Poetic Devices

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 16
Chapter 6: Figuratively Speaking

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The Plays of William Shakespeare, by Sir John Gilbert, 1849
The Plays of William Shakespeare, by Sir John Gilbert, 1849

 

Figures of speech are tools of poetry. Please do not even think about memorizing this list. The most important concepts are those in bold type.

Figures of Speech (Rhetorical Devices)

Figures of speech are linguistic tools that turn plain writing into art. They are words or phrases used in nonliteral, unexpected ways — for any of a hundred reasons, including

A young Robert Frost (c. 1910)

A young Robert Frost (c. 1910)

* emphasis
* elaboration
* dramatic effect
* tone (resonance, smoothness, softness, roughness…)
* clarity
* deliberate ambiguity
* shading
* freshness
* humor

 

Figures of speech are sometimes classified as schemes and tropes. There is, as you can see, a good deal of overlap between schemes and tropes.

Schemes

Figures of speech involving the arrangement (balance, order, repetition, or omission) of words or sounds

Balance

Parallelism-Repetitive use of a grammatical element (in the example below, repetition of gerund phrases)

Standing on the corner, watching all the world go by;
Standing on the corner, giving all the girls the eye. (1)

Antithesis-Juxtaposition of opposing or contrasting ideas

When they met, Alice was pure uptown; Jake was down on his luck.

Word Order

Anastrophe-Departure from usual word order

[Death] dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell —John Donne (1572-1631), Holy Sonnet 10 (“Death, be not proud”)

Anne Lamott (www.metroactive.com)

Anne Lamott (www.metroactive.com)

Parenthesis — A clarifying word or phrase within a sentence, set off by commas, dashes, or parentheses

My friend, the writer I was so jealous of, would call and say, like some Southern belle, “I just don’t know why God is giving me so much money this year.” Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird (2)

Four of the church’s elders — all women — …were having a prayer meeting. — Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

Appositive — A parenthetical element that defines or renames (is in apposition to) an adjacent element (In the example below, the “something” that “glittered in her eyes” was “tears or old memories.”)

Something glittered in her eyes — tears or old memories…. — Nora Roberts, Genuine Lies

Omission

Ellipsis — Omission of words, usually indicated by … (At the end of a sentence, the period is added, as in the examples below.)

If she knew he was still dealing with Delrickio…. Well, he didn’t have to worry there. — Nora Roberts, Genuine Lies

Well, you know what they say: “When in Rome….”

Repetition

Alliteration — Repetition of the same beginning letter or sound for words in a series or in close proximity

Was he not unmistakably a little man? A creature of the petty rake-off, pocketed with a petty joke in private and denied with the stainless platitudes in his public utterances.” — C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

Little Lea, the childhood home of C. S. Lewis, in East Belfast

Little Lea, the childhood home of C. S. Lewis, in East Belfast

Assonance — Repetition of a vowel sound or similar vowel sounds

Those images that yet
Fresh images beget,
That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea. — W. B. Yeats, “Sailing to Byzantium” (The poem opens with the words, “That is no country for old men,” from which American author Cormac McCarthy drew the title of his 2005 novel. The film adaptation 2007 film adaptation earned four Academy Awards, including Best Picture. 

Anaphora — Beginning successive clauses or phrases with the same word or group of words

I am neither Christian nor Jew, neither Zoroastrian nor Muslim,
I am not from east or west, not from land or sea,
not from the shafts of nature nor from the spheres of the firmament,
not of the earth, not of water, not of air, not of fire. — Rumi

Epistrophe — The same word or phrase used to end consecutive clauses. (The following example illustrates both anaphora ["They compassed me about"] and epistrophe.)

