Understanding Poetry 1: Poetic Language

An introductory look at the ingredients of poetry.

What Is Poetry?


A poem should not mean / But be.

The poet Archibald MacLeish wrote that — and he’s right. No amount of explanation or summarizing can do poetry justice. There can be no “in other words.” The only meaning of poetry that really matters is its effect on you as you read it or hear it.

But unless we get to know some ground rules and patterns and precedents, poetry can seem to be a monologue we started overhearing halfway through. Interesting talk, but we don’t really get it. Far too many readers let poetry be . . . they let it be for other people only, or they let it be just for special occasions.

But not you — you’re here for a more meaningful relationship with this great art. Welcome! In this class, we’ll cover some of the basics of what makes poems poetry. By the time you’re through, you’ll have a basic understanding of poetic techniques and forms, and you’ll have delved into some of the finest examples of poetry in English, all of which can be found in the course texts Americans’ Favorite Poems and The Making of a Poem, which I’ll refer to as AFP and MP, respectively.

Other imaginative readers are taking this class along with you, ready to discuss your questions and post some of their own on the Message Board.

But first, we will attempt to define poetry. It’s easier to talk about it than to define it. What is it? What distinguishes poetry from everyday words?

Defining Poetry

“So what’s poetry, anyway?” Here are some classic answers to that question:

  • The best words in their best order (Samuel Taylor Coleridge)
  • The spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings (William Wordsworth)
  • If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry (Emily Dickinson)
  • The rhythmical creation of beauty (Edgar Allan Poe)
  • The criticism of life (Matthew Arnold)
  • A raid on the inarticulate (T.S. Eliot)

All these definitions are valuable and true. We look to poetry for a great variety of insight and effects. But if poetry is to live for us, we have to feel the words for ourselves. Poetry has to get under our skin — it has to make our hair rise and our skin twitch — or we won’t really get it.

This is the message of “Poetry,” Marianne Moore’s wise handling of the question at hand (AFP, p.197). Line 1 is a surprise: “I, too, dislike it . . .” When poetry is an “it,” it can seem like mere “fiddle.” But “the genuine” is quickly felt when we let poetry work directly on us, when it actually engages:

Hands that can grasp, eyes that can dilate, hair that can rise if it must . . .

The “immovable critic twitching his skin like a horse that feels a flea” will never be able to convey to us what poetry really is. Poetry only works when it gets under our skin — when it affects us directly and unpredictably. It is, in the end, a matter of processing “raw material” and recognizing its “genuine” effects.

But “we / do not admire what / we cannot understand,” so let’s wade into the raw material of poems, beginning with imagery.

Of Men and Metaphysics

If you sense religion lurking in “The Flea,” you’re right. Donne has fun joking about a holy trinity. The strain of connecting an insect to the highest ideas of God led some critics to dismiss it as far-fetched and unemotional. Samuel Johnson labeled Donne and those who wrote like him as “metaphysical poets.” It wasn’t intended as a compliment.

You can trace a less racy, but similarly forced, metaphor in Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” (AFP, p. 75).

Poetic Imagery

Reading Between the Lines

A poem can look at anything. Anything. Flip around through AFP, and you’ll see an astonishing variety of topics. Freckles, a snowman, the Vietnam Memorial — each inspires a great poem. Catullus describes a beloved island, Philip Levine an exhausted factory worker, C.K. Williams a fly. Even a pebble gets its moment, in Zbigniew Herbert’s calm and very clear tribute.

But look more closely at any one of these quite different poems, and you will see a common bond. No matter what’s being described, a basic approach to imagery is recognizable. No matter what they’re describing, poets bounce between the particular and a more abstract plane — between the object at hand and a more generalized human condition. The importance of any image in a poem will therefore oscillate — sometimes wildly — between its own specific essence and a larger symbolic meaning.


Think of the two lines in Figure 1-1 as a magnetic force field, each line tugging on an image. Sometimes that image is particularly described — its smell or sound or touch or taste is conveyed. Sometimes the image is yanked in the opposite direction: it stands for something else, something abstract, something impossible to exactly describe.

If an image doesn’t bounce between the two lines — if its treatment is flatly particular or flatly abstract — then the poem has lost its heartbeat and is dead.

Fleas and Eternity

Let’s look at an example: John Donne’s “The Flea” (AFP, 74). You can’t get more particular — and lowly — than “this flea,” near-insentient, gorged on the blood of lovers, and doomed to be crushed. But the daring — and the delight — has to do with how Donne vaults up and down on our graph.

Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare, Where we almost, nay more than married are. This flea is you and I, and this Our marriage bed and marriage temple is; Though parents grudge, and you, we are met, And cloistered in these living walls of jet.

