Tag Archives: personification

Poem D

Des Moines, Iowa, early 20th century; Dad was born in Des Moines in 1913

Des Moines, Iowa, early 20th century; this postcard features seven church spires; Dad was born in Des Moines in 1913

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The Morris Chair

Drake University, Des Moines, Iowa

My maternal grandmother graduated from Drake University in Des Moines, some time before 1900; my paternal grandmother was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Oberlin, also before 1900

To help my friend and colleague Queen Jane Approximately decide which of my poems to submit to publications and contests, I am posting  ten of my particular favorites — poems A through J (yes, I had to count off the letters on my fingers). I’d like your comments as we go along and, in particular, when all ten have appeared, your ranking. Which do you like best (10 points)? Least (1 point — I can’t bear the thought of getting Zero points)?

Students: Name as many rhetorical devices used in this poem as you can. Here are a few for free: assonance, metaphor, simile, apostrophe….

Dad (left) and his brothers, around 1940

Dad (left) and his brothers, around 1940

The Morris Chair

for Dan Campbell, 1913-1985

Once ordinary oak and textile, it
became your incarnation’s residence
of preference, your citadel, in fact; and
since its frame and cast, at first, were hostile
to your contours, something had to give — and
there, the victory was yours; the Morris
never had a prayer.

As sitting folks will do, you made a firm
impression on the worsted cushion. Its
topography was less an object of
erosion than redistribution, and, in
time, the planet was reshaped: a plateau
here, a gully there… a landscape; where
before had been mere serviceable flatness,
there was now a valley sculpted by an
adamance of muscle, bone, and flesh.

After the armistice, you and the Morris were
compatible as are the angled pieces
of a jigsaw puzzle, which is why, when
anybody else might try to sit
upon the thing, that individual
would find it uncongenial — not rigid,
really, or relenting, never that — no,
just tenacious of its silhouette,
true to its architect, and guardian of
your indelible effect.

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Poem C

Lily of the valley

Lily of the valley

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A Mother’s Prayer

To help my friend and colleague Queen Jane Approximately decide which of my poems to submit to publications and contests, I am posting  ten of my particular favorites — poems A through J (yes, I had to count off the letters on my fingers). I’d like your comments as we go along and, in particular, when all ten have appeared, your ranking. Which do you like best (10 points)? Least (1 point — I can’t bear the thought of getting Zero points)?

Students: Name as many rhetorical devices used in this poem as you can.

Grassy valley under a blue sky

My space inviolate—grassy valley under a splendid sky

My Space Inviolate

My space inviolate, circle of safety, whitewashed
in whorls of sweet sunlit air. Here is a cradle;
here is a lullaby; here is the wild strawberry,
here is the lily of the valley, in the shade, these
unpretentious in their scent and in their aspect.
Charmed, I fill my lungs with earth and flower
essence, and my heart with innocence —
nothing tainted is permitted here;
I fill my sight with creamy pastel spring
blooms and new yellow-green sweet grass.
Angels who whirled in the dance now sit quietly,
expectantly, one who is wise beside me.

New spring grass

New spring grass

Meditate this hour on your angelic
guardians, whose charge is but to guide you
to your joy. Now rest and dream, and when
you rise, put on the vestments of your power.

All that is kind; all things for love; all hope for
harmony, you’ve just to ask. It is our only task
to give you ease, to please you, to create
a clean, unsullied heart in you, fulfilling
what you’ve chanted at the precipice
of sleep, so near believing all these years.
Look! Every tear you spent for love and
penitence is sacred; each was shed in
honest pain, and we have saved them for
this baptism.

Raindrops on ficus leaves

Raindrops on ficus leaves

Be happy, then. Know that we look after
him and mend his heart, so sore and
unprotected. There! It is done,
and he has seen the messengers of his
salvation, and believed. Then we embraced him
with a lambence that will cleave to him. You
need to understand that love like this,
angels cannot resist. It’s manna, meat and
drink to us. Now you must let him go;
now do release him; entrust him to us.
We shall keep him in an easy custody,
his warden shall be bliss.

Here in this circle is no place for fear.
Nothing feeds it here. Now be serene,
as you were meant to be, for all is well.
The insignificant, pathetic demons
from the place called “hell,” which is no place
at all, but just a state of mind, were chased
away, by saying, “Boo,” and making faces
at them. And yet they scare you so,
they interrupt your dancing— as if they were
substantial… as if they were not less than air.


Poem B

Jordan River

The Jordan River

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Waiting for the Light: A Meditative Poem for Advent

To help my friend and colleague Queen Jane Approximately decide which of my poems to submit to publications and contests, I am posting  ten of my particular favorites — poems A through J (yes, I had to count off the letters on my fingers). I’d like your comments as we go along and, in particular, when all ten have appeared, your ranking. Which do you like best (10 points)? Least (1 point — I can’t bear the thought of getting Zero points)?

Tulips, Canberra; photo by John O'Neill

Tulips, Canberra; photo by John O'Neill

Like many of my poems, “Dead Stones” was inspired by the title of the Bach cantata BWV 106: “God’s Time Is the Best Time (“Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit”). Bach might have had death and funerals in mind, but I have found that “God’s time” truly IS “the best time” for major passages in life. Something that would have been impossible yesterday, or would have required struggle and travail, flows easily today. You have to learn to read the signs.

It’s like, you know, the time for tulips to bloom or babies to be born; it’s generally out of our hands.

Poetry-class students: Look for alliteration, anthropomorphism (pathetic fallacy, personification), anaphora, euphony, apposition, and assonance. Describe the meter.

Dead Stones

I’ve seen you fulminate and shake your fist
at all the monoliths and caverns met,
immovable as Jupiter from Earth —
as inhospitable and cold  — assailed
in vain, in agonies of thwarted aim —
with blood and sweat and tears expended, all
for naught; in years abandoned to the joust
with still, insensate obstacles that won’t
or can’t apologize, that cast no eye
on their defiers, neither pitiful
nor hostile, lacking choice, remaining where
they fell, their tombs, finality without
a voice to mock, without a will to move
or to remain immobile, barely scarred,
unmindful of the cataracts whose birth
within the rock is just as silent, just
as still, and just as certain. These now swell
as flood surrounds and enters every rent
and pore and cavity, where steady rain,
insidiously, probes the stony faces.

Now the mountains are made low.
Now the mud begets the stream.
Now the shadow disappears.
Now the blood and sweat and tears
flow together, are redeemed.

Now the carcasses of years
sink into the brittle crust.
Now they make the barren land
generous to growth again;
now absorbing seed and spore.

Only now, and not before.

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Dundee School, Omaha, Nebraska

My school, Dundee Elementary, in Omaha, had a large playground and, between the fence and the wall, wonderful climbing trees and hiding places. I fell off the wall and ruptured my spleen when I was 9. Photo: RDG Planning & Design

In a small literary magazine…

…appeared this poem, my very own! Note rhetorical devices, including pathetic fallacy (anthropomorphism, personification), alliteration, assonance, consonance, simile, metaphor, onomatopoeia, internal rhyme, slant or half rhyme, and others.

