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Introduction To Annotating Poems

Definition, Stanzas, Line Numbers, and Rhyme Scheme

By Stephanie J. BradberryPublished about a year ago Updated about a year ago 9 min read
Top Story - January 2023
Introduction To Annotating Poems
Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

Many students dislike reading poetry, let alone analyzing it, because they think they do not understand the art form or what the poem means. So, before we get into how to annotate a poem (or find meaning in a poem), let’s first look at what “poem” means and then what “annotation” means.

And before that, a side note. I will use a modern poem published by a writer on to show these terms in action. This means a fresh, modern poem by an artist you can support, follow and interact with now!

The Definition And Meaning Of “Poem”

Merriam-Webster defines a poem as “a composition in verse”. Basically, this dictionary is saying a poem is a piece of writing that has some sort of style to it. That style can be a specific form like haiku, free form, sonnet, limerick, and so on.

The Cambridge dictionary goes into more detail as to what a poem is: “a piece of writing in which the words are arranged in separate lines, often ending in rhyme, and are chosen for their sound and for the images and ideas they suggest”. This definition is more specific about how a poem differs from just a basic composition or writing. There is a form (even in free form) because the author is writing to express something specific and is deliberate about the choice and placement of words, thoughts, ideas and images.

Now that we have two working definitions and meanings for a poem, let’s move on to what an annotation is.

The Definition And Meaning Of “Annotation”

I will start with the definition given by Merriam-Webster first again. According to Merriam-Webster, an annotation is “a note added by way of comment or explanation”. Think about when you are reading a book and find something interesting. Whenever you write a note in the margin, underline or highlight a portion of the text, you are making an annotation.

The Oxford dictionary has a nice addition in its definition of annotation: “a note of explanation or comment added to a text or diagram”. Here we see that the “note” made can be left for a piece of text or even an image.

Notice how in both definitions there is a focus on the purpose of this notation being made. The purpose of the note is to comment or explain something about that portion.

Here is how I have come to define annotations to my students over the years. An annotation is a marking done by the reader on a piece to help bring attention to or comment on a word, phrase, connection, or any aspect of the writing that the reader finds interesting, of note, or of potential importance.

This gets us to the “why” of annotations.

Why Annotate A Poem

Any student that is asked to go through the annotation process often wonders why. And most students think it is some form of punishment or way to kill class time. Contrary to popular misconception, annotations are actually meant to speed your analytical process up. When it comes time to write that multi-paragraph essay explaining a poem, having annotations helps keep the crickets quiet and the page from being empty—meaning you didn’t even write an essay because you had nothing to say.

Therefore, annotating a poem is certainly not an exercise in futility, because:

  1. Annotations can help anyone find meaning in a poem.
  2. With annotations, one can at least come to have an appreciation for what is written in the poem and the stylistic elements used.
  3. And in the worst-case scenario, annotations will help you find something to get you to the word count needed for your essay!

As mentioned above, annotations help bring attention to a word, phrase, connection, or any aspect of the writing that the reader finds interesting, of note, or of potential importance. Just looking at a poem in black and white does not make many aspects of style or devices stand out.

But once a poem is annotated, you can start seeing connections that help to answer the overarching questions when studying poetry:

  1. What does the poem mean?
  2. How does the poem mean?

The difference in these questions often confuses students. All you need to know for now is that you cannot answer the second question without annotations; however, you only need an opinion to answer the first question. Usually what teachers and professors are looking for when they ask you to analyze a poem is the second question “How does the poem mean?” They just don’t phrase it or explain it that way. And that’s often why students are left scratching their heads.

Hopefully after this article and the series of articles and explanations to follow, you will scratch your head no more, but rather explain the meaning of a poem with confidence.

So far we have covered the definitions and why we annotate poems. Now we need to go through the basics that set the stage for annotating and analyzing a poem.

I will be using Bugsy Watts’s poem “Cobblestone: Where once we walked before” for walking you through (maybe a pun was intended) the beginning stages of annotating a poem.

How Many Stanzas Make Up The Poem

A poem can tell us a lot just by looking at it. Is it long or short? Are the lines short or long? Do you see a lot of punctuation? Do the lines form an image? But one of the easiest and quickest questions we can answer is, How many stanzas are there?

A stanza is a group of lines in a poem. It originates from the Italian word meaning “room”. I think it is cute to think about the grouping of lines in a poem as a room. They are just specific little rooms in a house (the poem being the house). Sometimes the grouping is made by visually separating one set of lines from the next. Other times the grouping is based off of a recurring or repeating pattern for a set of lines (meter, rhyme, theme).

Annotations by Stephanie J. Bradberry

In “Cobblestone” how many stanzas do we see? If you counted six (6), you got it! Why is knowing the number of stanzas important? First, it helps as easy reference when discussing a part of the poem. You can just say, “In the second stanza, blah, blah, blah.” Second, you can actually use the number of stanzas to write your analysis. Yes, you can write a whole paper about the importance of the number of stanzas in a poem or the theme of a stanza. We will discuss that in a different article, though.

How To Count Line Numbers

You are probably saying to yourself, I know how to count. And I’m sure you do. But there are two specific rules for counting the lines of a poem:

  • Rule 1: You count every line, but you only mark the lines that are a multiple of five (5)
  • Rule 2: You write the line number on the left side margin of the poem
Annotations by Stephanie J. Bradberry

So how many lines does “Cobblestone” have? If you counted 24, you got it! Bugsy Watts’s format of stanzas actually makes counting quick. You’ll notice there are 6 stanzas (which we already determined above, see, it’s paying off already) and each stanza has four (4) lines. From there it is basic multiplication.

