Technical Features of Poetry

Understand the workings of meter and rhyme, and the mechanisms that make a poem tick

Iambic meter
By punctuation


Poetic “form” refers to the specific organization, patterns, and conventions used in a poem to convey its meaning and artistic effect. These elements provide a framework for poets to express their thoughts and feelings in an organized manner. Formal components of poetry include:

Meter: the rhythmic structure of a poem

Rhyme: the repetition of similar sounds at the end of lines

Stanzas: group of lines in a poem that function as a unit, similar to a paragraph in prose

Lineation: how the lines of a poem are arranged on the page, which can impact the poem’s meaning, pacing, and visual appearance.

These elements work together to create the unique character of a poem and contribute to the reader’s experience and interpretation of the work.

Metrical Feet

Poetry frequently makes use of repetitive rhythmic structures that are referred to as poetic “meters”. A poetic “meter” is the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in a line of verse, which creates a musical or rhythmic effect when the poem is read aloud.

Poetic meter can be broken down into units of “feet”: specific arrangements of stressed and unstressed syllables, which combine to shape a poem’s cadence. These bundles of syllables or “feet” are the building blocks of poetic rhythm.

A very common type of poetic “foot” is known as “iamb”: a two-syllable metrical foot with an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one, as in the word “be-**lieve**” or “to-**day**” (bold used to indicate stress).

In contrast, a “trochee” reverses this pattern, featuring a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one, exemplified by “**gar**-den.”

Other types of metrical feet include “anapests” (two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable, as in “un-der-**stand**”), and dactyls (a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables, as in “**po**-et-ry” or “**el**-e-phant”).

The Effect of Meter

When one kind of metrical foot is repeated across a line of poetry – for instance, an “iamb” – we can refer to that poem as operating in ​​”Iambic meter”. Likewise, a repeated pattern of “trochees” would constitute “Trochaic meter”.

These metrical rhythms each offer a distinct character to the poems that possess them.

For example, iambic meter often lends a sense of dignity and formality to verse. Comprising alternate unstressed and stressed syllables, it mimics the natural cadence of English speech, and is often associated with the lines of Shakespeare. For example, his line “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?” is composed of 5 iambs, (i.e. “[But **soft**], [what **light**] [through **yon**] [-der **win**] [-dow **breaks**]?”)

By contrast, trochaic patterns create a playful, sing-song quality, or the quality of a chant. Shakespeare, for example, uses a trochaic meter when depicting the chants of the witches in *MacBeth*:

[**Dou**-ble], [**dou**-ble] [**toil** and] [**trou**-ble];
[**Fir**-e] [**burn**, and] [**cald**-ron] [**bub**-ble].


Metrical Lines

To be more specific when describing a poem’s meter, we can refer not only to the kind of “feet” used, but also the to number repeated in each line.

For example, the five iambs in Shakespeare’s line “But soft, what light through yonder window break?” are referred to as “iambic pentameter” – “penta” being the root word for “five” in Greek (just like the 5 sided shape “pentagon”).

Likewise, a series of six “dactyls” (e.g. “**el**-e-phant”) in a line, would be referred to as “dactylic hexameter” (hexa being greek for six); and a series of four trochees “trochaic tetrameter” (tetra being greek for “four”).

Line Length

The length of the lines (number of “feet”) in a poem influences both its rhythm and character. Shorter lines often evoke simplicity or urgency while longer ones suggest formality or introspection. By exploring different line lengths within their work, poets can manipulate mood and meaning.

For instance, Carl Sandburg’s “Fog” employs short lines to create an atmosphere of brevity and mystery. The concise lines mirror the fleeting nature of fog itself:

*The fog comes
on little cat feet.*


In contrast, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29 features longer iambic pentameter lines that convey depth and complexity:

*When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes
I all alone beweep my outcast state.*

Rhyme Schemes

A rhyme scheme is the pattern of end sounds (rhymes) in a poem or verse, typically represented by assigning a letter of the alphabet to each line in a stanza. Lines that rhyme with each other are given the same letter, while lines with different end sounds receive different letters. The rhyme scheme helps to establish the poem’s structure, rhythm, and musicality.


For example, consider “Ode to the West Wind” by Percy Bysshe Shelley, which has a pattern of interlinking “tercets” (units of three lines), with an ABA BCB rhyme scheme:

*O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,* [A]
*Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead* [B]
*Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,* [A]

*Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,* [B]
*Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou,* [C]
*Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed* [B]

This rhyme scheme is known as “terza rima”.

Units and Stanza Forms

A “stanza” is a group of lines that are arranged together and separated from other groups of lines by a space. You can think of stanzas as the “paragraphs” of a poem, each containing a smaller portion of the poem’s overall meaning.

Set groupings of lines in a poem can be referred to as, for example:

**A couplet**: two lines that usually rhyme with each other.

**A tercet**: three lines, often with the rhyme scheme ABA (first and third lines rhyme), but do not always rhyme. For example Haikus, a form of Japanese poetry, are a well-known example of tercets.

**Quatrain**: a unit of four-lines.

**Quintain**: a unit of a five-line.

Stanzas may comprise just one of these “units”, or may be a combination of multiple. For example, a sonnet is usually presented as one “stanza” (i.e. one “paragraph”), but within that single stanza it might contain four distinct quatrains and a final couplet.


Enjambment is a poetic technique where a sentence, phrase, or idea continues beyond the end of a line of verse, without a pause or punctuation, and flows into the next line. This technique creates a sense of momentum, propels the reader forward, and can be used to emphasize particular words or ideas.

For example, in this excerpt from Philip Larkin’s poem “Ambulances”, observe how the first three lines flow into each other without any punctuation or pause:

*Closed like confessionals, they thread
Loud noons of cities, giving back
None of the glances they absorb.
Light glossy grey, arms on a plaque,
They come to rest at any kerb:
All streets in time are visited.*



A caesura is a pause or break within a line of poetry, often indicated by punctuation such as a comma, full-stop/period, or semicolon. It can create a sense of balance, emphasize a word or phrase, or add variation to the rhythm.

For example, observe the final line of this excerpt from Alexander Pope’s poem, “An Essay on Criticism”:

*Are mortals urg’d through sacred lust of praise!
Ah ne’er so dire a thirst of glory boast,
Nor in the critic let the man be lost!
Good nature and good sense must ever join;
To err is human; to forgive, divine.*

In this line, the caesura is represented by the semicolon (;), which creates a pause or break in the middle of the line, where you might usually expect a flowing meter. This disruption can be used for emphasis.



A poetic refrain is a repeated line, phrase, or group of lines that appears at regular intervals within a poem, typically at the end of stanzas. Refrains serve various purposes, such as emphasizing a particular idea, creating a sense of rhythm and musicality, or invoking a specific mood or emotion.


Here’s an example from Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “A Negro Love Song”, in which the second, fourth, and eighth lines of each stanza repeat the same “refrain”:

*Seen my lady home las’ night,
Jump back, honey, jump back.
Hel’ huh han’ an’ sque’z it tight,
Jump back, honey, jump back.
Hyeahd huh sigh a little sigh,
Seen a light gleam f’om huh eye,
An’ a smile go flittin’ by —
Jump back, honey, jump back.*

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