Poetic Devices. Why Should I Care?

Let’s cover poetic devices! I can just hear the groaning in the back row. Alright, alright. Hear me out. In no way are these just for poets. Each one addresses unique ways writers of all kinds play with words to create more polished prose. Whether you are a news reporter or a novelist, mastering them can bring a subtle sophistication to your writing. We experience the effects of these devices all the time without realizing it. It’s what makes good literature feel musical and inviting. Think of some of your favorite passages of your favorite novel. Inspiring words, or a well-written article will certainly embrace them. You’ll find it in moving storytelling and clear expositions all over the place that just… sound better. So let me introduce you to your ten new best friends.

  • Alliteration.

Alliteration is rhyme’s mirrored twin. It’s when words begin with the same letter, rather than end. Aunt Annie’s Alligator from Dr. Seuss’s ABC book comes to mind. But we see it used to create emphasis, or a certain mood, all the time in literature. The Great Gatsby is the classic example, as F. Scott Fitzgerald seemed particularly fond of it.

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly against the past.”

Keep an eye out for alliteration as you go about life, and notice what effect it has in its context. Does it slow things down? Does it add a punch of humor? Does it draw your attention in a certain way? Next time you’re warming up for writing, give it a try! The more you experiment and play with the sounds of words, the more you will be able to use it intentionally.

  • Assonance.

Assonance is when interior vowels echo each other every so often within a phrase. (See what I did there?) As with most of these devices, it creates emphasis and a certain mood, depending on the sound emphasized and the context.  A favorite example from literature is found in Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Tombs of Atuan:

“Freedom is a heavy load, a great and strange burden for the spirit to undertake. It is not easy. It is not a gift given, but a choice made, and the choice may be a hard one. The road goes upward towards the light; but the laden traveler may never reach the end of it.”

It’s also a great example of the next tool for your literary cabinet, and some others I am sure you will discover on your own.

  • Consonance.

As you may guess from the sound of it, this is a close cousin to assonance. It’s referring to consonant sounds that pop up with in a sentence or phrase. Depending on the consonant repeated, you can really amplify a mood with consonance. Hard /k/ sounds command your attention and might make a phrase more lively or harsh. Sibilant sounds tend to create a hushed mood. Great speech writers use this tool all the time to produce a lyrical  quality that makes you want to listen. Here’s an example from Martin Luther King’s famous I Have a Dream speech:

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

Alliteration, consonance, and assonance are all about playing with the interior sounds of words, and are well suited to all kinds of writing. Because they are surprisingly easy to incorporate and are almost imperceptible to the untrained eye, their value goes far beyond poetry. They don’t make a stab at your attention the way overtly poetic phrases do, but give that certain je ne se quois to our favorite quotable quotes. Play around with them the next time you are dreading that blank screen.

  • Imagery.

Okay, so this one is pretty self-explanatory. Images are what make good writing come to life. But it’s about more than just the visual components. It’s engaging all the senses to tell your story. If readers feel as if they are experiencing the action, they will be drawn to your work. We read because we want to feel transported to another place, time, or reality, and good imagery is key in making that magic. E.B. White does this excellently in Once More to the Lake:

He pulled his dripping trunks from the line where they had hung all through the shower and wrung them out. Languidly, and with no thought of going in, I watched him, his hard little body, skinny and bare, saw him wince slightly as he pulled up around his vitals the small, soggy, icy garment. As he buckled the swollen belt, suddenly my groin felt the chill of death.

Ouch. The boy feels it. The narrator feels it. We feel it. Experiment with this in areas of your work that just feel disconnected or bland. What experience can you craft for your reader that will show not tell?

  • Metaphor.

Every time I encounter this word, I think of the hilarious and poignant old Italian film, Il Postino. Metaphor is when we say one thing, but mean another. In a good way. It’s a key means of using imagery to convey more than what can be seen with the eye, or felt with our skin. I love Carl Sandburg’s poem, Landscape. It can mean so many things to different people at different times.

See the trees lean to the wind’s way of learning.
See the dirt of the hills shape to the water’s way of learning.
See the lift of it go the way the biggest
wind and the strongest water want it.

We use metaphor all the time in common idiomatic phrases and figures of speech. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. A stitch in time saves nine. Music to my ears. The ball is in your court now. Consider this popular quote from Hellen Keller; made all the more significant because of her native blindness:

Keep your face to the sunshine and you cannot see a shadow.

We use metaphor all the time to convey a stronger, more intimate meaning than can be conveyed with simple factual description. Notice it in the literature you read every day, and consider when you might use it more effectively.

  • Meter.

