What Is the Role of Diction in Poetry?

Daniel Liden

Diction, or a writer's choice of words, has a particularly important place in poetry, as the meaning, sound, and number of syllables in each word is often very important. Diction in poetry defines the tone and many aspects of the style of a given poetic work. In many cases, particularly in poems that must conform to rigid stylistic constraints, the poet must pick words that contain a certain number of syllables and that rhyme with other specific words. Diction is important even in less structured works of poetry as well, as most poetic forms are far less wordy than most works of prose. While a prose writer can often spend several paragraphs on description, a poet often needs to convey a significant piece of information about something in only a few well-chosen words.

Diction is essential in poetry, as it defines the tone of a given work.
Diction is essential in poetry, as it defines the tone of a given work.

Many poems are written in highly-structured forms that must conform to specific rules. In heroic couplets, for instance, the poet must write in iambic pentameter, with five stressed and five unstressed syllables arranged in an alternating manner. Furthermore, the end syllables of each pair of lines must rhyme. Within these restraints, diction becomes extremely important, as the poet must choose words that fit these restraints without compromising the meaning that he wishes to convey. Each word must be assessed based on its meaning and its role in the rhythm and rhyme scheme.

Diction in poetry is meant to evoke an emotional response from the reader.
Diction in poetry is meant to evoke an emotional response from the reader.

Diction in poetry is also incredibly important because of its ability to convey tone. Words conveying ideas of dreariness, darkness, and melancholy will convey a drastically different tone than those suggestive of joy, brightness, and energy. The tone of a poem is often used to influence its emotional impact beyond the literal meanings and sounds of the words. A skilled poet crafts his diction not only to convey a certain meaning and to sound a certain way, but also to evoke a particular set of emotional responses from readers. Sloppy and careless diction in poetry may succeed in meaning and sound, but is likely to fail to evoke the specific emotional response intended by the poet.

In some forms of poetry, particularly in narrative poems, the choice of words is used to tell the reader something about the narrator. Diction in poetry can be used to convey that the speaker is from a certain background or age group, for instance. This use of diction, though much more common in prose, still has an important place in many forms of poetry, particularly when the identity of the speaker is essential to fully understanding the poem.

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Discussion Comments


@pleonasm - I think there are pros and cons for structured poetry and non-structured poetry.

I mean, really when you open poetry up so that anything goes, the vocabulary can end up going out the window. With a structure, a poet is really forced to choose her words carefully so that she picks the absolute best word for both the meaning and the structure.

Sure, there are poets who focus entirely on the structure and forgo the meaning, but then they aren't very good poets. The best poets can focus on both and use them to compliment each other and that's what good diction is really about.


@KoiwiGal - Honestly, I think there is something to be said for clumsy poetry. Poetry that is a little bit raw, a little bit unrefined.

There is something more honest and true about words that are chosen in a fit of passion rather than deliberated over for weeks.

And I really prefer poetry that has been written without the restrictions of different forms. I know that there is a strong argument for structured poetry and I can see the point of it, but I prefer it when the poet simply writes what they think expresses what they feel without picking a word just because it rhymes correctly.

Poetry like that just feels kind of fake to me, although I guess that's also because very few people are able to do it well.


The word choice in poetry is so important. A lot of beginners don't realize how true this is. They think that all they have to do is find the most impressive word or the most vibrant image, when in reality they need to be looking for the most suitable word for what they are trying to get across.

I do think that the most important thing in poetry is to have something worth saying. Too many people try to say something that has been said a thousand times before, and worse, try to say it in the exact same way that others have.

But once you have something worth saying, some image that you need to convey, you need to be able to do that precisely and with elegance.

And you need to be able to do it with a full understanding of all the connotations of the words that you use.

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