When you take the leap and attempt writing poetry, you’ll find a multitude of tools at your disposal. Some are self-explanatory, some are surprising, and some are downright strange. All you need is practice. You can arrange rhyme, metaphor, and simile in a variety of combinations to wreak havoc with language. This makes writing fun, in my opinion. When you give animals voices, it’s hard to go wrong. If they start throwing insults, even better.
One such nuanced tool is what we’ll call “personification”: attributing human characteristics to something nonhuman, or representing an abstract concept using human characteristics. To continue the above example of talking animals, you can symbolize society’s degradation with a bunch of squirrels mocking people from the trees. Whatever works to get your point across, don’t be afraid to experiment.
But let’s break down this definition of “personification” a little. For the first part, bring to mind C. S. Lewis’s beloved Chronicles of Narnia. This is a prime example of when an author (admittedly not of poetry) decides to bestow clear human characteristics, such as speech and other associated mannerisms, on distinctly nonhuman beings. Brian Jacques applies a similar effect in his Redwall series. For the second part, think about that Aesop fable where the pot calls the kettle black. Something bigger is happening behind the scenes, and the animals and household objects are simply conduits.
Granting the power of speech to woodland creatures or household objects, however, is only one method of communicating your moral. Moreover, personification has some useful roles in poetry. Here I’ve selected three. Personification can 1) spice up your descriptions, 2) fuel your central idea, and 3) surprise readers.
1. Make It Spicy
If you hope to attract a wide readership as a poet, you must sprinkle your poems with flavor. How else could Mother Goose’s Nursery Rhymes endure the test of time?
Hey, diddle, diddle,
The cat and the fiddle,
The cow jumped over the moon;
The little dog laughed
To see such sport,
And the dish ran away with the spoon.
This is your classic case of happy-go-lucky personification (and we will put aside the fact that this could function nicely as a drinking song). But it also demonstrates how you can mirror human experience in exciting ways via colorful masks such as cats, cows, fiddles, dishes, and spoons. Such beings and items could have a whole host of meanings—and that’s the beauty of it!
That said, while you want to be flavorful, you also want to be tasteful. You could pull off so much lovely tongue-in-cheek here. But be careful not to overuse personification. Pick images only if they fit within the pattern you’ve chosen or created and are relevant to your central idea.
2. Fuel the Flames
So, you have an idea for a poem—an image, a phrase, a theme. Now you have to breathe life into it, to set words on the page that hold significance. But what does it mean to fuel your central idea? Shel Silverstein provides a good example.
Last night, while I lay thinking here,
some Whatifs crawled inside my ear
and pranced and partied all night long
and sang their same old Whatif song:
Whatif I’m dumb in school?
Whatif they’ve closed the swimming pool?
Whatif I get beat up?
Whatif there’s poison in my cup?
Whatif I start to cry?
The poem keeps going, but you get the picture. The Whatifs are like little fairies, giving a physical face to the narrator’s greatest fears and insecurities. You know you’ve struck gold when you can give physical form to a question or internal wondering. This is personification with its best foot forward.
You may, however, run into the problem of being too “preachy.” Another word for this would be “moralistic.” Just as your personification needs to be tasteful, it also needs to be proportional. Too much imagery, or imagery that is overly large or outrageous, could leave readers lost or scoffing at the absurdity. For your moral to be appealing, it needs to be in bite-sized pieces.
3. Look What the Cat Dragged in
Overall, you’re better off having readers laughing with you than at you. You want to share experiences with others instead of becoming the alienated village idiot. Hence, the goal is to surprise rather than annoy readers. This is a balance I do not claim to have the foolproof solution for, but I thought I’d raise the point.
As an example, “Don’t Kill That Fly” by Kobayashi Issa caused me to step back a moment.
Look, don’t kill that fly!
It is making a prayer to you
By rubbing its hands and feet.
I absolutely love the message Issa conveys within the constraints of the haiku form. The fly is doing something abhorrent you probably have seen multitudes of flies do. He lands on your favorite food right before you take a bite. But Issa presents it as an opportunity for sympathy. If you’re unprepared, it’ll catch you off guard.
Much of writing is kindling the power of wonder in the world and its diverse populations. And to jumpstart the “wonder engine,” sometimes you have to be contradictory. To an extent, you need to surrender to your twists and turns and produce something unexpected. I can’t really tell you how to do this, because each of our souls is unique. We all have a special brand of twists and turns. But don’t allow this hurdle to stop you—oftentimes you can accomplish poetic finesse as you revise and tweak your work. None of the “powers” I’ve outlined above (spicing up descriptions, fueling the central idea, etc.) need happen all at once or sequentially. So let’s surprise ourselves, and each other, and give personification a try!
Dwelling deep in the forests of New England, Graham spends most of his time reading, taking walks with his dog, and learning new and interesting things (and reveling in cooler, more temperate climates). Born and raised in the Boston area, Graham was homeschooled from an early age. After high school, he proceeded to get a bachelor’s in Literature from Patrick Henry College in Northern Virginia. He currently resides in the Boston area while pursuing a master’s in Education at Gordon College, steeping in the rich history of his home turf and a continued exploration of literature from across the world. He says you should read Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country and Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, because they are incredible novels. Also, read Robert Frost.