4 Poetic Language

Alan Lindsay, PhD and Candace Bergstrom, MFA

Poet, Alice Fogel reads Robert Bly’s “Seeing the Eclipse in Maine.”


Alice B. Fogel, former New Hampshire state Poet Laureate, reads Maxine Kumin’s “After Love.”

Alice B. Fogel, former New Hampshire state Poet Laureate, reads John Donne’s ” A Valediction Forbidding Mourning.”

Alice Fogel, former New Hampshire state Poet Laureate, reads her poem, “Morning Glory.”

Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase, “he (or she) was just being poetic.” It’s a phrase you wouldn’t be surprised to hear after someone utters some flowery description of a sunrise or a snowstorm. It describes a use of language that is perhaps pretty but also empty, something meaninglessly ornate. It’s an unfortunate use of the word. Authentic poetic language is very different.

We will call “poetic language,” that language which is most closely associated with poetry. It is also called “figurative language.” It is opposed to so-called “literal” language. Understood in the context of actual poetry, poetic language is not nice-sounding words that have no real meaning. Poetic language is the fullest possible language. Poets pack the absolute maximum of meaning (in every sense of the word) into every part of the poem. This does sometimes make poems hard to understand, and that may mislead a hasty person to think there is nothing to understand. In other words, one of the reasons poetry sometimes seems empty is that it is so full.

It’s important to understand first that poems are not made entirely of what is properly called “poetic” language. Poems don’t use only figurative and never literal language. As we’ve said already: the language of poetry is not essentially different from the language of everyday life. That means two things: it means that everything we do when we use language outside of poem, we also do in poems. It also means that everything we do in poems, we also do in everyday language. All of the “devices” that we properly associate with poetic language are also used regularly in everyday language, spoken or written, and not just by people who have a vast or specialized education or a particular facility with language. “Poetic language” is used by everyone, including you and your three-year old brother. It’s not overstating the case to say that poetry is a part of language itself and that poems are merely the most concentrated expressions of language’s inherent poetry. Poets are more conscious of the the poetry already in language and more deliberate in their use of it. Poems heighten or intensify certain ordinary ways of using language. We might say that poems put the emphasis on different aspects of language—including the language we call figurative. But they still don’t do anything that we don’t already do every day when we speak.

And yet poems don’t usually feel like everyday language. Everyday language is usually easy to understand. And poems often are not. Everyday language tends to say exactly what it means—or at least tries to. Poems don’t seem to do that. We come back again to a question we addressed in chapter one: Why don’t poems just say what they mean? We began to answer this question when we said that poems are not merely trying to say something. They are also trying to do (or be) something. But that answer is incomplete. We did not explain how poems use language to do things. We will begin to answer that question here. We know that poems use sound (such as rhyme), and rhythm and lines. We’ll talk about these other things in later lectures. Here we will be thinking about how poems use figurative language to create meaning and experiences.

Literal and Figurative Language

As we said, so-called figurative language is usually opposed to what is called literal language. Literal language is language that says exactly and directly what it means; it is language without figures. Figurative language then, as it is usually understood, is language that takes a kind of roundabout path to its meaning. It uses various devices to get you where it wants you to go. That might lead you to believe that figurative language is harder to understand than literal language, and that we should use literal language whenever possible. But that’s not quite true. In everyday usage, figurative language is usually used to help us understand what a literal statement cannot. Its most important job is to make difficult things easier to understand. It is also used this way in poetry.

For example, I might say to a child, “A country is like a school with a president instead of a principal.”  Here I’m using the figure of speech known as analogy to bring a new concept to a listener.

Figurative language is also used to give more weight or authority to a statement. I’m using figurative language if I say, “According to the White House” instead of “According to the president.” This figure is known as metonymy, the substitution of one thing for something closely associated with it.

If I say, “That was the funniest thing in the whole universe,” or “Hitler wasn’t very nice to the Jews,” I’m using yet other kinds of figurative language and again getting more out of the words than a literal statement could. The first statement is an example of hyperbole (also called exaggeration). The second is the opposite, litotes (or understatement).

