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poetry studies figurative language

Poetry StudiesFigurative Language

ELACCL9-10RL4: Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the cumulative impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone (e.g., how the language evokes a sense of time and place; how it sets a formal or informal tone.)


Definition: Personification means giving human traits to nonhuman or abstract things.

Example: "The Wind" by James Stephens

The moon smiles. Fires rage. 

The wind vexes the lake and the waves crash angrily.

The wind stood up, and gave a shout; He whistled on his fingers, and  

Kicked the withered leaves about, And thumped the branches with his hand,

And said he'd kill, and kill, and kill; And so he will!  And so he will!

Stephens' poem personifies the wind as a cruel, abusive man.  Though he never says directly that the wind is a man, it is apparent through his word choice, and the actions that he attributes to the wind (standing, shouting, whistling, speaking, etc).

personification tasks
Personification tasks

Write an 8-line “Personification Poem” about an object. This means you need to give human characteristics to something that is inanimate (not human). You might write about a concrete subject (such as a flower, the ocean, your skateboard, etc.) or an abstract subject (time, mathematics, a feeling, a concept, etc.)

Consider these questions when creating your poem:

  • What is most important about the object you’ve chosen?
  • What human thoughts and feelings might this object have? What words or descriptions show this?
  • Which of the object’s characteristics stand out the most? Consider: Size, Speed, Sound (pitch, quality, and volume), Appearance (color, shape, texture), Motives (what does this subject want or need?), Emotions, Thoughts

Fill your poem with exciting and vivid personification. (For example, consider this line from “The Banana Tree”: “The invisible hand of the wind tugged, pushed, and forcefully restrained him.”)


Definition: Imagery draws the reader into poetic experiences by touching on the images and senses which the reader already knows. Any description alluding to one of the five senses: taste, touch, sight, smell, sound.


Visual (seeing) imagery -     From "The Widow's Lament in Springtime" by William Carlos Williams

masses of flowers

                   load the cherry branches

                  and color some bushes

yellow and some red...

Auditory (hearing) imagery -    From "Dover Beach" by Matthew Arnold                            "Listen! You hear the grating roar                            Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,                            At their return, up the high strand,                            Begin, and cease, and then again begin,                            With tremulous cadence slow, and bring                            The eternal note of sadness in." 

imagery tasks
Imagery tasks

In the form of a 10-line poem, answer one of the following prompts.

1. Without using the words “blue” or “cloud”, describe the sky. 

2. Describe the emotion of fear without using a really scary story as an example.

3. Describe your favorite music to someone who cannot hear.

4. Tell someone you love him or her without speaking of touching them or giving them anything.


Definition: A metaphor is a pattern equating two seemingly unlike objects.


drowning in debt; table leg; old flame; chains of poverty; your cheeks are red cherries

With regard to "table leg," we all have experience with legs, so in calling the thing that supports a table a "leg," we know immediately that it is long, thin, straight, and that it holds the table up, just as a leg holds up a body.

"Old flame," on the other hand, reflects an emotional knowledge -- the way we experience love as a burning sensation, or a kind of heat. (And, in fact, many of our metaphors about love involve the idea of heat: someone's eyes might "smolder;" Johnny Cash sang of a "ring of fire," etc.)

The author does not mean that your cheeks are actually red cherries. Instead, the metaphor simply conveys that your cheeks are the color of cherries: flushed, bright and red.


"Fame is a Fickle Food" by Emily Dickinson

Fame is a fickle food

Upon a shifting plate

Whose table once a Guest, but not

The seond time, is set.

Whose crumbs the crows inspect,

And with ironic caw

Flap past it to the Farmer's Corn--

Men eat of it and die.

In this example, Dickinson's entire poem is a metaphor about fame. She compares fame to a food that is given to a man only once, and causes death. She uses all nine lines of the poem to expand her metaphor.


Why go through the trouble of understanding metaphors anyway? When used correctly, metaphors are effective fiction writing tools. They are one way to vary language and liven up prose. Also, like shorthand, they can convey a picture or a meaning instantly, with few words. Of course, like most literary devices, metaphors bomb when used incorrectly, confusing the reader or drawing attention to the writer's lack of skill. For instance, in the statement, "Our keyboard will teach your mind's eye to play by ear," the speaker has mixed two metaphors, leading to nonsense. A "mind's eye" can't play anything, and certainly not "by ear."

The trick with using metaphors is to watch out for clichés and avoid mixing them. Expressions like "the calm before the storm," "Mother Nature," “stabbed in the back,” or "he's a rat," have been used so often that they're now clichés.

metaphor task
Metaphor task

Choose a metaphor that describes you as a student. Write a paragraph that extends the metaphor so that the reader will better understand your study habits and academic skills.

