For me, an intriguing poetic devise is irony: saying one thing and meaning another. Think of how often we encounter ironic speech or behavior in everyday life. Undermining another with a word, a facial expression, body language—giving away our real intent with tone of voice—we humans turn to irony to make a point in such a way that it can be disputed…
“Oh, I didn’t mean it that way.”
Here’s an example of irony I experience all too often:
Them: “Nice shot.”
My drive shoots along the fairway a couple of dozen yards.
Me: “It was horrible.”
Them: “Well it went straight.”
And then I watch Them send it flying to the green.
Is that supposed to make me feel good? Or is it a way of saying “I’m a much better golfer than you? Maybe you should take up underwater basket-weaving.”
Why might poets turn to irony as a poetic device?
• To express contradictory points of view in a single piece, such as humor and sadness. An example of this is Dorothy Parker’s brief poem: Unfortunate Coincidence in which lovers express undying love for one another while the concluding lines say otherwise:
…Lady make a note of this,
One of you is lying.
• Irony as mock-heroism.
In this case, the ironic device become a tool to exalt something or someone who is not worthy of the glory.
Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes (1776)
‘Twas on a lofty vase’s side,
Where China’s gayest art had dyed
The azure flowers that blow,
Demurest of the tabby kind,
The pensive Selima, reclined,
Gazed on the lake below.
Her conscious tail her joy declared;
The fair round face, the snowy beard,
The velvet of her paws,
Her coat, that with the tortoise vies,
Her ears of jet, and emerald eyes,
She saw; and purred applause.
Still had she gazed; but ‘midst the tide
Two angel forms were seen to glide,
The genii of the stream:
Their scaly armour’s Tyrian hue
Through richest purple to the view
Betrayed a golden gleam.
The hapless nymph with wonder saw:
A whisker first, and then a claw,
With many an ardent wish,
She stretched, in vain, to reach the prize.
What female heart can gold despise?
What cat’s averse to fish?
Presumptuous maid! with looks intent
Again she stretched, again she bent,
Nor knew the gulf between:
(Malignant Fate sat by, and smiled)
The slippery verge her feet beguiled,
She tumbled headlong in.
Eight times emerging from the flood
She mewed to ev’ry wat’ry god
Some speedy aid to send.
No dolphin came, no nereid stirred;
Nor cruel Tom, nor Susan heard.
A fav’rite has no friend!
From hence, ye beauties undeceived,
Know, one false step is ne’er retrieved,
And be with caution bold.
Not all that tempts your wand’ring eyes
And heedless hearts is lawful prize;
Nor all that glisters, gold.
• As a put-down to another’s point of view.
Consider this excerpt from D. H. Lawrence, (better known for his fiction) in his poem,
The English Are So Nice.
The opening lines tell us:
The English are so nice
So awfully nice
They are the nicest people in the world.
Then the poet goes on to decry other nationalities:
American and French and Germans and so on
They’re all very well
But they’re not really nice, you know.
They’re not nice in our sense of the word, are they now?
And in conclusion he admonishes:
“…just be nice, you know! Oh, fairly nice,
Not too nice of course, they take advantage
But nice enough, just nice enough
To let them feel they’re not quite as nice as they might be.
In the above examples, note the underlying, if subtle, sense of humor. But irony can also be used quite effectively to make a point concerning more serious issues. Here are two examples:
• For the purpose of social protest. Consider this poem by William Blake about piety and hypocrisy. Blake is contrasting the opulent celebration of a religious festival with the starvation of children in the surrounding countryside.
Is this a holy thing to see.
In a rich and fruitful land.
Babes reduced to misery.
Fed with cold and usurous hand?
Is that trembling cry a song?
Can it be a song of joy?
And so many children poor?
It is a land of poverty!
And their sun does never shine.
And their fields are bleak & bare.
And their ways are fill’d with thorns
It is eternal winter there.
For where-e’er the sun does shine.
And where-e’er the rain does fall:
Babe can never hunger there,
Nor poverty the mind appall.
• Irony as dialectic—a debate between two points of view.
In his 1942 poem, The Naming of Parts, poet Henry Reed uses two voices to describe a single incident in which a drill sergeant and soldier describe their own experience of a training exercise related to the handling of a firearm. At first read, it’s easy to miss the poet’s intent because he doesn’t use quotation marks. But when you read the poem looking for the exchange, the contrast between the flat, dull voice of the sergeant and the dreamy voice of the soldier is apparent. I hope you will take a moment to access the entire poem using the link above as it is not in the Public Domain, but here’s a short quote to demonstrate the two contradictory voices:
Today we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And tomorrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But today,
Today we have naming of parts…
And this is the piling swivel,
Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,
Which in our case we have not got.
Henry Reed, 1942
For today’s prompt I invite you, then, to say what you do not mean. Write something ironic, whether it be tinged with humor or a searing commentary on the state of things.
• Write your poem;
• Post it on your blog or webpage;
• Access Mr. Linky at the bottom of this page;
• Copy and paste the direct URL of your post in the space provided, and add your name;
• Return to the pub and take time to visit and enjoy other poets and comment on their work.
For dVerse Meeting the Bar, this is Victoria Slotto, honored to be tending the bar tonight. Poetry is flowing freely
Much of the information in this article is inspired by a course presented by The Teaching Company titled “How to Read and Understand Poetry” by Professor Willard Spiegelman. If you haven’t found this company, I highly recommend them. They present courses given by top-notch college professors on every subject imaginable in CD, DVR or Audio Download.