If you are studying Literature, right at the start, you must’ve been handed a long, never ending list of meaningless gibberish titled “Literary Terms” and told to memorize them all. Of course, that sheet went right into the dark deep confines of your bag, never to be seen again. And now you’ve been told to find the “literary tools the poet used to enhance the poems” and are convinced that you must have been given the wrong question paper because you most certainly did not opt for Greek. Well fear not, this here is a (much shorter) list of terms that really do come in the poems we are given, and don’t just exist to make your life a misery:
- Alliteration: This is the repetition of the same consonant sound in a phrase. For example, the sentence “The sacks in the tool shed smell like the seaside”, in Hide and Seek is an example of alliteration because of the repeating “S” sound. This is the easiest to spot in any poem you’re given as poets think it’s very cool to use alliteration.
- Assonance: This goes hand in hand with alliteration and should not be confused with it. It is the repetition of vowel sounds in the same sentence or phrase.
For example, in Prayer Before Birth (Louis MacNeice.) the phrase “in tall walls wall me, in black racks rack me…” uses assonance as the vowel sound of “O” in ‘tall walls’ and “A” in ‘black racks’ is repeated.
- Imagery: Painting with words. That is what imagery is. If you want to get poetical about describing it: It’s the use of descriptive skills to the extent that the reader’s five senses are aroused. He can see what you are showing, hear what you hear, smell what you smell and feel what you feel.
If you just want to figure out where it is used so that you can write it and get marks, then look for lengthy paragraphs making no sense, having no object, and with lots of fancy words which can be summarized into one sentence. For example: ”The gushing brook stole its way down the lush green mountains, dotted with tiny flowers in a riot of colors and trees come alive with gaily chirping birds.”
In poetry, it would be shorter sentences which still don’t make sense and are completely absurd if thought about literally. For example the poem ‘Piano’ by D.H. Lawrence is full of it.
“Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to belong
To the old Sunday evenings at home, with winter outside
And hymns in the cozy parlour, the tinkling piano our guide.”
- Metaphor: This is a comparison made between two objects without using definite comparative words such as “like” or “as.” Example: “My mother is a teddy bear.” The writer’s mother isn’t really a teddy bear, but rather he is describing how cuddly and warm she is by comparing her to a teddy bear. In the poem Tyger, William Blake constantly compares the tiger to fire. So if you want to say this properly you say: Throughout the poem, Blake metaphorically compares the ferocity and fierceness of the tiger to the roaring, all-consuming fire.
- Simile: The simile and metaphor go hand in hand. Where metaphor was a comparison without the obvious words, simile is a comparison with them.
For example: “As tall as a giraffe.” “As quite as death.” “It was like fire, blazing hot.”
- Onomatopoeia: Sound words. That’s what this is. Words that describe sounds. “Booming of the piano.” (Poem Piano) Simple to spot and abundant in Seamus Heaney’s poems. For example: “Boom” “Bang!” “Whoosh!” “Splat!”
- Paradox: When two opposing ideas are used in one sentence, a paradox is said to be created.
For example: “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.” Here the night, which symbolizes death, is described as “good” making it a paradox as well as an odd choice of words.
- Oxymoron: When two opposing words are used together, it is called an oxymoron. Example: ‘cold fire’; ‘sick health.’
Don’t confuse this with paradox: if the whole thing doesn’t make sense, it’s a paradox. If just a few words go over your head, it’s an oxymoron.
- Personification: When non-living objects are given the qualities or characteristics of living things, it is called personification. For example: The sun peeked from behind the clouds.
Those are all the literary terms that you need to be aware of, to pass your Literature O levels unscathed. There are many others, and it gets more complex as one goes deeper, but learn these and you’ll survive. Also one last thing: If you aren’t sure what literary device it is that the poet has used in an unseen poem, it is better to not write rather than writing wrong. The logic behind this is that if you don’t write it, the examiner will think that you were probably running out of time and won’t give you marks for the literary devices; but if you do and get them wrong, he will cut marks for not knowing them well. This is one of those few cases where you don’t get patted on the back for ‘at least trying.’
If there are any more literary devices that you aren’t sure of, feel free to drop a comment.