Were we to chart the leaps back and forth from insect to love, we’d be hopping around more frantically than that flea. Like intermingling blood, the particular image and its abstract meaning are held in the “living walls” of Donne’s poem.

What is “The Flea” about? It’s about the swatting of an insect . . . it’s about an artful seduction . . . it’s about the transience of life, the commingling of love. You could give any number of summaries, but the true meaning of the poem will never be felt unless we follow the jagged movement of its dominant image — the flea — back and forth between the particular and the abstract.

Let’s look at another example. In Zbigniew Herbert’s “The pebble” (AFP, 118), we again have a lowly image at the heart of the poem — so low, it’s even lowercased in the title. Were we to graph this poem, it wouldn’t frantically spike up and down as Donne’s does. But look at how Herbert weaves anyway — from particular description of the cold pebble, “with a scent which does not remind one of anything,” to generalized notions of perfection, limits, dignity, and, finally, contrasting human frailty. A poet could never pick up a pebble and just describe it. Neither could he flat-out tell you that he’s worried about dying.

Poets, and by extension the images they use, are perpetually caught up in the contrast between images and larger meaning. Next, let’s turn to the devices of language that help poets cultivate just such contrasts.

Transfers and Turns

The term “metaphor” means, literally, “transfer” — which makes a lot of sense, if you think about what metaphor does. It’s a junction, with meaning fluttering back and forth between two different things.

Language that departs from the literal is often referred to as a trope. And again the derivation of the term is instructive: “trope” means, literally, “turn.” Figurative language turns from the thing at hand to make a connection with something else.

Figurative Language

An Echoing World

In the compression of poetic language, the urge to contrast is often expressed through certain figures of speech. These linguistic devices launch comparisons that bring out surprising similarities, while at the same time allow for distinction and difference.

Let’s run through four common ways that poets push beyond literal meaning, drawing examples from one little poem, George Herbert’s beautiful “Vertue” (AFP, 117).

Figure of Speech Definition Example from “Vertue”
Metaphor an implied equation between two things Spring is a box of sweets
Simile a specific comparison of two things, using “like” or “as” s The virtuous soul is like a box of timber
Metonymy the substitution of a word for another with which it is associated “the whole world turn to coal”: coal stands for general destruction
Personification the treatment of non-human things as human Dew acts like a weeping person

Keep a lookout for these devices, and notice how the poet uses them. Figurative language honors the play of thought in poetry — it allows for that weaving between an image and a larger context that we traced above.

Next, let’s look at another way poetic language conveys contrast: tone.

A Richer Dust Concealed

Tone is often at its most arresting when it clashes with the situation described. Look at “The Soldier” (AFP, 30), a sonnet by Rupert Brooke written during World War I. Brooke died in Greece in 1915, the same year this tribute to “English heaven” appeared. Is the patriotism expressed here sincere? Ironic? Both at once? Be sure to share your thoughts on the tone of this poignant poem on the Message Board.

Levels of Language

Watch That Tone

Let’s return for a moment to the beginning of Marianne Moore’s “Poetry” (AFP, p.197):

I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle.

Is this any way for someone to start talking about poetry? Especially a poet? Well, yes, and not just because you and I would never think to use “fiddle.” It’s the beginning of a little journey in tone.

Within the short space of the first stanza, Moore’s words swing drastically from a world-weary tone to direct reverence, from “all this fiddle” to “a place for the genuine.” It’s a swing in attitude that echoes the shifts from abstraction (“there are things”) to particularity (“Hands that can grasp”) that we noticed in this poem before.

The use of a shifting voice enacts a drama for us. Moore is setting up personal reactions, immediately felt, against worn-out ideas of what poetry is. The result is a blending of tones as vividly clashing as, say, “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.”

The tone in any effective poem changes, however subtly, and these changes hold the key to larger meaning. You can always identify extreme points of tone in a poem and track the movement of any particular passage.

Ironic Twists

When two tones compress into one image or word, the result can be irony: the poet says one thing, while at the same time suggesting another, often its opposite. Ironic tone quickly complicates the world of a poem, again extending immediate description into more universal implications.

To appreciate the economy of irony, have a look at Randall Jarrell’s depiction of a lonely middle-aged woman, “Next Day” (AFP, p.136). The poem begins with labels we’ve all seen in the supermarkets:

Moving from Cheer to Joy, from Joy to All, I take a box . . .

These labels, and the matter-of-fact recounting of them, are quickly revealed to be an ironic comment on our speaker’s lack of cheer, joy, completion. But the irony deepens, especially when she fantasizes about:

Happiness that, bursting, leaves upon the palm Some soap and water . . .

