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An Approach to Analysing Poetry: Tutorial 3 - Sense Devices Used in Poetry

Joyette taught English & Literature at high school for many years. Her writing and education articles come from her classroom experience.

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Tutorial 3

Tutorial 1 examined structural devices used in poetry while Tutorial 2 examined sound devices used in poetry. In Tutorial 3 we will examine sense devices used in poetry.

Creative writing employs imagery and figurative language widely. However, the poet, even more than the novelist or playwright achieves his various effects through extensive use of these devices.


Imagery is integral to the meaning of a poem. The poet, through careful manipulation of diction, is able to create sound, sight, taste, feel or smell pictures in the reader’s mind. In other words he is able to create pictures which enable the reader to visualize specific images, 'hear' specific sounds etc – In short, share the poet’s experience. Imagery is achieved through skillful use of diction and figurative language.


Diction refers to the poet’s choice of words and the order in which he arranges them. Every word or combination of words is carefully considered and used to achieve a particular effect, be it contrast (structural), rhyme, (sound) imagery (sense). With regard to sensory imagery, the poet must find the word which most powerfully conveys the sound, smell, sight, taste or feel which he wishes his reader to experience. One should not overlook the fact that images are often conjured by the particular thoughts and feelings which are associated with specific words and not necessarily by the actual meaning of the words. In other words the connotative meaning of a word may be even more effective in achieving poetic effect than its denotative meaning. Hazel Simmons MacDonald's poem, ‘Ted' is an excellent illustration of the skillful treatment of diction.


The rabbit died this morning. To be precise, it was killed-

Murdered by some unknown predator

Invading its sacred space.

And even while we slept

IT shred its perfect head to ribbons.

The children called it Ted.

Not an interesting name for a rabbit

Not as colorful as Silky, Flopsy,

Cottontail or Mopsy; or

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Some such ordinary name for others of its kind.

But he responded with dignity

Standing on his hind legs

When we called him TED

Until that day he’d romped about unchallenged.

I’d watched him sitting in the citrus shade

His jowls cascading to his paws

Beneath a bored yawn. Then a streak of white and he’d be gone

I had not thought that such a mindless soul

Could hook its paws around my heart

But as I stood and watched his scattered fur

The torrents came

And all that day it rained

In the first stanza of the poem, the word ‘murdered’ and the phrases ‘unknown predator’ and ‘shred its perfect head to ribbons’ all convey the horrible nature of the act which was committed. We can view in our minds’ eyes the massacre which the poet has discovered. ‘IT’, ‘unknown predator’, ‘Invading' 'sacred space’, and ‘while we slept’ all convey a sense of mystery surrounding the death of the rabbit, a violation of its right to live as well as the feeling that the act was committed by something monstrous and not human – ‘IT’.

In the final stanza, the line, ‘Could hook its paw around my heart’ conjures the image of the rabbit attached to the poet’s heart making it impossible for her to extricate herself from him. Thus they are connected to and therefore part of each other. As a result the sight of his 'scattered fur' causes the poet untold grief which is conveyed by the word ‘torrents’ and the phrase ‘And all that day it rained’.

Figurative Language

Let us examine three of the most commonly used figures of speech:

  1. Simile
  2. Metaphor
  3. Personification

1. Simile refers to the use of a figure of speech through which an indirect comparison is made between two things/ideas which are essentially dissimilar while at the same time allowing them to remain distinct. Usually one of the elements of the simile is concrete, the other abstract. Simile expands the sense of the poem. It is recognized by the use of words such as ‘like’ ‘as…as’ or ‘than’. Below are some examples of simile:

  • My tear drops fell like rain that day when my best friend said goodbye - This emphasizes the extent of the grief that is experienced as a result of the loss of a best friend
  • This job was as easy as ABC - Everyone knows that there is nothing simpler than your ABCs
  • Wash me and I will be whiter than snow (biblical) – The comparison is made between snow which is clean and white and a state of being totally cleansed from sin.

2. Metaphor is rather like simile in that it expands the sense of the poem and clarifies its meaning. However, unlike simile, the comparison in metaphor is direct; it does not use ‘like’, ‘as’, or ‘than’ to bring the images together. Instead, the comparison is made through the use of a metaphorical word which transforms the person, object or idea being described into that to which it is being compared. Below are some examples of metaphor:

  • Her accusing eyes were daggers piercing into my guilty heart - The accusation in her eyes hurt like wounds caused by daggers, hence her eyes become daggers.
  • His anger thundered across the room - His anger manifested itself through a loud outburst which was like the sound of thunder, hence his anger becomes thunder
  • You are my shining star - You inspire me/ bring light to my life as a star lightens up the sky, hence you become a star

3. Personification occurs when the poet gives human characteristics to inanimate objects or abstract concepts. That is, he allows an idea or object to act as if it were a human being. For e.g.

  • Night crept slowly over the quiet village - Night is an abstract concept which is being given human characteristics
  • Hate swelled up inside me - Hate is also an abstract concept which is being presented as an animate object.
  • Death came swiftly and mercifully put him our of his misery - Death is being presented, here, as a person

Read Poetry

More Examples of the Use of Sense Devices

The following poems provide further examples of the sense devices discussed above:

(ii) 'Light Love' by Roger Mais

I, remembering how light love
Hath a soft football, and fleet
that goes clicking down
the heart’s lone
and empty street
in a kind
of spread twilight nimbus of the mind,
and a soft voice of shaken laughter
like the wind . . .

I, remembering this,
And remembering that light love is as fragile as a kiss
Lightly given,
And passes like the little rain
Softly down-driven . . .