We use many kinds of figurative language every day because we want to do more than just state facts. We use this sort of language all the time, usually without knowing we are doing so. So the good news is that you do understand figurative language; you understand it so naturally that you probably do not even notice that you are interpreting such figures as irony, metaphor, simile, hyperbole, litotes, personification, apostrophe, metonymy, or synecdoche. So the first problem is just learning to recognize and name things you are already unconsciously familiar with. The second is to understand how these figures are being used in particular poems. Poems are likely to use figurative language more often and in more nuanced ways than we use it in everyday language.

That’s the bad news. Poems don’t always use metaphor to make hard things easier to understand, for example. Poems may use metaphor to make seemingly simple things no longer simple. Remember, poems want you not just to understand but to experience the world in new ways. But we are so accustomed to seeing things however we see them that the work of a poet is quite difficult. We resist without even knowing we are resisting. And we may often fail to see figurative language in a poem for what it is. And even the most experienced readers of poems argue sometimes about what counts as a metaphor or a symbol in a poem and about what a particular figure means. This is something to love about poetry. You get to enter and participate in an ongoing conversation. But to do that, you need to ground yourself in the figures. You need to be able to name and point to them.

You might wonder how it is that experienced readers of poems can argue about what counts as a particular figure in a particular poem. This is because the very ideas of “literal” and “figurative” are not as clear as we might like to think they are.

Again, according to the standard definitions, figurative language is language that states its meaning indirectly. It represents one thing by means of another thing. The “president” is called “The White House”; the ocean is called a “pond.”  At the same time, literal language is language that states its meaning directly. The president is called the president, and the ocean is called the ocean.

But that already creates a problem. In one sense, all language is figurative. The distinction between “literal” and “figurative” language does not easily correspond to the facts. Unless the word “ocean” is something you could be tempted to swim on, we have to admit that the word ocean is something used to represent an object, and is therefore not literally literal. The word “ocean” is not the ocean. It stands for or represents the idea of the ocean. And representing one thing by another thing is, by definition, what figurative language does.

When we are talking about “literal” language we are merely separating off from all language that part which seems to be the most direct or transparent, which is to say the most commonly or habitually used representation of a given idea. (If I say, “What is that?” and point to the ocean, most people will say, “the ocean.” So we call that literal.)

So, there is no such thing as an absolutely non-figurative language. This means that you can never absolutely guarantee that any statement, no matter how literal it seems, is not also figurative. Take this simple sentence: “He fell down the stairs.” You’ll probably want to say, “that’s obviously literal.” But is it? For it to be literal it has to describe an event that actually happened. Outside of a known context there’s no way to decide whether the sentence is literal or figurative or both (yes, a sentence can be both at the same time). The sentence “He fell down the stairs” could describe what it felt like for him to have his heart broken, or it may describe the effects of getting a demotion at work: “He went to the boss thinking he was going to get a promotion. He thought he was going up in the company. Instead, he fell down the stairs.”

Compare some other common figurative expressions that at first glance sound literal: “he was on fire,” “he bought the farm,” “he got burned,” and “he lost his way.”

So the difference between literal and figurative language has nothing to do with the words themselves. It has to do entirely with the way the words are used or understood in a specific context. The same sentence which in one context, or read one way, would be literal, in another context or read another way would be figurative. Because one of the most natural things to do with words is use them to represent (to represent either “things” or “concepts”) it will never be absolutely possible to prevent any words from being taken figuratively even if they were not meant that way (this is true in everyday language as well as poetry, but it doesn’t usually cause any confusion in everyday language).

The poet Marianne Moore, a great baseball fan, once described a new young poet by saying, “He looks good—on paper.” The effect of the sentence depends upon the reader’s understanding that poems are literally written on paper and that, figuratively speaking, “he looks good on paper” means “the information we have on him tells us he should be good, but we still have to see him perform.”

The boundary between literal and figurative isn’t always clear.

