Poetic Devices—Figurative Language
Poetry Alive: Reflections
Larry Liffiton and John McAllister (ed.) Format: book
Canadian Writer's Companion
Luengo, Anthony Format: book
Completing this lesson will help you to:
You have learned about the use of imagery and symbolism, poetic
devices that help make poems more interesting and meaningful for
their readers. In this lesson you will look at figurative language,
another device poets can use to vividly express their ideas.
When you want to explain something to another person, it often helps
to compare the new thing to something that the person is familiar
with. This is basically what poets do when they use figurative language.
The difference is that a poet is likely to use surprising combinations
that make the reader see familiar things in new ways.
Figurative language (sometimes called metaphorical language)
uses images that cannot be taken literally, i.e.,
abstract ideas. However, this technique usually works best when the
comparisons are based on accurate and realistic details.
Your text, Canadian Writer's Companion, p. 107-108, summarizes
the most common types of figurative language. Read the definitions of
metaphor, simile, personification, and hyperbole, then carry on with
the lesson, which will further explain the ideas presented in your text.
A metaphor is an implicit comparison between two unlike things that
have a common likeness. By using a metaphor, the poet generally
suggests that one thing is another thing. It is a comparison that is
suggested or implied rather than stated. Metaphors are often used in
slang. For example, "He's a nut" and "She's an angel" are metaphors.
The poet needs a great number of metaphors, because if ideas are
expressed literally, most of the imaginative appeal is lost. Remember
that one of the reasons for writing poetry rather than prose is it
generally allows the writer more scope for imagination.
Metaphors are never absolutely true. For example, when we say, "That
little boy is a devil," we know that we are only making a comparison.
In "Letter to My Mother" the narrator describes the actions of the boy
they have been teasing:
By referring to the children who are doing the teasing as "jays," the
poet wants you to see them as birds that will attack in groups. The boy
who is being teased is called a "rodent," and, by extension, his house
becomes a "nest."
A simile is an explicit comparison between two things that are not the
same, but which have a certain similarity that the poet wishes to point
out. A simile uses the word like or as to make the comparison. For
example, in "Coaster-Waggon on Indian Grove," the narrator
compares the way he is feeling to the wobbling and spinning of a top:
The phrase "like a top" compares the whirling world to the motion of
a spinning top. Your clue that this is a simile and not a metaphor is the
Here are some more examples of similes:
To be effective, similes must not be too far-fetched, neither must they
be too obvious. Saying that "the world is as round as a ball" is as weak
as "You are sweet as sugar." Similes that are too commonly used, such
as "hair like spun gold," "cold as ice," "black as coal," "fatter than a
pig," and so on are called cliches. In your writing, avoid cliches and
aim for fresh, original images.
Comparative examples of similes and metaphors:
Personification is a type of metaphor. Personification gives human
parts or qualities to an inanimate (lifeless) object or abstract idea. It
lends vitality to poetry and permits the poet to give emotions to
In the following examples of personification, the words that give
The rain obviously does not have hands and day cannot stand on its
tiptoe, but using personification creates more vivid images and gives
the rain and the day character and personality.
Hyperbole is a figure of speech based on exaggeration. It can be an
effective method to attract attention, emphasize a point, or create an
effect. For example, when your teacher says, "I've told you a million
times to put your name on your assignments," you have not really
been told a million times. But the exaggeration is much more effective
at portraying the teacher's frustration than if he or she actually counted
the number of times you had been told and said, "I have told you
seventeen times to put your name on your assignments."
Identify the devices or figures of speech in the following quotations.
There may be more than one device in a quotation, but you are only