4.7 Understanding Figurative Language in Poetry
Figurative or Literal
One way to think about language is to see that it comes in two main categories: figurative and literal. Literal language is the use of words in the conventional manner, when words and phrases are used to convey their typical meaning. Horton, the elephant created by Dr. Seuss, sums up literal language when he states, ‘I meant what I said and I said what I meant.’ Literal language is easy to understand; what you see is what you get.
Figurative language, on the other hand, is the use of words to intentionally move away from their standard meaning. If I were to say, ‘At the end of the play Caesar kicks the bucket,’ I wouldn’t mean that Caesar had actually kicked a pail. I would mean that he died, because to ‘kick the bucket’ is a type of figurative language that uses those words to mean something beyond the literal. Since poetry’s life blood is figurative language (notice my own use of figurative language), poetry can be challenging for some readers. I’m going to show you some ways to make it easier.
When it comes to literary devices that fall into the category of figurative language, there are too many to list in this lesson. You have some common ones, like metaphor, and some rarer ones, like metonymy, but instead of examining each individual device, let’s look at big categories. Some figurative language offers comparisons, some uses expressions, and other figurative language exaggerates or understates a writer’s idea.
The quickest of these to grasp is the use of expressions, or idioms. Every language has idioms, which are phrases that cannot be translated literally. When my feuding friends buried the hatchet, they agreed to stop fighting. They didn’t actually inter a tool for chopping wood. If you hit one of these in a poem, the first thing you need to do is recognize that it’s an idiom. If the poem’s speaker says that he’s been ‘finding his footing,’ he probably means he’s figuring out the situation and gaining confidence.
Sometimes the use of idiom can help you place a poem or the speaker of a poem geographically. Phrases from my neck of the woods like ‘madder than a wet hen’ would place your poem in the south. And by the way, ‘neck of the woods’ – that’s also an idiom.
When I was a kid I loved mispronouncing the term hyperbole. A hyperbole is an exaggeration for effect. Every time I said ‘hyper bowl’ my teacher would go ballistic. Well, to be honest, she just got mildly irritated, so the last statement was an example of hyperbole. Listen to stand-up comedians; they rely on hyperbole to take ordinary situations and blow them out of proportion to make them funny.
The opposite type of exaggeration would be understatement. One particular variety of understatement is litotes, or using understatement for an ironic effect. If I said, ‘she’s not a bad basketball player,’ that would mean that she’s actually good. Or, ‘the hundred dollar bill I found was no small chunk of change,’ would mean that it actually is a nice amount of money.
When poets use these devices, they are understating or overstating to create an effect. If you’re taking AP literature, you’ve probably heard this a million times: ‘What is the effect on the reader?’ Keep asking yourself this question. How does it affect me, as the reader, when I see this understatement? What does that say about the speaker of the poem? Does the exaggeration add importance or make the moment comedic?
Once you spot the figurative language, take a moment to ask yourself these types of questions, and soon you’ll find your way to the poem’s meaning. By the way, that line about ‘you’ve heard this a million times’ was an example of hyperbole used to add emphasis.
The most common and important form of figurative language comes when poets compare one thing to another. The big three types of comparisons are metaphor, simile, and personification. Simile is a poetic comparison between unlike objects that incorporates the words ‘like’ or ‘as.’ That’s different from personification which is, a poetic comparison that gives human qualities to something nonhuman. But the most important comparison, for poetry, is metaphor. That’s a type of analogy that compares two unlike objects with one another.
Here’s the thing to consider in all of these comparisons. The writer has chosen the items used in the comparison very carefully. These items carry a wealth of meaning. If you’re reading a poem for the AP test and you see a metaphor, make a note in the margin of the most obvious meaning. Finish reading the poem and come back to the metaphor and add at least one more idea. You should be able to add multiple meanings because figurative comparisons are complex. Not only will this give you more to write about in your essay, but you’ll show that you understand the layers of meaning, which is something that the best essays contain. Trust me – I grade this exam!
Here’s an example from a famous source, William Shakespeare. ‘All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players…’ First, what is the subject of the comparison? In this case it’s the world. Next, what is the image used to bring out the ideas in the metaphor? From our example, the image is a theater stage. Then ask, if life is a theater stage, what does that imply about life? It might mean that, like actors on a stage, our lives are scripted out for us by a higher power. It might also mean that, if we’re actors, we put on a face for others to see and don’t show our true selves. The metaphor may also mean that, like actors in Shakespeare’s time, we play many different roles in our lives. The first meaning came easy, but I had to push myself a little to get the second and third interpretations. In the end, I can see the richness of this metaphor. That’s key to having a bank of ideas for that challenging poetry analysis essay you’ll have to write.
Language can be divided into literal or figurative. Literal language is straightforward, while figurative language is unconventional. Figurative language in poetry might appear in the form of idioms, which are phrases that cannot be translated literally. It might also appear as exaggeration or understatement. In either case, the technique involves identifying the figurative language and then reflecting on how that affects the reader or what that might reveal about the speaker of the poem.
The most common and powerful form of figurative language is the poetic comparison. These comparisons can be similes, personification, or metaphor. There is a technique that’s useful for inferring meaning from a comparison. First, figure out the subject of the comparison. Next, find the image that’s being used to bring out ideas about the subject. Write down the first meaning that comes to mind, then read the rest of the poem. Once you’re done, return to the comparison and jot down at least one more idea. The more ideas you generate, the easier it will be to show the depth of understanding that is indicative of the best writers on the AP literature test.
Now that you have finished this lesson, you should be able to:
- Compare literal and figurative language
- Recall what idioms are
- Explain how exaggeration is used in poetry
- Identify and describe the types of poetic comparisons
- Describe a technique for inferring meaning from poetic comparisons