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    Hello. I'm DonnTaylor, writing again about the basic elements of poetry writing. In previous blog sessions we've mentioned the late Lawrence Perrine's statement that poetry speaks "in higher voltage" with greater compression of meaning than most prose. We've also spoken of placing strong words in the emphatic positions of the poetic line, and we've discussed the necessity of using strong images. Now we move to one of the most important elements that achieve compression of meaning, often with striking effect: figurative language. In this session we'll look at personification, simile, and metaphor. We'll cover other figures later.

 


     Figures of speech capitalize on the natural tendency of our minds to compare one thing to another. We use them so often that we usually don't remember that we're speaking figuratively.
To avoid a distasteful subject we say, "Don't go there" (thought compared to travel). To express a futile pursuit, we say, "You're barking up the wrong tree" (our search for solutions compared to raccoon or possum hunting).
    There is always some opposition to analyzing figurative language on grounds that it detracts from the language's beauty. I disagree. Analyzing and attempting to explain how figurative language works help us appreciate its power and its ability to help us say or imply what can't be said literally.
    It's also important to remember that some comparisons are literal, not figurative. (In a session at a recent writers' conference I heard literal comparisons presented as similes.) Here are the distinctions (remembering that in each case Joe is actually a human being):

        JOE IS AS STRONG AS AN OX. – Literal: The quality of comparison is stated.

        JOE IS LIKE AN OX. – Simile. A word (like, than, as) identifies the comparison, but the qualities being compared (strength, clumsiness, etc.) are implied rather than stated.

        JOE IS AN OX. – Metaphor. Both the fact of comparison and the qualities of comparison are implied rather than stated.

    One of my favorite similes comes not from poetry but from a mystery novel by Raymond Chandler:

        She smelled like the Taj Mahal looks by moonlight.

    Another of my favorite figures comes from Emily Dickinson: "To the bugle, every color is red." This employs personification (giving the bugle the human quality of perception) and metaphor (sound portrayed in terms of color). Both of these examples gain interest by crossing from one physical sense to another.
    Here are some particularly striking figures from poetry that can help us appreciate the power of figurative language. Some you will recognize, but I hope to present some that are new to you.

        [of Helen of Troy] Was this the face that launched a thousand ships
        And burnt the topless towers of Ilium? (Marlowe)

        There is no frigate like a book/To take us lands away…. (Dickinson)

        [of Satan] He left a loathsome gift, with hue of coal:
                    His cobra in our soul.    (Taylor: yes, that's mine)

        But at my back I always hear/Time's winged chariot hurrying near,
        And yonder all before us lie/Deserts of vast eternity. (Marvell)

        [of the privacy of love] 'Twere profanation of our joys
        To tell the laity our love.   (Donne)

    To summarize: Figurative language helps us achieve the compression and "higher voltage" essential to good poetry. This week we discussed personification, simile, and metaphor. Next we will look at other common figures. Meanwhile, here is one of poetry's most striking figures, one upon which all lovers should ponder:

        Love is a growing or full constant light,
        And his first minute after noon is night.   (Donne)

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3 Thoughts on “Basics in Poetry Writing: Figurative Language I

  1. This tells me what I already know – I ain’t no poet! hahaha. enjoyed the post very much – simile and metaphor brought back memories of Danny Devito in Renaissance Man. Very interesting!

  2. Sam Pakan on November 23, 2011 at 10:25 AM said:

    Great article, Donn! And your metaphor was beautiful!

  3. No offense, but if there’s a facebook like button, it’ll be much easier for me to share.

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