The metaphor you choose can take the form of an animal (e.g., an elephant, a fox, an ostrich), a machine (e.g., a bulldozer, a tank, a computer) or something else. Any metaphor you choose will be correct if you support your assertion.

Remember to provide detailed support for your metaphor. Think about specific characteristics of yourself as a student that compare to the item you have chosen as a metaphor.


Definition: A figure of speech in which two things are compared using the word "like" or "as" to draw attention to similarities about two things that are seemingly dissimilar.

Examples: Your eyes are as blue as the sky. You eat like a bird.

"Harlem" by Langston Hughes

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up

like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore-

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over-

like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Hughes uses five different similes in this poem. He compares unfulfilled dreams to a raisin, a sore, rotten meat, a syrupy sweet, and a heavy load. Through these similes, Hughes paints a picture of a dream that is cast aside, and lies rotting and decaying.

simile task
Simile task

Think of a topic for your simile poem. Choose something that you can describe very well (e.g. a pet, a sport, a friend, a season).

Write this topic at the top of your paper.

List at least seven characteristics or personality traits that describe this topic (e.g., brown eyes, long legs, oval top).

Compare each trait to something that either physically, symbolically, or emotionally extends the description of the topic. Use the words “like” or “as” in the comparison.

Complete the poem by putting the comparisons in a logical order and filling in the “gaps” in the description with other vivid words and phrases. Look again at Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem” for an example.


Definition: a form of metaphor where one part stands for the whole, or the whole is substituted for one part. In other words, we speak of something by naming only a part of it.


"Robby got wheels this summer." wheels = car

"All hands were on deck." hands = sailors

"the hand that wrote the letter" hand = person

synecdoche task
Synecdoche task

Choose a topic for which you can use one part of the item to describe the whole (e.g., wheels, lenses, ink).

Write a paragraph that describes the part but also alludes to the whole item (e.g., wheels are shiny, fast, hot). Try to build a picture of the part that if you were to replace the name of the part with the name of the whole, the paragraph would still make sense.

Add vivid words and details to heighten the description.


Definition: Hyperbole (overstatement) is a type of figurative language that depends on intentional overstatement.

An exaggeration; giving something more or less of a quality than it really has. This term is usually used as a put down, or to discredit what someone is saying. Hyperbole is common in humorous poetry. Hyperbole can make a point in a light-hearted way. It can be used to poke fun at someone or something.


Examples: tons of money waiting for ages a flood of tears

After so many years, he can still feel the sting of his mother's slap.

He cannot literally feel the sting, but the hyperboleconveys that his mother's slap was a deeplydamaging experience.

Note this description of a dull townby Carl Sandburg in "The People, Yes“:

It's a slow burg—I spent a couple of weeks there one day.

This poemby John Ciardi, "Speed Adjustments,“ uses hyperbole in a description of a young boy:

Why does a boy who’s fast as a jet

Take all day—and sometimes two—

To get to school?

Hyperbole can emphasize a truth by exaggerating it as Ralph Waldo Emerson does in "The Concord Hymn":

Here once the embattled farmers stood

And fired the shot heard round the world.

hyperbole task
Hyperbole task

All families have their share of crazy moments, crazy relatives, or crazy traditions. The use of hyperbole can exaggerate the abnormality of these moments.

Choose something crazy from your family history and make it even crazier! Write a paragraph to describe the incident.  

Add at least five hyperboles within the description.

Use vivid words and language throughout the paragraph in order to make the hyperbole seem acceptable rather than outrageous or silly.


Definition: the use of a word or image that signifies something other than what is literally represented; it has both a literal and figurative meaning. A person, place, or event stands for something other than it is, usually something broader or deeper than it is.

Example: "The Sick Rose" by William Blake

O rose, thou art sick!

The invisible worm

That flies in the night,

In the howling storm,

Has found out thy bed

Of crimson joy,

And his dark secret love

Does thy life destroy.

Blake uses the rose as a symbol for all that is beautiful, natural and desirable. He uses the worm to symbolize the evil that destroys natural beauty and love. The poem is more than a description of an infested flower bed. Because of the symbolism, it suggests that all that is beautiful, natural, and good in the world is being secretly destroyed by something we cannot see. The worm "flies in the night," and then hides beneath the dirt of the flower bed. This means that we cannot see the evil that attacks the purity in the world, nor do we understand its reasoning.

However, be aware that the same objects (rose, worm) can be used in many different pieces of literature and can symbolize something different in each one. For example, the word "rose" can be a symbol for sensual love, spiritual love, youth, natural beauty, vulnerability, etc., depending on the author's intention.

symbolism task
Symbolism task

Choose an abstract noun such as liberty, love, friendship, or freedom. Write a vivid paragraph describing the concept.

Underline each reference to the concept.

Replace the direct references to the concept with objects that could stand for (or symbolize) the concept.