Swaddled in Saturday Afternoon

Friday afternoon in early spring
was all but Saturday, and finer in its
way — a long, warm wallowing in
fresh anticipation — no activity
at all, allowing for the effortless,
habitual mobility of youth,
and I had energetic fantasies,
pie in the sky, like every other foolish
girl — I’m certain it’s a rule or ought to
be — uncensored dreams, I mean. How pliable
the world and I were then, how agile my
imagination, deftly crafting Saturday
scenarios and shaping situations on a whim.

Mother Greeting Children After School

Friday afternoon...

In my fringed suede jacket with my long,
brown hair in braids that swished across
my back, I could be Jo March or Annie
Oakley just by wishing to. A lengthening
of stride on pleasant residential
sidewalks, in an instant turned to hard-
packed trails across Nebraska Territory,
I was guiding covered wagons westward,
though unhappily my little pony, Daisy,
had been left behind in Council Bluffs,
recuperating from… from… um… the
hiccups; such a mystifying case,
so strange.

Girl Playing with Leaves

The wind changed...

The wind changed. Balmy just a tick ago,
the day turned strangely dark, and
cold, quick puffs of what remained of
winter merged into a gale. I loosed my
braided hair and let the wind do what it
would. I knew (the wind did not), no
matter how it tugged and turned, no
ordinary wind could separate my hair
and skin — a small but gratifying
evidence of power, to tease the elements
that way, and win. And with such grand,
decisive triumphs, Saturdays begin.

Kids in Spring

Oh! Here they come...

There was a wild and wooded place, if
only ten feet wide or so, that circumscribed
the park. Good climbing trees were there, and
shrubs to hide in while you waited for
Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp to ride in
from their day of keeping lawlessness
at bay. I must be canny and adjust
my brim, so it just skims my eyes. Oh! Here they
come! Alas! It isn’t they, not then! It’s
Robin and his Merry Men, and I, Maid
Marian, again defied the wind and
pinned my tousled hair into a prim,
aristocratic bun, with tendrils tumbling
‘round my face.

Mom Serving Lunch

...for there was lemonade...

The wind abated and the sun peeked out.
I leaned against the Gallaghers’ red maple tree
and watched the play of shade and glimmer in
the variegated canopy and felt
the muffled thrum that was the rhythm of
a Saturday in spring, the quieting
of afternoon in placid neighborhoods.
I heard my mother mixing commerce with
a bit of gossip as the Alamito
Dairy man, whose name was John, sold butter,
half-and-half, and cottage cheese, and muttered
something he had gleaned from Mrs. Hahn,
about the Beasleys’ sheltie’s puppies being
weaned, as I recall. I listened to the
uninflected tune of bees around
a clump of lilacs, heard a small child’s bleating
and her mama crooning consolation,
and a screen door with a wicked spring
obedient to physics, snapping like a
shot, too raucous for the soporific
interlude. And why not let myself
be swaddled by the sun, the homely
sounds, the scent of sod just laid, and lilies
of the valley emanating fragrance
disproportionate to their small,
delicate, half-hidden habitat?
Well contented was I then to call
an end to my adventures for a time;
for there were lemonade, and crackers, and
a book to carry to the back yard and my
secret nook between the privet and the
elm, concave as if it had been made
expressly for my shoulder blades.

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    The Many Roads…

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    How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically




    The Ancient Ones believe: If we
    could hear it in primeval purity,
    beside a sacred spring, just by the
    sunlit surfacing where it emerges
    all but unadulterated, there must
    be, in all the fullness of a
    symphony, a song within the
    watercourse — which, hearing,
    touching, tasting, bathing in it
    heals the spirit of its slow,
    insidious decay and makes us
    innocent and wholly realized,
    perhaps immortal — who can

    Even now, you and I can hear our
    voices clear and buoyant in the
    chorus — although you might
    perceive nuances and notes and
    cadences in this eternal mystic
    composition differently than I.

    For since our origin, we have
    sailed on different seas to
    different ports; our purposes and
    choices have developed separate
    pathways in the mind through
    which the melodies pour in and
    where the orchestration rises like
    the ocean at high tide. Yet even
    so, divided at a crossroads,
    separated by a veil, we can yet
    decide — to harmonize or clash,
    sing peace or, maybe, dissonance
    and, if the latter, float with a
    deceptive ease, by flattery and
    treacherous inducement,
    downstream through the sluice
    gate to cacophony; so many
    voices, shrill and wounded from
    the willful howling, shouting,
    shrieking to be heard above the

    And when at last we learn that life
    is not a race, nor yet a test, then
    destiny — some call it grace —
    will bring us home, in this life or
    the next, perhaps a thousand
    lifetimes hence. The many roads
    are one road in the end, and every
    soul will seek at last the blessed
    lullaby; each in time will kneel
    beside a holy well, to rest, to be
    made innocent, as once more
    called to cleansing in the spring,
    the sunlit source of all we know
    above the deep and hidden flow.


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  • Spare No Sibilants

    How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

    Free E-Course Lesson 31

    Chapter 10: Meditation
    Part 4: Poetry-Writing as Meditation

    Join now! Find details about this free E-course at Lesson 1  


    The creative arts are the playground for recognizing and understanding our purpose in being here. When we truly allow our spirits to be filled with the purpose, our minds can begin to take stock of the necessary steps and needed materials so the body can become the mover or manifestor of the desire. Mind, Body, Spirit: Connecting With Your Creative Self,
    by Mary Braheny and Diane Halperin

    * * *

    I wrote both of the poems below “meditatively” — that is, with an open mind, as part of a morning ritual.

    The first poem originated from my noticing that at this time of year, the earth’s orientation to the sun is such that the rays slant more brightly and beautifully through my bedroom windows than in any other season.  I have said before that I live in a church basement, though that’s not quite accurate. Half of my apartment is below ground level. The windows — there are four, all on the south side — are full sized, made possible by window wells.

    In 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 following:

    There are other common rhetorical devices as well. (1) How many can you identify? (Please name the ones you find.)

    The poem was going to be a meditation on a ray of light, but it turned into something quite different. (2) What might it have told me about myself that I hadn’t been aware of?


