Figurative and sensory language helps our poems come alive!

Photo by Josh Hild on

Figurative language encompasses all those types of expressions that create images in our brains when we read them. These include similes and metaphors, which I would argue are two of the most important components of poetry across a wide swath of history.

If you are unsure, a simile (in its simplest and most elementary sense) is a comparison using the words “like” or “as” to conjure a visual image in one’s brain. For instance, “he was as tall as a mountain,” compares a man to a mountain in size and we can see that in our mind’s eye. It is very effective.

Additionally, poets love using metaphors, which, again in its most rudimentary sense, is a direct comparison of two things not using “like” or “as” to, again, conjure those visual images to make descriptions easier to see for the audience. For example, “the clouds were little pillows of delight” helps us compare clouds to pillows but it also tells us that they are little, white, and and look delightful.

Lastly, we also have sensory language to contend with, and this language can be hard to nail down in a poem because it takes skill to not just compare two things but also make a reader literally sense and feel what is happening in a scene. Check out some of this sensory language in the poem “A Sight in Camp” by Walt Whitman:

A sight in camp in the day-break grey and dim,
As from my tent I emerge so early, sleepless,
As slow I walk in the cool fresh air, the path near by the hospital tent,
Three forms I see on stretchers lying, brought out there, untended lying,
Over each the blanket spread, ample brownish woolen blanket,
Grey and heavy blanket, folding, covering all.

“The day-break grey and dim” attaches itself to what we see, while “cool fresh air” is together tells us what we feel on our skin (“cool”) and what we smell in our noses (“fresh”). Wonderfully done. Ideally, the above passage should evoke some sensory feeling–the sights, the feels, and the smells!

Anyway, I hope learning a little bit about poetic structure and sensory language helps you with your adventure into the land of poetry!