What is figurative (as opposed to literal) language?
Figurative language says one thing but means another. However, figurative language does not intend to deceive. There is an expectation that figurative language will be understood and correctly interpreted by the listener or reader. We get the term “figure of speech” from figurative language.
In poetry, we frequently use figurative language, because it can be more meaningful, vivid, and expressive.
Let’s take a closer look at figurative language and how we can best use it in poetry writing.
Most clichés are figures of speech: He’s as old as the hills. She’s a diamond in the rough. I was scared to death. You have nerves of steel. All of these statements are clichés, and they’re composed with figurative language. He’s not really as old as the hills. She’s not really a diamond. I’m still here, so I couldn’t have been scared to death. And your nerves might be strong, but they’re not actually made of steel. None of these statements are meant to be taken literally.
We all know that it’s best to avoid stale clichés in writing, but fresh figurative language enhances our work. And whether it’s fresh or not, almost everyone uses figurative language, but why?
Here are just a few reasons figurative language is so effective:
- Figurative language adds dimension to our prose and poetry, allowing us to say things with more flair and color. Figurative language tends to be vivid, so it pops and comes alive in people’s imaginations.
- Figurative language allows us to say more in fewer words. We can often express an idea in a single sentence using figurative language, but it would take a full paragraph to communicate that same idea in literal terms.
- We often use figurative language in imagery (sensory details), making our language more sensuous and visceral.
- Figurative language engages our emotions. “He’s very old” simply doesn’t inspire the same emotional response as “He’s as old as the hills.”
- Figurative language allows us stronger or more intense expressions; this is commonly seen in the use of vulgarity, which is often used figuratively and to add intensity to an expression.
Literary Devices That Embody Figurative Language
Many literary devices, which are common in poetry, employ figurative language. Here are a few examples:
Metaphor: presenting one thing as something else, usually for demonstrative purposes: She’s a rock.
Personification: ascribing human qualities to nonhuman objects and animals. My computer is lazy.
Satire: criticism through humor, often using irony and overstatement. Jonathan Swift’s famous essay “A Modest Proposal” criticized the British treatment of the Irish by suggesting they cook and eat Irish infants, essentially saying, “We treat them so poorly, we might as well eat their babies.”
Simile: one thing is described as being like another thing. He’s like a bull.
Symbolism: something that represents something else and is used to enhance a theme, evoke emotion, or establish mood in a narrative.
Synecdoche: A type of metaphor in which a term that refers to one element of something is used to refer to the whole thing or vice versa. Synecdoche is often used for personification. An example of synecdoche is referring to businesspeople as suits or to a car as wheels.
Using Figurative Language in Poetry
One of the best ways to master figurative language in poetry is to study it. When you read poetry, look for figurative language. Use a highlighter, underlining, or make notes to identify figurative language that you find in the poems you read. Analyze and assess figurative expressions that you find. Are they clear? Effective? Compelling?
Among the many tidbits of advice that young and new writers often receive is to avoid clichés. This is especially true with figures of speech, which tend to be widely used and can sneak into our writing. A phrase that feels like an ordinary expression may actually be a worn-out cliché. Look for fresh ways of using figurative language to express your thoughts in poetry.
Practice using figurative language by reviewing your own poetry and looking for phrases and expressions that might work better in figurative terms. As an exercise, set a timer for ten minutes and come up with as many figurative expressions as you can to invigorate a line or phrase from your poem, and then use whichever one works best.
Questions and Discussion
Why is figurative language an effective tool for communication? How often do you use figurative language in your poetry? Do you ever catch yourself using clichés? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment, and keep using figurative language in poetry!