Poetry (verse) is literature that works through sounds and images. It was originally recited (spoken aloud) to an audience, and its rhythms and sounds affect the meaning of the words. Poetic language is concentrated (it says a lot in few words) and expresses feelings and ideas.
The epic was the earliest type of poem, presenting a long narrative (story) of amazing heroic deeds. Lyric poetry, originally a song for a lyre (an ancient musical instrument), is short and often expresses the poet’s own ideas or feelings. Dramatic poetry is written in the voices of different characters and can be acted.
The oldest written poem is the Epic of Gilgamesh from Babylon. It is about 4,000 years old and tells the story of a king, Gilgamesh, who was half-man, half-god. The oldest poem in English is Beowulf, written in the 8th century AD. This 3,000-line epic is about a Scandinavian hero, Beowulf, who saves the Danes from two monsters—Grendel and its mother.
Poetic devices are the special tricks and techniques that make poetry different from everyday language. Alliteration repeats consonants, as in “slithering snake”—the repeated use of the “s” makes us think of the sound a snake makes, which strengthens the image. Other common devices are metaphor and simile, both forms of comparison. A simile uses “like” or “as”: “My love is like a red, red rose.” A metaphor does not: “My love is a red rose.”
Meter is the rhythm of a poem. Rhythm is created by the stressed (long) and unstressed (short) syllables (parts of a word) in a line. Short and long syllables are arranged in fixed patterns known as feet. A foot with a long and a short syllable is called a trochee. A line with ten syllables is called a pentameter.
Rhyme (when words sound the same) does not always suit the subject or feeling of a poem, so many poets write poetry that does not rhyme, called blank verse. Paradise Lost, the epic poem by John Milton (1608–1674), does not rhyme but has a particular meter (rhythm). Poetry without meter is called free verse.
Verse can mean poetry in general, or it can mean a paragraph of poetry, also called a stanza. Traditionally, a stanza contains no more than 12 lines. A two-line stanza is called a couplet, and a four-line couplet is a quatrain.