Poetry drips with rhyme, rhythm, meaning, and intensity. It inspires, resonates, emboldens, and heightens our experience with that prose.
So, just as the name implies, a poetic device adds these same elements to writing using shapes, sounds, words, phrases, and rhyme to enhance or convey meaning.
If you want to heighten the literal meaning of your words through the use of these devices, keep on reading.
What are poetic devices?
Poetic devices are a bit like the spices you add to flavor your cooking. Or a combination of effective ingredients that give it that wow or zing you’re looking for.
They can be used to make writing memorable and evocative, to add mood to the writing, make it rhythmically pleasing, intensify emotions, and enhance visual elements.
How many poetic devices are there?
There are a lot of poetic devices available to you, and it’s probably best not to put a number on them! A better question might be, how often should I use them?
Well, like any flavoring added to your food, poetic devices should be used in moderation. We don’t over salt or over pepper, or use too much chili, right? Like anything that is overdone or overcooked, they can become tiresome, annoying, or ineffective if used too often.
Like salt or pepper, throw them in occasionally to spice up a scene and create a lasting impression.
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Why are they used?
The best way to explain the merits of using poetic devices is to turn to the film Dead Poets Society and two quotes by one of the character leads, John Keating.
So avoid using the word ‘very’ because it’s lazy. A man is not very tired, he is exhausted. Don’t use very sad, use morose. Language was invented for one reason, boys – to woo women – and, in that endeavor, laziness will not do. It also won’t do in your essays.
Whether you believe your poetic devices will woo women or not, they absolutely do enhance your writing, just as in his examples of being tired (ho hum) or exhausted (a bit more colourful!) Let’s spice it up a bit!
Here’s another quote from the same film about what motivates us to write poetry.
We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.
Keating waxes lyrical in beautiful ways throughout the film about the joys and beauties of colourful language. Why should you use a poetic device? If Keating was answering this question, he would say because we are filled with beauty, romance, and love, so why not reflect this in the words, mood, and feelings we convey?
Poetic Devices Defined
These devices engage a sound quality, that might seem a bit strange when we’re talking about words and phrases. But words can be soothing or dissonant and attract mood and emotion. There are lots of poetic devices that use sound such as alliteration, cacophony, assonance, euphony, consonance and onomatopoeia. Here are a few examples.
Alliteration: This uses repeated consonant sounds at the beginning of words, often placed near each other. There are classic examples in tongue twisters like “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers”. William Shakespeare also used it very effectively in these verses in Romeo and Juliet:
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes, A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life.
Cacophony: This device uses unappealing sounds and harsh noises to create discord, disorder, dread and even chaos. Lewis Carroll does this very well in his poem, Jabberwocky, which is almost nonsensical in some ways, creating plenty of cacophonic experiences for the reader.
Beware the Jabberwock, my son! The jaws that bite, the claws that catch! The frumious Bandersnatch!
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The flow of words, in terms of their rhythm, repeating patterns and pauses, can create or express emotions. Common rhythmic devices included anaphora, repetition, rhyme, enjambment and caesura. Here are a few examples.
Anaphora: Repeats the same phrase at the beginning of each line or clause, a bit like in the famed “I have a dream” speech by Martin Luther King. Charles Dickens also uses it very effectively in A Tale of Two Cities:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.
Repetition: This is similar to the example above, but in this case, the repeated words or phrases don’t necessarily need to be just at the beginning of each line. It could include phrasing like, “time after time”, “home sweet home” or “all for one and one for all”. There are many examples of this in literature. Here are a few.
The horror! The horror! (Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad)
Think and wonder, wonder and think (Dr. Seuss)
This poetic device uses figurative language to convey meaning in various ways, such as through allusion, puns, personification, analogy, an oxymoron or paradox.
Personification: This personifies inanimate objects or living beings like plants and animals with human qualities. This makes the passage seem rich with imagery and description. This poetic device is dotted throughout literature in phrasing like, “The sun smiled down on us” or “The light danced on the surface of the water”.
Here is an example from Ernest Hemingway’s novel, The Old Man and the Sea, in which he ascribes feminine qualities to natural elements.
But the old man always thought of her as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favors, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them. The moon affects her as it does a woman, he thought.
Hyperbole: This device uses extreme exaggeration to make a point. In some cases, it might not actually be physically true or possible. Here is an example from F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby, and this quote from the character Daisy Buchanan to Nick Carraway:
“I’m p-paralyzed with happiness.”