Project 3: Ways of saying and seeing

A Rough Guide to Poetic Devices

  • For Aristotle, expression (or diction) is the fourth element essential to good storytelling.
  • Poetic devices are found in all kinds of text, creative writing or literature, but perhaps they are more concentrated in poetry.

Exercise 2a – Definitions and examples of poetic devices in poetry

I consulted online poetry sources (;;, plus a few books I’ve recently read (Nell Zink’s Nicotine; Max Porter’s prose/poetry work Grief is the Thing with Feathers), to come up with examples for each of the poetic devices and subsequent definitions in the course binder (CAT, p. 88-90).

Rhyme – Words that sound alike, usually at line endings.

Look at that, look, did I or did I not, oi, look, stab it.
Good book, funny bodies, open door, slam door spit

Grief is the Thing with Feathers, by Max Porter

Rhythm – A metered structure of syllables, consonants, breathing, or pauses.

For a souvenir, for a warning, for a lick of
night in the morning.

For a little break in the mourning.

Grief is the Thing with Feathers, by Max Porter

*Note: Often, we talk about rhythm in terms of patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables. A good reference for details about the kinds of rhythm most common in English poetry (of old) is here [accessed 2/06/17].

Repetition – Intentional repetition for reinforcement and effect.

Again and again, even though we know love’s landscape
and the little churchyard with its lamenting names
and the terrible reticent gorge in which the others
end: again and again the two of us walk out together
under the ancient trees, lay ourselves down again and again
among the flowers, and look up into the sky.

Again and Again, even though we know love’s landscape, by Maria Rilke

I want to go
up to them there in the late May sunlight and say it,
her hungry pretty face turning to me,   
her pitiful beautiful untouched body,
his arrogant handsome face turning to me,   
his pitiful beautiful untouched body,
but I don’t do it.

I go back to May 1937, by Sharon Olds

– Two or more words in a line of poetry that begin with the same initial sound.

who chained themselves to subways for the endless ride from Battery to holy Bronx on benzedrine until the noise of wheels and children brought them down shuddering mouth-wracked and battered bleak of brain all drained of brilliance in the drear light of Zoo,

Howl, Alan Ginsburg

Assonance – Repeating vowel sounds without repeating consonants. In poetry, often used as alternative to rhyme.

incomparable blind streets of shuddering cloud and lightning in the mind leaping toward poles of Canada & Paterson, illuminating all the motionless world of Time between

Howl, Alan Ginsburg

Consonance – A word that imitates the sound made by the thing being described.

Sing song blackbird/
automatic fuck-you-yellow, nasty pretty boy, joke
creak, joke, crech, joke. Patience.

Grief is the Thing with Feathers, by Max Porter

Onomatopoeia – A word that imitates the sound made by the thing being described.

ghoeeeeze, he clacked.


Grief is the Thing with Feathers, by Max Porter

Personification – Ascribing human qualities to an object.

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

-When Death Comes, by Mary Oliver

Simile – A figure of speech in which an image is evoked by likening one thing to another (often using comparison words: like or as).

And now her eyes red as a market fish. And now, she dropped like
laundry on the bed.

-My Mother upon Hearing News of Her Mother’s Death
, by Cathy Linh Che

Metaphor – To describe something by giving it the identity of something else.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers —
That perches in the soul —
And sings the tune without the words —
And never stops– at all–

“Hope” is the thing with feathers, by Emily Dickinson

“Matt slinks out of the monster’s room. A flood of the substance follows him and flows down the stairs.

*Here, the monster is a metaphor for a mysterious, putrid substance that has spilled all over the room in question.

Nicotine, by Nell Zink.


Plump unpeck’d cherries,
Melons and raspberries,
Bloom-down-cheek’d peaches,
Swart-headed mulberries,
Wild free-born cranberries,
Crab-apples, dewberries,
Pine-apples, blackberries,
Apricots, strawberries;—
All ripe together
In summer weather,—

Goblin Market, by Christina Rosetti

Exercise 2b – Poetic devices in the novel

We were asked to look for examples of poetic devices in a novel, as opposed to in poetry, and make some observations about the effects of these devices on the text, the reader. I consulted Nell Zink’s 2016 novel Nicotine.

Imagery/onomatopoeia: “A second, larger sow approaches, gnashing its yellow fangs with loud clicks as it snuffles over the surface of the trash. It raises its head to look at the girl, who urinates where she stands. She doubles over and screams. The pee washes stripes in the dark grime on her legs.” (p. 1)

Why is this effective?
This text is taken from the novel’s introduction, and in addition to (surprisingly) linking up with some key themes in the novel, it really grabs the reader’s attention. Instantly, we are transported to a world heavy with visual details, one which is absurd and yet gripping.