    My walkdown is half below ground and thus darkish
    with windows on only one side, and these mullioned
    and frosted and dusty, gray-tinted with shadows
    from brickwork and privet… and silent, so quiet
    that lightning and thunder at midnight can’t penetrate;
    but, more’s the pity, I can’t discern birdsong;
    cicadas lamenting and crickets scritch-scritching,
    however, are easily heard in midsummer.
    I once had a fright from a possum who tumbled,
    at least I inferred that she had, to the floor of
    the window-well; captive, she skittered around on
    the old metal screens; and I, thinking the threat must
    be human, in fear and confusion, punched in nine-
    one-one on the phone, and no fewer than two dozen
    uniformed men armed with pistols came quickly
    to rescue a woman alone in her bedroom,
    defending her person from one hapless menacing
    possum. The men with the guns were forgiving,
    and, surely, one had to do something, not knowing
    the danger. I do love a window that faces
    the south in the wintertime, feral four-footed
    invaders, indeed, notwithstanding; for sunlight
    slants through in a comforting, angular way that
    is perfectly suited for afternoon naps and
    geraniums, too.

    January 18, 2009


    The inspiration for the following poem was the much-embellished language of Elizabeth Peters’s delightful Victorian archaeologist and detective Amelia Peabody Emerson. Peters has written a few dozen books about the Emersons, all narrated (for the most part) by Amelia, whose husband refers to her affectionately as “Peabody.” There is an unrestraint about her utterances (as there is, as well, about Victorian houses, furniture, and other artistic expressions) that is greatly at odds with the more modern, pared-down prose of later writers. If something can be clearly expressed using five words, Amelia will use fifteen.

    tomb234There is, I am overjoyed to find, a new book in the series: Tomb of the Golden Bird (Amelia Peabody Mysteries).

    Again, the poem wandered into uncharted territory. (3) What do you think I learned about myself in the process of writing this poem? (HINT: There are no wrong answers.) 


     “They will rid us of resident

         “rodents,” said Amelia Peabody —

    Oh, what a droll redundancy

         Of D’s and R’s and S’s.

    Amelia is generous with consonants

         and commas and asides,

         not sparing

         an embarrassment of prepositions

         or extravagant Egyptian


    Ah, to scatter syllables

         with no fear of reprisal,

    Scribbling whatever adjectives

         arise, page upon page,

    To be intemperate at last

         and feel the weight of pent-up participles

         lifted from one’s shoulders,

         nobly carried, one might add,

         despite the rain.

    Now to feast upon the delicate,

         the succulent, the opulent

         accessories, plucked in

         leaner days from one’s

         repast, but frozen — for

         one knew their banishment

         would end at last.

    Economy, begone! Pack your

         valise and abdicate

         your stern and pious reign.

    Don’t slam the door when you

         egress. Expect no severance pay,

         for you’ve exacted

         more than you were owed.

    And now, a toast, companions

         in the liberation, mes amis.

    Now lift your flagons, lift them high,

         and drink to whimsy, arrogant,

         peculiar, wry, benevolent.

    Drink to liberty

         in flowing crimson silk

         arrayed; Amelia Peabody has

         gained the citadel, and

         holds aloft the flame.

    O, wasted wealth of words, O, damned

         display of Latin origins.

    O, Norse and Arabic, O, Gaelic,

         Greek and Cherokee, and more;

    Ye assonant ambassadors, rejoice!

    Amelia has restored

         your scattered fortunes.

    Spare no sibilants;

         there shall be subsurrations,

         seventy times seven, and

         a score besides.

    Throw wide the gates for

         summer’s retinue,

         ripe pomegranate.

    Go and populate the periodicals, reclaim

         the islands where verbosity

         has honor still.

    Amelia has gained the citadel,

         and yet, take care that your extravagance

         is eloquent, laid on with artistry. For as

         “the tombs themselves descend in

         “sinuous curves,”

    Endeavor to deserve, when you are

         gone, an orderly effusion

         in the manner you (yourself)


    Immerse yourself in immortality.

         Immerse yourself COMPLETELY,

         like Amelia,

    Who bathes and then adjourns to the


    Where breezes ruffle Nefret’s hair

         that shimmers in the light like

         golden threads.


    February 2006


    Assignment 31.1

    1. Answer the questions highlighted above in red.
    2. Write a meditative poem in blank verse using iambic or trochaic tetrameter. Your poem should have no more than twenty lines. BEGIN WITH A MINIMALIST, CONCRETE SUBJECT, AND DO NOT WRITE OVERTLY ABOUT YOUR FEELINGS.
    3. Identify the poetic devices in your poem.
    4. Send your assignment via e-mail to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. I will not grade your assignment, but I will return it to you with comments.
    5. Keep exploring the meditations at www.LifeIsPoetry.net, and continue with your meditation journal.

    * * *

    The Sun Returns…

    …and other metaphors of Christmastide


    How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

    Free E-Course Lesson 22

    Chapter 9: Rituals and Celebrations
    Part 1: Christmastide

    At no time of the year — with the possible exception of Easter — are our activities more saturated with metaphor than at Christmastide. The –tide in Christmastide refers to “a time or season.” Technically, Christmastide is the Christian festival observed from December 24, Christmas Eve, to January 5, the eve of Epiphany.

    It is no accident that ancient pagan customs are so tightly woven into Christian holidays. The missionaries who were called to “Christianize the heathens” believed, correctly, that Christianity would find greater acceptance if the converts were not required to shed all vestiges of the old religion.

    Thus it happened that December 25 — coinciding roughly with the ancient Roman weeklong Saturnalia celebration and with other winter solstice feasts — was “selected” as the date of Jesus’ birth. The solstice occurs on the shortest day (or longest night) of the year, between December 20 and December 23 in the Northern Hemisphere and between June 20 and June 23 in the Southern Hemisphere.

    Cultures throughout the world have, from prehistoric times, celebrated the winter solstice, when the “sun stands still”—that is, when the sun, as observed in the Northern Hemisphere, appears to stop “moving southward” and returns to the north, bringing with it the promise of warmth and spring.

    Winter was a dangerous season for our long-ago ancestors. Death claimed them more often in the winter, when they huddled in their meager shelters for warmth, and when there was no fresh meat or produce. And so they rejoiced when the longest night was past, and the sun stayed a bit longer each day, though the bitter cold remained.


    Newgrange today, aerial view

    Newgrange today, aerial view

    There are many prehistoric winter-solstice monuments into which the sun shines at dawn on the shortest day of the year and sometimes the days surrounding it, striking a particular spot in the monument and dramatically illuminating it. One of the most precise of these monuments, in terms of solar alignment, is the passage-tomb of Newgrange, in Ireland.

    Newgrange light passage entry, 1901

    Newgrange sunlight passageway, 1901

    Erected more than five thousand years ago, Newgrange is the oldest building in the world. It was once surrounded  by dozens of immense standing stones, of which just twelve remain. The structure itself, in addition to its connection with the solstice, was apparently a tomb and the center of a site where religious rituals and ceremonies took place. 
    The first solstice rays enter Newgrange

    The first solstice rays enter Newgrange

    Abandoned after a thousand years, Newgrange lay hidden for four millennia, until late-17th-century workmen found the entrance to what they believed was a cave. Excavation and restoration began in 1962. The restoration continues to be controversial; some consider the site overcommercialized, others feel that the new work is not in keeping with the period.

