How to Identify Metaphors in a Poem
Metaphor is the seasoning of everyday language. The previous sentence is itself a metaphor, a figure of speech involving a comparison intended to communicate the idea that certain words make speech flavorful. Poets intentionally design metaphors to enliven poems and shape reader understanding of actions, feelings and ideas. But not all metaphors are intentional. Recognizing and creating fresh metaphors in poetry begins by becoming aware of them in daily speech.
Listening for Metaphors in Daily Language
Metaphors are direct comparisons of unlike objects, actions or concepts. Unlike similes, metaphors don't include words such as "like" or "as." Poet Robert Frost defined metaphors as "saying one thing and meaning another," which is something many people do without thinking about it. An example would be to describe an unrefined person by saying, "He's a diamond in the rough." In fact, the description "unrefined person" is another metaphor, because it compares a human to a raw substance that undergoes mechanical refinement, such as turning sugar beets into table sugar. However, we don't think of it as a metaphor due to its frequent use. People seldom realize that they are talking metaphorically. When metaphoric phrases become so common that they slip into everyday use, they are stale choices for poetry.
Recognizing Types of Metaphors in Poetry
In poetry, there are many kinds of metaphor, including both good kinds and bad. The Changing Minds website identifies 15 kinds of metaphors ranging from simple to sophisticated or elaborate. Simple metaphors are readily understood, such as indicating a person has permission to do something by saying, "You have the green light." Sophisticated types include the submerged metaphor, which often uses part-to-whole comparisons and doesn't name the idea or object to which something is being compared. For example, Changing Minds notes, the process of thinking is compared to the flight of a bird if you say, "Her thoughts were on the wing." Extended metaphors are examples of elaborate structures whether in everyday speech or poetry.
Extended metaphor is also known as the "conceit" or central theme of a poem. The poet makes multiple comparisons between a subject and various objects, concepts or feelings to make a point about the subject. The poet may show how something is like or unlike the subject. The website Lit Reactor offers Anne Bradstreet's poem "The Author to Her Book" -- written in 1650 -- as an example of extended metaphor. Bradstreet compared the poems in her book to "ill-formed" children who are poorly dressed and not ready for public scrutiny. She wrote, "I washed thy face, but more defects I saw." The author concludes the poem by comparing herself to a bad mother for sending "thee out the door" in messy condition.
Recognizing Weak Metaphors
Not all poets are equally talented. Sometimes confusing, mixed up images or dull, overused metaphors appear in poems. One weak kind is the mixed metaphor, such as if a poet were to praise the loveliness of a girl by saying, "She is a gem / A flower unfolding." The two images would be mismatched and jarringly unrelated. Another problematic type of metaphor is a dead metaphor, which is one that has lost its freshness and become so common as to go unnoticed. An example is the term "flowerbed," which would present a romantic idea if it had not become a precise gardening term.
- Mark Turner: From the University of Chicago Press: More than Cool Reason -- A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor; George Lakoff and Mark Turner
- Poetry Foundation: Metaphor -- A Poet Is a Nightingale
- Lit Reactor: Drag It Out -- How to Use Extended Metaphors for Maximum Effec
- Changing Minds: Types of Metaphor
- Changing Minds: Simple Metaphor
- Changing Minds: Submerged Metaphor
- Changing Minds: Mixed Metaphor
- The Poetry Archive: Definition: Metaphor
Alicia Rudnicki's Library Mix website blends book buzz for all ages. A gardener, she writes for California's Flowers by the Sea nursery. She has a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from UC Berkeley, a Master of Arts in education from CU Denver, and has taught K-12.