Saturday, 31 October 2009

Figures of Speech in Poetry

Anyone studying English Language and Literature has to be able to analyse poetry, and recognising figures of speech and being able to quote them and comment on them will make any essay more impressive. There again, actually using them yourself in creative writing or descriptive writing brings your work alive and gives it an extra dimension. Various figures of speech are explained here; the examples quoted are from the AQA Anthology for GCSE English Language and Literature (Specification A) for 2005 onwards. (The book is published by Oxford University Press but is only distributed in secondary schools; copies can sometimes be found on Ebay.)



Alliteration is the repetition of consonants, usually at the beginnings of words in close succession.

Nissim Ezekiel uses this device in his poem 'Night of the Scorpion' in which the phrases 'stung by a scorpion' 'parting with his poison' describe his memory of the evening his mother was the victim of a scorpion's sting but thanked God it had chosen her and not her children. The 'drizzle of one despondent dawn' sets a dismal tone at the beginning of Nigerian poet Chinua Achebe's 'Vultures'.

Moniza Alvi uses alliteration in her poem 'Presents from my Aunts in Pakistan' which expresses her confusion at being of mixed nationality and not fully belonging anywhere. After moving to England, she hears of the conflict in Pakistan, which she describes as 'a fractured land/throbbing through newsprint'.

In her poem 'Anne Hathaway', Carol Ann Duffy imagines how Shakespeare's wife would have thought of him as 'My living laughing love'. Simon Armitage picks a more up-to-date character in 'Kid', where the narrator, Batman's sidekick Robin, has finally grown up and says Batman has 'let me loose to wander/leeward, freely'.

A very different atmosphere is created by alliteration in Walt Whitman's poem 'Patrolling Barnegat' describing a storm at sea: 'On beachy slush and sand spirts of snow fierce slanting'. Still threatening, but in a very different way, is Robert Browning's female narrator in 'The Laboratory', describing in minute detail the process as she mixes a poisonous potion to inflict upon her lover's new-found mistress: 'moisten and mash up thy paste,/Pound at thy powder'. A more majestic picture is created by Alfred Tennyson in his brief poem 'The Eagle': 'He clasps the crag with crooked hands;/Close to the sun in lonely lands'.



This is the repetition of vowel sounds in words.

Seamus Heaney shows himself to be a grand master of assonance in his poem 'Death of a Naturalist' where he describes how 'gross-bellied frogs were cocked on sods'. The more poignant 'Mid-Term Break' tells how he was brought home from boarding school following the death of his four-year-old brother in a road accident. Waiting for neighbours to collect him from school, he hears 'bells knelling'; on the morning of the funeral he sees the body 'stanched and bandaged' and notices the bruise on the left temple.

In a similar vein, Gillian Clarke's 'Cold Knap Lake' recounts how a drowning child is pulled from the lake. She describes the murky depths of the water 'after the treading, heavy webs of swans' that she feels may hide other disturbing memories.

On a lighter note, John Clare's 'Sonnet' describes the delights of nature in summer 'Where reed clumps rustle like a wind shook wood': notice that here he is also using alliteration and a simile, so be on the lookout for descriptions that combine more than one figure of speech.



Contrast is the juxtaposition of opposites to create a striking effect.

Tatamkhulu Afrika's poem 'Nothing's Changed' deals with the idea that South Africa remained as it was even after black people were accorded the same rights as white people. He shows this by describing an 'up-market, haute cuisine' 'whites only inn' where he presses his nose up against the window to see 'crushed ice white glass,/linen falls,/the single rose' inside. In contrast, the black Africans have to go to a cheap 'working man's cafe' that 'sells/bunny chows..... eat/it at a plastic table's top'. He describes how the workers here instinctively wipe their fingers on their jeans, then 'spit a little on the floor'.

But is the USA very different? Lawrence Ferlinghetti's 'Two Scavengers in a Truck, Two Beautiful People in a Mercedes' is set in San Francisco. Stuck in a traffic jam at a red light, he focuses on the juxtaposition of a garbage truck and its two occupants and a Mercedes in which are seated an architect and a 'young blond woman': 'two garbagemen in red plastic blazers..... looking down into/an elegant open Mercedes/with an elegant couple in it'. In the closing stanza Ferlinghetti imagines that anything could have happened in that short space of time that brought these people so close together: 'and the very red light for an instant/holding all four close together/as if anything at all were possible/between them'.



A metaphor compares something to something else by saying it IS something else or DOES something else, as in the line from the song 'I've got you under my skin': you cannot literally be under someone else's skin. The English cricketer Fred Truman once famously said 'I don't use metaphors. I don't like to beat about the bush,' which of course is itself a metaphor.

Simon Armitage's poem that begins 'Mother, any distance greater than a single span' recounts how his mother came to help him measure up a house he was moving into, but the entire poem appears to be a metaphor for his changing relationship with his mother as he grows up and becomes independent. She stays downstairs, firmly grasping the 'zero-end' of the spool of tape, while he climbs the stairs with the tape, 'unreeling years between us', seeing his mother as an 'anchor' and himself as a 'kite', gaining his freedom but not breaking the bond.

The poem 'Search for my Tongue' by Sujata Bhatt also uses an extended metaphor (over the course of several lines of the poem) to express the idea that her mother tongue insists on making its presence felt, and seems to grow like a plant: 'the bud opens, ..... it blossoms out of my mouth.'