    Nevertheless, seeing the sun’s first solstice rays striking the stone must be exhilarating indeed, even for jaded citizens of the twenty-first century. “In the bleak midwinter,” the life-giving sun signals a pledge to complete its circuit ‘round the sky and bring with it the seasons of planting, cultivating, and harvesting.

    Unlike the proto-Celtic peoples who worshiped at Newgrange, few of us today are wholly at the mercy of nature’s fickle temperament as we go about our daily lives. But when all is said and done, we are every bit as dependent upon the steady turning of the great solar wheel.



    Some say it is a sin to practice pagan things at
    Christmastide, and give each other presents, and be
    festive much at all. But Mrs. Arthur, who is wise, lives
    in a house that looks like gingerbread, with ivy growing
    up the garden wall, and she believes that ancient
    celebrations were the peasants’ or the common people’s
    preparation to receive their own, the Baby Jesus, and
    for all I know, she might have been there, Mrs. Arthur,
    that’s how old she is.

    Morris dancers, Thames at Richmond, 1620

    Morris dancers, Thames at Richmond, 1620

    We sit up in her attic room and listen to the wind
    blow cold around the chimney, though we and
    Mrs. Arthur’s pug, Sir Bedivere, are snug and warm,
    while she knits or crochets and talks about the
    days when Christmas mumming plays were practiced
    in advance for weeks and weeks. “They had the time,
    you see,” she says. “The grain was harvested, and
    anyway, the solstice means ‘the sun stands still.’ There
    was a man who played the Fool, and one was the Old
    Hobby Horse, he wore a giant skirt in which to catch
    the maids, of course. And someone’s killed and
    resurrected in the mumming, for the earth is dead and
    bare and so the mumming is a kind of prayer, a begging
    to the sun to come and stay another year.

    “And even now, upon St. Stephen’s Day, in Ireland and
    Wales, grown men called ‘wren boys’ dress in straw or
    some disguise and go from house to house, for
    revelry—a merry time, no doubt, they have.”


    Maenad on Wheel of Life

    She talks about the Yuletide and she doesn’t turn a
    hair when telling of the sacrifice of goats and,
    auld lang syne, of men, but mostly boars, and
    that, she adds, is why we feast on Christmas ham.
    “And what is Yule?” she asks, rhetorically (I’m not
    supposed to answer). “It’s the wheel, of course,” she
    says, as if I should have known; “just as the mummers
    and the morris dancers mark the turning of the year;
    likewise, the golden chariot and its path around the
    earth. It disappears, the world goes dark and cold, and it
    returns; but in the days of old, before the sacred birth,
    before the Christ, the folk were never sure if they would
    see the spring again. They feared that Death would come
    for them, and so they wore the skins of goats and such,
    and covered up their heads, and drank a great deal
    too much wine, and hoped Death’s angel wouldn’t
    recognize them when it was their time to go.

    Druid cutting oak mistletoe

    Druid cutting oak mistletoe

    “Now, mistletoe—‘dung-on-a-twig’ it means in the
    old Saxon tongue, because it grew where birds had
    left their droppings on a branch—
    has long been sacred, for it stays when all the autumn
    leaves have fallen down and pranced away and would
    be prancing still, except the snow comes, and the leaves
    decay, and that’s what makes the garden bloom.”

    Now Mrs. Arthur draws a breath and then resumes her
    chattering, and I adore the stories and the soft and
    secret voice she tells them in, as if it’s she and I alone who
    are allowed to know the ancient tales.

    Decorative mistletoe

    Decorative mistletoe

    “The mistletoe is
    sacred as a symbol of fertility [she winked at me], and that
    which grows upon the oak is the most mystical of all,
    because it’s rare to find it there; it lives more commonly
    on apple trees. The Druid priests believed it was the spirit
    of the tree itself, and so they gathered it midwinter, as a
    healing charm and life-giver, and at summer solstice so
    the cattle and the flocks would flourish
    and the crops would thrive.”

    “And was it wrong of them?” I asked, just as I
    always did, so she could say, “Oh, no. You see, it
    was the only way they knew. And there is wisdom in
    tradition and in ritual (though not in human sacrifice,
    of course, but in the principle of giving to the
    earth her own).”

    And so, each year, we hang the mistletoe, suspended
    from an oaken beam, and decorate a living Christmas
    tree with lights and ornaments and candy canes, and
    give each other presents that we’ve made, though hers
    to me are thick and cozy sweaters, mine to her are
    mittens with an extra thumb or some such thing.

    At Christmas dinner there are nine. We thank the
    Lord for nourishment, and then we drink a toast
    with wine: “A Merry Christmas to you,” Mrs. Arthur
    lifts her glass. “To you as well,” we chorus, and we
    lift our glasses also. “Tell the gospel,” she says, and
    we echo, “Tell the gospel. Tell the people that they
    are made new today, and always, by the grace of
    God.” She smiles and nods then, and we say,
    as one, “Amen.”


    * * *


    The holly and the ivy when they are both full grown
    Of all the trees that are in the wood, the holly bears the crown


    Oh, the rising of the sun and the running of the deer
    The playing of the merry organ
    Sweet singing in the choir

    The holly bears a blossom as white as lily flower
    And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ to be our sweet savior

    The holly bears a berry as red as any blood
    And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ to do poor sinners good

    The holly bears a prickle as sharp as any thorn
    And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
    on Christmas Day in the morn

    The holly bears a bark as bitter as any gall
    And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ for to redeem us all

    Historians believe that the first stanza — the only one that mentions ivy — is based on another song — traced back to the 12th century but probably much older — in which holly represents men and ivy represents women. Deer are also mentioned in the older song, called “The Contest of the Holly and the Ivy.” Here is one version of a stanza from that song, which clearly comes down on the side of the men:

    Holly stands in the hall, fair to behold:
    Ivy stands without the door, she is full sore a cold.
    Nay, ivy, nay, it shall not be I wis;
    Let holly have the mastery, as the manner is.

    In another ancient song, “Ivy, Chief of Trees,” however, the ivy prevails.

    European holly; photo by Jürgen Howaldt

    European holly; photo by Jürgen Howaldt

    Sister Alma Rose drinks holly tea, but she won’t let me
    have any. “Don’t even think about it, dear,” she says.
    “Don’t even touch. It’s poison if y’all take too much,
    but such a feast for birds,” she says. “I heard about a
    boy bit off a piece; the leaf, it cut his lips to shreds.
    A wonder that he isn’t dead,” she says, and sips her
    brew contentedly. (I disobeyed and had a taste; I
    won’t make that mistake again.)