We also need to say a few words about the distinction we made above, that literal language is “more direct” than figurative. This may not be true either. So-called “literal” statements can only be considered more direct in regard to the most superficial meaning of the word “meaning,” that is, only in regard to the referential content of a statement. But recall what we have been saying all along: that “zeroing in on a meaning” is never more than one possibility of language. And it’s never the sole purpose of a poem. Figurative language is therefore not necessarily “roundabout.” Figurative language is often more direct than “literal” language. This is because in a poem the thing we are directing our attention at is an emotion or an experience rather than a meaning. If I say “Tom Brady was ‘on fire,’” I’m getting closer to the emotional truth of the event than if I say “Tom Brady played exceptionally well last night.” I am also getting closer to the truth of the experience of watching him this way than I would be if I listed his accomplishments. I’m giving an indication of what it was like to watch him play, what it may have been like for him to play. And if that’s what I want to do, the figurative language does it better—more directly.

Everything is guided by purpose, by what the poem is doing.

Compare these three examples:

1) She felt sad.

2) She felt as though she’d just lost her best friend.

3) She turned away and looked out the window. The world outside became blurry.

Let us say that example 1) is literal, i.e. that it refers to an actual woman or girl who really feels sad. In that case the statement is referentially true, but it carries little emotional content; example 2) would then be figurative. You will notice that it also captures somewhat more of the case. If true, it is more accurate than example 1) because its figure reproduces more of the emotional quality of the sadness than any purely literal statement could. But because the figure is a cliché, it still manages less emotional content than a careful writer probably desires. Example 3) is the most emotionally effective. It is the most effective because it is both literal and figurative. Turning away and looking out the window are actions that suggest more meaning than the actions alone convey. And the world did not really become blurry. Really, she started to cry.

We can say then that we need both figurative and literal language because they do different jobs. A writer, whether she is a writer of prose or poetry, fiction or nonfiction, will choose the method of expression according to the job that needs to be done.

Now that we have an understanding of what poetic, or figurative language is, let’s define more precisely the most common examples so that you can practice identifying them when you come across them. They are: metaphor, simile, metonymy, synecdoche, hyperbole, litotes, irony, apostrophe, symbol, personification.

Here are some definitions and examples:

Metaphor—a figure of speech in which one thing (which usually is easy to understand) stands for another thing (which is often more abstract).  You’ll see that the metaphor works a little differently in each of the three examples below. In the first case the metaphor has an obvious, simple relationship to what it refers to. In Bradstreet’s “The Poet to Her Book,” the title tells us that the poet is talking to her book. We quickly infer upon reading the poem that the book is compared metaphorically to a child.

 

                 Thou ill-formed offspring of my feeble brain,
                 Who after birth didst by my side remain…

If you do not read carefully, you may think Bradstreet is writing to a literal child. But as soon as this mistake is pointed out to you, you realize that she is, of course, pretending that her book is a child. The metaphor works because a book like a child is created by someone (a parent/author) whom it resembles and who cares for it and whose reputation depends on it.

On the other hand, a metaphor may have a less clear relationship between its two parts (its image and referent, more formally known as its vehicle and its tenor). In Blake’s “The Tyger,” we know that the tiger is not quite a literal tiger. But it’s not entirely figurative either. The figure depends for its meaning on the “tigerness” of real tigers. But what exactly the tiger refers to or stands for is never made crystal clear.

Blake’s painting of his tiger.
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or I
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

You might also notice that within the overall metaphor of the tiger, there are other metaphors such as “burning bright.” “Burning bright” compares our metaphorical tiger to a fire.” But why is the tiger burning? When you read the poem, you will see that this tiger was made with a hammer and chain in a furnace. The metaphor makes a tiger the creation of a blacksmith (the blacksmith being a metaphor for God). This is not how “literal” tigers are made. Why has Blake chosen these metaphors? What effect do they have on our reading or understanding of the poem? Such questions can be answered—and they can be answered either well or poorly. But the answers will not be as simple or final in this poem as the answer to the question of the child/book figure in Bradstreet’s poem.

Still other metaphors may be impossible to pin down precisely. Both of the figures mentioned so far evoke emotion or feeling as well as meaning. But it is possible to take a figure so far into the emotional that it loses all sense of the intellectual meaning, as some claim T.S. Eliot does in this image from a poem not on our syllabus,

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes,
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it as a soft October night,
Curled once around the house, and fell asleep.

