Poetic devices are tropes, figures of speech, and other literary techniques used by poets and playwrights to create unique effects in their works.
In this article, we will look at the popular poetic devices. For each device, we will provide a definition along with examples from poetry, drama verses, and song lyrics. We will also look at the context in which these literary devices are used.
Knowing the gamut of poetic devices will help us not only to appreciate poetry better but also to successfully understand and properly analyze the layers of meaning intended by the authors.
Why do we need poetic devices?
Poetic devices reveal the poet’s motivation, the attitude of the lyrical hero, and plot twists (especially in narrative poems). The ability to correctly identify literary devices can also clarify the general meaning or purpose of a poem. Poetic devices shed light on why the author uses a particular language and why events happen the way they do.
Poetic devices make poems more interesting, captivating, and literary as they augment the artistic freedom to create effects and impressions that are impossible in reality. Poetry, especially good poetry, is a complex world where a seeming trifle can turn out to be the key to unlocking the true meaning and beauty of a poem. So, if you read poems without knowing poetic devices you are likely missing many semantic layers.
A list of poetic devices with examples
While this article includes more poetic devices than any other site, we do not pretend to have a complete list and offer only the common poetic devices and literary techniques that anyone who is interested in literature and philology should know. Each technique is provided with at least one example illustrating how it works, and if you can think of other good examples be sure to share them in the comments mentioning which poetic device they relate to.
Allegory is the use of a memorable image or plot for the allegorical expression of a universal idea, real (historical) problems, and/or events. Allegory is particularly common in fables and parables. Here is an example from Madonna’s Nothing Fails:
You could take all this, take it away
I’d still have it all
‘Cause I’ve climbed the tree of life
And that is why, no longer scared if I fall
Allusion is a hint or indirect reference to a person, event, or idea that takes place outside the framework of the main narrative. Many allusions refer to previously created works of art. For example:
Now it’s a vault to the Roman walls;
Makeup or plaster, it’s just the same.
Dante’s returned all your booty calls,
Tasso did not, but Boccaccio came.
The Playwright’s Rights – D. Rudoy
Understanding this stanza requires knowing who Dante, Tasso, and Boccaccio are and what they are famous for. “Boccaccio came” is a charged sexual allusion because, unlike Dante who is known for idolizing his chaste Beatrice, Giovanni Boccaccio is the author of “The Decameron“, a collection of 100 short stories most of which can only be described as pornographic.
Anachronism occurs when an author makes an error, intentionally or not, in the timeline. An anachronism would be a historic character that appears at a time different from when he actually lived or some technology used before it was invented, as in one of the most famous examples of anachronism from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar:
Brutus: “Peace! Count the clock.”
Cassius: “The clock has stricken three.”
The striking clock wasn’t invented until the 14th century making it impossible for such a device to appear in Ancient Rome.
Anaphora is a repetition of a sound, word, or phrase at the beginning of lines or sentences throughout the text. Used in both poetry and prose, anaphora serves to enhance the emotional impact. Rudyard Kipling relies on anaphora in his iconic If:
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too:
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;
The poem continues to deliver its magnificence for three more stanzas while the anaphora holds until the very end.
Antithesis is the opposition of two or more different ideas, characters, objects, etc. This poetic device helps compare and contrast concepts and things by juxtaposing them. The refrain of Katy Perry’s Hot N Cold includes literally nothing but antitheses and prepositions (a rather remarkable achievement):
‘Cause you’re hot then you’re cold
You’re “Yes” then you’re “No”
You’re in then you’re out
You’re up then you’re down
You’re wrong when it’s right
It’s black and it’s white
Contradiction and paradox
Contradiction is a statement in which logical connections are broken. Contradiction is used to create a brighter visual image, often in children’s literature, because the result of this poetic device is impossible. Consider Hot as Ice by Britney Spears:
‘Cause I’m cold as fire, baby, hot as ice
If you’ve ever been to Heaven, this is twice as nice
Paradox, on the other hand, is a statement that seems illogical or contradictory but turns out true or at least plausible upon further thinking.
