The Six Basic Elements of a Poem

Imagery.  The Images in your poem should be unique and provide the reader
with vivid sensory detail, as exemplified by Sophie Leu’s description of a
breakfast in her poem, “Spring Love”:

The black smoke rises from the pan…
Scrambled eggs with thousand island dressing
and over-baked tortillas from the grocery.

Discourse of your poem should avoid cliché expressions by presenting
original phrasing,as demonstrated by Jessica Anthony in her poem, “A Recipe
for an Episcopalian”:

I remember his Sunday sermons,
Severe for a man who took such care
With the leaves of tomatoes.

.  Fixed meter should follow standard rules of prosody and should not
sound mechanical.  That is, metrical poems should maintain their structure of
stressed and unstressed syllables without making the language seem wooden or
monotonous.  W.D. Snodgrass, in his famous poem “April Inventory,” does this
well using Iambic Tetrameter.

The green catalpa tree has turned
All white; the cherry blooms once more.

.  Free rhythm should have a distinct beat or current sound.  A poem
written in free rhythm should not merely be prose chopped into shorter lines.  
Jeff Curtis uses free rhythm well in “Grandpa Died”:

He left me with his catfishing and his care of tools
and a set of deer antlers on the wall

but he forgot to take his glass of wine and ginger ale
and his big hands around mine…

Line Breaks.  Enjambment occurs when a line carries over from a preceding
line.  Enjambment lines should create suspense and movement, so the poem
moves swiftly.  In her poem, “Leda and the Swan,” Jacquelyn Z. de Bray uses
enjambment well:

Then the god is gone.
Later what she remembers is
A certain way of clasping
A shivering across the back that stings.

Line Breaks
.  End-stop occurs when meaning and rhythm pause at the end of
the line.  Effective end-stopped lines will have strong end words (in both
meaning and music); they will also make the reader pause long enough to
consider the line.  The first line above, in 3a, is an example.  The pause makes
the reader stop to consider this new absence.

Figure of speech.  Similes and metaphors need to avoid stock or cliché
comparisons such as “my love is like a rose.”    W.D. Snodgrass in his poem
“Seeing You Have…” uses simile to compare a woman to prairie grass:

She’s like the tall grass, common,
That sends roots, where it needs,
Six feet into the prairies.

Maurice Gaerlan, in his poem, “Immigrant Smoking in the USA,” uses a strong
metaphor in stanza three of his poem to compare cigarettes to “burning pencils”:

Besides me, three fellow countrymen speak
Also with burning pencils between their fingers…

Word Music.  Direct rhyme should not be forced; the language should flow
naturally, as in regular speech.  The rhyming word should not be there just
because it rhymes, but because it is the best word for the poem’s sense as well
as its sound.

The green catalpa tree has turned
All white; the cherry blooms once more.
In one whole year I haven’t learned
A blessed thing they pay you for.

Word Music.  Indirect rhyme creates a subtle echo of sound that is also called
half-rhyme or slant rhyme.  Jeff Curtis uses indirect rhyme well by repeating the
“t” sound in these two lines of “Grandpa Died”:

…and he forgot to take the smell of his jacket
and the sound of my name, the way he said it.

5c.     Word music within lines is created by use of assonance and
consonance.  Strong poems will “ring” with such internal music.  Assonance
occurs in this line of Elma Photikarmbumrung’s poem, “The River Kwai of

…Until the river becomes red of precious gems.

(My note: you can also create assonance with words that have double vowels
like: “moon” and “choose” or “swoop” and “flood” or where two different vowels
appear in two different words in the same position like in the words “wave” and

Consonance words are repetitive consonants such as in:

"Strong winds, along the Congo shore."
                                 -Eddie Morales

Jessica Anthony uses
alliteration with the repetition of the “s” sound, which also
happens to be use of consonance.

I remember his Sunday sermons,
Severe for a man who took such care
With the leaves of tomatoes.

Formal structures
found in a sonnet, a villanelle, a terza rima, etc., should be
adhered to. To become familiar with these structures you can obtain a book on
poetry that outlines each of these formal structures.

It is impossible to exactly define what makes a good poem, but it is possible to
show the qualities most often found in such poems.—Dr. Len Roberts,
Educational director for the ISP.
Elizabeth Bishop
1911 - 1979
Katherine Lee Bates
1859 - 1929
Six Basic Elements of A Poem
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