Figurative Language Poems: How to Read and Interpret

figurative language poemsYou may have come across the term “figurative language poem” in the past without understanding exactly what this term meant. Figurative language refers to any of a number of techniques that poets use in order to describe situations, emotions, and ideas. Virtually every poem contains some sort of figurative language, and you have likely read and interpreted this figurative language in the past without realizing it.

A great, basic course that can help to teach you the fundamentals of reading poetry is Udemy’s How to Learn and Memorize Poetry course. Even if poetry seems mysterious to you right now, you will find that as you read more and more poetry, and as you begin to recognize the different narrative styles and techniques used in poems, even the more difficult ones will become easier to understand.

Recognizing Different Types of Figurative Language 

When you are learning how to read and interpret figurative language, a good place to begin is with a basic understanding of the different poetic techniques – or literary devices – that you may come across. There are hundreds of different literary devices, some of them incredibly complicated. However, only a handful can really be considered essential. You will learn the more complex literary devices and types of figurative language as you go.

Understanding Hyperbole 

Hyperbole is one of the simplest forms of figurative language to understand. It is essentially nothing more than extreme exaggeration for effect or to make a point. This is a type of figurative language that you have likely used in your daily life without even realizing what you were doing!

Some examples of hyperbole include phrases such as, “He’s driving me crazy!” and “I didn’t understand a single word that you just said.” Neither of these phrases is literally true, and both you and the person that you are speaking to know that. However, the exaggeration shows the extremity of what it is that you are talking about. Here are some more examples:

  • “She said that a million times.”
  • “I could eat my own body weight in chocolate.”
  • “It took him forever to understand the joke.”

In a figurative language poem, hyperbolic phrases can be used for this same purpose. Additionally, an entire poem may be hyperbolic in nature, exaggerating a feeling or a situation. Many popular poems, including Mother Goose rhymes, are hyperbolic in nature.

Understanding Simile and Metaphor 

Simile and metaphor are two more distinct types of figurative language. With a simile or a metaphor, you are comparing one thing to another in order to accurately describe it to the reader.

The primary difference between these two types of figurative language are that one is an indirect comparison, while the other is a direct comparison. Similes are easily identifiable because they generally contain the words “like” or “as,” which serves to connect the thing you are describing to the thing that you are comparing it to. Here are some examples:

  • “She is as timid as a mouse.”
  • “His singing was like the braying of a donkey.”
  • “The twins were as similar as Xerox copies.”

A metaphor, on the other hand, does not use the words “like” or “as,” and makes a direct comparison. This can make a metaphor a little bit more difficult to identify in a figurative language poem than a simile. However, with a little bit of practice you should be able to pick them out and interpret them with ease. Here are some examples:

  • “The teacher was a bulldog in the classroom.”
  • “Those children are a pack of hyenas.”
  • “He’s a real demon when he hasn’t had his coffee.”

Both similes and metaphors may take a little bit more effort to interpret and understand than simple hyperbole. However, they are still relatively simple. Because they appear so prominently in poetry, similes and metaphors could really be said to be the cornerstone of beginning to learn how to interpret poems.

Understanding Personification 

Of the three major types of figurative language that are likely to appear in the poems that you read, personification may be the most challenging to really interpret. Personification occurs whenever a poet gives human characteristics to something that isn’t human, whether it is an object, an animal, or even a concept such as love, death, or time. Because most people don’t use personification as a part of day-to-day speech, it can take a little bit more effort to really begin to notice and interpret personification as you come across it in poetry.

Personification at its simplest gives human characteristics to animals. This type of figurative language may make it seem as if the animal has human thoughts or feelings. Generally, there is no deeper meaning to it than this. Here are a few examples of the personification of animals:

  • “The butterflies hurried from flower to flower.”
  • “The horse looked sadly at its master.”
  • “The dog slumped down apologetically.”

The personification of animals in poetry is often used to help set a tone or a mood. This is especially true in nature poetry, such as that written by the Romantics. If you are interested in Romantic poetry, Udemy offers a great course on Understanding Romantic Poets.

The personification of objects can likewise help to set the mood in a poem. They may also serve to show the state of mind of the narrator of the poem. For example, objects may take on menacing human characteristics if the narrator is afraid, or cheerful characteristics if the narrator is happy.

  • “The stars peered out anxiously from behind the clouds.”
  • “The car grumbled like an old man.”
  • “The shadows crept after me as I walked.”

The final form of personification is often the most difficult for readers to interpret when they come across it in a figurative language poem. The personification of abstract ideas is a very old narrative technique that goes back hundreds of years. Important poets such as Shakespeare and Edgar Allen Poe have used this type of personification to great effect.

  • “Time is cruel to those who wait.”
  • “Love knocked me out and stole everything I had.”
  • “Death beckoned toward me with his cold, bone fingers.”

Putting it All Together to Read and Interpret Poetry 

Once you’ve got a handle on these three basic types of figurative language, you can begin to read and interpret poetry. Remember to look at every aspect of the writing to try and figure out what the poet means. Try looking at each piece of figurative language that you come across individually, and interpret just that phrase. Then compare what you took from that phrase to the poem as a whole. Does the meaning change? Or does what you took away from that figurative language support what you’ve already taken away from the poem?

Some people may decide to try their hand at writing their own poetry once they’ve read enough to easily interpret some of their favorite poets. Udemy offers a great course on publishing your own poetry chapbook, so be sure to check it out if you think this is something that may interest you. You can also check out Udemy’s creative writing course to develop your skills as a writer. Just remember that figurative language is a crucial part of both reading and writing poetry, so be sure to continue learning more about figurative language poetry. While the basics are a great place to start, there is always plenty more to learn.