    Yule log

    Yule log

    “Holly frightens witches, too, and goblins, some believe,”
    says she, “and it protects the house from lightning, and
    a holly switch is good for bees. In ancient Rome, it was
    the sacred plant of Saturn, pagan god of farm and harvest.
    Secret Christians decked their homes with holly during
    Saturnalia in December, Saturn’s time of celebration,
    for it wasn’t safe to be a Christian then, you see.
    Some people still put holly on the bedpost as protection
    from disease and, too, to bring them pleasant dreams.

    “And the Druids, centuries ago, they treasured holly
    (for it blossomed even in the snow), and wore it when
    they went to cut the sacred mistletoe. And nowadays
    we bring all kind of greenery inside at Christmastide,
    as in the times of old, to signify the things that never die,
    despite the winter’s dark and cold.”

    * * *




    Have you ever wondered why, at Christmastime, we go “a-wassailing among the leaves so green”? The word wassail is akin to Old English “be healthy,” but originally wassailers drank to the health of apple trees (and other vegetation, as well as livestock), not necessarily to each other. The custom of “apple wassailing” involved pouring spiced hard cider, or placing cider-soaked bread, on the roots of the trees “for their health.” Of course, there was always enough wassail to quench the thirst of the revelers as well.

    In medieval Europe, the lord of the manor traditionally opened his home to his serfs, serving food and wassail as a gesture of goodwill and as reassurance that he would protect them from harm, as was his obligation.

    * * *


    A tomte watches at the cradle

    A tomte watches at the cradle

    A tomte  (Swedish) or nisse (Danish) is a delightful creature of Norse pagan origin—a gnome (or brownie—it all depends on whom you ask) who protected a farmer’s home and children, especially at night. The word tomte comes from the Swedish tomt,  a farmstead.

    Gnomes have been distributing Christmas presents since the 1500s, you see, but the people had forgotten until the folklore revival of the 1800s. All of Scandinavia recalled then that the Christmas gnome  (Danish julenisse, Swedish jultomte) brought gifts at Christmastime. An 1881 issue of the Swedish magazine Ny Illustrerad Tidning featured the first published painting by Jenny Nystrom, who linked the Swedish Santa Claus with the gnomes of Scandinavian folklore. Nystrom’s tomte was jolly, white-bearded, and red-capped, though not exceedingly plump.

    Jenny Nystrom's tree gnome

    Jenny Nystrom's tree gnome

    The appearance of goats in Nystrom’s artwork also draws from ancient Scandinavian lore. Long ago, people disguised in goatskins knocked on their neighbors’ doors as a sort of practical joke. (One assumes that the skins had been dried, cleaned, and de-loused.) Goats pulled the god Thor’s chariot, you know, and masquerading at holiday times is a tradition older than history. It survives at Christmastime in morris dances and mumming plays.

    Well—before the gnomes arrived in Sweden, Christmas presents were delivered by goats. It was a huge undertaking, as you can imagine, for the goat; and when gnomes began to dwell in Sweden, the goats quite understandably sought their help. With goats pulling gnome-built sleds piled with gifts, the task became a joyful one indeed.

    Assignment 22.1

    Describe in a brief essay (about 250 words) the predominant metaphors of pre-Christian winter-solstice celebrations and customs, and the way these metaphors correlate with traditional Christian celebrations of the birth of Jesus. Please e-mail your assignment to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. I will not grade your assignment, but I will return it to you with comments.

    An early Santa Claus riding a goat

    An early Santa Claus riding a goat

    Gnome and goat arrive to deliver Christmas gifts (Jenny Nystrom)

    Gnome and goat arrive to deliver Christmas gifts (Jenny Nystrom)

    If Only I’d Gone to Parma

    How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

    Free E-Course Lesson 16.1 Assignment
    Using Figures of Speech

    Join now! Find details about this free E-course at Lesson 1.

    Parma in the 15th Century

    Parma in the 15th Century

    Now you are going to begin to write poetically, using the figures of speech defined in Lesson 16.

    There is no need to memorize the terms. What is important is that you become thoroughly familiar with how the elements of rhetoric are used… and that, in using many of them, you will need to reach inside, just a little… enough to call up pictures, emotions, and impressions that transform straightforward prose into poetry.

    Below you will find selected figures of speech with brief definitions and with four numbered sentences under each.

    1. A sentence.
    2. An example of the sentence recast, using the defined figure of speech.
    3. Another sentence.
    4. A place for you to recast (rephrase) the sentence, using the defined figure of speech. It’s okay if you go a little wild, deviating from the strict meaning of the sentence, if that’s where your imagination takes you.

    When you finish the assignment, please e-mail it to me at Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. I will not grade your assignment, but I will return it to you with comments.

    Have fun!

    Parallelism — Repetitive use of a grammatical element

    1. There was nothing I wanted more than to take a hot bath, to climb under the warm covers, and read in bed.
    2. Recast: There was nothing I wanted more than to take a hot bath, to climb under the warm covers, and to read in bed.
    3. The résumé listed her skills as watching television, sleeping late on Saturdays, and computers.
    4. Recast:

    Antithesis — Juxtaposition of opposing or contrasting ideas

    1. You pronounce the word tomato differently than I do.
    2. Jack Sprat preferred skinless chicken, so he gave the skin to his wife. She liked only the greasy parts of meat and poultry.
    3. Recast:
    Ethelred II (the Unready), King of England from 978 to 1016

    Ethelred II (the Unready), King of England from 978 to 1016

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

    1. I have three sisters. The eldest one has a wart on her nose. She looks like Wanda the Witch.
    2. Recast: My eldest sister — the one with a wart on her nose — looks like Wanda the Witch.
    3. Ethelred II was king of England from 978 to 1013 and 1014 to 1016. He was called Ethelred the Unready.
    4. Recast:

    Appositive — A parenthetical element (see above) that defines or renames (is in apposition to) an adjacent element.

    1. His eyes were strange to behold. One was deep brown, the other was cobalt blue.
    2. Recast: His unmatched eyes — one deep brown, one cobalt blue — were strange to behold.
    3. Judith was the company president’s administrative assistant. She was feared throughout the organization.
    4. Recast:
    A Giant Panda in the Washington Zoo, 2004

    A Giant Panda in the Washington Zoo, 2004

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

    1. Paul turned white when panda bears touched him with their feet.
    2. Recast: Paul paled when pandas put their paws on his person.
    3. There were small waves in the river, which wound through hilly farmland.
    4. Recast:

    Assonance — Repetition of a vowel sound or similar vowel sounds

    1. Bart continued to drive west, unwilling to stay in one place.
    2. Recast: Bart kept heading west, not yet ready to settle.
    3. The flames grew higher and seemed to grin.
    4. Recast:
    Winning entry, Hairdressing Fashion Exhibition, London, 1935, by Louis Calvete

