Modern poetry owes a debt to William Wordsworth, who’s responsible for much of what we take for granted as writers. Today, we depict ourselves in our writing, using the first person (before Wordsworth, most scholars denounced poetry based upon one’s personal life); we can write about “common” people in verse (most pre-Wordsworth critics thought poems should be based on nobility or important events); and we avoid personified abstractions (no more “O, Truth! how thou hath blessed the soul!”).
Wordsworth mentions the last in his “Preface to Lyrical Ballads,” an important poetic document. But even the master Wordsworth couldn’t always master personification and was taken to task by critics who accused him of not practicing what he preached.
Fact is, bad personification is as easy to spot as wrenched rhyme or clumsy meter. It brands a poet a “beginner” and almost guarantees rejection. However, because many poets avoid personification, or use it poorly, you can impress editors by including it in your work, if you do it well.
Two poets – James Wright and Robert Frost – can show us methods to employ personification to its greatest effect.
Personification often is confused with other similar figures of speech. Here’s a list of those types, followed by definitions, explanations and examples from the canon of the late Pulitzer Prize-winning poet James Wright:
* Personification. Endowing objects or animals with human abilities, traits or desires. In this example, the sun – an inanimate object – is depicted as if it had been drinking too much: “Drunk, mumbling Hungarian/ The sun staggers in….” (from “Two Hang-overs,” The Branch Will Not Break).
* Apostrophe. A figure of speech in which the poet addresses a dead person or animal, object or abstraction. In this line, the earth – another inanimate object – is addressed as if it were a person: “Bright earth, his friends remember how he sang….” (from “Arrangements With Earth for Three Dead Friends,” The Green Wall).
* Anti-personification. Endowing humans with traits or qualities of lower life form or inanimate objects. In this excerpt, a person is made up of lower elements: “… I saw his hair turn leaf,/ His dancing toes divide/ To hooves on either side,/ One hand became a bird” (from “Evening,” Saint Judas).
* Metamorphosis. Lower life forms and inanimate objects transforming into other life forms or inanimate objects. In this example, an insect becomes an inanimate object: “Every spider in America is the shadow/ Of a beautiful woman” (from “Afternoon and Evening at Ohrid,” Two Citizens).
* Synecdoche. A figure of speech in which a part of an object represents the whole, as in: “The long arm of the law.” With regard to personification, this is modified to mean parts of the human body taking on aspects of a whole person: “The faces of unimaginably beautiful blind men/ Glide among mountains” (from “The Poor Washed, Up by Chicago Winter,” Shall We Gather at the River).
The work of James Wright is rich with personification and associated figures of speech. Early in his career, Wright was influenced by another master: Robert Frost.
A closer look at Wright’s and Frost’s poems will help us understand personification as an element of craft that can endow our work with vision, magic and wonder. Frost shows us when to personify and Wright shows us how.
When to Personify
Frost resorts to personification or apostrophe when trying to depict some aspect or movement that naturally resembles something human or to describe the mind of the narrator so that we understand his inner state.
In “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening,” the narrator’s horse is personified when “He gives his harness bells a shake/ To ask if there is some mistake.”
In “Birches,” Frost describes the trunks of trees “arching” and “trailing their leaves on the ground/ like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair/ Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.” This is a simile, not a personification, because Frost uses the word like. Nonetheless, the arching trees resemble the girls in form and shape.
Now we’re ready for the apostrophe – a personified abstraction – the type that masters have railed against since Wordsworth: “But I was going to say when Truth broke in/ With all her matter of fact about the ice storm,” etc.
Clearly, those lines depict the speaker’s mind: Here he’s imagining the beauty of an ice storm when Truth has to remind him about the damage that Nature can do, bringing the speaker down to earth.
Nonetheless, Frost’s use of a personified abstraction in “Birches” is not ornamental as many were in Wordsworth’s day. Rather, it pivots the poem so that the narrator can take stock of himself truthfully: “One can do worse than be a swinger of birches.”
Bad personification calls attention to itself. So let’s recast those excerpts of Frost poems to illustrate how a lesser writer might have handled them.
Suppose Frost wrote in “Stopping in Woods on a Snowy Evening”:
My little horse has asked me now To move along or freeze in snow.
The personification fails because I didn’t personify the “natural” movement of a horse so that it suggests a human response. Instead the animal comes off like Mr. Ed.
Suppose Frost used this personified abstraction in “Birches”:
Truth says the trunks of trees arching in woods Trail their braids of leaves on the frozen ground….
