Poetry is a compressed form of writing. It is, in other words, literature with a capital “L,” but in a smaller space than what would be afforded to a novel, or even a short story. Poets are confronted with this necessary brevity (which, according to the Bard, is the soul of wit) every time they sit down to write. What is a poet to do?
Well, one answer is to use one of a set of literary devices that load the maximum possible impact into the minimum amount of space. Poets specifically deploy various types of figurative language like metaphor, simile, and personification, as well as visual devices like imagery, all for their space-saving, best-bang-for-your-buck usefulness.
There are other literary devices to be found in poetry as well, but today we’ll content ourselves with looking at the most common, and most commonly-misunderstood ones. Ready? Let’s go!
A Poetry Disclaimer
We should start by saying that not all poetry rhymes, nor should it. Rhyme is fine in its place, and Shakespeare and many of the poets of the 19th century and before were masters of it, true artists. The poets of the Romantic Era were notable users of rhyme without ever resorting to the sort of moon/June/spoon kind of corniness that came later. Here is a great online class that will help you get acquainted with the poetry of Romantic masters like Percy Shelley, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, and others, called “Learning the Romantics.” If you’re writing about poetry (either in the form of an explication or a literature review), you might want to look at this online class devoted specifically to helping you “Write a Killer Literature Review.”
“Figurative Language” is the umbrella term used for a number of different literary devices commonly found in poetry. In general, a figure is created with words that positions one thing in relation to another; hence the name. Figurative language is, in general, a way to compare the thing you want to talk about to another thing, one that might not seem at first very similar, to help illustrate some idea about the thing you really are concerned with.
If you’re still confused, you soon won’t be. We’ll start with simile. Simile, as the name implies, has to do with similarity. When a poet uses a simile, he or she compares two things (only one of which is the real focus), using the word “like” or “as.” It’s simple, really. If you were to say, “I’m as grouchy as a bear before I have my first cup of coffee in the morning,” it’s clear that you’re comparing yourself to a bear to help us understand you a bit more. The bear is clearly not our concern. Or you might simply say, “I’m like a bear in the morning before my first cup of coffee: grouchy and growly.”
Similes work because we bring in something that the reader knows and compare it to something that the reader does not yet know. You weren’t aware of how I am before my coffee, but you were almost certainly aware of the reputation bears have for grouchiness. Here’s a simple mathematical-style formula to understand similes: “A is like B.” Or, you can say, “A is as _____ as B.” The second style is a bit more obvious, perhaps.
One of the most famous similes can be found in Langston Hughes’ poem, “A Dream Deferred.” In it, he asks, “What happens to a dream deferred? / Does it dry up / Like a raisin in the sun?” By comparing a dream or long-held hope that has been deferred to a grape slowly drying up in the sun as it turns into a raisin, Hughes is suggesting that putting off important social change might make it lose its power, its vitality, might make it dry up and become only a memory.
Metaphor is simile’s older, more serious brother. Metaphors, like similes, compare two things, but rather than using “like” or “as,” metaphors compare by equating. If they were mathematical equations, metaphors would look like this: “A = B.” If we took our simile example of the bear above and made it into a metaphor, we’d have something like, “I’m a bear before I have my coffee in the morning.” Even though we’ve equated me with the bear, we know that it is only a figure of speech. I can’t literally be a bear, can I? No, I can’t, in case you were unsure. Rather, it’s clear that I’m comparing myself to the bear by equating myself to it, suggesting I share its qualities, at least before the caffeine kicks in.
A classic metaphor turns up in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet when Romeo famously says, “But soft! What light through yonder window breaks? / It is the East, and Juliet is the sun.” Of course, Juliet can’t literally be the sun. The sun is a mass of incandescent gas 93 million miles from earth, a fusion reactor in space. Romeo is simply comparing her to the sun to suggest that Juliet also has certain of the sun’s qualities: she’s bright, dazzling, beautiful, life-giving, warm, the center of his universe. See how much is packed into just one metaphor?