    Winning entry, Hairdressing Fashion Exhibition, London, 1935, by Louis Calvete

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

    1. If only I’d gone to live in Parma when I had the opportunity. I could have traveled Europe and had adventures I’ve merely dreamed of.
    2. Recast: If only I’d gone to live in Parma. If only I’d seized the chance. If only I’d traveled Europe. If only I’d had the adventures I’ve yearned for.
    3. My grandmother was a famous movie star. She was absolutely stunning, even with the marcel waves that were trendy for the time. Accordingly, she was completely self-absorbed, with little time or inclination to be bothered with the needs of her husband and children.
    4. Recast:

    Epistrophe — Ending successive clauses with the same word or phrase

    1. They teased me, but I held my ground. When they mocked me, I didn’t even blink. Even their threats didn’t shake my resolve.
    2. Recast: They teased me, but I held my ground. When they mocked me, I held my ground. Even when they threatened me, I held my ground.
    3. They seeded the clouds, but no rain came down. The Methodists prayed, the Muslims prayed, the congregation at St. Mary Magdalene prayed; and still there was no rain.
    4. Recast:

    Apostrophe — Addressing a personified abstraction (see personification, below) or inanimate object

    1. I asked for courage to keep me steady.
    2. Recast: Courage, don’t fail me now!
    3. I wish the rain would stop now and come back some other day.
    4. Recast:
    A Sunset View of Hurricane Isidore's Rain Bands, NOAA, 2002

    A Sunset View of Hurricane Isidore's Rain Bands, NOAA, 2002

    Cacophony — Harsh-sounding passages in poetry or prose; note that harshness comes from hard consonant sounds (K, T, and CH, for example) as well as word meanings

    1. The wind was wild in the trees, blowing away all the leaves.
    2. Recast: Fierce and cruel, storm winds wracked the trees, snapping brittle leaves from their branches and flinging them across the angry sky.
    3. Weary but unable to sleep, the bereaved mother mourned alone in the night.
    4. Recast:
    Benito Mussolini, Italian Prime Minister, 1922-1943

    Benito Mussolini, Italian Prime Minister, 1922-1943

    Consonance — The repetition of consonant sounds, especially the final consonants of accented syllables, often within a short passage of verse

    1. Hester wasn’t very tall, but she was perky and fashionably dressed.
    2. Recast: Hester was short, pert, and smartly dressed.
    3. Mussolini was a cruel dictator.
    4. Recast:

    Euphony — The opposite of cacophony — pleasant-sounding, perhaps mellifluous; note that pleasing sounds come from soft consonants (such as L, R, and V) as well as word meanings

    1. The ballerina was graceful.
    2. Recast: The ballerina’s fluid movements recalled the natural grace of a lovely, lazy river.
    3. Sunday nights on the porch are my favorite times.
    4. Recast:

    Hyperbole — Exaggeration beyond reason (“Yo’ mama” jokes are hyperbolic: “Yo’ mama so fat she got her own ZIP code.”)

    1. There were hundreds of people at Ebenezer’s funeral.
    2. Recast: I think the entire population of Pennsylvania and a few surrounding states came to Ebenezer’s funeral.
    3. My Grandma Hazel has never been more than five feet tall, but she has shrunk a few inches in her old age.
    4. Recast:
    A Dissipating Thunderstorm over Kent (U.K.), 2008

    A Dissipating Thunderstorm over Kent (U.K.), 2008

    Internal rhyme — The presence of rhyming words in a single line (usually, of verse)

    1. A storm was coming, and the sky was heavy with dark clouds.
    2. Recast: The golden day turned gray and cold; the lazy clouds grew bold and threatening.
    3. Peter was angry — I could tell by the coldness of his eyes and the flush in his cheeks.
    4. Recast:

    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

    1. I didn’t need an alarm clock; the noisy birds awoke me every morning.
    2. Recast: The chirping and twittering of lively birds woke me as reliably as my jingling alarm clock.
    3. I was weary of the constant construction noise as a building went up next door.
    4. Recast:
    Spotted Python — Photo by Stewart Macdonald

    Spotted Python — Photo by Stewart Macdonald

    Sibilance — Repetition of the sound of the letter S (sometimes also the combination SH); a form of alliteration

    1. Snakes have an eerie way of making their presence known.
    2. Recast: Snakes slither into sight, hissing in their sinuous assault.
    3. My mother sang the baby to sleep.
    4. Recast:

    Simile — An explicit comparison between two things, using the word like or as

    1. When David’s little boy was abducted, David was angry and restless.
    2. Recast: When David’s little boy was abducted, David roamed the house like a hungry tiger with no prey to hunt down.
    3. My sister swished down the stairs in her stunning ball gown, looking regal.
    4. Recast:

    Metaphor — Representation of an object or idea through juxtaposition of very different things with a similar characteristic, such as describing a courageous person as having a “heart of a lion”; an implied comparison of two unlike things

    1. I was very happy.
    2. Recast: I was on top of the world.
    3. June was a rainy month.
    4. Recast:
    Cottonwood in Autumn — Photo by Mike Pedroncelli

    Cottonwood in Autumn — Photo by Mike Pedroncelli

    pathetic fallacy:
    Attributing or applying human qualities to inanimate objects, animals, or natural phenomena

    1. The evening breeze rustled the cottonwood trees, making a pleasing, relaxing sound.
    2. Recast: The cottonwood, leaves rustling in the evening breeze, sang a lullaby.
    3. Maple trees seem maternal and nurturing to me.
    4. Recast:

    Also …

    Allegory — A sustained metaphor, carried through sentences, paragraphs, even entire works. An extended metaphor in which a story is told to illustrate an important attribute of the subject. The books Pilgrim’s Progress and The Faerie Queen are allegories.

    You don’t need to provide examples of allegories, but please keep this concept in mind as we begin writing poems later in this section.

    Next: Great poems


    Poetic Devices

    How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

    Free E-Course Lesson 16
    Chapter 6: Figuratively Speaking

     Join now! Find details about this free E-course at Lesson 1.

    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.


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


    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


    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….”


    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

    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”)


    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….”


    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


    Witches and Metaphors

    How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

    Free E-Course Lesson 15
    Chapter 5: The Creaky Old House


    Join now! Find details about this free E-course at Lesson 1.


    An Introduction to Poetic Devices

    Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado — A far cry from Smelly Creek

    Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado — A far cry from Smelly Creek

    I grew up in a big, old house that creaked. It was especially creaky just when I was trying to fall asleep at night. The creaking was sinister, my brother, Johnny, told me. Actually, he probably didn’t say “sinister”; it would have come out “thinithter.” I think the word he used was “demonic.”

    Ours was a fine, solid, gabled, Tudor-style house set about halfway down a long hill, which terminated at Smelly Creek. If we were playing ball in the front yard, and the ball got loose, it usually rolled into the storm drain. We would run or bicycle as fast as we could down the hill, trying to beat the ball to the creek. The ball always won.

    The youngest, weakest kid on the scene – usually me – got bullied into retrieving the ball. It was only a matter of removing your shoes and socks, rolling up your pant legs, and wading into the sludge a couple of feet. This was not the Oneonta Gorge.