And all nations compassed me about: but in the name of the Lord will I destroy them.
They compassed me about; yea, they compassed me about: but in the name of the Lord I will destroy them.
They compassed me about like bees; they are quenched as the fire of thorns: for in the name of the Lord I will destroy them. —
Psalm 118:10-12

______________

* aposiopesis: A break or pause in speech for dramatic effect

Paul grabbed hold of Haffner’s shirt, tearing seams. “If you had anything to do with Eve’s murder — “
— Nora Roberts, Genuine Lies

* apostrophe: Addressing a personified abstraction or inanimate object

0 Star (the fairest one in sight),
We grant your loftiness the right
To some obscurity of cloud —
It will not do to say of night,
Since dark is what brings out your light. —
Robert Frost, “Take Something Like a Star”

* cacophony: Harsh-sounding passages in poetry or prose

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe. — Lewis Carroll, “Jabberwocky

* consonance: The repetition of consonant sounds, especially the final consonants of accented syllables, often within a short passage of verse

An Arizona Arbor in Summer

An Arizona Arbor in Summer

This is why I live here,
this immaculate occasion once
a day. Desert turns to fairyland,
early-morning light turns drab
dead gray to glory, wind stirs
sunlit leaves like thirty kinds of
lettuce, green and gold, green
and gold, limb motion whispers;
creosote and squat mesquite
quiver in devotion —
sweet-smelling, sunlight-drenched, still
cool and fresh and equal to the
coming heat. —
Mary Campbell, “An Arizona Arbor in Summer”

* enjambment: A breaking of a syntactic unit (a phrase, clause, or sentence) by the end of a line or between two verses.

I wonder — How can people find
the world such a contaminated
kind of place when sunlight
reaches into every pore of
being — sanctifying, desiccating foul
detritus of anxiety and indolence? — Mary Campbell, “An Arizona Arbor in Summer”

* euphony: The opposite of cacophony — pleasant sounding, perhaps mellifluous

Lord Byron's House in Southwell, Nottinghamshire

Lord Byron's house in Southwell, Nottinghamshire

One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impair’d the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress
Or softly lightens o’er her face,
Where thoughts serenely sweet express
How pure, how dear their dwelling-place. — Lord Byron, “She Walks in Beauty, Like the Night”

* homographs: Words that are identical in spelling but different in origin and meaning

Claire ripped the ruffle off her petticoat and wound it around the delirious soldier’s wound.

* homonyms: Words that are identical with each other in pronunciation and spelling, but differing in origin and meaning.

key: “metal piece that works a lock,” from O.E. cæg
key: “low island,” 1697, from Sp. cayo “shoal, reef” (3 )

* homophones: Words that are identical with each other in pronunciation but differing in origin and meaning (led and lead, for example)

* hyperbole: Exaggeration beyond reason (“Yo’ mamma” jokes are hyperbolic: “Yo’ mamma so fat she got her own ZIP code.”)

* isocolon: Juxtaposition of parallel structures of the same length in adjacent clauses: “The bigger they are, the harder they fall.”

* internal rhyme: The presence of rhyming words in a single line of verse

…where
children, hyacinths, and roses, cucumbers, and peppers
grow, and snowy linens hung to dry are blowing in the
breeze. Inside, bread rises in the oven, herbs depend from
oaken beams, and last night’s chicken in its steaming broth
becomes this evening’s stew,
tomorrow’s casserole. — Mary Campbell, “On This Side”

Yeast bread rising before baking

Yeast bread rising before baking

* non sequitur: A statement that marks an abrupt, and often puzzling, change of subject

* onomatopoeia: The quality (of a word) of sounding like what is described: the buzzing of bees, the bark of a dog; a hacking cough; hiss; murmur, thrum

* pun: Use of a word or phrase in two different senses at the same time

* sibilance: Alliteration in which the letter or sound of S is repeated

* superlative: Unequaled; uttermost

* spoonerism: Interchanging of (usually initial) letters of words with amusing effect (“Madam, may I sew you to your sheet?”)

* tautology: Redundancy due to superfluous qualification; saying the same thing twice (“Sometimes a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do”; “I decided to go to New York because it was my decision to go to New York.”)

* tmesis: Division of the elements of a compound or other multisyllabic word (Example: “Hoo-freaking-ray”)

Omission

Ellipsis — Omission of words, usually indicated by … (At the end of a sentence, the period is added, as in the examples below.)