After all you put me through
You’d think I’d despise you
But in the end, I wanna thank you
‘Cause you made me that much stronger
Fighter – Christina Aguillera
Ellipsis is the intentional omission of meaningful words in a sentence. Ellipsis is used to encourage the reader to guess the missing phrase or word on their own, which contributes to a greater engagement of the reader in the text. However, while the phrase remains unfinished, the expectation is that its meaning is already clear, as in Touch and Go’s Would You…?
I’ve noticed you around, um…
I find you very attractive
Would you…? Um…
Emotionally evaluative speech
The poet uses emotionally evaluative speech to more fully express the speaker’s attitude toward what is happening with a clear division between positive and negative statements. For the most part, this poetic device consists of swearing:
I ain’t mad – I just think it’s fucked up you don’t answer fans
We waited in the blistering cold for you
For four hours and you just said, “No”
That’s pretty shitty man – you’re like his fucking idol
Stan – Eminem
Epiphora is a poetic device similar to anaphora; however, with epiphora, the repeated word or phrase appears at the end of sentences. Much like anaphora, epiphora is used to evoke an emotional response.
The most famous epiphora in American poetry is probably the repetition of the word “Nevermore” at the end of the stanzas in The Raven by E. A. Poe. Here is how Walt Whitman uses epiphora in Song of Myself:
There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now,
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.
Epithet acts as a special poetic device whose purpose is to give the word a new, emotionally colored shade. With epithets, poets can describe their characters and environment more vividly while giving the poem a richer meaning. For example:
With rue my heart is laden
For golden friends I had,
For many a rose-lipt maiden
And many a lightfoot lad.
By brooks too broad for leaping
The lightfoot boys are laid;
The rose-lipt girls are sleeping
In fields where roses fade.
With Rue My Heart Is Laden – A. E. Housman
Unlike an epithet that draws attention to a word and emphasizes the subtle shades of its meaning, the objective of a euphemism is to disguise. The poet often turns to euphemism when she wants to express in a softer or more socially acceptable form a word or phrase that can be considered rude, vulgar, or offensive. Here is how Chris Brown uses the euphemism in Wrong Side of the Tracks:
‘Cause she don’t think we’re old enough to fall in love
‘Cause she swears that I’m from the wrong side of the tracks
Figurative language in poetry helps to enhance perception (taste, smell, sight, touch, or sound) when describing a scene, thing, or idea. Poetry relies on figurative language largely because it allows the reader to better picture what happens in a poem and get more fully immersed in it. Some poems with figurative language create an experience of participation, like Kylie Minogue’s Chocolate:
If love were liquid it would drown me
If love were human, it would know me
Hold me and control me
And then melt me slowly down
Flashback is a reference to events that have already occurred before narration takes place. This poetic device is often used to give the reader more information and details about specific characters, events, plot points, etc. Justin Timberlake employs flashbacks in What Goes Around:
Now girl, I remember everything that you claimed
You said that you were moving on now
And maybe I should do the same
Funny thing about that is
I was ready to give you my name
Thought it was me and you, babe
And now, it’s all just a shame
And I guess I was wrong
Hyperbole is a deliberate exaggeration that should not be taken literally. For example:
You would not believe your eyes
If ten million fireflies
Lit up the world as I fell asleep
‘Cause I’d get a thousand hugs
From ten thousand lightning bugs
«Fireflies» – Owl City
Grotesque is taking the hyperbole to an extreme. This poetic device depicts the qualities of an object or idea in a caricatured or absurd, implausible manner. Grotesque is most often used for comic effects.
The entire poem “A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed” by Jonathan Swift is a witty example of grotesque.
Inversion means changing the usual order of words in a sentence. This poetic device is often used in poetry to embed a phrase into a rhythmic pattern. For example:
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening – Robert Lee Frost
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary
The Raven – E. A. Poe
In a general sense, irony is the use of a word or a situation in a mocking way, often in the opposite sense of the literal one. There are several types of irony in literature.
Verbal irony: one thing is said, but the opposite is implied.
Lady, by yonder blessed moon I vow,
That tips with silver all these fruit-tree tops —
O, swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon,
That monthly changes in her circled orb…
Romeo and Juliet – W. Sheakespeare
His hair is hanging like a fetter,
Thanks for not growing a mustache.
You’ve done all right. Next time, do better.
The wind will take away the ash.
