
Craig Santos Perez’s poem “understory” utilizes enjambment across lines and couplets, giving the poem velocity:
hawaiian language — ”
An envoi, (sometimes spelled envoy), is the final, often short stanza at the end of a poem. Not all poems contain an envoi, however. This poetic device belongs primarily to ballads and sestinas. The word envoi in French refers to the act of sending something, like a letter. In this way, this poetic device could be seen as a final send-off, delivering a message before the reader goes off to reflect. The envoi often contains a summary or conclusion to the argument being made in the poem. It can also act as an address to a specific person.
Hilaire Belloc’s “Ballade of Modest Confession,” ends with a particularly opaque and humorous envoi:
“Prince! do not let your Nose, your royal Nose,
Your large imperial Nose get out of Joint.
For though you cannot touch my golden Prose,
Painting on Vellum is my weakest point.”
Euphony could be described as the opposite of cacophony. It involves melodious, pleasant sounds that work to create a tranquil or beautiful atmosphere. This sense of harmony comes from a combination of sounds, including long vowels, soft consonants, vibrating consonants, and semi-vowels. Look for an abundance of these letters: l, m, n, w, f, v, y, h, s, wh, sh, and th.
For example, let’s examine Robert Frost’s poem “The Tuft of Flowers.” You’ll notice how the harmony created by euphony corresponds to the soft, delicate imagery of flower petals and butterfly wings.
But as I said it, swift there passed me by
On noiseless wing a ‘wildered butterfly,
Seeking with memories grown dim o’er night
Some resting flower of yesterday’s delight.
Poetic Devices Examples 11-15
Meter refers to a poetic device that creates a measured beat in lines of verse through patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables. Not all poems rely on meter, but those that do may use iambic, trochaic, spondaic, dactylic, or anapestic metrical feet. These may sound like the feet of extinct species, but they’re actually specific units that a meter can be broken down into.
For example, a spondee is a metrical foot for spondaic meter. It’s stress pattern involves equal stress on two syllables. (Think “cupcake.”) Meanwhile, an iamb is the foot in iambic meter. Iambic pentameter (pent for five) comprises five iambs in a line of verse. An iamb begins with an unstressed syllable and ends on a stressed syllable.
The US pledge of allegiance begins with tetrameter (4 iambs per line): “I pledge allegiance to the flag.” While Shakespeare and Milton may get the most credit for iambic pentameter, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s novel Aurora Leigh, written in blank verse, makes good use of this meter:
Of writing many books there is no end;
And I who have written much in prose and verse
For others’ uses, will write now for mine,–
Will write my story for my better self,
As when you paint your portrait for a friend,
Who keeps it in a drawer and looks at it
Long after he has ceased to love you, just
To hold together what he was and is…
The ode dates back to ancient times. It made a comeback in the Romantic period when poets like Keats wrote poems praising things like Grecian urns. But what makes the ode an ode? To put it simply, the ode celebrates something. Though the form can vary, and includes anything from free verse to quatrains, it remains a formal, solemn set of verses in praise of people, things, or events.
Ashanti Anderson’s “Ode to Black Skin” revives and modernizes the ode:
“You are dark as religion. Remember God
could not have named a modicum of light without you.
You are plum, black currant, passion
fruit in another woman’s garden. You are Black
as and as if by magic. Black not as sin, but a cave’s jaw
clamped shut by forgiveness. Color of closed wombs and bellies
of ships, you, dark as not the tree trunk but its every cleft…”
Onomatopoeia means naming a thing or action by a vocal imitation of the sound associated with it. In poetry, onomatopoeia works to bring the noise-making thing (sometimes a person or animal or object) closer to the reader, by animating the word through imitation sounds.
Onomatopoeia can appear in poems as regular words that simply sound like the thing they mean. Take Emily Dickinson’s poem “I heard a Fly buzz – when I died,” where the word “buzz” sounds like the fly.
On the other hand, onomatopoeia can appear as a playful or even ridiculous neologism. Take this word from Finnegans Wake, by James Joyce: “bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthur-nuk!” This crazy-sounding, never-ending word is meant to conjure up the sound of a thunderclap.
A paradox appears as a contradiction which, upon further analysis, proves to make sense. It can even contain a deeper truth. For example, the common adage “less is more” could be called a paradox in various contexts. In Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, the paradox “fair is foul, foul is fair” crops up in the very first scene, and recurs throughout the acts. While fair and foul would normally sound like opposites, this paradox suggests otherwise. Things are not what they seem, and perhaps one cannot have the fair without the foul. The paradox becomes both a lesson and a warning for Macbeth.
The pastoral refers to a type of poetic style that recounts idealized depictions of nature. This genre began with Theocritus, who in the first century BCE wrote admiringly of the shepherds in Arcadia, who lived a simple life in the mountains. Fast forward to the Industrial Revolution, when English poets turned to the pastoral poem as an escape. Many writers of the Romantic period saw modernity as threatening, and romanticized rural life instead. While the pastoral never made a full comeback after the 18th century, its themes still exist in poetry today.
Rather than praising nature, Randall Mann’s pastoral poem “The End of Landscape” laments the loss of it:
“There’s a certain sadness to this body of water
adjacent to the runway, its reeds and weeds,
handful of ducks, the water color
manmade. A still life. And still
life’s a cold exercise in looking back…”
Poetic Devices Examples 16-20
Puns, or play on words, are playful distortions on words or phrases that create new meaning. Puns often sound similar or exactly like the word or phrase they play on, which means that some must be understood when spoken aloud, while others depend upon the reader to see the distortion on the page.