Imagery, personification: “A cigarette fights intense humidity in utter darkness…It falls and comes close to dying.” (p.2)

Why is this effective?
In this novel, with its 3rd-person omniscient narrative, Zink has the challenge of constantly situating her reader in the novel’s oddball universe. In the above example, she gives form and personality to a cigarette to paint a strong picture, but also to establish tone and ambiance as we transition from one setting to another. As the novel’s name suggests, cigarettes and nicotine (distraction, addiction and dependency, more generally) are both significant themes and metaphors within the novel.

Simile, personification: “When his eyes seek hers, bright with the need to die and hopeful that she will help, she feels love, like a serrated knife, carving out her heart and giving it to her father.” (p.25)

Why is this effective?
Penny is the novel’s protagonist, and her father, whom she deeply loves and admires, is dying. His death is drawn-out, painful and affords him little dignity. The simile here associates love and empathy with the physical pain we feel in watching someone we love suffer. As a literary device, it works because it raises the stakes for the reader: we identify on an emotional, human level.

Simile, imagery: “His infected right arm, looking ready to burst, protrudes straight as a long balloon, fifteen degrees above the horizontal.” (p.33)

Why is this effective?
As above, Zink effectively uses strong language to bring the reader into her world and to raise the emotional stakes. The dehumanization of Norm’s body, post-humously, forces us to empathize with his daughter, who must process not only the emotional, but also the physical, reality of his death.

Metaphor: “A cloud dims the sun in her mind.” (p.43)

Why is this effective?
Within the longer form of a novel, short sentences like this one can be very effective. They give the reader a break, a breath, often pack a punch and engage us with the language being used. In this case, the metaphor speaks to Penny’s rapid change of mood during an exchange with her distant brother, signaling to the reader some odd tensions within her family.

General observations:
In poetry, the (typically) more condensed and largely interpretive form lends itself to heavy use of all kinds of poetic devices. There is also the notion that the form of the poem often informs or echos its themes. The longer format of the novel means authors have more space and words to create and situate the reader in their universe. While sitting down with and taking the time to interpret a poem is enjoyable to some, many fiction readers simply want to escape; it would be frustrating and flat-out exhausting if novels were as rife with challenging poetic devices as poems are. That said, novelists do employ a range of poetic devices: imagery, personification, metaphor (often extended metaphors) and simile are used extensively, often overlapping. They serve as important props for our imagination.

Exercise 2c: Poetic devices in my own writing

Out walking— a man

Out walking— a man
Slips a hand in his pocket—
I always smell Death.

Before beginning this course, I was using a textbook to follow a creative writing course. We were asked to compose a Haiku poem and commit it to memory without writing it down. We were to build and revise the work in our minds and write it down after a week’s time.

I don’t usually dabble in poetry, although I enjoy reading it, but following (and forcing, just a little) my inspiration to compose a very short poem was a fabulous exercise. What I ended up with reveals pretty direct inspiration from Emily Dickinson (who I hadn’t read in years) and a sensory metaphor for an animal fear (of men, as a Western woman, following a rapid uptick in terrorism targeting foreigners in particular, and conservatism) I often felt walking about the crowded streets of Istanbul (we lived there for 16 months) with my infant son.

Exercise 2d: Further experimentation with poetic devices, extracted from my own drafts


This morning, I
yawned—           stretched out in
the living room.                   Soon

I was spinning
the guacamole incident.
In a way, it was an accident
I need help.

I snapped myself upright in 
bright yoga

In our tiny kitchen

was Vincent— a
kitten of—

But mostly
my astonishing—

hunched over his iPhone and

coffee and—

so happy

see me.

-What can Ah say? Ah’m a bitch. A whinnyin’ old bitch. It doesn’t mean Ah don’t love ya; Ah always have and always will. But Ah’m what Ah’m: a bitch. It’s the plain an’ simple truth.

-Gathering up their literal and figurative guts, they would pad down like stealth predators to where the girls—his beautiful daughter and nieces—would be reading magazines on the wharf, or swimming and sunning themselves with their mothers.

The boys could for the most part approach undetected, as long as their feet made their way through grass or sand. But the gentle pad-padding of regrettable footsteps, the soft squeak of wood stacked on styrofoam, a sleepy dock struggling to stay afloat, was unmissable.

Jon watched from the balcony, amused, as his eldest niece’s ears perked, body stiffened. Like an animal about to be eaten. She stood quickly without acknowledging her guests.

A soft splash announced itself as her form disappeared beneath the surface of the cool water.

He made the table himself from an unfinished slab of Canadian Maple, and it is a fine expression of his elegant ghost, who I once knew and today miss deeply.

-The pinkish-yellow whites of her folding eyes bled into the borderless, pale-blue irises like egg cracked over a glazed ceramic bowl.

-Some of them I’ll write about; some of them are secret, still; some of them live only in the cobwebbed branches of a forgotten family tree.

-As with so many of his accidental double entendres, the idea of a vagenda was too perfect; every woman in our (maternal) family had to have one.



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