Poet’s Craft: Figurative Language & Narrative Poems

Lesson: The Poet’s Craft–figurative language, Metaphor

A good way to describe is to compare it to something else. It helps your writing come live when you use vivid, original comparisons. In general, metaphors are more powerful than similes and grab our attention more. Metaphor defined and explained and a video on TED to help you understand with poet Jane Hirshfield explaining them.

Categories of Metaphor

How to create metaphor, an online link and a exercise to help you generate metaphors

Excerpts from the film, Il Postino about metaphors:

  • metaphors: Pablo Neruda talks to the postman about metaphor
  • metaphor: Pablo Neruda explains metaphor
  • metaphors a mother talks to her daughter about the dangers of metaphor

Extended metaphor: a metaphor that continues throughout the length of a poem as in this poem by Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken,” or “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,”

  • What is this metaphor referring to within the context of the poem?
  • How is this description different from saying simply that the night is death?
  • Or that night is like death?
  • Can you describe how or why this metaphor works?
  • What makes this an effective metaphor and why?

Fresh metaphor checklist and practice.

Poem examples: Identify as many metaphors as they can in each poem.Explain how the metaphors are effective and how they work. Concentrate on the ideas and qualities these representations evoke and what makes them effective. 

  1. “Tugboat at Daybreak,” explore the central metaphor, notice mood and how the sense details create a sense of quiet.
  2. 4 Daughters,” Lucille Clifton
  3. An extended metaphor: “Shedding Skin,” Haryett Mullen
  4. An extended metaphor: “The Forest of My Hair”
  5. “Dreams,” Langston Hughes
  6. “Hope is the thing with feathers,” Emily Dickinson
  7. An Indian Summer Day on the Prairie,” Vachel Lindsay
  8. Caged Bird,” Maya Angelou
  9. Sea,” Shafee’s Kadkani
  10. The Tongue poem,” Pia Tafdrup
  11. “Litany,” Billy Collins


Figurative language is crucial to poetry. It connects large, abstract ideas such as love, friendship, war and peace to the physical world of the reader. The writer reveals and clarifies ideas by evoking the senses and creating pictures in the reader’s mind. Original use of figurative language offers the reader a unique view of the poem’s subject, transforms an idea or experience into something memorable, allows language to work on more than one level, and helps distinguish poetry from other genres. So, collect objects and observe your environment carefully. Explore how these physical “things” can stand for something beyond themselves. –Judith Steinbergh

You Try:

  1. Write a poem based on an extended metaphor of your choice, see here: extended metaphor poem
  2. Sleep,” Wendell Berry
  3. Four-Metaphor Poems with directions for your own.
  4. Charades,” William Stafford
  5. How to make a riddle poem
  6. Metaphor Poem about family


Lesson: The Poet’s Craft–figurative language, simile

Good similes make poems come alive because they link things not ordinarily thought of as being similar and allow your reader to see things in new ways.

  • Similes explained
  • Simile practice #1,
  • Poem example with simile, “The Weakness,” Toi Derricotte.  To what is this simile referring within the context of the poem? How is this description different from saying “her eyes shined”? How is this description different from saying that the persona’s grandmother had a dog’s shining eyes? What makes this an effective simile and why?
  • What does the flash of a cornered dog’s eyes bring to mind in Derricotte’s poem? What emotions does this image bring to mind in the context of the poem? How does the persona’s description of her grandmother as “solid as a tree” in these lines compare- and contrast- with the earlier description of her eyes flashing like a cornered animal? How do these similes build on the theme of the poem? How do they convey the feelings of the persona and of her grandmother? How do these similes relate to the title of this poem: “The Weakness”?

Model poems:

  1. “In Spite of Everything the Stars,” Edward Hirsch
  2. “Sweet Like a Crow,” Michael Ondatje
  3. “There Came a Wind Like a Bugle,” Emily Dickinson
  4. “Women Laughing,” Ruth Stone
  5. “Green Apples,” Ruth Stone
  6. “Dream Variations,” Langston Hughes
  7. “Abuelito Who,” Sandra Cisneros

You Try:

Simile practice #2 to prepare you for a poem you want to work on.