'Catrin' by Gillian Clarke expresses the desire of both mother and child to establish their separate identities. At the time of birth, the umbilical cord is described by the metaphor 'the tight/red rope of love' that mother and baby are fighting over.

In 'Anne Hathaway' Carol Ann Duffy imagines that Shakespeare's wife felt that the nights she spent with her husband took her to a world of fantasy: 'My lover's words were shooting stars which fell to earth as kisses to these lips' skilfully combines both metaphor and simile in one image.

In a far less magical vein, Charles Tichbourne wrote 'Tichbourne's Elegy' in the Tower of London in 1586 before his execution. He was still young at the time, and the poem contains a number of metaphors expressing his regret that he will not be able to live out the course of his life:

'My fruit is fallen, and yet my leaves are green;

...My thread is cut, and yet it is not spun.'



Although a long word and a difficult one to spell, it can often be something as short as: pop! Onomatopoeia means using a word that actually sounds like the sound it is describing.

Several of Seamus Heaney's poems portray his admiration for his father and grandfather, who both farmed the land. Remembering his grandfather cutting turf in the poem 'Digging', Heaney decribes the sound as 'the squelch and slap of soggy peat'.

Gillian Clarke's 'Baby-sitting' is an honest expression of the lack of a bond between herself and the baby she is looking after. She describes the sounds of the sleeping infant as 'a snuffly/roseate, bubbling sleep;' and we can just imagine the little sounds she is hearing.

In 'We Remember Your Childhood Well', Carol Ann Duffy constructs' a scene where adults are answering what are apparently the accusations of their child, now grown up. 'Call back the sound of their voices. Boom. Boom. Boom.'



Not as common as some other figures or speech, an oxymoron puts two complete opposites together in the same phrase.

Carol Ann Duffy's poem 'Havisham' centres on the elderly Miss Havisham of Charles Dickens's novel 'Great Expectations'. Jilted on her wedding day, she was never able to forgive or forget the gentleman in question. The opening line of Duffy's poem refers to him as her 'Beloved sweetheart bastard'. Towards the end of the poem the oxymoron 'Love's/hate behind a white veil' shows the close link between the two extreme emotions.



Personification involves giving things the characteristics of people.

Seamus Heaney's 'Death of a Naturalist' is one of the most descriptive poems in the anthology; he sets the scene at a dam where 'Bubbles gargled delicately' and the flax rotted under 'the punishing sun'.

John Agard's poem 'Half-Caste' written in non-standard English, uses vivid imagery to express his frustration at the attitude people have towards him because of his mixed nationality. He uses personification to describe the persistance of heavy clouds in Britain: 'some o dem cloud..... so spiteful dem dont want de sun pass ah rass'. (Some of those clouds are so spiteful they don't want the sun to pass over us.)

In a celebration of freedom from the routine of daily life, kitchen utensils as well as vegetables are personified in 'This Room' by Imtiaz Dharker: 'Pots and pans... clang/past the crowd of garlic, onions, spices,/fly by the ceiling fan.'

Simon Armitage's poem 'Hitcher' describes the violent reaction of an anti-social driver who picks up a hitch-hiker that seems to have the freedom he fiercely covets. After attacking him and throwing him out of his car, the narrator remembers how the hitcher 'said he liked the breeze/to run its fingers/through his hair.'



A simile is a way of comparing one thing to another using either 'like' or 'as'.

'The flung spray..... spits like a tame cat/Turned savage' describes the ferocity of the wind lashing at the sea in Seamus Heaney's 'Storm on the Island'. The same poet deals with childhood memories in 'Blackberry Picking' where he remembers the taste of the season's first blackberyy: 'its flesh was sweet like thickened wine'.

A more majestic picture of nature is given in Alfred Tennyson's 'The Eagle'; the bird of prey stands on a mountain top and then suddenly 'like a thunderbolt he falls', swooping down on the prey he has been watching. John Clare shows his admiration of nature in summer in his 'Sonnet': 'reed clumps rustle like wind shook wood', where he combines alliteration and assonance with his simile.

'The skin cracks like a pod' describes the effect of drought in an Indian village in the poem 'Blessing' by Imtiaz Dharker, whereupon a pipe bursts and adults and children alike come running to collect the precious water.

'A salwar kameez..... glistening like an orange split open' describes the brilliant colour of the traditional Pakistani clothes sent to her in England in Moniza Alvi's 'Presents from my Aunts in Pakistan'.

'Labourers swarm..... like crows attacking crow-black fields' focuses on the crowds of field-workers in Seamus Heaney's 'At a Potato Digging'. In contrast 'but God, ever nigh,/Appeared like his father in white' to rescue a child whose father had left him behind whilst walking home in the dark in 'The Little boy Found' by William Blake.

In 'Sonnet 130' William Shakespeare uses a simile in the opposite way when he says 'My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;' and yet he values her love above everything.


The work of these poets is of course published in other collections besides the GCSE Anthology mentioned in my introduction. Faber & Faber Ltd publish the work of Seamus Heaney and that of Simon Armitage, whilst Carol Ann Duffy's poetry is published by Macmillan. Gillian Clarke is published by Carcanet Press Ltd.

Analysing poetry obviously involves more than just discussing figures of speech; style, structure, rhythm, and rhyme are all important. Being able to recognise figures of speech will, however, help in understanding the imagery and meaning of a poem and encourage students perhaps to use figurative language in their own writing.

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