    The problem was that eventually we would have to go inside and face our parents, who had a preternatural sensitivity to Smelly Creek fumes. Even if you’d washed the mud off your legs and feet with the hose, they Knew. The odor of Smelly Creek gets into your lymph nodes or something.

    Evil in the attic

    I hated bedtime and the sinister creaking of the house a lot worse than I hated getting in trouble about Smelly Creek.

    Where did the creaking come from? It depended on whom you asked. Both my brother and my dad were very good at explaining things. Dad’s explanations were gentle and reassuring. Johnny’s explanations were creative and lurid.

    Dad’s explanation. “Houses – especially old houses – creak because of changes in heat and humidity.

    “Heat and humidity make things expand, the way our front door and the frame around it expand in summertime. (They expand toward each other until they are actually touching, which makes them ‘sticky’ and hard to open.)

    “When things get cooler or drier, or both, they contract – that is, they get smaller. That’s why our front door opens much more easily and smoothly in the winter.

    “When the air gets cooler at night, the change in temperature makes things in our house, including the floorboards, contract. If it is wintertime and our furnace goes on and off throughout the night, the floorboards will warm and cool, warm and cool, as the furnace changes the air temperature.

    A Resident of Our Attic

    A Resident of Our Attic

    “The creaking sound is the expansion and contraction of the floorboards and other parts of the house.”

    Johnny’s explanation. “Witches and monsters live in our attic. Dozens of them. The witches are green and warty, and the monsters are slimy, hairy, warty giants, with worms slithering out of the warts. At night they come out of their hiding places and they plot their wickedness. They are probably hungry. I wonder what they like to eat?”

    (On two sides of our attic, near the angle of the roof’s steep slope and the floor, my parents had built long, narrow closets. From the doorway, which was on one end, you couldn’t see the wall of the far end, even with a flashlight. For all I knew, those closets stretched to Argentina. Certainly they were roomy enough for a few dozen warty witches and slimy monsters and maybe a couple of smallish dragons.)

    Quiz: Which explanation was correct?

    (a) Dad’s, the scientific, rational one

    (b) Johnny’s, the “make-believe,” sadistic one

    (c) Neither

    (d) Both

    • The correct answer is (d) Both.

    The witches and monsters were real enough, but they didn’t live in the attic. They lived in my mind – as metaphors for fears I couldn’t name. By personifying my nighttime terrors, my brother gave me a method of escape: I could sleep at a friend’s house or I could crawl in bed with my parents (which, now that I think about it, might very well be why I am the youngest child).

    A few times, as a last resort, I slept in the bathtub, with all the lights on. Somehow I just couldn’t envision witches and monsters in our cheerful bathroom with shiny yellow tile. I stopped taking refuge in the bathroom when Johnny told me about the flesh-eating cockroaches.

    The monsters in my mind

    Pink-cheeked child by day, quivering puddle of protoplasm by night, I heard every creak as a monster’s stealthy progress toward his supper. But if it hadn’t been for the haunted attic, I would have had to find something else to be afraid of.

    Radio City Music Hall

    Radio City Music Hall

    Scary times

    Right around the time I was born, a lot of bad things happened to our family: deaths of close relatives, polio, pneumonia, and other troubles, one right after the other, like a bunch of homicidal Rockettes parading onstage at Radio City Music Hall.

    While my mom was pregnant with me, she had surgery on an ovarian tumor – just a few inches from where I was curled up, sucking my thumb and reading The Return of the Native, to get it over with. Surgery to remove an ovarian tumor during pregnancy isn’t exactly a walk in the park even today, with the availability of Modern Medical Advances such as

    (a)   Sharpie Permanent Markers, which have made the old Random Amputation and Hit-or-Miss Mastectomy systems obsolete;

    (b)   miraculous new antibiotics; and

    (c)   even more miraculous new bacteria that go “Nyah, nyah, nyah” to the new antibiotics and zoom off to overrun entire subcontinents while the new antibiotics are still in basic training, learning to salute.

    So imagine how terrifying this surgery must have been to my mother in 1947 – long before hospitals had acquired advanced lifesaving technology – when the practice of medicine was so primitive that your invoice was written in pencil on one of those pads of newsprint-type paper with blue carbon-paper backing that made a mess all over your hands. But the fees were much lower then (Item: Bullet to bite on ……… 8 cents).

    Babies feel the sadness and fear that surround them. When Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.

    That sadness and fear stuck to me for years, especially at night. Daytime was a different story. I was a happy child when the sun was shining and there were books to look at and friends to play with… brave souls with whom I even ventured into the attic, a cozy retreat on a winter afternoon.

    But at night, alone in my bed, I was beset by (literally) nameless fears — until Johnny named them: Gruntilda, Aradia, Sasquatch, Bozaloshtsh, the Blob, Hecate, Medea, the Giant Frog Creature, Professor McGonagall, and, of course, (1) Aundulim, Baurobalinirng, Calroth, Falul, Gbargot, Ingoglor, Mamorgur, Orirchaur, Thau, Thaug. Knowing your adversary’s name might be cold comfort, but it’s better than no comfort.

    Draw me a picture

    Fears are intangible. You can’t draw a picture of “a fear.” The cause — a rhinoceros charging toward you in Sumatra — and the effects of your fear might be tangible, especially if your heart is pounding and there is sweat pouring down your face. But emotions, such as fear, love, happiness, sadness, disgust, dread, and anger, are intangible.

    A Rhinoceros Is Tangible

    A Rhinoceros Is Tangible

    Intangible things are not experienced through the five senses, through which your body tells your brain what’s physically happening around you (and inside you, if you are feeling the pain of, say, Acid Indigestion because, for example, you have just eaten, with a spoon, the entire can of Betty Crocker Sour Cream Frosting that you bought to ice the cupcakes you made for your son to take to school on his ninth birthday, after you had given up on Never Allowing Your Children to Ingest Food Containing Processed Sugar).

    Which has more power: the tangible or the intangible? Ideas or objects? Emotions or facts? Fantasy or physical actuality?

    All art, even that which is solid and realistic, depicts the intangible. Writing poetry is like painting feelings and ideas. When a poem is honest and courageous, the poet can sometimes see herself in it — maybe for the first time in her life.

    Key Vocabulary — Figures of Speech

    A figure of speech, sometimes termed a rhetoric, or locution, is a word or phrase that departs from straightforward, literal language. Wikipedia

    Here are some examples:

    PERSONIFICATION: A description of something nonhuman — often a feeling or an idea — in human terms, giving it human attributes.

    • Adolph Hitler personifies evil.
    • Santa Claus is a personification of generosity and love for the innocents.
    • In her wicked stepmother, Cinderella saw the personification of cold, cruel vanity.

    This sentence — “Breaking the grip of the vicious wind, the sun’s warm fingers stroked my face” — personifies the wind and the sun, giving them “hands” with which to grip and stroke.