If she knew he was still dealing with Delrickio…. Well, he didn’t have to worry there. —Nora Roberts, Genuine Lies

Well, you know what they say: “When in Rome….”

Tropes

In linguistics, trope is a rhetorical figure of speech that consists of a play on words — that is, using a word in a way other than what is considered its literal or expected form. The other major category of figures of speech is the scheme (see above), which involves changing the pattern of words in a sentence.

Trope comes from a Greek word meaning “a turn, a change.” We can imagine a trope as a way of turning a word away from its normal meaning, or turning it into something else.

Types of Tropes

Metonymy — Using a word associated with an object or idea for the object or idea itself (e.g., referring to actions of the U.S. president as “actions of the White House”)

Irony — A word are phrase used in a way that is opposite to its standard meaning, such as describing poverty as “good times”

Simile — An explicit comparison between two things using the word like or as (“When she was angry, she was as fierce as a tiger,” and “When she was angry, she was like a tiger” are examples of simile; “When she was angry, she was a tiger” exemplifies a metaphor.)

Mom was (metaphorically) a tiger

Mom was (metaphorically) a tiger

Metaphor — Representation of an object or idea — often intangible —using a tangible, dissimilar substitute (“My mother had a cocker spaniel’s eyes and a lion’s heart.”)

Synecdoche — Related to metonymy and metaphor, creates a play on words by referring to something with a related concept: for example, referring to the whole with the name of a part, such as “hired hands” for workers; a part with the name of the whole, such as “the law” for police officers; the general with the specific, such as “bread” for food; the specific with the general, such as “cat” for a lion; or an object with the material it is made from, such as “bricks and mortar” for a building

Allegory — A sustained metaphor, carried through entire stories, sometimes even long works of literature, such as The Faerie Queen. An extended metaphor in which a story is told to illustrate an important attribute of the subject. Aesop’s Fables are usually short allegories.

______________

* allusion: An indirect reference to a quotation, event, or work of literature. “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas any more” is a common allusion to Judy Garland’s famous line in the (1939) film version of The Wizard of Oz

Judy Garland, as Dorothy, in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz

Judy Garland, as Dorothy, in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz

* anthimeria: The substitution of one part of speech for another, often turning a noun into a verb

* anthropomorphism: A word or phrase that ascribes human characteristics to something that is not human, such as an animal or a god (see zoomorphism)

* aphorism: A tersely phrased statement of a truth or opinion, an adage

* aporia: Deliberating with oneself, often with the use of rhetorical questions

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1

* archaism: Use of an obsolete, archaic, word (a word used in olden language)

* catachresis: A mixed metaphor (sometimes used on purpose and sometimes by mistake)

* circumlocution: “Talking around” a topic by substituting or adding words, as in euphemism or periphrasis

* commiseration: Evoking pity in the audience.

* double negative: Redundant repetition of negative words (“I don’t have no money.”)

* dysphemism: Substitution of a harsher, more offensive, or more disagreeable term for another. Opposite of euphemism.

* erotema: Synonym for rhetorical question

* euphemism: Substitution of a less offensive or more agreeable term for another (e.g., downsizing for layoffs)

* hypophora: Answering one’s own rhetorical question at length

* innuendo: Sly suggestion; hidden meaning

* invocation: An apostrophe to a god or muse

* malapropism: Confusing a word with another word that sounds similar (“Put your hand in the hand of the man who spilled the water.”)

* meiosis: Use of understatement, usually to diminish the importance of something

* metonymy: Substitution of a related word or phrase for a larger idea.

Many standard items of vocabulary are metonymic. A red-letter day is important, like the feast days marked in red on church calendars. Red tide, the marine disease that kills fish, takes its name from the color of one-celled, plantlike animals in the water…. On the level of slang, a redneck is a stereotypical member of the white rural working class in the Southern U.S., originally a reference to necks sunburned from working in the fields. — Connie C. Eble, “Metonymy,” The Oxford Companion to the English Language, 1992

* neologism: The use of a word or term that has recently been created, or has been in use for a short time. Opposite of archaism.

