Word Choice and Word Order

"Word choice" refers to the words a poet chooses to use. Word choice is extremely important in poetry, since the poem is such a compact form. Every word counts. Sometimes poets choose words for the way they sound; sometimes for their connotations. When you look at word choice, note whether the poet used a specific or general word: did he, for example, choose to say "dahlias" rather than "flowers"? Why? Note whether he used a concrete or abstract word: did he, for example, refer to a "Medal of Honor," rather than "bravery"? Why?

For example, look at Sipho Sepamla's "Words, Words, Words" (you can find this in the "Files" section for this class in Canvas). This is a poem about word choice: "We don't speak of tribal wars anymore / we say simple faction fights." Think about the words people use to talk about events: what connotations does the word "tribal" have that "faction" does not? When you think of a "tribe," what images come to mind? What images come to mind when you think of a "faction"? If you want to be taken seriously in the world, then, do you want to be considered part of a tribe or part of a faction?

The same can be asked of the difference between "tribes" and "nations: "there are no tribes around here / only nations." Which is taken more seriously at the United Nations, for example: a tribe or a nation? Which will have more power? "it makes sense you see / 'cause from there / one moves to multinational / it makes sense you get me / 'cause from there / one gets one's homeland..."

Sepamla's poem is about the power of words: what one chooses to call oneself can actually alter reality.

"Word order" simply refers to the order in which words are arranged in the poem. Does the poet use a conventional sentence structure, or does he invert the order of words so that the subject comes after the verb, for example? Why would he do that? How would the poem's meaning or impact be different if the words were phrased differently?

For example, look at Gwendolyn Brooks's "We Real Cool" (you can find this in the "Files" section for this class in Canvas). The first line, "We real cool," has no verb. How does this affect your impression of the speaker?

Each sentence is three words long. Why?

Each line ends with "We"--except the last one. Why?

And a question about voice: why is the speaker "we"? Why not an individual--one of the group, perhaps?

Brooks's poem is short, and seems simple; but Brooks has obviously spent time and effort to create this impression, so that the message will be even more powerful.


"Imagery" refers to language that evokes a physical sensation produced by one of the five senses: sight, hearing, taste, touch, smell. When you read the word "black," for example, your mind visualizes the color. It may also attach any emotional associations, known as "connotations," that you may have with the color black. Common associations with that color are death and evil, so that color may "feel" threatening to you.

Imagery is an important tool for a poet, because it helps him establish a mood, and it may also help indicate theme.

An important group of poets who wrote in England, Europe, and, to a lesser extent, in the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century called themselves "Imagists." They did not want to send any message at all, or explore any themes. They believed that, since there could be no such thing as objective truth, we all need to see things fresh, with our own eyes, so we can determine our own truth. So they simply presented images, as purely and evocatively as possible. One of the leaders of this group was Ezra Pound. Take a look at his poem, "In a Station of the Metro":

The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough.

The poem is short, only two lines. It compares two images: the faces in a crowd of people waiting on a dark platform in the Metro (the Paris subway), and "Petals on a wet, black bough." By comparing the people's faces to petals, he is asking you to see them as only faces, detached from bodies: as apparitions in a dark tunnel. By referring to them as "petals," he may be implying that they are somehow sweet or beautiful, or he may be talking only about their color in contrast to the darkness of the tunnel. By referring to a "wet, black bough," he evokes the dampness and darkness of the Metro station. He could be implying that there is beauty even in unpleasant places--more likely, he is simply asking you to see, with fresh eyes, commonplace sights we all see every day.

William Carlos Williams, who wrote "The Red Wheelbarrow," was strongly influenced by the Imagists. But he uses imagery to convey a "message," as well. In this poem, for example, he presents you with two images: a red wheelbarrow glazed with rain water, and white chickens. This is a vivid image, mainly because of the starkly contrasting colors. But Williams adds two lines at the beginning that let you know this is about more than two images: "so much depends / upon..."

Why would "so much" depend upon a wheelbarrow? Obviously, on a farm, a wheelbarrow is an important tool, but Williams seems to be saying more than that.

