The Poet’s Toolbox: Language

The Poet's Toolbox: Language
The Poet's Toolbox: Language

As every poet knows, an enormous part of writing good poetry is choosing exactly the right word. The right word will draw your reader or listener into your poem, leaving them hungry for more. The wrong word is anticlimactic, causing the reader to tune out.

Obviously, a big part of choosing the right word is becoming intimately familiar with the English language. This is a process largely achieved through reading quality writing. Regular use of a dictionary when reading and writing helps, too, and having a thesaurus never hurts.

But you must do more than simply throw big words at your audience. You must engage them. You must evoke emotion.

Let’s open up the toolbox and see how we can achieve this result.

Sensory Imagery

One of the most basic ways to draw readers or listeners into your work is to appeal to their five senses. To do this use concrete, descriptive words. Don’t just tell us that you see a horse. Tell us what it’s like:

  • What color is it?
  • How does its coat feel?
  • How do its hooves sound?
  • What behavioral quirks does it display?
  • How would you spot it among a whole herd of horses?

It might appear at first glance that piling on adjectives is the best way to answer questions like these, but actually this is not the case. Yes, there is certainly a time and a place to simply say that the horse is dun. But many times you will achieve your purpose better by selecting nouns and verbs that have a specific impact. Don’t just tell us that the horse is badly behaved—show us:

  • He pinned his ears back as you approached.
  • He threw his head up when you touched him.
  • He pawed a front hoof and lashed his tail instead of standing still.

Simile

A simile makes a comparison using the words like or as. “The sunrise shone like gold” is an example of a simile.

Using simile is a good way to further enhance the vividness of your writing while keeping the meaning clear. Think of it as a sort of intermediate step between concrete imagery and metaphor. It will have a different impact than either, though, so use your ear.

Metaphor

A metaphor makes a comparison like a simile does, but it does not use the words like or as. “Hours and Ponies” by Walt Mason uses both. See if you notice the difference:

Every hour that’s gone’s a dead one, and another comes and goes; in the graveyard of the ages hours will find their last repose; and the hour that’s come and vanished never can be used again; you may long to live it over, but the longing is in vain. Lasso, then, the hour that’s with you, ride it till its back is sore; you can have it sixty minutes—sixty minutes, and no more. Make it earn its board and lodging, make it haul your private wain, for when once it slips its halter it will never work again. So the hours, like spotted ponies, trot along in single file, and we haven’t sense to catch them and to work them for a mile; we just loaf around and watch them, sitting idly in the sun, and the darkness comes and finds us with but mighty little done.

The part of the poem beginning, “Lasso, then, the hour that’s with you” is a metaphor, because it draws a comparison between time and horses without announcing the fact. When we get to “So the hours, like spotted ponies,” we have switched to simile.

Allegory is very similar to metaphor, except that the entire written work is a complete metaphor, not just one phrase or verse. Metaphor tends to have a specific meaning, while allegories may contain several layers of symbolism to provide a commentary on life.

Personification

Personification is a fun way to add fresh life to your work. It gives human characteristics to a non-human object. Examples could include:

  • The wind sings in the treetops.
  • The sun smiles down on the earth.
  • The blades of grass stretch their hands toward the sky.

Closely related is anthropomorphism, where animals are permitted to act like human beings. Think of children’s books in which the animals frequently talk, wear clothes, live in houses, and conduct business.

Metonymy and Synecdoche

These are two closely related concepts. Metonymy substitutes for the name of a thing the name of some other thing with which it is associated. For example, “reading Shakespeare” is metonymy because we are actually reading Shakespeare’s works.

Synecdoche uses a part to describe the whole. So if we say “we could use another pair of hands,” this is synecdoche because we really could use another person.

Irony

We are all familiar with irony in the form of sarcasm, and this can indeed be a useful device in poetry.

However, irony can be used in literature on a much deeper level by drawing a contrast. We can build up an entire scene that lends itself to a single impression, only to provide an anticlimax. The results can be humorous, or they can be deeply tragic.

Hyperbole and Understatement

These two are closely related, though opposites. Hyperbole, to put it simply, is exaggeration. The longstanding American literary tradition of the tall tale is an example of hyperbole.

Understatement is wit of the opposite sort. A masterpiece of understatement would be to describe a flood in its fury and to close with a line about “slightly damp today.” (Understatement is also a close kin to irony, as you can probably see.)

But again, knowing the names of the literary devices is not terribly important when it comes right down to it. It is more important to use them masterfully. Knowing that more options exists, however, will hopefully inspire you to try something new in your work.

Complete Series

The Poet's Toolbox: Introduction

The Poet’s Toolbox