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What is a poem made of?

Elements of poetry

imagery | diction | sound | metaphor | theme | saying something new

five elements of poetry (from CyberEnglish9)


Imagery is what occurs when poets use words that appeal to our senses: we perceive, through his or her words, a sense idea or image: these images can appeal to all six senses: sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste, and balance. Imagery is important in a poem because it is language that allows us to be transported to place, time, and experience, which, if the image is effective, allows us to understand the emotion being conveyed in the poem. Imagery allows the poet to show us and keeps him or her from simply telling us.

We can only know the world through the senses; we must perceive first and reason second. Imagery is critical to understanding.

Imagism refers to the idea that an image, presented on its own, in a poem, has the power to unite the poet and the reader/listener in the exact impulse or experience that led the poet to write the poem in the first place.


Diction is primarily the poet’s choice of words. Since poetry, of all literary forms, uses the least number of words to accomplish its task, each word is important and must be chosen as the exact word. Also, unnecessary words should be eliminated so they don’t obscure the essential language of the poem.

How does a poet choose the exact word? Three reasons make sense:

Revision is the poet’s best tool for “fixing” those words that “just don’t work.” Initially, write the poem so you don’t lose the impulse, the reason you are writing in the first place. Then, after a time of “estrangement” from your poem, go back and look critically at each word, asking yourself if it works? Is it needed? Will another work better?


Poems are meant to be heard; language that “drips from the tongue” it has been said. We must, as poets, pay attention to the sound of language as well as to the meaning of language: and sound, when used intentionally, should always enhance or reinforce the meaning. Sound occurs in several ways:

The danger in writing poems using strict patterns of rime and meter is that a poet will “force” words into lines for the sake of the meter or rime and will create a line that sounds wrong or awkward. Sound should never be more important than the idea or meaning of the poem, but should always work to extend the meaning of the poem.


A metaphor is a comparison between two unlike things whose purpose it is to help us see something in a new or more meaningful way. Similes are also metaphors, but use the words like or as in making the comparison. “Life is like a river" is a simile.

Besides the simile, there are two basic types of metaphor:

Comparison is one of our basic patterns of reasoning. We perceive the world and compare new things/experiences to what we already know to see how they are alike or different and in this process, we make judgments and understand ideas.

There are other ways of comparing:


Why write poems? Some people can’t help it. Writing poetry is as natural to them as breathing and it’s not like a choice: they just do it. Still, there must be some reason above the process itself for writing poems. Theme is the purpose of the poem. It’s what the poet needed to say. Themes express the unity of human experience, and through poems we see that we are more alike as a human race than different. Themes tell us what is true about us, and they aren’t always beautiful. Themes express the poet’s vision—the artist’s vision about the truth of the world. Some common themes are love, hate, hunger, growing up, growing old, dying, fears, cruelty, compassion, etc. A theme in a poem can be found in an epic tale or a simple reflection: both light the way to understanding.

Saying Something New or Saying Something Old in a New Way

Poetry is one of the oldest art forms, and poets have pretty much covered all there is to say. Still, you are, we all are, constantly reinventing ourselves and our world and we can say something new, or at least something old in a new way. As beginning poets, we learn, sometimes, through imitating the great poems we admire. This is a good and natural way to learn. But we cannot imitate forever. At some point, we must find our own voices and we must allow them to say the things that “we know.” “What you know that I don’t know is what you can tell me in a poem,” said Sharon Olds. After all, what else is there. I cannot write about anything else. I can only tell you what I know.

This is a tricky thing, though. Sometimes we think we know things through our own experiences that we really don’t; what we do is try to appropriate vicarious experience for our poems. Young poets may take the life lived on TV or in a movie and write about it as if it were their own. Ideas for poems can come through the observed lives of others—but what matters is what we know about that experience and this knowledge comes only from our own experience—from our own learning. This is what Olds meant: this is what we know.

Saying something old in a new way can mean using new forms, new ideas in language, infusing the truly new world of science/technology/reality with the very, very old questions of humanity. It’s all about perception: how do you see the world? What can you say about it that hasn’t already been said?