Poetry: GED Test Prep (page 4)
Poetry shares many of the same elements as fiction, but poetry is a unique genre with its own styles and conventions. This article explains what makes poems different from stories and how to read and understand poems.
Poetry is often easy to recognize but not as easy to define. Poems are usually short, and often rhyme, but not always. The beauty (and, for many, the difficulty) of poetry is its brevity. The writer must convey an idea or emotion in a very short space. Because there are so few words in a poem, every word counts, and poems are often layered with meaning. That's where a poem gets its power.
One fundamental difference between poetry and prose is structure. Poems, of course, are written in verse. They are meant to be heard as well as read. The meaning in a poem comes not just from the words, but also from how the words sound and how they are arranged on the page.
Types of Poems
While poems are often categorized by structure (e.g., sonnets or ballads), a more fundamental way to classify poems is by their general purpose. Poems can be emotive, imagistic, narrative, and argumentative. They can also mourn or celebrate.
An emotive poem aims to capture a mood or emotion and to make readers feel that mood or emotion. Here is an untitled poem by the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin:
- I have loved you; even now I may confess,
- Some embers of my love their fire retain
- but do not let it cause you more distress,
- I do not want to sadden you again.
- Hopeless and tongue-tied, yet, I loved you dearly
- With pangs the jealous and the timid know;
- So tenderly I loved you—so sincerely;
- I pray God grant another love you so.
An imagistic poem aims to capture a moment and help us experience that moment sensually (through our senses). Here is a powerful two-line imagistic poem by Ezra Pound:
In a Station of the Metro
The apparition of these faces in the crowd; Petals on a wet, black bough.
Narrative poems tell stories, while argumentative poems explore an idea (such as love or valor). Here's a poem by Robert Frost that does both:
The Road Not Taken
- Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
- And sorry I could not travel both
- And be one traveller, long I stood
- And looked down one as far as I could
- To where it bent in the undergrowth;
- Then took the other, as just as fair,
- And having perhaps the better claim,
- Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
- Though as for that the passing there
- Had worn them really about the same,
- And both that morning equally lay
- In leaves no step had trodden black.
- Oh, I kept the first for another day!
- Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
- I doubted if I should ever come back.
- I shall be telling this with a sigh
- Somewhere ages and ages hence:
- Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by,
- And that has made all the difference.
Elegies and odes are two other common types of poems. An elegy is a poem that laments the loss of someone or something. An ode, on the other hand, celebrates a person, place, thing, or event. Here are a few lines from John Keats' (1795–1821) famous "Ode on a Grecian Urn":
- Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
- Your leaves, nor ever bid the spring adieu;
- And, happy melodist, unwearied,
- For ever piping songs for ever new;
- More happy love! more happy, happy love!
- For ever warm and still to be enjoy'd,
- For ever panting, and for ever young;
Elements of Sound
Though not all poems use rhyme, this is the most recognized element of sound in poetry. A rhyme is the repetition of identical or similar stressed sounds at the end of a word. Rhymes create rhythm and suggest a relationship between the rhymed words.
There are several different types of rhymes:
- Exact rhymes share the same last syllables (the last consonant and vowel combination). For example:
- cat, hat
- laugh, staff
- refine, divine
- Half-rhymes share only the final consonant(s)
- cat, hot
- adamant, government
- Eye rhymes look like a rhyme because the word endings are spelled the same, but the words don't sound the same
- bough, through
- enough, though
Alliteration is another important element of sound, and one that is often used in prose as well. Alliteration is the repetition of sounds. The sound is most often found at the beginning of words but can also be found throughout words. For example, the words pitter patter use alliteration at the beginning (repetition of the p sound), in the middle (repetition of the t sound), and at the end (repetition of the r sound).Notice the alliteration of the k sound in the first line and the l sound in the second line of "The Eagle":
- He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
- Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Some sounds, such as l, s, r, m, n, and vowel sounds (a, e, i, o, and u) are soft and create a pleasant, musical effect. Other sounds, such as b, g, k, and p, are much harder sounds, less pleasant and more forceful. Writers will use sound to help create the right tone and reflect the theme of the poem. By using the k and l sounds together in the first two lines, Tennyson suggests the duality of the eagle: its serene beauty and its awesome power.
Onomatopoeia is another element of sound. An onomatopoeia is a word that sounds like its meaning; the sound is the definition of the word. Buzz, hiss, moan, and screech are a few examples. These two lines from Robert Frost's 1916 poem "Out, Out," for example, use onomatopoeia:
And the saw snarled and rattled, snarled and rattled,
As it ran light, or had to bear a load.