It’s an oddly antiseptic and dispassionate description of happiness — one that recalls those boxes of soap. Are these woman’s thoughts superficial or deeply personal? They’re both, at once, ironically. She is a product of her product-cluttered world.

The irony deepens when we consider that this is a portrait of a woman, with “womanish” wishes, rendered by a male poet. To the extent that she is superficial, is that a failure of the poet to see her? Is this woman being treated like a commodity on the shelf by her creator?

Layers of tone have expanded a simple description of a woman shopping to the most fundamental questions of identification and poetic technique.

Let’s close the lesson by looking at an even more ironic poetic portrait, T.S. Eliot’s celebrated “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (AFP, p. 84).

Express Yourself

Prufrock’s “love song” — really a 131-line interior monologue — exemplifies the dangers of keeping poetry inside. The young T.S. Eliot was, luckily, encouraged by fellow poet Ezra Pound to publish, and “Prufrock” appeared in Poetry magazine in 1915.

Moral: Get the word out! If you have poetry knocking around your head, don’t mope in cafes — get it published. If you don’t know an Ezra Pound, The Poet’s Market is a good alternative.

Case Reading: “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

We’ve seen how poets seek to relate their immediate surroundings to higher meaning without losing sense of the particularity of the world. Now let’s look at a case study of this desire. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is, among other things, a great description of a man who desperately wants to be a poet.

Read the poem through, preferably out loud. Your bottom-line friend wants to know: what is it about? We could come up with basic summaries, but none of them would really convey the poem. A foppish neurotic, worried about aging, wanders through a grimy city. He thinks about asking a question (but what question?) and never follows through with it. Lots of tea is served. Women come and go, talking of Michelangelo.

The situation described in the poem is as foggy as those October streets. But since we know that to understand a poem is to experience it, we’ll resist being baffled and dive into the raw materials.

And what do we see? Abstract and particular images collide jarringly. Metaphoric devices spring out everywhere. And the tone varies wildly. Just looking at the first few lines, you see images that convey this:

Very abstract an overwhelming question
Somewhat abstract restless nights, streets that follow, muttering retreats, tedious argument, insidious intent
Somewhat particular the evening, a patient, sawdust restaurants, cheap hotels, certain half-deserted streets
Very particular oyster-shells

The fragmentation of the poem — indeed, its continual obsession with fragmentation — shouldn’t stop us from considering how any one of these images moves, over the course of the poem, between the particular and the abstract.

Figurative Language

  • Simile and personification: evening like a patient etherized upon a table
  • Metonymy: oyster-shells represent rundown, trashy life
  • Simile: streets follow like a tedious argument

Note: Eliot generates these identifications but doesn’t develop them. They’re dropped in, and he moves on.

Tone Shifts Neurotically

Our narrator seems abruptly

  • Solicitous
  • Overblown
  • Conspiratorial
  • Disgusted
  • Weary
  • Mysterious

Our tracking of language suggests a portrait of an unsettled, would-be poet. We might not know just what this Prufrock’s problem is, exactly, but we do know that he’s full of poetic aspiration.

His greatest fantasy is one of connection — the “mermaids singing, each to each.” His greatest fear is isolation — “I do not think that they will sing to me.” Poor Prufrock would love to live in the world of poetry, where every image is symbolic, every voice rich with overtones. Instead, he’s trapped in a nightmare of fragmentation and disintegration. Even the highest thoughts, disconnected from the world he sees, are empty husks. Those oyster-shells were symbolic after all — but not in any way Prufrock himself could see!

One last time with that pesky friend: So, what is “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” about? Eliot has given us a poetic vision of poetic failure. He’s taken us to a world where images indeed connect to larger meaning — but not at all in the way the cracked narrator would like. Prufrock lives and brings to life a world in shambles.

We haven’t yet touched much of what is remarkable about this poem, and poems in general: the play of rhyme and meter that backs up poetic language. We’ll save that for next lesson. But in the meantime, Eliot’s poem does give us one last good answer to anyone who might demand to know, in a nutshell (or an oyster-shell), what poetry is:

Oh, do not ask, “What is it?” Let us go and make our visit.

Speaking of visiting, now that you’ve read Eliot’s poem closely, it’s a good time to visit the class Message Board to ask questions and share insights about it.

Assignment: Poetic Language

Take one of the images or tones we listed from the first stanza of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and track it through the poem.

  1. If the image or tone you’ve picked doesn’t repeat explicitly, how is it echoed?
  2. How does it move between the particular and the abstract as the poem goes on?

How does your chosen image or tone work to define Prufrock?

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