Exercise Four: Personification

Metaphor, in general, is pretty useful for all poetry. Think of it as the "salt" in our kitchen - we use it with pretty much everything. Most folks are introduced to the idea of metaphors in grade school, but, if it has been a while, here's a quick refresher (it's okay, I got a little confused about these until I was a freshman in college...). Here's a lewd but funny way to jump into metaphor - the extended (no pun intended) metaphor of Robert Herrick's "The Vine":

I dream’d this mortal part of mine
Was Metamorphoz'd to a Vine;
Which crawling one and every way,
Enthrall'd my dainty Lucia.
Me thought, her long small legs & thighs
I with my Tendrils did surprize;
Her Belly, Buttocks, and her Waste
By my soft Nerv'lits were embrac'd:
About her head I writhing hung,
And with rich clusters (hid among
The leaves) her temples I behung:
So that my Lucia seem'd to me
Young Bacchus ravished by his tree.
My curles about her neck did craule,
And armes and hands they did enthrall:
So that she could not freely stir,
(All parts there made one prisoner.)
But when I crept with leaves to hide
Those parts, which maids keep unespy'd,
Such fleeting pleasures there I took,
That with the fancie I awook;
And found (Ah me!) this flesh of mine
More like a Stock then like a Vine.

A metaphor is simply a comparison of phrases or words to suggest a similarity. Take one of  T.S. Eliot's famous metaphors from "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock":
The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.
Eliot uses what we call an extended metaphor here by continuing a series of comparisons between fog and the actions of a cat. Imagine what might be lost without the metaphor here:
The yellow fog can be seen through the window-panes,
The yellow smoke rises outside of the window-panes,
It is everywhere.
Some might argue that they do not use metaphor because they want to present "what is real." You be the judge: what feels more real - the imagery in Eliot's metaphor or the boiled down, almost prose, without the metaphor? I think we can probably agree that a metaphor - a good metaphor anyway - can actually make the real more real (which is what we can probably say about poetry in general - a good poem can make the real more real).

Now, when we make comparisons, we have some options. One, is simile. A simile makes a comparison like a metaphor, but it is more obvious by using words such as "like" or "as" to link the compared objects. Again, let's look at Eliot's poem for an example:
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table
I like to think of similes like metaphors with training wheels (those being the linking words). There's nothing wrong with similes and, as you can see, they can be used effectively. But whenever you have a simile in your poem, try to see how it might work without the linking word (i.e. try it as a metaphor). Poets are always looking for economy in word choice and, though useful, similes come with the baggage of extra words.

Another good comparison we make in poetry is called metonymy. It's fun to say and extremely useful. Metonymy is using something closely related with something else to represent it. For example "the crown" meaning the king or queen or the entire royal court, or "the court" to stand for a basketball stadium. Synechdoche is almost always associated with the body and represents a "part for the whole." For example,  "all knees and elbows" to represent a person or a group of people who are positioned awkwardly, or the hand represents the sailor in the phrase "all hands on deck." So, here's a test - is "the clink" to represent jail (the sound the door on a jail cell makes when it is locked - "clink") an example of metinymy or synechdoce?

Here's a use of synechdoche from Eliot's poem:
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet
There are many other figures of speech that we can use to make comparisons, but one of my favorites is personification. Personification works much like the metaphor we began with (in fact, personification can be seen as a sort of "sub metaphor" it is really a very specific kind of metaphor). Personification is a comparison wherein a non-human entity is giving human qualities. Here, Eliot uses personification with "afternoon" and "evening":
And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!
Smoothed by long fingers,
Asleep… tired… or it malingers,
Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.
The "fingers" is what really pulls this from metaphor to personification because we automatically associate the body part, so specific, with a human. When we say "the sun is looking down on us" or "that top is really hugging her breasts" or "the ground just seemed to swallow up the dead" we are using personification. Once good way to flex your personification muscles is to think of our five (human) senses and try making comparisons:

Smell (I admit, this one is kind of hard):
Morning dabbed a bit of coffee behind each ear and washed his face with the smoked bacon and warm rolls.

The heart saw it all, the destruction, the peeling paint, the crumbling monuments and waste.

And the coat hung on him like his father, its broad shoulders hulking him into the ground.

Its big corporate maw opened and closed for the new interns, each of them strolling down its carpet tongue to the gullet known as their boss.

The sun rose and every stalk turned as if they had all been called to supper.

Here's your exercise: Try your hand at personification by using the five senses.

1. Choose a subject: a building, a place, a season, a relationship
2. Sticking to one subject, apply each of the five senses as best you can - make the subject act human, make is see, hear, smell, etc.
3. Choose another subject and try again.
4. After you've chose about five subjects, stop and see what works and what doesn't.
5. See if you can't use what you have come up with to create poems about the five senses. Chances are, you probably can't or they'll probably be pretty awful, but the point is to have fun with this.

I'm pretty sure you're gonna start "personifying" lots of things after this exercise!