The Difference Between Literal & Figurative Meaning of a Poem
One of William Carlos Williams' most famous poems is "The Red Wheelbarrow." The poem is arranged in couplets on the page so that each line has the shape of a classic wheelbarrow. The poem reads "so much depends//upon/a red wheel/barrow//glazed with rain/water//beside the white/chickens." At its most literal, the poem is simple: the red wheelbarrow makes possible quite a bit of important work.
As opposed to literal language, which says exactly what it means, figurative language relies on simile, metaphor, imagery, connotation, and implication to say more than what the actual words themselves mean. Going back to Williams' poem, one could argue that the wheelbarrow is symbolic, a representation of all the ordinary, day-to-day items which make life possible despite their simplicity. Many scholars read the poem this way, often looking at the lines "so much depends," which begs the questions of exactly what depends. Considering Williams spent most of his career as a country doctor and passed many farms on his rounds, the poem could imply that many livelihoods depend on that wheelbarrow.
In "The Legend," Garrett Hongo paints a picture of an innocent bystander who is killed in a failed robbery. In the poem, a man doing his laundry in Chicago hears "cries of pedestrians/as a boy--that's all he was--/backs from the corner package store/shooting a pistol, firing it,/once, at the dumbfounded man/who falls forward,/grabbing at his chest." The next stanza of the poem is literal, as the poem's narrator witnesses the man's slow death, both he and the man in complete shock.
Loss and Honor
As powerful as this scene is in a literal sense, Hongo goes on to use figurative language to create an even more tragic sense of loss, as the narrator ponders the scene later that night: "I feel so distinct/from the wounded man lying on the concrete/I am ashamed/Let the night sky cover him as he dies./Let the weaver girl cross the bridge of heaven/and take up his cold hands." Here, the reader must get beyond the literal. The narrator is separate from the man since he is not the man, so readers have to think about the figurative meaning of feeling distinct, and why that makes the narrator ashamed. By the same token, readers have to think about the figurative sense of what the narrator's prayer means, as the sky cannot cover the man, and the weaver girl is only a mythical figure, so she cannot literally take the man's (literal) cold hands. This is an example of how poetry can use both a literal scene and figurative language to give language power. The poem turns out to be a memorial for the innocent bystander.
The Power of Implication
In "Asphodel, that Greeny Flower," Williams wrote, "it is difficult/to get/the news from poems/yet men die miserably/ every day/for lack/of what is found there." Using figurative language and implication (since men were not literally dying miserably daily for lack of poetry), Williams hints at the poem's ability to say more than it literally says and to speak to every reader on her terms. Since poetry is figurative, it implies rather than says, and readers will find their own meanings within the context of a poem's intended meaning.
Power of Language
Williams and other poets want us to understand that poetry is important, but each of us adds our own emphasis and implications. Some may read these lines and think about the wit, intelligence, artifice and beauty of poetry that are missed in a world without it. Others may think of the challenging nature of poetry itself and how they would miss it if it didn't exist. Others will think about how they would be miserable without poetry as an art form. As D.A. Powell writes on poets.org, figurative language "casts a certain light upon some occasion or subject to create a new and impressive way of listening, seeing, experiencing the world."
Anthony Fonseca is the library director at Elms College in Massachusetts. He has a doctorate in English and has taught various writing courses and literature survey courses. His books include readers' advisory guides, pop culture encyclopedias and academic librarianship studies.