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

To understand Williams' poetry fully, it's necessary to know the context in which he was writing. William Carlos Williams was a medical doctor; he wrote poetry in his spare time. Yet he was one of the most important and influential American poets of the early 20th century. He was strongly influenced by the literary and artistic ideas of his time, especially, when he wrote this poem, by a new school of painting being developed by Picasso known as "Cubism."

Cubism (I am drastically oversimplifying here--all of you art historians, please forgive me) is the visual expression of the philosophical idea that truth is subjective. This grew out of that disillusionment we talked about earlier, in reference to Hemingway, in the early 20th century--that loss of faith in the beliefs that had been the foundations of Western culture. Until now, painting had been a way to capture and express the Truth. But if there is no God, then there can be no objective "Truth." All we have to rely on is what we see. So Truth is subjective.

To relate this to Picasso's paintings, think about how, in some of his work, the people seem deformed: they have two faces, or three eyes, or some such thing. There is also no dimension in his paintings--that is, when you look at his paintings, you don't see that one object is further away than another. They are all on the same plane.

This is because Picasso, when he began to paint, realized that he couldn't paint the "truth" about a person, because each of us sees a person differently. For example, if you are behind a woman, you see the back of her head--that's your "truth"; if I'm beside her, I see the side of her head and face--that's my "truth"; and if someone else were looking at her from the front, he'd see her whole face, and that would be his "truth." Which one of us would be right? All of us, Picasso would say--so he flattened out the canvas (that is, he didn't try to paint in 3-D), and he painted all of the views, one on top of the other, and all on the same plane, to show that all are of equal value.

Picasso is telling us that there is no such thing as "Truth": everything we know is subjective, based on our perspective. In some of his poetry, Williams is playing with the same ideas. In "The Red Wheelbarrow," you see two objects: a wheelbarrow and chickens. Which is more important? Neither; they just occupy the same space. But you see the two objects in relation to each other because both are there; you tend to compare the colors; you see the chickens as being next to something, simply because there is something else in the picture frame. But what if the wheelbarrow weren't there? Would you see the chickens differently? Would you, perhaps, spend more time looking at them? Would you make different assumptions about their surroundings? Their function?

"So much depends upon" that wheelbarrow, because we see things only in relation to other things--but we each have a different perspective. So in this tiny poem about two insignificant objects, Williams is making a statement about Truth: it's wherever and however you want to see it, and it resides in ordinary things.

Figures of Speech

A "figure of speech" is an expression that describes one thing in terms of something else. Metaphors, similes, and personification are all common figures of speech used in poetry.

A "simile" is a comparison between two different items that includes the words "like" or "as." In "Living in Sin," for example, Adrienne Rich compares the arrival of the daylight to the coming of the milkman: "...throughout the night / she woke sometimes to feel the daylight coming / like a relentless milkman up the stairs."

A "metaphor" is a comparison between two different things without the words "like" or "as." When a poet simply says that one thing is another thing, he or she is using a metaphor. For an example, in "I Knew A Woman," by Thoedore Roethke, line 12 contains a metaphor: "She was the sickle; I, poor I, the rake..." The speaker doesn't say he is like a rake (which would make the phrase a simile); he says he is a rake. That makes it a metaphor.

"Personification" is giving human characteristics to inanimate objects. In T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," for example, the speaker invites the reader, in lines 4-5, "Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets, / The muttering retreats..." The personification occurs when he imagines the streets (an inanimate object) as "muttering" (a human activity).


A "symbol" is an object, person, or action which represents an abstract idea. A dove, for example, usually represents peace.

Of course, as in fiction, a symbol in poetry isn't usually that simple. A symbol or set of symbols can have a range of meanings.

In Yeats's "The Second Coming," for example, "The falcon cannot hear the falconer." The falcon in the poem is symbolic of the idea of things which no longer work as they are supposed to. The poem is a vision of the end of the world. But Yeats wants to show that "the end of the world" isn't literal: the planet will go on, but civilization as we know it will not: "Things fall apart; the center cannot hold"--just as the falcon can no longer hear the falconer, and spirals further and further away from home, lost. Yeats believed that in the twentieth century, all the world had lost its way, just like the falcon.

But, on the other hand, the falcon is now free, just as the people of the twentieth century have been freed of the old social institutions and superstitions which bound them. So the falcon could be interpreted as a symbol of loss and confusion, or as a symbol of freedom--or both.