Learning about Figurative Language
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Just how is the sky like a patient etherized upon a table? If two roads diverged in a wood, why should I care?
Why can’t poets just say what they mean? You’ve probably heard this before, either in the classroom or outside of it. Perhaps you’ve even said it yourself, after wrestling with a particularly difficult poem. It sounds like a simple request for clarity, but the question points out a number of assumptions about how we communicate, not just as poets but as people. It shows a preference for plain, matter-of-fact speech, and it suggests that all the figurative language poets are so fond of—metaphor, simile, and more—is just too frilly and flashy. But in real life, figurative language is everywhere, and we never say what we mean completely, because language often fails us. For instance, every time we try to tell people how much we love them—like, really really love them—the words seem woefully inadequate to the task. Not only that, we can sense they’ve been said before countless times by countless others. They aren’t really doing the job. We want to express our feelings as originally as possible, in order to give them the power in words that we feel in ourselves. And that’s where figurative language can help.
All that frill and flash that we often find in poetry is actually something you’re already quite experienced with. We constantly hear metaphors and similes in pop songs, and our everyday speech is peppered with figurative language. In fact, we are so dependent on it to express ourselves that someone who didn’t employ it would seem quite strange. Science fiction is full of characters who can’t or won’t engage with figurative language. Star Trek’s Mr. Spock and Data are both very literal speakers who serve to highlight the humanity of those around them. More recently, in the movie Guardians of the Galaxy, Drax the Destroyer has a little problem with metaphors; Rocket Raccoon says, “Metaphors go over his [Drax’s] head,” to which Drax replies, “Nothing goes over my head! My reflexes are too fast; I would catch it.” This line gets a laugh because figurative language is so integral to how we communicate as humans. Without figurative language, we are robotic outsiders of human experience.
You use and understand figurative language constantly in your everyday conversation, without even thinking about it. For instance, if something terribly embarrassing happened to you, such as talking to your crush with a piece of spinach plastered to your front teeth, you might say to a friend, “I can’t even.” This is aposiopesis, a figure of speech where you deliberately leave your thought unfinished. You depend on your listener or reader to fill in the blanks. It’s a great way to show just how speechless you are. Your friend replies, “Yeah, you’re the most elegant,” which is an example of sarcasm: there’s a big gap between what he’s saying and what he means. “Not to mention everyone in school saw it, too,” continues your friend, who might be a jerk. This is paraleipsis; your friend is feigning wanting to say nothing about your very public humiliation, and in doing so is drawing your attention to it. You sigh and cover your face with your hands, saying, “I died. I just died.” That’s hyperbole, which is when we exaggerate. Your friend, a recognizer of figurative language, knows you haven’t kicked the bucket (another figurative phrase!). These are only some of the ways we use figurative language in our everyday speech, and when you’re attuned to how pervasive it is, you’ll notice how difficult it can be to not use figurative language.
When we think of figurative language, we almost always think of metaphors and similes, so these are the two techniques we will focus on. They are the stars of figurative language. Both are comparisons, but a metaphor is more like an equation (“I’m a steamroller, baby”), whereas a simile uses “like” or “as” or “than” to create the connection (“rock you like a hurricane”). They are ultimately very similar, though to my mind, a metaphor asks more of a reader. Because a metaphor equates two dissimilar things (me, steamroller), it demands a leap of faith on the reader’s part. A simile, on the other hand, implicitly acknowledges that the comparison is not equal (I’m like a steamroller, but I’m not one, really). For this reason, a metaphor is just a touch riskier, and the payoff greater.
Metaphors and similes have two parts. There’s the tenor (the original subject we’re trying to describe) and the vehicle (the compared object we’re borrowing qualities from). So if we look at Robert Burns’s poem “A Red, Red Rose,” we see “O my Luve is like a red, red rose.” Love would be the tenor (subject) and rose would be the vehicle (object). Metaphors and similes work only when they illuminate, that is, when they help us better understand or see something by way of comparison. They should feel both apt and surprising—a hard balance! If the tenor and the vehicle seem too similar, the comparison won’t be surprising or illuminating for the reader. You really want to compare apples to oranges, not Fuji apples to McIntoshes. Or, better yet, try comparing apples to baby birds.
Let’s say you were to write, “The coffin was a dark shroud. ” Since both coffins and shrouds are items that cover the dead, “shroud” doesn’t take us very far afield here, and my idea of the coffin hasn’t changed much after reading this comparison. But if you were to write, “The coffin was a black boat,” then your reader might be a little more surprised. Firstly, it seems like an apt comparison—both coffins and boats are containers of sorts. Secondly, a boat introduces the idea of travel or conveyance, and that idea is reflected back onto the subject, the coffin. The idea of an afterlife, or of a transition from life to death, has been introduced. We now know more about the coffin than we did before, and we’re thinking about it in fresh ways.
Your metaphors should contain all the information your reader needs, and no more. Learning how to judge this takes time and experience. When we are evaluating our metaphors or similes, we want to consider not only what’s most apt (coffin/shroud vs. coffin/boat) but what’s important. For instance, let’s look at these lines:
their dreams as bruised as apples
fallen in the orchard, late September,
no one caring to pick them up.