It’s clear that the poet is comparing fog to a cat (this is an implied metaphor because the cat is invoked without ever being named). The “catness” of fog is however far less obvious than the fearful power of blacksmith/God is to a tiger or the mother to child relationship of an author for her book. Moreover, this fog-cat metaphor is stretched out to such an absurd length that it begins to lose sense. We learn very much less about fog by comparing it to a cat than we learn about books by comparing them to children or about God by comparing him to a blacksmith.

But the difficulties we may have with the cat-fog metaphor doesn’t mean that the poet has failed. In the context of the poem it is clear that the metaphor is meant to reveal more about the state of mind of the title character than about the catness of fog.

We’ve barely begun to discuss the intricacies of metaphor. But that will be enough for now. We could spend the whole book on the subject. Many books have been writing trying to understand all there is to understand about metaphor. We’ll go through the rest more quickly.

Simile. Simile is very much like a metaphor but it uses an explicit word, usually “like” or “as,” to compare one thing to another. So instead of saying “My book is my child,” You say, “My book is like a child.”

Metonymy and Synecdoche. Metonymy is the substitution of a name of an object closely associated with the word you have in mind for that word: “White House” for president. “Crown” for king. “The sweat of the brow” for “hard labor.”

Synecdoche is similar to metonymy; it is the substitution of a name of some part of a thing for the whole thing: You say “trunk” for tree in a sentence such as “We have fourteen trunks on our property,” or “wheels” for “car,” in the expression, “a nice set of wheels.” With synecdoche you can also do the opposite and choose a whole to name a part. You can call a police officer “the law,” for example, as in “The law is coming to give me a speeding ticket.”

Hyperbole. We mentioned this above. It is exaggeration. “This book weighs a ton.”

Litotes. This too we mentioned above: understatement. Of home run slugger Barry Bonds, “He’s not the weakest person who ever played the game.”

Irony: saying one thing but meaning another, generally the opposite. Saying of a beautiful painting, “Oh, isn’t that ugly.” In irony we perceive that the words deliberately fail to coincide with their usual meaning.

Apostrophe: An apostrophe we speak to an inanimate object or an absent person. “Western wind, when will thou blow?” I’m talking to the wind.

Symbol: The use of a verbal object or quality of an object to stand for an abstract idea. The black hats worn by bad guys in Westerns and the white hats worn by Good Guys are symbolic of evil and good. Notice that they are not metaphors, but they could be metonymy, since we somewhat arbitrarily associate white with good and black with evil.

Personification: Ascribing the qualities of a human being to an inanimate object or an abstraction. “The waves sang to the moon.” (There’s a fancier word for this as well: anthropomorphism. It’s a fun word to throw around at parties.)

Two more notes: First, these are dictionary kinds of definitions. A poet’s use of figures of speech may not be as straightforward as these definitions may lead you to believe. Second, a given example of figurative language may qualify as more than one type of language. A symbol can be metonymic and ironic all at the same time. I may want to use a sword to symbolize the sexual prowess of a knight, but since a sword is also associated with knights, it may also be said to be a metonymy. I may say “the sword did battle with the harem.” If the sword turns out to be fake, rubber perhaps, and flops down when it is pulled it from its scabbard, the symbol of a rubber sword becomes ironic. Poets often use such complex figures.

Ted Talk: James Geary, Metaphorically Speaking

Video Lecture: Figurative Language

Some Poems:

William Blake, “The Lamb” (Links to an external site.)

                          “The Tyger” (Links to an external site.)

John Donne, “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning” (Links to an external site.)

Dylan Thomas, “Fern Hill” (Links to an external site.)

William Shakespeare, “Sonnet 130” (Links to an external site.)

Sarah Lindsay, “Without Warning” (Links to an external site.)

Jane Hirshfield, “Green Striped Melons” (Links to an external site.)

Alice Fogel, “Morning Glory” (Links to an external site.)

Wesley McNair, “What Became” (Links to an external site.)

Cynthia Huntington, “Multiple Sclerosis” (Links to an external site.)

Maxine Kumin, “After Love” (Links to an external site.)

Robert Bly, “Seeing the Eclipse in Maine”

 

License

Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Poetic Language by Alan Lindsay, PhD and Candace Bergstrom, MFA is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book