Poetry workshop: figurative language

One of my favourite quotes about poetry is by Paul Engle: Poetry is ordinary language raised to the nth power. Poetry is boned with ideas, nerved and blooded with emotions, all held together by the delicate, tough skin of words.

There are two ways of looking at the words in a poem. One is that every word must earn its place. This is why many poets revise by cutting and trimming – their focus is to hone the language until it says exactly what they want it to say. The second is to think of language as creating word pictures. Whatever you “see” or imagine in your head needs the full power of language to end up on the page in a way that allows your reader to “see” it, too.

NounsVerbsSome of the honing and revising will include:

  • strong and specific nouns and verbs – ash or maple instead of tree, bloodhound or wiry terrier instead of dog, saunter or trudge instead of walk, etc.
  • active voice – as soon as you find yourself using a lot of “to be” and “doing” verbs (the suffix –ing is a warning sign) you usually need to change these to active instead of passive, otherwise the poem starts to feel draggy and slow and vague
  • looking carefully at filler words – sometimes you need these for rhythm but often you don’t – and redundancies/tautologies, e.g. thinks to himself, most unique, short summary, small tiny speck, etc.

When it comes to powerful language, we’re talking about the figurative kind, using similes, metaphors and imagery. Similes directly compare two things with as or like, e.g. love is folded away in a drawer like something newly washed (Inland by Chase Twichell)

Similes can easily lapse into clichés if you settle for something familiar, such as time will tell, frightened to death, weak as a kitten. But it’s also possible to push your similes too far and create something that is bizarre or simply doesn’t gel with the subject of your poem. With practice, you’ll get a sense of what works!

Metaphors are implied comparisons or resemblances, with no as or like. When a whole poem is one extended metaphor, it’s called a conceit. Take a look at Winter Morning by William Jay Smith where the snowstorm is a white ship and in the morning it has left white bones.

There is also personification, where you can give an inanimate object a human quality, e.g. the heavy surface of the sea, swelling slowly as if considering spilling over (At the Fishhouses by Elizabeth Bishop )

If you’re not sure what imagery is, simply think of it as word pictures when you read poems – which words create the strongest images in your mind? How can you create your own? Be adventurous with language – yes, use the thesaurus. Sometimes it can suggest words you might never have thought of. I know some poets would scoff at this suggestion, and certainly reading a lot of poetry will improve your vocabulary, but our brains can be very haphazard filing cabinets at times, and a thesaurus can trigger many extra words and ideas for you.

Set yourself some short writing exercises to “oil the cogs”. Each day, choose one object or place or person and free write a description, getting as specific and detailed as you possibly can. It can be amazing to go out of your house and choose one square metre (or yard), then describe everything in that area. Try it and see how it extends you!

I also like to brainstorm alternatives as I write a first draft in my notebook – all the various other words that might be useful in my poem. They can go down the side of the poem or on the opposite page. That way, everything which came to mind in that first rush of words won’t be lost.

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