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Understanding Figurative Language in Poetry

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  • 0:01 Figurative or Literal Language
  • 1:43 Idioms
  • 2:35 Exaggeration
  • 4:13 Poetic Comparisons
  • 6:34 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jason Lineberger

Jason has 20 years of education experience including 14 years of teaching college literature.

Poetry is difficult to define, but there's one characteristic that most poems share - figurative language. In this lesson, you'll learn how to identify and draw inferences from figurative language.

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.

Idioms

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.

Exaggeration

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.

Poetic Comparisons

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.

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