What’s important here? Dreams bruised like apples, clearly. Something that should be nourishing and sweet has been damaged. The orchard is also important, because it adds context and lets us know that these apples were intended for use, not just growing wild. Since the apples were never harvested, there’s an idea of waste or neglect evoked here. This adds further nuance to the metaphor.
I’m putting a lot of stress here on picking the right metaphor and how best to present it, but my intent isn’t to discourage you. Whether a metaphor works in a poem can’t be judged until you try, and the exercises I’m suggesting at the end of this piece will encourage you to experiment. But a lot of the figurative language that immediately springs to mind when we think of something like “love,” for instance, comes not only from cultural traditions but also from the commercial sector. When you compare your love to a flower, you’re channeling not just Robert Burns but also FTD and Hallmark. By thinking about how to balance aptness and surprise, and considering your metaphor’s true focus, you can avoid relying on clichés.
If someone says, “I felt angry” to you, you really have only a broad understanding of that emotion. You can draw on your own experiences with anger, but what if you’ve never had cause to be as angry as this person? Or what if this person is using the word “angry” when really they mean something more like “miffed”? But if that person were to say, “I felt like someone had set me on fire,” then you’d not only have a much better idea of just how angry he or she is, but better understand the person’s feelings of helplessness, hurt, and lingering pain. This is the real gift figurative language gives us—it allows us to better understand someone else’s experience even if our own experience doesn’t directly match up.
Here are some exercises to help you practice using figurative language. Some of these are based in play, and some are more serious. Both are necessary. Experiment, then evaluate and see what you have!
1. First, let’s warm up our engines. The following exercise, “Metaphor Mad-Libs,” is a great way to start thinking about metaphors without worrying too much about the result! Fill out these sentences and let your creativity loose.
My date danced like a __________________ (animal)
________________ (verbing) on a ______________ (noun).
The rain pelts my skin like a _________________(noun/person)
________________ (verbing) a/his/her ______________ (noun).
The world is a _____________________ (noun) trying to
_______________________ (verb phrase).
Romantic comedies are the ____________________ (noun)
of the _______________________ (noun).
The wind ___________________ (verbed) like a
________________ (noun) ____________________ (verbing)
a ___________________ (noun).
Love me as much as a ___________________ (profession)
loves to _________________ (verb/phrase).
Now that you’ve filled these out, go back and see if any of them strike you as particularly apt or funny. Pick one and see if you can write a poem using that as the first line.
By filling in the blanks and giving yourself permission to temporarily abandon what “makes sense,” you may find yourself writing wilder, zanier poems. Many contemporary poems use figurative language in a similarly freewheeling way. You might check out James Tate’s “Poem to Some of My Recent Poems” or Lucy Brock-Broido’s “Meditation on the Catastrophic Imagination” and think about how their figurative language serves as a counterpoint or complement to their thematic concerns. In Wendy Xu’s “And Then It Was Less Bleak Because We Said So,” for example, ecstatic figurative language such as “Your confetti tongue explodes / into acid jazz” gradually gives way to a more melancholy tone.
2. The poet Cathy Smith Bowers suggests taking a look at Pablo Neruda’s odes, and using one as a model for your own poem. Neruda wrote many odes to inanimate objects. For example, in “Ode to a Large Tuna in the Market,” he describes the fish as a “torpedo / from the ocean / depths, / a missile” that is now a “solitary man of war / among these frail vegetables” of the market. Read the entire poem a few times, then go through and circle all the places you see metaphors, similes, or other forms of figurative language. You’ll find there are quite a lot! Neruda’s figurative language and wide-ranging imagination let us see the fish vividly as it was in life, making the acknowledgment of the fish’s death all the more affecting. Now, with Neruda as inspiration, try to write your own ode to an inanimate object, using figurative language to bring it to life.
3. This last exercise, from the poet Jacques Rancourt, focuses a bit more on the image in general, but it will still require you to think about metaphor and/or simile. Take a look at the poem “To Absence,” by W.S. Merwin. What images does Merwin use to evoke the idea of absence, without directly invoking it in the poem? Then choose one of these seven abstractions: love, despair, innocence, loneliness, joy, truth, or trust. Take a few minutes to brainstorm imagery for each one. Let your imagination run wild and weird—maybe “innocence” makes you think of two Siberian tigers sleeping in the rain!—but try to avoid overused images (such as a rose for love). The images don’t have to make sense yet; trust your mind’s weirdness. Now go through your lists of images and pick the one that really strikes you as surprising, strange, and interesting. Write a poem exploring that image, but do not mention the inspiring abstraction (or any other abstractions) in your poem. Instead, use the abstraction as a title, as Merwin does.
There are many kinds of figurative language in addition to the ones I’ve concentrated on here. Once you become more comfortable with metaphor and simile, try branching out into other techniques, which you can find explained in our Glossary of Poetic Terms. You might find personification a useful tool, or metonymy and synecdoche. You might also consider the figures of speech that concentrate less on meaning and more on word order, such as anaphora, antithesis, and chiasmus. I hope these exercises help you see that when we use figurative language, we may not be saying what we mean literally, but we are putting meaning into what we say.
Rebecca Hazelton is the author of Fair Copy (2012), winner of the Ohio State University Press/The Journal Award in Poetry, and Vow (2013), from Cleveland State University Poetry Center. She was the 2010-11 Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellow at the University of Wisconsin, Madison's Creative Writing Institute; and winner of the “Discovery”/Boston...