* oxymoron: Contradiction in terms; using two terms together that normally contradict each other (e.g., “sour sweetness”)

* parable: An extended metaphor told as an anecdote to illustrate or teach a moral lesson

* paradox: Use of apparently contradictory ideas to point out some underlying truth

* parallel irony: An ironic juxtaposition of sentences or situations (informal)

* paralipsis: Drawing attention to something while pretending to pass it over

* pathetic fallacy: Ascribing human actions or feelings to nonhuman objects

* periphrasis: Using several words instead of few

* personification/prosopopoeia/anthropomorphism: Attributing or applying human qualities to inanimate objects, animals, or natural phenomena (see pathetic fallacy)

* proverb: A succinct or pithy expression of what is commonly observed and believed to be true

* rhetorical question: A query that doesn’t require an answer

* superlative: Uttermost: the ugliest, the most precious, etc.

* synecdoche: A form of metonymy in which a part stands for the whole (Example: “Keep your nose out of my business.”)

* truism: A self-evident statement

* zoomorphism: Animal characteristics ascribed to humans or gods

_________

1 From the song “Standing on the Corner,” by Frank Loesser 1956), composed for the Broadway Musical The Most Happy Fella. Recorded by the pop quartet the Four Lads, it reached number 3 on the charts that year.

2 The parenthetical phrase “the writer I was so jealous of” is also an appositive; it is in apposition to “my friend.”

3 Online Etymology Dictionary, http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=key, accessed May 20, 2008

Next: If Only I’d Gone to Parma

 

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  1. [...] a poem (30 lines maximum) in free verse (unrhyming, without strict meter, but still using other rhetorical devices common in poetry) about “what you are waiting for” — the one thing needed for [...]

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  3. [...] meditative poems I try not to be intentional. I work with the poetic conventions I choose and let the tale tell itself. In this case, I chose the [...]

  4. [...] Analyze one of the poems at “The Ploughman Poet“: (a) What intimate glimpse of Burns’s soul does it provide? (b) How does it do so (through language, rhyme, meter, metaphor, and other poetic conventions)? [...]

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  7. Dorothy: Auntie Em, really, do you know what Miss Gulch said she was gonna do to Toto? She said she was gonna.

    Auntie Em: Dorothy, dear, stop imagining things. You always get yourself into a fret over nothing. Now, you just help us out today and find yourself a place where you won’t get into any trouble. [runs off]

    Dorothy: Some place where there isn’t any trouble. Do you suppose there’s such a place, Toto? There must be. It’s not a place you can get to by a boat or a train. It’s far, far away. Behind the moon, beyond the rain. [singing] Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high. There’s a land that I heard of once in a lullaby. Somewhere over the rainbow, skies are blue and the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true. Someday, I’ll wish upon a star and wake up where the clouds are far behind me. Where troubles melt like lemon drops away above the chimney tops. That’s where you’ll find me. Somewhere over the rainbow, blue birds fly. Birds fly over the rainbow, why then, oh, why can’t I? If happy little blue birds fly beyond the rainbow the rainbow why, oh, why can’t I? [takes Toto into the house]

  8. Dorothy: Well, come on.

    Cowardly Lion: [singing] Yea, it’s sad believe me, missy, when you’re born to be a sissy without the vim and verve. But I could show my prowess be a lion not a mouse if I only had the nerve. I’m afraid there’s no denying I’m just a dandelion a fate I don’t deserve. I’d be brave as a blizzard.

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    Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man, & the Cowardly Lion: [singing] Oh, we’re off to see the Wizard, the wonderful Wizard of Oz. We hear he is a wiz of a wiz if ever a wiz there was. If ever a wiz there was the Wizard of Oz is one because because because because because of the wonderful things he does. We’re off to see the Wizard, the wonderful Wizard of Oz.

    1. Wow! Such a superfluity of similes!

  9. [...] Name as many rhetorical devices used in this poem as you can. My space inviolate—grassy valley under a splendid [...]

  10. [...] Name as many rhetorical devices used in this poem as you can. Here are a few for free: assonance, metaphor, simile, [...]

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