In general, metaphors are stronger than similes. They have a more forceful, certain quality. Every insult you’ve ever given or heard is a metaphor, most likely. “You’re a butt-hole” is a good example. You can’t literally be a rectum, but the insulter is suggesting you have the qualities of one. Which we won’t list here.
Personification is the simplest form of figurative language, but maybe the hardest to pull off well. As the name implies, personification lets poets describe inanimate objects by comparing them to human beings, by personifying them. The purposes of doing this are not, however, usually designed to really describe the inanimate objects, but rather the writer’s attitude towards them. Sounds confusing in theory, but simple in practice.
A great example would be if I said, “As I walked down the street on that beautiful June morning, the sun smiled down upon me.” Well, of course, the sun can’t smile. Only human beings can smile. The human quality of smiling to express happiness has been given to the sun here through personification. But I wasn’t really trying to say anything substantive about the sun, was I? Rather, saying that the sun smiled down upon me suggests that I am happy, most likely at least in part because the sun is out and it is a nice day.
When Jimi Hendrix (who was a poet, even if most consider him little more than a good guitar player) sang “The wind cries, ‘Mary,’” he wasn’t personifying the wind to tell us about the wind. He was trying to suggest that the loss of Mary, whoever she may be, makes the entire world seem impoverished, grey, less alive.
Imagery is an often-misunderstood literary element that is as important as figurative language for poets, as it also packs very much in to a small space. Often, in fact, images are conveyed through figurative language, as we’ll see.
Simply put, an image is a word picture, a set of visual information that the poet wants you to “see” (or visualize) in your mind’s eye. If the poet can make you “see” what he or she is writing about, then the idea is that much more effective. You will feel it more intensely and remember it more vividly.
The best way to understand imagery and the power an image can have is with an example. Margaret Atwood’s poem “You Fit Into Me” is the best example ever written for why images are so powerful and how they do their work in a small space. In it’s entirety, it reads:
You fit into me
like a hook into an eye
a fish hook
an open eye
The image is presented in the first stanza through a simile: we picture a traditional “hook and eye” closure that one might see on a cabinet door, and think, “OK, she’s telling him they fit together well. Nice, but boring.” Then, in the second stanza, Atwood modifies and clarifies the image, informing us that it is a fish hook and the “optical organ” type of eye, which is, moreover, open. Once we get over the horror of visualizing a fish hook stuck in an open human eye (almost no one who reads this poem pictures any other animal’s type of eye), we get so much more from the image that things change greatly. Fish hooks (picture one) are barbed. They cannot easily be pulled out. What do open eyes do? They look, they see. So now we have the speaker telling someone, basically, “I’m hooked on how you look,” but with an image so negative (you wouldn’t tell someone you loved them with an image like this), the attraction must be something pretty unproductive for the speaker. In a four-line poem that consists of a single image that is then clarified, Atwood paints a picture of a toxic relationship, the speaker unable to break free from an attraction that is clearly unwanted.
Imagery also has the added benefit of surviving translation. The problems of code switching can have a significant impact on figurative language when translated from one language to another, but images, translated properly, retain all their power. The classic Old English epic poem Beowulf gives ample evidence of this. You can learn more about it in an online course called “Beowulf.”
There are, as we said earlier, many more literary devices that enhance poetry, but the ones we’ve looked at today are the most common. One that you’ll also encounter frequently is repetition, and there’s a great blog article called “Repetition in Poetry” by Shane Ochoa that goes into more detail on that topic.
By taking some time to stop and consider how these devices work, you will greatly increase your ability to appreciate poetry, song lyrics, and all literature, as well as add weapons to your arsenal as a writer. If you’re working on your own writing, you might want to take a look at this online creative writing course, “Turn Your Ideas Into Pages.”
Try to find a poem or song that does not feature at least one of the literary devices we’ve covered today. We’ll wait. It’ll take you a long time, if you ever do manage it. Once you understand figurative language and imagery, you start to see them everywhere. Welcome to the world of poetry!