Back in the French court of Louis XIV, courtiers used a healthy dose of puns to prove they had a sharp wit. To this day, puns remain integral to French humor. Take the poet Paul Valéry, who wrote, “Entre deux mots il faut choisir le moindre.” Because the word “mots” and the word “maux” are pronounced the same, when spoken aloud this sentence can read two ways. Either it means “when given two words, choose the shorter,” or “when given two evils, choose the lesser.”
Shakespeare employed a different type of pun in Romeo and Juliet. In the early masquerade scene, Romeo says to his friend Mercutio: “Give me a torch. I am not for this ambling. / Being but heavy, I will bear the light.” While Romeo says “heavy” to describe his sullen mood, he also alludes to the second meaning of the word heavy, as the opposite of light. Despite being recently rejected by Rosaline, Romeo seems to be making light of his situation.
Repetition in literature means that a word or phrase repeats. Simple, right? So what makes repetition a poetic device? Well, the repeated words or phrases must occur in close proximity, or else be memorable enough to indicate that the repetition is intentional and significant.
If you’ve read up on the 30 literary devices high school students should know, then you may remember specific subcategories of repetition, such as anaphora and anadiplosis. Other subcategories of repetition include antimetabole, chiasmus, and diacope. In general, all types of repetition can be analyzed with these questions in mind: Does the repetition add new or deeper meaning? Is it creating a lyrical or aesthetic effect? Is it used for emphasis, to suggest a great quantity, size, or force? Does it reinforce or add emotion?
In Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise,” the words “I rise” repeat in each stanza. This phrase becomes more frequent as the poem carries on, becoming a chant in the final stanza. The repetition creates both a lyrical and emotional crescendo, reinforcing the power and tenacity in the meaning behind her words.
“Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
18) Rhetorical Question
Sometimes, poets ask rhetorical questions in their verse. These questions do not intend to provoke a reply. Rather, they work to get the reader thinking. Sometimes, the question is self-evident, meaning the answer is obvious. In this case, the format of the question simply draws more attention to the idea within. At other times, the question is impossible to answer, yet it still sparks new ideas.
Andrew Hoyem, in his poem “Rhetorical Questions,” uses rhetorical questions to examine and undermine the boundaries that humans apply to separate themselves from other animals.
“Who among sea lions alive shall be allowed into heaven?
How judge we the virtues of a bull or a cow or a calf?…”
Rhyme occurs when several words contain almost identical-sounding syllables. In poetry, rhyme traditionally happens at the end of lines of verse. When we speak of “rhyme schemes,” we refer to the various patterns in which these final lines might rhyme. For example, a Shakespearean sonnet has a rhyme scheme that goes: abab cdcd efef gg. Other poetic forms that contain rhyme include the villanelle, the limerick, and the ballad. While a rhyme doesn’t create meaning, it can create an intelligent and aesthetic effect.
David Shapiro provides a great example of how to rhyme—and how not to rhyme—in his poem “Gratuitous Oranges.”
“Nothing rhymes in English with an orange.
It stands alone, with luster in a far tinge.
It stands alone, and seems to make a star cringe.”
Sonnets fall under the fixed verse category of poetry. You’ll recognize them by their 14 lines. Each line is (likely) iambic. The Petrarchan sonnet, like blank verse, came from Italy. It follows a particular rhyming scheme: abab cdcd cdec de. By the time Shakespeare got ahold of the sonnet, two blokes in England, Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard—yes the same Earl of Surrey later executed by Henry the VIII—had further adapted it, introducing a rhyming couplet at the end: abab cdcd efef gg.
Unfortunately, Wyatt would anger the king and meet the same fate as his friend Howard. Luckily for us, the sonnet would come back to haunt the English court in Queen Elizabeth’s time. Shakespearean sonnets made this poetic device popular with a broader audience (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”). Today, contemporary poems continue to adopt and adapt the sonnet.
Take Henri Cole’s poem “The Roman Bath at Nîmes,” whose rhyming scheme reworks the old rules:
In the hall of mirrors nobody speaks.
An ember smolders before hollowed cheeks.
Someone empties pockets, loose change and keys,
into a locker. My god, forgive me.
Some say love, disclosed, repels what it sees,
yet if I touch the darkness, it touches me.
In the steamroom, inconsolable tears
fall against us. In the whirlpool, my arms,
rowing through little green crests, help to steer
the body, riding against death. Yet what harm
is there in us? I swear to you, my friend,
crossarmed in the bright beach towel, turning round
to see my face in lamplight, that eye, ear
and tongue, good things, make something sweet of fear.
Poetic Device Examples – Final Thoughts
That concludes our look at poetic device examples. Now that you can identify at least 20 poetic devices, take your learning one step further by analyzing a poem you’ve never read. You can even look for poetic device examples in your favorite song lyrics. And, if you’re interested in perusing more poetry and high school-related resources, look no further than the following blogs and resources:
- The Poetry Foundation’s Explore Poems page
- College Transitions’ tips on achieving “High School Success”
- Best Colleges for English
- Best Colleges for Creative Writing