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Today I wanted to talk about what goes on in the interior of a poem. We have in past articles discussed musical type devices in the prosody of poems– line length, types of feet, meter, rhyme, assonance, using meter without rhyme (blank verse) and without rhyme or meter (free verse). But as the authors of the articles on free verse discussed, there are other elements that lift that form (free verse) to poetry, and differentiate it from prose. Those elements may be used to elevate straight exposition to “literature”, and lift weak lines to “poetry”.

Jan Van Eyck - The Arnolfini Portrait - National Gallery, London. This portrait is full of highly debated symbolism

Just as painters need to know their materials, to understand the importance of brushstrokes, the power and symbolism of objects and color in their compositions, so also do poets need to be aware of what tools they have at their disposal to empower their work, serve their vision, form poems in such a way as to make his/her voice unique, creating a personal style. He/she may accomplish this by eschewing adverbs, reducing adjectives, constructing with nouns and more descriptive verb choices. Techniques such as alliteration (repetitions of sounds) or onomatopoeia (a word that imitates the sound it represents) give texture and musicality to the poem.

The poet may go even further and declare a personal manifesto that takes into account just what he/she wants to achieve through that poetry taking into account particular methodology as well as personal philosophy. Some poets today merge their work into other art forms; for example, shaping them as concrete poems or writing them as lyrics for music they also create.

Today I want to talk about the figures of speech: image, symbol(ism), metaphor and allegory. There are specific definitions which I will give you for these things as they have come to be used in art and literature. However, you should be aware that these devices overlap in their meanings and to a certain extent, once you have assimilated their meanings, you will also absorb the way you use them in your work.

You may even reject them as devices; but even as you do so, be aware that as a writer, the motivation for your word choice and usage may be interpreted differently by your readers. Their interpretation will be colored by their understanding of your words, by a previous symbolic/metaphoric context of particular words and phrases, or by social applications of them either historically or contemporarily.

So we may say image refers to something concrete in the objective world. We say that symbol takes that image and gives it a deeper meaning. In fact words are symbols in themselves. The word stands for what it means, but is not itself that thing or idea. Similes are comparisons of one object to another object. Originally they were compared by these words or phrases — “like”, or “as”; however, increasingly, in poetry they are merely juxtaposed without having to use those words.

Metaphors are implied analogies which imaginatively identify one object with another and ascribe to the first, one or more qualities of the second. Or they may invest the first with emotional or imaginative qualities associated with the second. It is one of the tropes or figures of speech by which a poem “turns” its meaning. I.A. Richards made a distinction between the tenor and the vehicle of a metaphor that has widely been accepted as part of its definition.

The tenor is the idea being expressed or the subject of the comparison; the vehicle is the image by which the idea is conveyed or the subject communicated. When Shakespeare writes in Sonnet LXXIII –

              That time of year thou mayst in me behold
              When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
              Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
              Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

the tenor is old age, the vehicle is the season of late fall or early winter, understood through a group of images unusually complex in their implications.

The purposes for using metaphors can vary widely. At one extreme, the vehicle may merely be a means of decorating the tenor; at the other extreme, the tenor may merely be an excuse for having the vehicle. In simple metaphors the relationship between tenor and vehicle are obvious; in complex and extended metaphors they may exist only in the mind of the poet. Metaphors can be simple and exist in a single isolated comparison, or large and extended, the controlling image of an entire work. One must be careful in such long works to build the metaphoric images harmoniously because if the reader senses an incongruity, the consequences may result in an unintended meaning or set of meanings.

Allegory by Isaac Oliver

Allegory for example, may be thought of as an elaborate and consistently constructed extended metaphor in which the tenor is never expressed. The objects and persons in the narrative of an allegory are equated with meanings that lie outside the narrative itself. Thus it represents one thing in the guise of another—an abstraction in the shape of a concrete image. Characters are usually personifications of abstract qualities, the action and the setting representative of the relationships among these abstractions.

It attempts to evoke a dual interest in the concrete characters and objects and in the abstract ideas and conflicts they represent which may be moral, religious, social, political, etc. Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress describes the efforts of a Christian man to achieve a godly life by triumphing over inner obstacles to his faith. It differs from symbolism which attempts to suggest other levels of meaning without making a structure of ideas a formative influence on the work as it is in allegory. There are various kinds of allegories: parable, fable, apologue, exemplum, fantasy, and beast epic and anagoge, a kind of prophetic allegory used Biblically or apocalyptically.

These are large topics to take on in a relatively short article. This is only an introduction to them. There are shelves of books on each of these topics. I urge you to explore them. They will make you more aware of the thought that has gone into poems written by others. More importantly, knowing how to use them will deepen and strengthen your own poetry. Learning to work with them is part of the journey of becoming a poet.

I am not requiring any particular type of poem to be linked with the article today. This is primarily an article presented as a learning tool not a challenge. I will add Mr. Linky for anyone who wants to post a poem, and I will be reading all comments. I am interested to know if the article was helpful. I will try to answer any questions you have, if I can, or direct you elsewhere if I cannot. I will post links to previous articles on Form and Prosody, that I referenced above written for One Stop Poetry, in the comments section.

*Some source information for this article from A Handbook to Literature, 1960, Thrall, Hibbard, Holman.