What are the characteristics of poetry? 

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The “characteristics” of poetry are what separate it as a medium of writing from other forms. Specifically, what does poetry use as part of its forms and functions that different types of writing and expression do not? Poetry tends to have three main characteristics that set it apart from other forms of writing.

The first characteristic of poetry that is not found in many other types of writing is the use of rhyme. Rhyme is one of the most recognizable parts of poetry. When something rhymes, it typically has two words that have similar end sounds. Poetry uses rhyme in many different ways, usually called forms, because it brings closure to lines that are satisfying to the ear and can make it so different ideas are closely related.

The second characteristic of poetry is the use of stanza. Stanzas are particular to poetry as a means of separating different ideas or sections within a poem. A stanza lets the reader know that a specific set of images or lines are connected and that those lines or images should be read together to make meaning from the text.

The third characteristic of poetry is the use of different forms or patterns. Poems have a distinct flavor through the use of various forms like Sonnet, Villanelle, Limerick, or Sestina. Every form of poetry offers different patterns of rhyme and meter, the use of repetition of different lines or words, and a distinct conglomeration of images and ideas to help the listener or reader make sense of them.

While meter and lines are used in poems, they are also used in other media, like plays—therefore, I would not count those as characteristics of poetry but characteristic of literature.

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The elements of poetry include meter, rhyme, form, sound, and rhythm (timing).

Different poets use these elements in many different ways. Some poets do not use rhyme at all. Some use couplets, while others may rhyme the second and fourth lines only...in a stanza.

Some use stanzas (form), which are often lines of four, grouped together—but poems can also be broken into sections consisting of eight lines or eleven. It depends on the author. In Shakespeare's Sonnet 29, for instance, the first and third lines rhyme, as do the second and forth—he uses three four-line stanzas, ending with a rhyming couplet (pair of lines):

When, in disgrace with Fortune and men's eyes,

I all alone beweep my outcast state,

And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,

And look upon myself, and curse my fate...

One aspect of poetry that many poets use is sound. It is here that you find use of literary elements: alliteration, assonance, consonance, onomatopoeia, etc. This devices appeal to the ear—the sound is an important characteristic because it gives poetry a musical quality. (Rhyme also uses "sound.")

Figurative language is essential to poetry. This is found with similes, metaphors, metonymy, hyperbole, personification, etc. However, it is important as a characteristic because poets endeavor to create an image in the reader's mind, so that the reader is moved in some way—able to envision the picture (and even experience an emotion) the author is trying to reproduce. Look to William Carlos Williams' "The Red Wheelbarrow." There is no rhyme; it is very short. But the imagery it creates is quite impressive:

so much depends


a red wheel


glazed with rain


beside the white


There is no rhyme, but the senses pick up the color of the wheelbarrow, the slick surface from the rain, and the contrast in color between the red wheelbarrow and the white chickens. With regard to the characteristics of poetry, look deeper—the poet is still telling us that what seems simply picturesque by description will work hard in the hands of the gardener or farmer. In this case, it is easy to see that the author is also conveying an even deeper message or theme: do not be deceived by outward appearances...or..."don't judge a book by its cover."

The intent of the poet may be to praise love, lament heartbreak, glorify nature, tell a story (epics like Beowulf, or Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner), or even attempt simply to entertain. However, a poem's "success" relies on a reader's reaction to the work. The poet will use poetic devices to this end. The poet will also endeavor to share some message or deeper meaning with the reader, and in this way, create a connection between the poem and the reader, making the work memorable...appealing to common emotions: joy, love, fear, longing, sorrow, etc. 

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