    OTHER NAMES for assigning human traits or feelings to nature or inanimate objects are pathetic fallacy and anthropomorphism. Examples from above are the wind’s grip and the sun’s fingers.

    Other relevant definitions

    TANGIBLE: Able to be experienced with the five senses.

    INTANGIBLE: The opposite of tangible. Similar in meaning to…

    ABSTRACT: Existing in the mind but having no physical reality.

    LITERAL: Physically actual. LITERALLY: In a literal sense.

    Dangling from the helicopter, Marcia was literally high as a kite.

    VIRTUALLY: Almost completely; for all practical purposes.

    In the storm, without a phone and miles from any neighbor, Lobelia was virtually cut off from civilization.

    FIGURATIVELY: In a manner of speaking; metaphorically.

    Mom was boiling mad (figuratively speaking, of course).

    NOTE: Contrast virtually and figuratively with literally.


    Assignment 15.1

    Henry VIII, 1491-1547, King of England 1509-1547

    Henry VIII, 1491-1547, King of England 1509-1547

    The story of King Henry VIII of England, below, illustrates the power of intangible ideas, emotions, and beliefs to produce tangible results. Using the Henry VIII story as model, create a similar illustration for one of the suggested topics, or choose your own — listing the relevant intangible ideas, emotions, or beliefs, and their tangible results.

    Suggested topics

    1. Adolph Hitler was a charismatic orator. During his rise to power, he spoke to mass audiences, exhorting them to cast off “the yoke of Jews and Communists” and build a new empire.

    2. Football commentator and former Oakland Raiders coach John Madden is famous for his fear of flying. He reportedly refuses to do commentary for the annual Pro Bowl in Hawaii. Several of Madden’s friends – members of the Cal Poly football team – were killed in a 1960 plane crash. This tragedy may help explain Madden’s phobia, though he continued to fly until he experienced a panic attack on a 1979 flight out of Tampa. Madden claims he’s not afraid of planes or heights but of being encased and unable to get out. He travels between assignments on a luxury bus, the Maddencruiser.

    3. One of Russian composer Igor Stravinsky’s greatest works is The Rite of Spring, which premiered in 1913 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. The Ballets Russes staged the performance, which was unlike anything the audience had ever seen or heard. Many were shocked by the intense rhythm, the pagan theme (featuring fertility rites), and the violent dancing. Before intermission, the work’s supporters and detractors began a noisy dispute, which quickly degenerated into a riot persisting throughout the performance, even after police intervened.

    4. Annie Sullivan (Anne Sullivan Macy) was born in Massachusetts in 1866. Her parents were illiterate Irish immigrants – her mother suffering from tuberculosis, her father an alcoholic. By the age of ten, Annie had lost her mother, her father had abandoned the family, her younger brother had died, and she had been sent to the state almshouse at Tewksbury. After four years there, Annie approached a visiting state inspector and asked permission to enroll in the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston.

    Helen Keller in 1905

    Helen Keller in 1905

    Though several operations at Tewksbury had failed to improve her vision, surgery in Boston was more successful. Extremely intelligent, she quickly learned to read, write, and use the manual alphabet.

    In 1886, an Alabama woman, Kate Keller, read Charles Dickens’s American Notes, which contained an account of the education of a child like her own Helen, who had been blind, deaf, and mute since she was nineteen months old. Mrs. Keller began a search for help for six-year-old Helen that led her to Perkins and Anne Sullivan.

    Annie spent most of the remainder of her life with Helen. Under Anne Sullivan’s determined but patient tutelage, the little girl’s education progressed astonishingly. At twenty-four, she graduated from Radcliffe College magna cum laude.

    Keller’s life is legendary for its achievements in literature, social reform, and other areas. President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964, four years before her death at eighty-eight.

    King Henry VIII of England: A Story of Pride, Fear, and Love

    When King Henry VIII of England married Catherine of Aragon, Roman Catholicism was virtually the only form of Christianity practiced in the realm. Though royals and nobles usually married for political reasons in the sixteenth century, Henry and Catherine apparently shared love and respect.

    But Henry wanted – believed he needed – a legitimate son to inherit England’s throne. Catherine bore him only one child, a girl. When Catherine’s childbearing years had all but ended, Henry fell in love with Anne Boleyn. She was young, beautiful, and passionate – and likely, Henry believed, to bear him a male heir. After almost twenty years of marriage to Catherine, Henry determined to divorce her and marry Anne.

    Edward VI was King of England from 1547 until 1553, when he died at the age of 15

    Edward VI was King of England from 1547 until 1553, when he died at the age of 15

    When the Pope refused to annul the marriage of Henry and Catherine, Henry broke with the Roman Catholic Church and established the Church of England with himself as its head. 2 By the time Henry married Anne, she was despised by almost everyone else. Numerous pregnancies produced but a single daughter, Elizabeth. Henry was easily persuaded that his wife was a witch, and he ordered her execution. He would marry four more times, but only one of his wives, Jane Seymour, gave him the male heir he desperately wanted, and Edward was a sickly child.

    What intangible ideas, emotions, and beliefs motivated Henry’s actions?

    Among Henry’s motives were

    • hubris (the pride that seemed to require a male heir; the arrogance that often comes with power)
    • love (of England and, for a time, of Anne Boleyn)
    • passion
    • fear (of dying and leaving England without a strong ruler)

    What were the physical, tangible consequences of Henry’s actions?

    Separation from the Catholic Church, and Henry’s penchant for having people beheaded, would lead to thousands of deaths in the ensuing decades. Monarchs were quick to execute “enemies of the throne.” Their armies died defending their sovereign’s right to the throne. And of course it was necessary to destroy “heretics,” Catholics or non-Catholics, depending on who was ruling at the time. Mary Tudor, Henry’s daughter with Catherine of Aragon, was a devout Roman Catholic whose unpopularity as queen made her desperate. Suspected heretics were tried, declared guilty, and either burned or hanged. London became a virtual forest of gallows, and the city reeked of rotting bodies.

    The reign of Mary’s half-sister, Elizabeth I, was much more enlightened and tolerant, but persecution resumed after Elizabeth’s death, when her Stuart cousins succeeded her. Religious intolerance at home stimulated English settlement along America’s east coast.

    Please send your assignment via e-mail to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. Your work will not be graded, but I will return it to you with comments.


    1 Courtesy of the Seventh Sanctum Evil-Sounding-Name Generator, seventhsanctum.com

    2 This is a gross oversimplification of a complex set of maneuvers involving years of “negotiations” with the Pope and other representatives of the Church. In the process, Henry had several people executed, including former allies and close friends. One was Sir Thomas More, Henry’s onetime adviser and secretary. The 1966 Academy Award-winning film A Man for All Seasons beautifully depicts this historic transformation of friendship into treachery.

    Next: Lesson 16, “Figuratively Speaking”