April 24, 2013

Figurative Language

These days, many people associate formal poetry with "old poetry."  Forms, like sonnets, and rhyme schemes are often seen as those things we had to study in school.

When many readers see lines like
My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest;
Where can we find two better hemispheres,
Without sharp north, without declining west?

their eyes get cloudy - and they stop reading.

Diane Lockward is the author of three poetry books, most recently, Temptation by Water.  Her free monthly poetry newsletter (subscribe here) has reviews, writing tips and a poetry prompt. She is collecting some of those prompts and model poems in a new book, The Crafty Poet, due out later this year.

In one issue, I was struck by Diane's suggestion that literal language is not always enough for a poem.
The just-right use of the figurative—moving beyond the dictionary meaning of words—can open a poem to both broader interpretation and greater exactness. Metaphor and simile are what we first think of when we consider figurative language, but there are enough other rhetorical figures to boggle the mind. 
Five of the figurative tools that she suggests (beyond the familiar metaphor and simile) are apostrophe, personification, hyperbole, metonymy, and synecdoche. They are all good tools that poets should know and use.

To use apostrophe, as John Donne does, for example, in his sonnet “Death, be not proud,” is to bring to the subject an immediacy not otherwise possible. Direct address achieves this feeling of being up-close and personal.

Personification creates a similar effect of immediacy. It can enliven a poem and heighten its emotion, as Philip Levine does in “Animals Are Passing from Our Lives,” a poem in which the pig speaking is given human qualities: It's wonderful how I jog / on four honed-down ivory toes. Personification can be tricky; the key is knowing when to use it and how much is enough in a poem.

Frost, in “After Apple-Picking,” finds a surprisingly convincing way to get across the idea “I have had too much / Of apple picking” with the hyperbole “There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch.”

Metonymy, with its substitution of an associated word for the intended one, shortwires the way we think of the substituted term and thereby offers an efficiency of language. In “How She Described Her Ex-Husband When the Police Called,” poet Martha Clarkson ends with, "He’s the joker pinned in bicycle spokes / vanishing down the street." Because it’s common knowledge that a joker is a playing card, the substitution works.

Synecdoche, with its substitution of a part for the whole, is a type of metonymy, providing that same efficiency. T. S. Eliot uses synecdoche in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in the lines "I should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas."  In doing so, he gives us claws as an intentional disembodiment.

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