One of the most important ways poets establish rhythm in their poems is through meter. Meter is the number of syllables in a line and how the stress falls on those syllables. In iambic meter, one of the most common metrical patterns, the stress falls on every other syllable, creating a steady da-dum, da-dum, da-dum rhythm to the poem. Each "drum beat" (da-dum) is called a foot. Here is Robert Frost again to demonstrate iambic tetrameter (four feet per line). Read these lines from "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" out loud to hear how the rhythm works. The stressed syllables are in bold type.
- Whose woods these are I think I know.
- His house is in the village, though;
- He will not see me stopping here
- To watch his woods fill up with snow.
Elements of Structure
You won't find a GED Language Arts, Reading question asking you to identify the rhyme scheme or meter of a poem, and you won't be asked to determine whether a poem is free verse or a sonnet. But knowing these poetic forms and techniques can help you better understand the poems you read. In poetry more than any other type of literature, form is part of the poem's meaning.
Line Breaks and Stanzas
Because poems are written in verse, poets must decide how much information belongs on each line and when those lines should be broken into stanzas (poetic "paragraphs"). First, it's important to remember that when you read a poem out loud, you should pause only when punctuation tells you to pause. Do not pause at the end of each line or even at the end of a stanza unless there is a comma, period, or other punctuation mark that requires pause. That way, you can hear the flow of the words as the poet intended.
When you look at a poem, however, you need to take into consideration the important visual element of line breaks and stanzas. Line breaks and stanzas have two purposes: 1) to call attention to the words at the end of each line and 2) to set aside each group of words as a distinct idea. Thus, while poetic sentences sometimes cut across line breaks and even sometimes stanzas, the visual separation of words within those sentences helps poets set off particular words and ideas for emphasis. Any word at the end of a line, for example, will stand out. And poets can space words all across the page, as in the following example:
Notice how the spacing here ties the words dark, wondering, and wandering together, pairs the words inside and outside, and sets off alone.
Rhymed and Metered Verse
Poems can be rhymed verse, metered (or blank) verse, or free verse. Rhymed and metered/blank poems are very confined by their structure; the lines must follow a rhyme scheme or metrical pattern (or both, if the poem is both rhymed and metered).Word choice (diction) is especially controlled by rhyme scheme and metrical pattern. Poets must find words that both convey just the right idea, have the right ending to fit the rhyme scheme, and have the right number of syllables and the right stresses to fit the metrical pattern.
Three common types of rhymed and metered verse include the sonnet, the ballad, and the villanelle. These forms all have specific rhyme schemes and metrical patterns that poets must follow. A sonnet, for example, is composed of 14 lines usually written in iambic pentameter (five feet per line). The rhyme scheme will vary depending on the type of sonnet. An Italian sonnet, for example, will divide the poem into two stanzas, one with eight lines, the other with six, using the following rhyme scheme: abbaabba cdcdcd (or cdecde or cdccdc). A Shakespearian sonnet, on the other hand, separates the lines into three quatrains (a quatrain is a stanza of four lines) and ends with a couplet (a pair of rhyming lines) with the following rhyme scheme: abab cdcd efef gg.
A ballad is a poem that usually tells a story and is often meant to be sung. The rhyme scheme is typically abcb defe ghih, etc. Ballads tend to emphasize action rather than emotions or ideas and often have a steady, sing-songy meter.
One of the most complex rhyme schemes is the villanelle. A villanelle has five three-line stanzas with an aba rhyme scheme and a final quatrain with an abaa rhyme. There are only two rhymes in the poem, and line one must be repeated in lines six, 12, and 18 while line three must be repeated in lines nine, 15, and 19.
Blank or metered verse is guided only by meter, not rhyme. Thus, the lines have a set number of syllables without any rhyme scheme. A haiku is an example of blank verse. Haikus are unrhymed poems of three lines and 17 syllables. Line one has five syllables; line two has seven; and line three has five. Here is an example:
- The Falling Flower
- What I thought to be
- Flowers soaring to their boughs
- Were bright butterflies.
- —Moritake (1452–1540)
Free verse is poetry that is free from the restrictions of meter and rhyme. But that doesn't mean that free verse poems are haphazard or simply thrown together. Rather than fitting a traditional metrical pattern or rhyme scheme, free verse poems often use a thematic structure or repetitive pattern. "Sleeping" is one example, setting off words to isolate some and associate others. A more structured free verse poem is Kenneth Fearing's 1941 poem "Ad." The poem is structured like a help-wanted ad designed to recruit soldiers for World War II.
- Wanted: Men;
- Millions of men are wanted at once in a big new field
- Wages: Death.
The last line of the poem sums up the compensation for the soldiers.
Thus, the structure of the poem helps reflect its theme: The absurdity of running an advertisement for men to kill and be killed, of calling war "a big new field" to make it sound exciting, reflects the poet's feelings about the war—that it, too, is absurd, and that it is absurd to ask men to kill each other and to die.
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