Bade love come to you
with rough male footsteps –
Deliberate –
That hurt to come,
And hurt to go . . .

And bade love speak to you
With accents terrible, and slow.

In the first stanza of this poem love is personified. ‘Light love' comes with soft footsteps and a ‘soft voice of shaken laughter’ whereas in the last two stanzas, the persona is asking love to come with 'rough male footsteps' and to speak with ‘accents terrible, and slow’ - metaphor. Simile is seen in the middle stanza, ‘as fragile as a kiss’, and ‘passes like the little rain’.

All these figures of speech help to create a picture of love which is simple, easy, yet fleeting in the first stanza in contrast to love which is complicated and painful in the last two stanzas of the poem. The middle stanza establishes comparisons between light love and things that are transient, thus justifying the persona's request for love ‘That hurt to come, /And hurt to go.'

Poets Sometimes Write About their Kids

(iii) 'Ana' by Mark McWatt

While she was yet too young to crawl

my pride would picture her sunlit, outside

playing with flowers

like every poet's child;

the frills of her pink dress

waving in the gentlest whim

of her father, observing,

pen in hand, her little gestures

in her world of green.

It was a calm and quiet mental scene.

Instead, now,

she leaps at me

off kitchen counters

when my arms and mind are full

of other things:

I glimpse the little hands

lunging for my throat,

and in that stiffening split-second

I wish she would miss

serve her damn right)

I pray she won't miss

(little monkey)

but infallibly, I feel her hard fingers

her sharp nails

in the neutral father-flesh of my neck

and her barbaric howl of delight

stifles my angry shout.

I make to unhorse her with a wild shrug

she thinks it's a game,

‘Do that again, Daddy',

and like a fool

Daddy does it again.

I've given up the prospect

Of pink dresses and flowers;

I let her kick her somersaults

Off my stomach, hardly noticing now

the muddy footprints on my shirts,

the scratches on my arms...

I think I must endure her thorny assaults

precisely because they seem

like self-inflected wounds.

And yet when she is curled in sleep,

like a comma,

I can ponder still the possibility

of finishing all the stanzas

with images of her calm beauty

-lying so peaceful on the flower-patterned sheet,

all her brutal fangs of life

retracted behind the closed lids.

McWatt makes powerful use of visual imagery in this poem. He presents images of this perfect child; every poet’s dream child. This is achieved mainly through diction. Examples of such images in the first stanza are: ‘playing with flowers’, ‘frills’, ‘pink dress’, ‘gentlest whim’, ‘little gestures’. The second and third stanzas make similar use of diction although there are examples of simile and metaphor as well. For e.g. ‘little monkey’, ‘I make to unhorse her’, ‘curled in sleep’, ‘like a comma’, ‘her brutal fangs’.

Sense devices broaden the scope of the poem and allow readers to arrive at different levels of interpretation based on their responses to the devices which the poet has employed. In addition they add interest and color to the poem.

It is hoped that these three tutorials will provide insight and equip students to more efficiently do independent study of poetry.

Poetry Tutorials

Writing Hubs

  • Writing the Short Story - My Approach
    A good command of language and a good understanding of the elements of the short story are necessary prerequisites to writing the short story. The rest is left to the writer's skill and creativity.
  • Tutorial: Dialogue in the Story
    Dialogue can be a very effective tool in story writing; it can be used to break the monotony of continuous narrative and is an important element of characterization and setting.
  • Descriptive Writing - Using the Five Senses
    When describing it is important that you engage the reader fully by making him see, hear, feel, taste and/or smell that which you are describing; you should use language which appeals to the senses.
  • A Guide to Understanding and Writing the Short Story...
    This is a three part Tutorial on the Short Story and is intended to provide guidance to students who are preparing for English examinations as well as teachers preparing such students.

© 2011 Joyette Helen Fabien


Joyette Helen Fabien (author) from Dominica on September 29, 2013:

Glad it could be of use to you!

Anita Saran from Bangalore, India on September 28, 2013:

Very useful. Thank you.

Joyette Helen Fabien (author) from Dominica on September 28, 2012:

It won't be the answer to all questions nicolemcgill. Use the tips where relevant.

nicolemcgill on September 21, 2012:

nel sorry but this hasn't helped me with my english homework

Joyette Helen Fabien (author) from Dominica on July 06, 2011:

Thank you so much for your enthusiastic comment. I appreciate it!

ExoticHippieQueen on July 05, 2011:

I enjoyed this..........always believe in learning, learning learning........especially about poetry and writing. Thank you!

Joyette Helen Fabien (author) from Dominica on June 03, 2011:

Thanks Nell. I see you are a poetry lover like me. I appreciate your support

Nell Rose from England on June 03, 2011:

Hi, very detailed explanation of a fascinating subject, I loved all the poems and this will be a great help for anybody studying this subject, thanks nell

Joyette Helen Fabien (author) from Dominica on June 02, 2011:

Thanks, you are a big help!

Rebecca E. from Canada on June 02, 2011:

Joyette-- Added ti to StumbleUpon, you'll find me there as RebeccaAE, same avatar and everything-- also you can find me on Digg-- same avatar as hubpages so you can't really miss it.

Joyette Helen Fabien (author) from Dominica on June 02, 2011:

Gee, thanks Rebecca! Certainly you will see me there. Wow you are most encouraging!

Rebecca E. from Canada on June 02, 2011:

well done, keep these coming, you'll get there in time. I've added this to Stumble Upon Hope to see you there

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