Arts & Culture

Understanding Poetry Lingo

When learning how to write poetry, especially in specific rhyming patterns or metric beats, or reading about the creation of a well-known poem, already challenges can arise. And figuring out the meaning of the “poetry lingo” writers spout off can be confusing and hard to follow. Here are explanations for some poetry terms that might not be as well-known. 


Adynaton can best be compared to hyperbole. It is used simply to draw more attention or add emphasis to a line, sentence, or stanza by exaggerating something beyond believability or plausibility. It can even occasionally be used for humor. In the poem “As I Walked Out One Evening”, W. H. Auden makes obvious use of this device. Near the beginning of the poem he writes, 


‘I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you

Till China and Africa meet, 

And the river jumps over the mountain 

And the salmon sing in the street, 


‘I’ll love you till the ocean 

Is folded up and hung up to dry

And the seven stars go squawking

Like geese about the sky. 


Much of what the lover speaks of here is very improbable; salmon learning how to sing and breathe outside of water is unlikely, and if China and Africa ever meet, something will have gone very wrong! But in using adynaton, the readers understand the extent of the character’s love better than if she simply said, “I love you so much.” 


A tercet is a broad term for multiple common types of poetry including the haiku, triplets, and enclosed tercets. A tercet comes in threes: three lines, verses, etc. A poem with only three lines, like a haiku, is considered a tercet. However, a poem can have more than three lines within the poem and still be considered a tercet if the poem contains breaks periodically. A perfect example of this is from Theodore Roethke’s “The Waking”: 


I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow. 

I feel my fate in what I cannot fear. 

I learn by going where I have to go. 


We think by feeling. What is there to know? 

I hear my being dance from ear to ear. 

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow. 


Of those so close beside me, which are you? 

God bless the Ground!  I shall walk softly there,

And learn by going where I have to go. 


As evidenced here, even though the poem continues to include six stanzas total, each one only contains three lines. Technically, this is an enclosed tercet with an ABA rhyming scheme. 


“Zeugma” is a Greek word, meaning “joining” or “yoking.” In writing, it is a term for when two words are joined by one verb. A great example is from Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers: “Miss Bolo…went home in a flood of tears and a sedan chair” (Dickens). In this instance, “went home” is the word that joins two separate meanings. Miss Bolo went home in a flood of tears, and she went home in a sedan chair. While zeugmas are more commonly seen in literature, occasionally one can be found in poetry as well.  When using zeugmas, the writer must be careful to not use it wrongly.  For example, “Wage neither war nor peace” (Grammar Monster). In this sentence, wage is used incorrectly because while one can wage war, peace cannot be waged.  When in doubt that the zeugma has been used properly, write two separate sentences: “Don’t wage war.  Don’t wage peace.”  Separated out, it’s easier to spot the mistake and fix it. 


The clerihew is named after and by its creator Edmund Clerihew Bentley. While clerihews have a rather specific structure, they are not very complicated. Clerihews are comedic, four-versed poems with an aabb format; they are always written about famous people, and the name of the person must be used in the first line. Bentley apparently invented this type of poetry while he was bored in chemistry class one day. He would often write these poems but didn’t publish them until about fifteen years later.  One of these poems of his reads, 


Sir Humphry Davy

Abominated gravy. 

He lived in the odium

Of having discovered Sodium. 


The beauty of clerihews is that they can be ridiculous and sometimes far-fetched, but despite multiple structural rules this type of poetry allows a poet to let loose and lighten up a little.  They don’t even have to be written about one historical figure–it could be about a group of people, a modern celebrity, a fictional character, even a friend or family member. 


Edgar Allen Poe

Was passionately fond of roe. 

He always liked to chew some, 

When writing something gruesome. 


~ Edmund Clerihew Bentley. 


While clerihews tend to include some small fact of truth, not every part of the poem has to be true.  In the above poem, for example, the author notes that Poe really liked roe.  However, whether Poe enjoyed roe or not is unknown.  It was simply used in this poem to help the rhyme scheme and to add some random humor. 


An elegy is a poem that expresses sadness, pain, or loss. While these poems are usually very depressing and can explore the depths of this sadness, it can also become a poem of hope or redemption. Sometimes elegies are written for funerals. Not in-frequently, a poet will write an elegy for a fellow poet or writer, such as “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” by Thomas Gray and “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” by W. H. Auden. One of Walt Whitman’s most famous poems is an elegy, titled “O Captain! My Captain!” 


O Captain! My Captain! Our fearful trip is done, 

The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,

The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting, 

While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;

    But O heart! Heart! Heart! 

      O the bleeding drops of red,

         Where on the deck my Captain lies,

           Fallen cold and dead. 


This poem, written for Abraham Lincoln after his assassination, is possibly one of the most well-known elegies. 


Poetry is a broad form of writing with many styles and cultures influencing it throughout the centuries. As such, there can be a lot of terms and devices to keep track of. Hopefully these explanations of a few of said devices will help with any potential confusion in the future. 


Works cited: 


“Adynaton.” Literary Devices.  Accessed February 17, 2021. 


“Adynaton.” Poem Analysis.  Accessed February 17, 2021. 


“As I Walked Out One Evening.”  Accessed February 17, 2021. 


MasterClass. “Poetry 101: What is a Tercet in Poetry? Learn Different Types of Tercets in Poetry with Examples.” Master Class. Updated November 8, 2020.  Accessed February 17, 2021. 


“The Waking.” Poetry Foundation.  Accessed February 17, 2021. 


“Zeugma.” Mirriam-Webster. Accessed February 17, 2021. 


“Zeugma.” Literary Devices.  Accessed February 17, 2021. 


“Zeugma.” Literary Terms.  Accessed February 17, 2021. 


“What is Zeugma?” Grammar Monster. Accessed February 26, 2021. 


“Clerihews.” Nature of Writing.  Accessed February 26, 2021. 


“Brief Candles–The Art of the Clerihew.” Brief Poems. October 28, 2015.  Accessed February 26, 2021. 


“Sir Humphry Davy – Clerihew.” Poem Hunter.  Accessed February 26, 2021. 


MasterClass. “Poetry 101: What is an Elegy in Poetry? Elegy Poem Definition with Examples.” Master Class. Updated November 8, 2020.  Accessed February 17, 2021. 


“Elegy.” Literary Devices.  Accessed February 17, 2021. 


“O Captain! My Captain!”  Accessed February 17, 2021. 





  1. This was great! It made the complicated poetry terms easier to digest. Thanks Emma : )