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Writing Free Verse Poetry: Poetic Devices of Comparison

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Dave Hood

Poets use various poetic devices or figures of speech to make comparisons. These figures of speech are intended to enhance understanding, to entertain, to add deeper meaning, and to enrich the quality of a poem. These figures of speech are also used by writers in other forms of creative writing, such as short fiction, novel writing, personal essay, and memoir writing.

In this post, I’ll explain how to use the poetic devices of comparison. The following will be covered:

  • Simile
  • Metaphor
  • Symbol
  • Synecdoche
  • Metonymy
  • Personification
  • Allusion

Simile

It is a poetic device or figure of speech in which the poet uses “like” or “as” to compare one thing to  some other thing. The things compared must be unlike each other. The purpose of a simile is to add meaning and understanding. A good simile also makes a poem pleasurable to read. It can turn a dull poem into something memorable. For instance, Robert Frost wrote” the attic wasps went missing by like bullets.” Here are a few other examples:

  • The neighborhood is like a ghost town.
  • The sick man looks like a corpse.
  • You are free as a gold-fish in an aquarium.
  • He writes as if possessed by a demon.
  • She strolls down the beach like a model on a runway in a fashion show.
  • The truck is rusty as a wreck in the scrap yard.

Metaphor

It is a poetic device or figure of speech in which the poet suggests the one thing is another. The poet does not use “like” or “as” to make the comparison between two different things. Often the word “is” or “of” is used to make the comparison.

A poet can create an explicit metaphor by directly suggesting that one thing is another. Example: He is a shark. She is a black widow spider. (A is B) Or the poet can make an implied metaphor by comparing one thing to another using the attributes of the object, such as adjectives or verbs associated with it. Example: He sailed down the highway in his new corvette. (Comparison to a sailboat) She cut him with her claws. (comparison to an animal)

The purpose of a an explicit or implied metaphor is to entertain the reader, to help the reader understand, to add deeper meaning to a poem.

Examples:

  • The running back is a tank.
  • The old man is a walking corpse
  • The house is a mausoleum.
  • Place of grief
  • Sea of death
  • Dinner of gratitude
  • Gift of pleasure
  • Lust is a drug
  • Teeth of the wind
  • Mouth of a river

Poets must avoid using dead metaphors. These are metaphors that have been used so often that they’ve lost their originality and effectiveness. The comparison has taken on a new meaning of expression —and is often viewed as a cliché. Examples of dead metaphors include:

  • Seeds of doubt
  • Fishing for compliments
  • Grasp the idea

Poets must also avoid creating mixed metaphors. A poet creates a mixed metaphor when one thing is compared to two different things in the same metaphor. A few ludicrous examples include:

  • I can see the light at the end of the rainbow.
  • I make my goal to shake every hand that walks in the door.
  • I am bone empty.

Symbol

It is a poetic device in which the poet an image to represent something other than its literal meaning or dictionary meaning. A symbol is usually a physical object used to represent some abstract idea. For instance, a  rose can be a symbol of beauty. A dove can be a symbol of peace. The cross can be a symbol of Christianity, faith, Jesus. The lion is a symbol of courage. The gun is a symbol of violence.

Poets use well-established symbols in their poetry, such as darkness for ignorance or light for knowledge.  Many poets also create their own symbols and then use them in a poem.

Not all images are intended to be symbolic. Sometimes a gun is just a gun, or a clock is just a clock.  It is up to the reader to analyze and then identify the symbol in the poem. For instance, a poet might make reference to a ticking clock in his poem. The purpose of the clock might be to symbolize the passage of time.

Synecdoche

It is a poetic device or figure of speech in which the poet makes reference to the “part of something” instead of its whole, and this part is used to represent the whole.

Examples:

  • Skates sail up the ice. (Instead of writing “The hockey player sails up the ice.”)
  • The teenager purchased a “set of wheels.” (Instead of writing “The teenager purchased a car.”
  • All hands on deck (Instead of writing “All sailors on deck.”)

Metonymy

It is a poetic device or figure of speech in which one thing closely associated with another thing is used as a substitution. Frances Mayes, author of The Discovery of Poetry, states that a metonymy is ” an identifying emblem” substituted for the whole name. In other words, an associated quality or name or emblem,  which is not part of the whole, is substituted.

Examples:

  • Crown instead of monarchy
  • White House instead of President and Staff
  • Habs instead of Montreal Canadians
  • Leafs instead of Toronto Maple Leafs
  • Broncos instead of Denver Broncos

Personification

It is a poetic device or figure of speech in which the poet assigns human characteristics or human attributes to nonhuman things, such as ideas, concepts, places, objects, animals. The purpose of personification is to add deeper meaning, to entertain, to describe.

Examples:

  • Death comes knocking
  • Love arrives unexpectedly
  • Old Man Winter
  • Lady Luck
  • Jack Frost
  • April turns on the shower
  • The maple trees stood in silence
  • The walls stare back and talk nonsense
  • The wind whispers through a crack

Allusion

It is a poetic device or figure of speech  in which the poet makes reference to another person, event, art, history, religion, literature, mythology, or some aspect of popular culture. An allusion can also be a statement or quotation made by a famous or public person. An allusion can also be a line from a poem. Popular types of allusions  in poetry are biblical allusions, literary allusions, and mythical allusions. The purpose of allusion is to provide additional meaning. For the allusion to be effective, the reader must have knowledge of what the poet is alluding to. Example: The painting reminds/ of Picasso’s Cubism..f

T.S. Eliot often used allusion in many of his poems. For instance, in The Wasteland, he includes “I remember/those are the pearls that were his eyes…,” a reference to Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

To master the art and craft of  writing poetry,  you must learn the poetic devices of comparison, such as simile, metaphor, and symbol. Once you`ve learned these poetic devices, you can use them to write powerful, entertaining, memorable poems.

Resources

For more information on simile, metaphor, symbol, synecdoche, metonymy, personification, allusion, read the following:

  • Good Poems for Hard Times by Garrison Keillor
  • The Poets Companion by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux
  • The Discovery of Poetry by Frances Mayes
  • Western Wind by David Mason and John Frederick Nims
  • Creating Poetry by John Drury
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