  1. Thing Poem
  2. Object Poems a student example: “Marbles
  3. “Debussy.” The Lorca poem as a model for your own poem.
  4. Simile structured poem
  5. Poem About a Subject Using Simile

Lesson: The Poet’s Craft, Personification and hyperbole

  1. Hyperbole defined and explained
    Personification explained. Personification gives human qualities to nonhuman things, as in “The wind howled through the night,” or “The house groaned in the fierce hurricane.”
  2. Personification Graphic Organizer to help you find personification in poems you read.
  3. Personification Lesson  using poems, “Five Things About the Lake”, and ” Mirror” by Sylvia Plath as a model for reading and writing a personification poem.

Model poems for personification and/or hyperbole

  1. “Sea Lullaby,” Elinor Morton Wylie
  2. “I Am the Land,” Marina De Bellagente
  3. “I Have Ten Legs,” Anna Swir  (example of hyperbole)
  4. “Fog,” Carl Sandberg
  5. “Lawnmower,” Valerie Worth
  6. “Mi Madre,” Pat Mora
  7. The Fog,” F.R. Mc Creary
  8. “The Wind One Brilliant Day” and the beautiful audio version for the poem
  9. “Sunflower,” Valerie Worth

Ways to include personification:

  • Use a verb that shows human actions. Rain danced on the deserted streets.
  • Use  personal pronouns to refer to objects. The stream glides on her way through the forest.

Refer to parts of the human body parts on inanimate objects. The oak lifted its mighty arms to the summer sun.

Personification practice.

Now you try: 

Personification poem planner: Personification_Graphic_Organizer

  1. Persona poem: become another person or object and write a poem from that point of view. Example: Mitten Dreams.
  2. Fairy tale/ nursery rhyme persona poem.
  3. Dialogue poem.
  4. Godiva County,” a poem modeled on William Stafford’s poem
  5. Writing About Weather, a poem modeled on “Fog,” by Sandburg
  6. Rhetorical Questions poem directions. See examples of Pablo Neruda’s question poems from the Book of Questions.
  7. Wishes Lies Dreams poem directions
  8. Contrast Poem using personification

Practice Figurative Language

Figurative language used in film

 Get in the habit of observing and experiencing the world around you. Trust your senses to lead you to ideas. The more you look around and observe, the more subjects you’ll find for your persona poems. Be ready. Be alert. Keep your ears and eyes open. Let your imagination take over and enable you to see and hear things that will astound you. Keep your iPad or paper hand, ready to capture all the surprising ideas that come your way.


Narrative Poems
Narrative poems tell a story. Examples of these poems are “The Cremation of Sam McGee” by Robert Service, or “Casey at the Bat” by Ernest Thayer.  Here are the opening lines of “The Highwayman”:

The Highwayman
Alfred Noyes

The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees.
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas.
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
And the highwayman came riding
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.

Narrative poems might be about something that’s happened to you. You may have many ideas in your journal of memories you could consider for a poem. If you are attentive to experiences in your life, you will notice new experiences worth writing about. Narrative poems allow you to capture the significant incidents in your life as well as feelings that go with them.

Many memories are connected to objects. You can find a good subject by looking through things you’ve got at home and have saved such as souvenirs, a rock or shell from a visit, a piece of jewelry or something someplace you know that reminds you of where you used to live, or something in your hometown or a house you used to live in. These objects can help you look into that memory, experience or story. Many vivid memories aren’t necessarily happy ones.

  1. Cottontail, by George Bogin.
  2. Example: “Legacies,” Nikki Giovanni
  3. Lesson: Writing a Poetry Monologue using examples from Carol Ann Duffy

You can change details from the actual event to fit your poem’s purpose. For example, your pet may have died on a sunny day, but you might want to change the weather to cloudy or stormy to add to the mood of the event. On the other hand, you could keep it a bright day  to sharpen the contrast to what you were experiencing. Either way, describe the experience vividly.

Tips for writing a memory poem link

Process for writing your narrative poem if you find it challenging.

Setting might be important in your narrative poem. Be sure to include details that appeal to your senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch.

Every scene doesn’t need to include every sense, but be sure to include sense especially important to the scene you’re describing. Don’t be satisfied with generalities like “My grandmother’s house smells wonderful.” That’s vague and doesn’t create a word picture. Instead, create details that evoke the scene, “The warmth of baking bread and frying chicken greeted me at my grandmother’s door.”

Use figurative language and make comparisons. Metaphors, similes, and personification are some of the key things a writer can use to make a scene or feeling come alive.