Ticket to Impeccability – D. Rudoy
Situational irony: the opposite of what should have happened is happening. Ironic by Alanis Morissette is a veritable parade of situational irony examples. Here are just some of them:
He won the lottery and died the next day
It’s a death row pardon two minutes too late
It’s like rain on your wedding day
It’s a free ride when you’ve already paid
It’s the good advice that you just didn’t take
As well as the breathtakingly brilliant
It’s like ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife
Followed by the implacable
It’s meeting the man of my dreams
And then meeting his beautiful wife
Dramatic irony: the viewer is aware of the true intentions or consequences, but the characters are not. As a result, actions and events take on a different meaning for the audience than for the participants.
For example, in Shakespeare’s King Lear, the audience knows that Cordelia is Lear’s real daughter but he himself does not. Similarly, Romeo committing suicide over the sleeping Juliet is another example of dramatic irony.
Malapropism occurs when, instead of a particular word, another is used with a similar sound but a different meaning. Malapropism usually renders the statement meaningless while ridiculing the person who said it. As a result, this poetic device is commonly used in the comedy genre.
Now don’t get us wrong cause we love America
But that’s no reason to get hysterica
In A World Gone Mad – Beastie Boys
Metaphor is the use of a figurative meaning to describe an idea, action, or object. In other words, this poetic device assigns the properties of one phenomenon to another. Metaphor can be called an implicit comparison:
My heart’s a stereo
It beats for you, so listen close
Hear my thoughts in every no-o-o-te
Make me your radio
And turn me up when you feel low
This melody was meant for you
Just sing along to my stereo
Stereo Hearts – Gym Class Heroes
Metonymy is another example of “substitution”. Metonymy implies the replacement of one word with another on the basis of a semantic connection between them. This device helps create a poetic effect.
I just wanna feel
Real love feel the home that I live in
‘Cause I got too much life
Running through my veins
Going to waste
Feel – Robbie Williams
Multi-Union and Non-Union
In multi-union, the author deliberately uses repeated unions, emphasizing the parts of the sentence that are logically and intonationally connected. The poetic device serves to enhance the expressiveness of speech.
First the air is blue and then
it is bluer and then green and then
black I am blacking out and yet
my mask is powerful.
Diving into the Wreck – Adrienne Rich
Non-union is the opposite: it works by the repeated omission of conjunctions (and, or, but also, for, etc.) in a group of words or phrases that would normally require them. Non-union serves to emphasize the meaning of a phrase or sentence. This poetic device is used in poetry when powerful rhythm or dynamics are required:
The other night I drifted nice continental drift divide
Mountains sit in a line, Leonard Bernstein
Leonid Brezhnev, Lenny Bruce, and Lester Bangs
Birthday party, cheesecake, jellybean, boom
You symbiotic, patriotic, slam but neck, right, right
It’s the End of the World as We Know It – R.E.M.
Oxymoron is a kind of paradox, a combination of two words with opposite meanings. Unlike the paradox, an oxymoron is not a complete phrase or idea but only forms a phrase. This poetic device is used to grab attention, create tension, or humor.
Why then, O brawling love, O loving hate,
O anything of nothing first created!
O heavy lightness, serious vanity,
Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms!
Romeo and Juliet – William Shakespeare
Parallelism is a poetic device based on the repetition of the grammatical structure of a phrase. It can be used as a means of highlighting the contrast between opposite phenomena, like in Hurt by Christina Aguilera:
I would hold you in my arms
I would take the pain away
Would you tell me I was wrong?
Would you help me understand?
Are you looking down upon me?
Are you proud of who I am?
Personification is the endowment of an inanimate object or abstract concept with human qualities or characteristics. Used to help the reader create a clearer mental picture of the scene or object being described.
Well, those rumours, they have big teeth
Hope they bite you
Green Light – Lorde
With repetition, the same word or phrase is used several times in a passage, usually to make a semantic emphasis. Repetition is used in both poetry and prose but since poetry is more frugal with words repetition in a poem often produces a stronger effect. Consider The Bells by Edgar Allen Poe:
How the danger sinks and swells,
By the sinking or the swelling in the anger of the bells,
Of the bells,
Of the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells—
In the clamor and the clangor of the bells!
