Poetry: Using Poetic Devices


“Ah, shall I metonymy or synecdoche?”

If you’re just breaking into the world of poetry writing, or if you, like me, wrote for years without much instruction or guidance, you may be wondering about some of the poetic terms that you see/hear tossed around in literary journals, classrooms, and conversations. What’s the difference between a metonymy and a synecdoche? What on earth is a kenning? An iamb? A trochee? More importantly, however, is understanding what these things can do for your poem. One easy way to explore their power is to experiment. With that in mind, here are three prompts that incorporate poetic devices:





  1. Write a poem that incorporates either a metonymy or a synecdoche. Metonymy is a device where something is signified by something closely linked to itself. For example, one of the most common is the representation of the American government by the term “the White House,” or the representation of police officers by the term “badge.” Synecdoche, on the other hand, is a specific form of metonymy where the signifier is an actual part of the signified, such as the synecdoche of “hand” to represent a person: “all hands on deck,” or “wheels” to represent a whole car, or “sails” to represent a ship. Metonymy and synecdoche can be valuable in a poem in a few ways. It can improve your poem’s imagery by using a smaller, more concrete stand-in for a complex idea. This also makes it a powerful tool for cutting unnecessary words. When used well, metonymy and synecdoche also forge new pathways in the reader’s mind, making them think about your subject in new ways. For your poem, try to be inventive – think of new ways to relate things, new parts that can stand in for wholes.


  1. Write a poem that uses a refrain. A refrain, or repeating section of a poem, can be a very useful literary device. A refrain can be as short as a few words, like Poe’s famous phrase: “Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore,” it can be a full line, like the final two lines in Robert Frost’s famous poem, “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening”: “And miles to go before I sleep / And miles to go before I sleep.” Or, a refrain can be a whole stanza, the term for which is a burden. Refrains can be used to heighten the focus of the word/phrase/line/stanza, but it’s important to remember that this comes with great expectations. The refrain should be strong enough to bear repetition. Try for a refrain where the repetition not only strengthens the impact of the word(s), but also deepens the meaning, presenting alternate or further interpretation.


  1. Last but not least, for this prompt, put a kenning into a poem. A kenning is a compound noun that is used in place of a third noun. It’s a literary device that traces roots back to Old Norse and Old English poetry. There are lots of examples to be found in poems like Beowulf: “wound-sea” for blood, “sea-farer” for sailor. Kennings are a powerful because they make the reader (and the poet!) think about things in new ways, often expressing emotive associations. In “wound-sea,” for example, the simple noun, blood, is given weight (a sea, something unstoppable and vast) and cause (a wound, representing combat and war). In order to find a kenning, think about your object from new angles (as you’ve probably noticed, this is sort of a theme among these devices). Compare it to things, make new connections and most of all, stretch your imagination.


If you were already familiar with these devices, pick a new one you didn’t know already (there’s a good online reference here). If not a new device, then a new form you’ve never encountered (here’s a good list to start with). The key to this prompt is to push your understanding of the craft.

Want more poetic devices and terms? Check out the list of sources:

The Poetry Foundation. An excellent online source for everything poetry. Read craft essays, poems, explore the searchable learning lab.


Project Gutenberg’s online annotated version of Beowulf.

Mary Kinzie’s A Poet’s Guide to Poetry. An in-depth look at the mechanics and craft of poetry. http://www.press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/P/bo15586305.html