Who is “Truth” and why is he saying those things about girls? Again, the personification doesn’t hold up because “Truth” as a character does not relate to the narrator’s mind or inner state.
As Frost shows us, personification can captivate an audience. As the clunky revisions show, it can lose or confuse readers if not executed well. To learn how to make it work, let’s examine James Wright’s techniques.
How to Personify
In his last book, This Journey (Vintage), Wright perfected the art of personification by using it to characterize – or describe the personality of – the narrator in his poems. He was operating almost as a novelist might.
To illustrate, I’ll cite excerpts from This journey. Then I’ll rewrite them so that the personification doesn’t further characterize the narrator.
Study the difference between the two examples, and you’ll come away with greater respect for Wright’s techniques, which include:
* Suggested personification. The use of words or phrases that are associated with the mind: seem, suggest, think, feel, wonder, wish, hope, believe, doubt, imagine and dream.
These words link up with a personification, as in “A dissolving/ Stone, she seems to change from stone to something/Frail, to someone I can know, someone/ I can almost name” (from “The Vestal in the Forum”)
The rewrite: Watch how the personification deflates without the word seems; “She changes from stone to something frail.” Without the word, we focus on the “she” in the poem – not on the narrator’s state of mind – and lose a layer of meaning.
* Tense change. A switch from the present or past verb tense to the subjunctive mood (“as if it were”) or future tense. Both have the same effect when it comes to personification: They denote a condition that is not a fact but may seem so in the poet’s mind.
Consider how the future tense operates in these lines: “The pages have a light spirit/ That will rise into blossom and harvest only/ After your hand touches them” (from “With the Gift of a Fresh New Notebook I Found in Florence”).
Without the future tense, the poet wouldn’t be able to connect the personification to the line “After your hand touches them,” revealing his feelings. Instead it might read, “Pages have spirits that rise into blossom.” Again, the latter personification calls attention to itself without depicting the narrator’s inner state.
* Undercutting. Challenging the personification outright with a word or phrase, as in: “It does not matter. The sea’s fire/ Is only the cold shadow of the moon’s …” (from Apollo”).
In these lines, the poet negates that the sea can have a fire and, in doing so, reveals his depressed or unromantic inner state. Otherwise the line might assert, “The sea can light a fire,” a rather ordinary personification.
* Rhetorical question. An inquiry that includes a personification or in some way unites it with the mind, as in: “Why do these creatures come out to be/ Family to me?” (from “Small Wild Crabs Delighting on Black Sand”).
Without the question, the lines would imply, “These crabs are members of my family.” That kind of bold personification is, alas, implausible and amateurish enough to doom an entire poem.
Those are Wright’s four basic techniques. In many of his later poems, he combines them usually with the future tense) and adds to the effect; “All I am doing is standing here,/ Turning to stone,/ Believing he will build a strong nest/ Along the Adige, hoping/ He will never die” (from “A Dark Moor Bird”); and “I think I am going to leave them folded/ And sleeping in their slight gray wings./ I think I am going to climb back down/ And open my eyes and shine” (from “Lightning Bugs Asleep in the Afternoon”).
As you can see from these excerpts, when Wright personifies, he also characterizes and enhances the meaning of his lyrics. So can you.
Making it Simple
Try to identify personification and associated figures of speech in the poems of your favorite author. The more you’re able to isolate examples of personification, the more you’ll become familiar with the types and techniques. Also, reread examples from the work of Robert Frost in which he bases personification on aspects of an object or on the narrator’s mind. Read his collected or anthologized poems and see if you can identify more examples. When you do you’ll understand more fully when to use personification in your work.
Look at examples from the poems of James Wright in which he builds on Frost’s methods and invents several writing techniques to insert personification into his work. Reexamine the examples above (or read This Journey) to see how he uses personification as a tool of characterization. The more you characterize the speaker of your poems, the more powerful they become.
Finally, evaluate the poems in your own inventory:
* Do you use personification?
* Are you avoiding it because you don’t know how to use it properly?
* Are you using it at the right moment in a poem? Or do you personify randomly, without much regard to craft or effect?
* When you personify an object, do you call attention to it (rather than the mind of the narrator in your poem)?
* Are you executing it well with the words you use or poorly so that the personification is too obvious or implausible?
As an exercise, you might want to write a Frost-like poem set in nature after a storm, personifying objects and commenting on your fears or discoveries. Or a Wright-like poem personifying an insect or animal in a tropical or exotic setting, using his rhetorical techniques.