This is, loosely speaking, used to describe the rhythmic combination of stressed and unstressed syllables in language. In poetry it can be a very specific set of patterns to follow; we typically think of very structured poetry examples such as Shakespeare’s famed use of iambic pentameter. But we aren’t going to be writing sonnets, generally speaking, so let’s look at this in other great works. Examine this excerpt from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s inaugural address. Notice where the stresses fall in these lines:

This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself-

Can you see the rhythm created in his word choice, emphasized in his delivery? Paying attention to where the stressed syllables fall in your most crucial concepts can lend that extra oomph to make your work stand out.

  • Onomatopoeia.

Clickety-clack. Pitter Patter. Squelch. Words that mimic the specific sounds they describe are abundant in English and can be playful or powerful. They help the reader really hear what is happening, making descriptions more vivid. Exploring onomatopoeia can be a fun writing warm up before your real writing assignment begins because it’s really all about appreciating the sounds of the words and the feelings evoked by them. The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes is full of great sounds that pull the reader into the action.

Over the cobbles he clattered and clashed in the dark inn-yard,
He tapped with his whip on the shutters, but all was locked and barred…

I would argue that in this case, even the sounds of words like locked and barred lend to the delightful commotion and energy of this piece, even if they aren’t typically words we think of as onomatopoeia. I recommend giving it a read in its entirety! Then see if you can write some noise.

  • Personification.

Personification is when the author or speaker ascribes emotion to the inanimate. It’s in the whispering winds or angry clouds that bring alive the storm. It’s in the lonely road and forlorn shack that set the mood of a place. Edith Wharton demonstrates this beautifully here in an excerpt from The Mother’s Recompense:

“Hadn’t she known that something good was going to happen to her that morning – hadn’t she felt it in every touch of the sunshine, as its golden finger-tips pressed her lids open and wound their way through her hair?”

  • Repetition.

Repetition is really the soul of many other devices on this list. Rhyme, assonance, consonance, and alliteration are all about the repetition of various sounds. Meter is about the repetition of emphasis creating a repeated rhythm to the words. Here repetition refers to the reappearance of words or phrases throughout a sentence, paragraph, or even the entire text. Have you ever noticed that the funniest parts of any stand-up comedian’s act are when they cycle back to ideas you thought they’d abandoned? Watch a few Drybarcomedy shows and you will absolutely see it. It’s the same concept. It just adds a little candy for the brain. Some of the above quotes give great examples of this; as in FDR’s famous speech, three times just in that excerpt; throughout that short Sandburg poem; and in two other places, if you can find them. Comment below if you think you see it!

  • Rhyme.

Nope. This one isn’t just for poems either. Listen to this well-loved quote from the Buddha:

Health is the greatest gift, contentment the greatest wealth, faithfulness the best relationship.

Does it sound overly rhymey and trite? Not really. Rhyme doesn’t have to be at the end of a line of poetry to be rhyme or to have impact. Ok smarty pants in the front row. So that last phrase spills over into consonance rather than rhyme, you’re right! That’s what makes it such a good example for use outside of strict poetry. Hear the pleasant echo of the “th” sound in each phrase … health, wealth, faithfulness? See how it bounces from the beginning of the line, to the end of the next, back to the beginning? It makes it memorable and underscores the importance of those words in his message. It goes back to the principle of repetition in fine art, whether visual, auditory, or written. Our brains like it. Whether it’s because it makes things easier to remember or because we like the familiar, it just feels good.

  • Simile.

This is basically a more explicit kind of metaphor that really calls out the comparison by name. The classic example is Robert Burns,’ “O my love’s like a red, red, rose…” It differs from metaphor in that it employs clue words to tip you off that a comparison is being made: like, as, shall I compare thee… you get the idea. Charles Dickens was fond of using simile, and did so with great success, adding vivid imagery and personality to his stories. Check out this quote from Great Expectations:

It was a rimy morning, and very damp. I had seen the damp lying on the outside of my little window, as if some goblin had been crying there all night, and using the window for a pocket-handkerchief. Now, I saw the damp lying on the bare hedges and spare grass, like a coarser sort of spiders’ webs; hanging itself from twig to twig and blade to blade.

He personifies the wet quality of the morning by comparing it to a sobbing, miserable goblin or a network of spiderwebs strewn about. No plainly visual description could achieve the same kind of creepy, foreboding mood at the same time as painting clearly the damp, wet landscape.

Alright. Now you try it. Keep noticing these poetic devices being used by good artists everywhere. Jot them down in your writer’s journal. You can hear it in the music on the radio, and that friend who’s a great storyteller. These tools are found in important, famous speeches and your favorite childhood books. If you want to dive right into it rather than waiting for opportunities to pop up along your path, I highly recommend reading Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven in its entirety. He uses each and every poetic device to wonderful effect. Here’s just one stanza. See how many you can identify. Leave your answer in the comments section!

And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me — filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating,
Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door —
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door; —
This it is, and nothing more.

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