The Traditional Theory of Poetry, Page 2 

Robert Harris
Version Date: March 25, 2013

5. Devices of Association
We noted earlier and will again for emphasis that association is the key to poetry. Associating one thing with another through a rhetorical device or other method serves to clarify, add beauty, or provide understanding about the object of the association. The type of association can take any of several forms, including comparing, contrasting, exemplifying, equating—and any of these either seriously or ironically—and even through merely serendipitous juxtaposition. Accidental pairings are foundational to creativity.

Because association is the critical key to poetry, there are many methods for employing it. Here are some of them.

Rhetorical devices.
These devices of figurative language include simile, metaphor, catachresis, synecdoche, metonymy, personification, allusion, oxymoron, transferred epithet, and antithesis. The Handbook of Rhetorical Devices covers all of these.

Abstract through concrete.
Poets often describe, define, or explain abstract ideas employing concrete images or examples. Poetry pushes always toward the image, picture, and vision; it will associate a tangible thing with an idea, to bring the idea out of the air and plant it visually before the reader in the ground. Symbols are used frequently for this (an albatross for guilt, a sword for power or authority), as is personification (“Does not wisdom call, and understanding lift up her voice?” –Proverbs 8:1)

Poets love to appeal to the senses, bringing your taste buds into the argument, allowing you to touch an idea. Virtue in the clouds seems inaccessible, but Virtue as a living woman can be touched, endangered, protected, ignored, or honored.

For example, an ordinary writer would say, "Men say they want to be virtuous but they are not." But a poet would say, "Men say they love virtue, but they leave her standing in the rain." The image of a woman getting drenched in the rain appeals to the sense of sight (seeing the wet woman), taste (we’ve all been in the rain as the water ran down our faces, where we licked it off our lips), hearing (the sound of the rain hitting various objects such as plants, roofs, the street) and smell (the aroma of the air, the soil, wet objects like clothing).

Surprising Connection.
What makes some poets so good is their ability to set our imaginations on fire by using unusual yet appropriate juxtaposition, yoking, metaphor or other connection. Unexpected associations, including paradoxes and oxymorons, can seize the imagination and lead it to a new vision or understanding of the subject. Alexander Pope refers to

The bookful blockhead, ignorantly read,
With loads of learned lumber in his head.

and we immediately gain new insight into pedantry.

It’s the fresh, unusual, even surprising associations that draw our admiration and enjoyment. “My love is a rose” has been done, while I’ve not seen this elsewhere:

My love is a tide pool of beautiful creatures
Where crabs seldom enter to show off their features.

The goal of all these associations is the goal of poetry--to tell the truth through art. Associations strive to clarify, explain, make real, reify, make vivid the idea being mirrored forth--not to obscure it. A poem does not mean "whatever you want it to mean" and poetry is not normally obscurantist; it is sometimes (or even often) purposefully ambiguous or suggestive, but usually within identifiable boundaries.

For example, when Simon and Garfunkel write, “I am a rock; I am an island,” we understand that the speaker feels isolated from humanity (island) and is putting on a hard shell to avoid emotional pain (rock). But what is the writer telling us who says,

I’m a slice of pizza at noon in June.
Don’t give me draft beer—I like a can.

On the other hand, we can understand the following associations because they are drawn from our own experience or knowledge:

To win her I became a butterfly
And one spring night I flew into her den.
Appalled, she called an entomologist
Who stuck me on a pin.

6. Poetry unifies or pulls together disparate materials.
It assimilates a wide range of qualities--even (or especially) opposites or differences. It can use irony, paradox, oxymoron, metaphor, antithesis, or even drama of situation or other devices to crash opposites together. It can reveal a "balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities," says Samuel Taylor Coleridge, to show an overriding unity or harmony or wholeness. It examines the furthest extent or range of possibility of feeling and image in the search for wholeness of meaning. It might be said that poetry strives for a communicative holism, reaching every channel—thought, feeling, facts, imagination, words, images—and plays them like a musical instrument.

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Robert Harris is a writer and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the college and university level. RHarris at virtualsalt.com