Rhetorical Question (Exclamation, Address)
A rhetorical question is a poetic device highlighting semantically and emotionally important fragments in speech. The rhetorical question is, in fact, an affirmation (or denial) of something and does not require an answer.
Similarly to the rhetorical question, a rhetorical exclamation demonstrates the moment of the highest tension of emotions or feelings of the lyrical hero. It is usually in the form of an exclamation or shout. For example:
O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
This short excerpt from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet contains both a rhetorical exclamation (in the form of an address) and a rhetorical question!
Sarcasm is a more caustic form of irony with a touch of bitterness. This poetic device aims at criticizing something: a person, behavior, beliefs, society, and expresses stronger emotions than irony. Thus, sarcasm is a perfect choice for the following passage from William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar:
The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answer’d it.
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest–
For Brutus is an honourable man;
So are they all, all honourable men–
Come I to speak in Caesar’s funeral.
Simile is a poetic device involving a direct comparison of one object, idea, action, etc., with another. It is close to metaphor but it always takes the word “like”. Essentially, every time you read or hear that something is like something else it’s simile at work, like in Mean by Taylor Swift:
You, with your words like knives
And swords and weapons that you use against me
You have knocked me off my feet again
Got me feeling like a nothing
You, with your voice like nails on a chalkboard
Calling me out when I’m wounded
You, picking on the weaker man
Symbolism implies the use of a certain object, event or idea to express a different essence, a broader meaning that differs from the literal one. The carriers of such an encrypted meaning are called “symbols”, thus the name of the poetic device. The symbols usually appear throughout the text, sometimes changing the meaning as the plot progresses.
Rihanna’s Umbrella is very rich in examples of symbolism:
When the sun shine, we shine together
Told you I’ll be here forever
Said I’ll always be your friend
Took an oath, I’ma stick it out to the end
Now that it’s raining more than ever
Know that we’ll still have each other
You can stand under my umbrella
Synecdoche is a poetic device in which a part of something is used to represent the whole, or vice versa. For example, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “ear” refers to the entire country’s population:
Now, Hamlet, hear.
‘Tis given out that, sleeping in my orchard,
A serpent stung me. So the whole ear of Denmark
Is by a forgèd process of my death
Vernacular (aka common speech or spoken language) is the use of informal expressions and slang. Vernacular is often used by poets to make their monologues and dialogues more realistic, especially when the speaker represents the low class with limited education:
But anyways; fuck it, what’s been up? Man, how’s your daughter?
My girlfriend’s pregnant, too, I’m bout to be a father
If I have a daughter, guess what I’mma call her?
I’mma name her Bonnie
I like the shit you did with Rawkus, too, that shit was phat
Anyways, I hope you get this, man, hit me back
Just to chat, truly yours, your biggest fan
Stan – Eminem
How to find and interpret poetic devices?
To properly interpret poetry, it is necessary to recognize the poetic devices automatically, that is, without thinking. Here are some tips on how to achieve this.
Read Poetry Thoughtfully and Carefully
Do not be tempted to skip any part of the poem you are reading. If you do, you may miss some of the crucial poetic devices and misinterpreting the text.
If there are any passages that evoke special emotions or interest, you need to study them closely. It’s also a good idea to re-read any parts that seem confusing or incomprehensible on the first reading. This ensures a deeper understanding of the passage (and the work as a whole).
Memorize basic literary terms
It is very difficult to identify literary elements without knowing what they are and how they are used. Therefore, it is worth remembering at least the main poetic devices listed above. Knowing these techniques will make it easier to recognize them in different types of poems.
Know the Target Audience
Knowing which audience the author is addressing in his or her work, it is easier to understand what types of literary devices can be used by him. For example, a children’s book is more likely to use repetition or impersonation while rap relies on emotionally evocative language and vernacular.
Take notes and mark key passages
This is one of the most important tips. As you read, write down any passages, paragraphs, dialogues, descriptions, etc. that are striking or contain the literary devices you recognize. You can take notes directly on the pages if the book is from your personal library (but not from the public one!). Circle keywords and important phrases, highlight interesting or particularly effective passages and paragraphs.
You can also use stickers to bookmark pages that use meaningful literary techniques. This will help you find them later.