Why is knowing the number of lines important? First, it helps as easy reference when discussing a part of the poem, just like with stanzas. You can say, “In line three, la, la, la.” Second, you can actually use the number of lines to write your analysis. An example of this is how we were able to do 6x4 to get the total number of lines. Does this mean something? Absolutely. And that would be your essay, explaining why it is important that each stanza has four lines. Third, it helps when we establish if there is a rhyme scheme, our next and final topic.

How To Determine Rhyme Scheme

Just like counting line numbers, there are some rules to determining and marking the rhyme scheme.

  • Rule 1: You start with Line 1 and mark it with the letter “A”
  • Rule 2: All letters for the rhyme scheme go on the right side margin of the poem
  • Rule 3: If Line 2 rhymes with Line 1, then you also mark it with an “A”
  • Rule 4: If Line 2 does not rhyme with Line 1, then you mark it with the letter “B”
  • Rule 5: If any other lines rhyme with Line 1, it gets the letter “A”. So if Lines 1, 5, 7, 10 and 18 rhyme, they would all get the letter “A”. The same goes for any letter assigned to the rhyme of a line. If Lines 3, 6, 9, and 12 end in the same sound, they would all get whatever letter is assigned to Line 3.
  • Rule 6: If you get to the letter “Z” and still have more lines and none of them rhyme, you then use double letters. So, the next letters would be “AA, BB, CC, DD, and so on).
Annotations by Stephanie J. Bradberry

Is it possible for a poem to have no rhyme scheme? Yes and No. It is possible for a 26-line poem to have no lines that rhyme at the end. But technically that is the rhyme scheme. The rhyme scheme just goes from A-Z, literally. And sometimes the writer plays tricks on us and might use near, slant or visual rhyme to trip us up.

What We Learned Today

We actually covered a lot! Each aspect explained in this article could easily be its own article. But I grouped these basic components (definitions, stanzas, line numbers and rhyme scheme) together because they form the foundation for annotating poems.

Hopefully you have a better understanding of what a poem actually is and what is considered an annotation and why these annotations are important and useful. Today you walked away with three basic annotations for a poem: stanzas, line numbers and rhyme scheme.

Next, we will cover annotations based on literary and poetic devices. These examples will be discussed in a series of articles. Each one will use modern poems published by writers on Vocal. That means poems recently published by artists you can support, follow and interact with now! So please keep following the cookie crumbs as I publish them.

Disclaimer: The author received the consent and blessing of Bugsy Watts to use her poem, “Cobblestone”, for analysis. Thank you, Bugsy!

You can read the poem in its original format here:

About the Author

Stephanie Bradberry is first and foremost an educator and life-long learner. Her time in academia spans 19 years and counting as a professor of English, Literature, Business and Education; high school English teacher, and more. She loves freelance writing and editing. She is the former founder/owner of Crosby Educational Consulting, LLC and current founder/owner of Stephanie J. Bradberry LLC. Learn more at

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Stephanie J. Bradberry

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Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

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Comments (33)

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  • Angie the Archivist 📚🪶4 days ago

    Well deserved Top Story… so informative and readable… what an excellent educator! I especially enjoy a bit of humour mixed in to hold my attention… I will have to read your other articles.✅

  • Excellent article. We have included it in this week's Vocal Social Society Community Adventure, we would love you to join us there.

  • Finally got around to reading this. You do such a great job explaining this all so clearly! And I never knew that about poems stanzas deriving from the word for room. I also love that notion that the poem is a house and the stanzas are the rooms!

  • rajkumar .v.s.12 months ago

    to know about dark side of school life read

  • The Invisible Writerabout a year ago

    Very informative

  • Bugsy Wattsabout a year ago

    Thank you for this, Stephanie! I learned so much about my own poem lol

  • DiscipleMakingabout a year ago

    Excelent to your Introduction To Annotating Poems.

  • Amanda Ginesabout a year ago

    Nice Creation!

  • Novel Allenabout a year ago

    Wow. And here I was thinking poetry just came from the heart. Learned a lot! Thank you.

  • Smith Hanaabout a year ago

    I loved it! You performed an outstanding job. I learnt a great deal about what I do and do not do as a poet. I would want to know the rhyme system of one of my peculiar-as-hell poems. I look forward to reading more of your writings since you explain this subject better than I did in high school. Sharing it for Wonderful!

  • Gina C.about a year ago

    I loved this!! You did a really fabulous job. I learned a lot about what I do as a poet, and about what I don't do. I would be interested to know what the rhyme scheme is for one of my peculiar-af poems. 😃 I'm looking forward to more of thee articles because you explain this better than I ever learned in high school. 🥰❤️ Wonderful!

  • C. H. Richardabout a year ago

    Very informative and helpful. I am new to writing poetry and still getting comfortable with it. I will be coming back to your article again I'm sure. Also enjoyed Bugsy's poem ❤️

  • My Name Is Not Cypressabout a year ago

    So helpful, Stephanie, thank you!

  • Dana Stewartabout a year ago

    Good info and I learned something! Congratulations on Top Story!

  • Melissa Ingoldsbyabout a year ago

    Amazing top story!!!

  • Allie Bickertonabout a year ago

    Stephanie, this article was very helpful! 🙂 Congrats on making Top Story!

  • Innominaireabout a year ago

    I like what you've written and looking forward to more guides of yours!

  • Congratulations on your Top Story 👍

  • Janet J. Smithabout a year ago

    quite an insightful guide.

  • Congratulations on Top Story🎉

  • Nice Insight 💯👍❤️😉🎯✌️Thanks

  • Caroline Janeabout a year ago

    I was looking for a top story that you described/recommended and saw yours!😆 Congratulations!

  • Cathy holmesabout a year ago

    Interesting article. Congrats on the top story.

  • JBazabout a year ago

    I am just now seeing the beauty in poetry and wanting to explore more. This was a perfect article for someone like me. Thank you and congratulations

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