Figurative language is a way of phrasing or wording that intentionally deviates from the literal meaning. In a sense, it aims to go beyond definition to become subject to interpretation. It’s an essential part of creative writing, and it’s also a valuable skill to have when learning languages.
Think of it as a boost that gives creative writing more meaning, depth, and feeling. If you look at figurative language in a poem or story, you will notice that figurative speech gives it more life and makes it more special.
Here are some of the most common examples of figurative language that you will find in poems:
A simile compares two things to each other with the use of the comparative words “like” and “as.” Expressions like “bright as the sun” and “run like the wind” are popular examples of Simile. Notice how Robert Burns uses Simile in this excerpt of A Red, Red Rose:
O my Luve is like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve is like the melody
That’s sweetly played in tune
In the first line, he compares his love to a red rose. On the third line, he does the same, comparing his love to the melody. Of course, it would not pass logic to liken a person to a flower or a song in its literal sense. However, symbolically, it evokes the poet’s adoration to his subject by comparing them to pleasant things.
A metaphor in a figurative language poem connotes one thing as another. Unlike Simile, it does not use “like” or “as” to compare two things. Take a look at this verse from Emily Dickinson’s Hope Is The Thing With Feathers to see it in action:
“Hope” is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all
If you noticed, she describes the word “hope” as one would a bird. You may also notice that there are no words that indicate comparison. Instead of saying that hope is like a bird, or that hope is like something with feathers, she directly describes it as a bird.
On top of that, you will notice that the lines following the metaphor continue to make bird-like descriptions. As a result, this figurative language poem is considered as an extended metaphor.
Jess Chua, an award-winning writer, says, “Figurative language adds style and creative flair through evocative, vivid imagery and effective word choices. They help elevate the meaning of the poem or sentence by helping the reader visualize or engage more deeply with the text”.
Here’s an example and brief analysis through her poem, the fool, which appears in her debut chapbook: “Love is a red heart and a warning sign at the same time”
Personification is imbuing human-like attributes to nonliving or nonhuman objects. J. Patrick Lewis’s Mister Sun is a great example of this.
Mister Sun wakes up at dawn,
Puts his golden slippers on,
Climbs the summer sky at noon,
Trading places with the moon.
You can see how Lewis describes the sun’s activity as one would describe a person’s activity throughout the day. In a logical sense, the sun does not wake up. It does not put on slippers, and so on and so forth.
However, in a figurative sense, the way he describes the sun’s activities is similar to how it rises in the morning, is high up in the sky at noon, and sets in the evening before the moon appears.
Here’s a sample poem I wrote:
The longest winter is not the field
covered with a white quilt
while sunflowers are fast asleep.
The longest winter is not the
not the snowflake on my down jacket
not the snowcap on a mountain.
It’s the one that settles in your voice
your icy stares that say goodbye
while the wind blows
The poem contains several examples of figurative language:
- Metaphor: The phrase “the longest winter” is a metaphorical way of describing a difficult or emotionally cold period in one’s life.
- Metaphor: Describing the field as “covered with a white quilt” is a metaphor comparing the snow-covered field to a blanket.
- Personification: The line “sunflowers are fast asleep” personifies the sunflowers by suggesting they are sleeping as if they were living beings.
- Personification: The phrase “It’s the one that settles in your voice” personifies the winter by suggesting that it can settle in someone’s voice.
- Personification: Referring to “Your icy stares” personifies the stares by attributing the quality of being icy to them.
A hyperbole is an exaggeration. It creates an effect that aims to magnify a point or emotion in a piece of writing. In everyday communication, you may hear phrases like “I could do this forever” or “that bag must have cost a fortune.” In a figurative language poem, it could appear like this:
Oh, I’m Dirty Dan, the world’s dirtiest man,
I have never taken a shower.
I can’t see my shirt—it’s so covered in dirt,
And my ears have enough to grow flowers.
Throughout the poem, it is quite apparent, especially if you look at the line where it says that his ears have enough dirt in them to grow flowers. Logically speaking, it is far from possible for a person to maintain enough dirt in their ears to grow flowers, but the hyperbole serves to convey just how dirty Dan is.
This poem by Shel Silverstein makes exaggerations to describe just how dirty Dirty Dan is. At the end of the poem, the reader gets a picture and a feel of just how filthy the character is by the exaggerations.
If a hyperbole aims to exaggerate, an understatement does the exact opposite. It serves to downplay or undermine the significance or qualities of a situation. Saying things like “It’s just like an ant bite”, or “It’s just a scratch” when pertaining to a deep wound or a serious injury is a good example. Another would be this figurative language poem:
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
This poem, Ice and Fire by Robert Frost talks about the end of the world. However, he uses understatement to discuss it almost nonchalantly. It feels as if it was no big deal to choose between two options regarding the world’s destruction.
Irony happens when what is said directly contradicts what is meant. Exclaiming “Great!” or “how wonderful!” if your car broke down or if you spilled coffee on your white shirt is a strong everyday example of irony.
In a figurative language poem, it would look something like this line from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar:
But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
In these lines, Mark Anthony appears to praise Brutus after assassinating Julius Caesar. However, that is the complete opposite of what he meant in the situation. In a way, he is implying that he is neither ambitious nor honorable.
How to Use Figurative Language to Enhance Your Writing
Figurative language is not merely limited for use in poetry. However, it does help out a lot when it comes to creative writing. It also brings color, vibrancy, and emotion in your everyday writing. It is especially helpful when you feel like plain sentences can’t translate the intensity of the thought or feeling that you are trying to convey. Here’s how you can use figurative language to enhance your writing:
Use it sparingly
Too many figures of speech jammed into a sentence, or having a figure of speech for every sentence in a paragraph is not a good idea. Figures of speech are there to create an effect. Too much of it will not only lose its effect but also lose any meaning that your paragraph may have been trying to convey.
Make sure it fits
Choose your figurative language carefully. Not all figures of speech fit all types of statements, and not all statements merit a figure of speech. Make sure that it blends in naturally with your sentences while still creating impact and evoking emotion or thought.
Use it to describe or amplify
Sometimes describing something in plain wording is not enough. For example, instead of saying that “the field had so many flowers,” you may use figurative language and say that “the field looked like a vast ocean of a million blooms.” With the figurative expression, you can see in your mind’s eye just how plentiful the flowers are in the field.
The beauty of poetry lies not only in its words but also in the artful use of figurative language that adds depth, emotion, and vivid imagery to the verses. From metaphors and similes that compare the known to the unknown, to personification that breathes life into the inanimate, and hyperbole that magnifies emotions, poets skillfully employ these tools to craft works that resonate with our hearts and minds.
To unleash the inner poet or playwright in you (or your students), try the Creative Writing for Beginners online course to teach you a couple of things about literary devices. It is the perfect online course that is beginner-friendly, so even if you have no literary experience whatsoever, you won’t find it too intimidating. However, if you already engage in creative writing and want to level up your skills, the Creative Writing Course: Master Tips for Writing could help you enhance your literary skills and make you a better creative writer.
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