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The Power of Poetic Devices

It’s time to look at the potential of poetic devices and analyze examples in a poem by Timothy Liu.

Photo courtesy of daizuoxin on iStock.

Modern poetry is largely written in free verse, a trend further popularized by most literary magazines straying away from fixed forms and rhymed work. However, even with the freedom brought with free verse, it’s still important to bring other poetic devices into your work.

If you want to learn more about poetic devices, here’s a list of the most common ones from the Academy of American Poets.

If you want to dive in head first, check out this list from the California Federation of Chaparral Poets. This guide goes into greater detail, comes with examples, and covers a lot more terms.

Obviously, most individual poems are only going to have a few poetic devices at work, there’s no need to aspire to tackle the entire list in one piece. Nevertheless, it’s an excellent way to experiment with different types of poetry by practicing with different devices.

I’m going to talk a bit about imagery and symbolism, using Timothy Liu’s poem "An Evening Train" for illustrative purposes. Please click here to read the original poem on the Academy of American Poets’ website. 

'An Evening Train'

Timothy Liu is a poet who employs lurid imagery to create a strong sense of foreboding in his poem. The title of the poem already established a major topic in the piece. Trains often have connotations of travel and escape, but in this piece, the future is not viewed as something bright that someone should feel excitement over. Instead, warnings are given, accompanied by chilling descriptions of tragic events. The images painted in the poem are vital to understanding the deeper meaning of the piece, for the key images recur several times throughout this single stanza poem.

First, we have Liu’s ominous statement, “We go on sleeping / through sirens and crimson strobes / flashing on remains no one can identify.” When I first read this poem, I was shaken by how Liu writes about death with such strong images law enforcement reactions and people being unconcerned, peacefully asleep. The images are excellent; they’re experiences that we can all relate to in some capacity and they explain that a crime or accident has occurred without explicitly stating so. The imagery here is far from being happy, so it also contributes to the overall tone of foreboding in the poem. The idea of sleeping through such tragedies conveys coldness, a lack of caring.

However, after living down the block from an emergency room ambulance bay and watching those crimson strobes flashing through my closed blinds at least five times per evening, I understood these lines a lot more. It’s true, it’s cold when the public stops caring about tragedies happening around them, hence the words about how we “go on sleeping” and then “line up at dawn to see who’s missing.” Yet if you are exposed to such tragedies and reactions constantly, it’s impossible not to eventually sleep through them. It’s cold, yes. But it’s also necessary at times. This is a fantastic moral dilemma to elude to with just a few carefully chosen words.

Refocusing on the poetic devices at work, we have chilling imagery that only gets worse when Liu continues to talk of tragedies and brings up a young woman at the zoo, “found half-devoured in a moat, two lions / licking their chops.” These images can make a person cringe. The subtle storytelling elements in the poem become clearer here. Liu starts with the train, goes over the tragedies, then mentions that the things found on her body and in her purse. The objects show that she was on a trip, far from home, when this incident occurred.

With a small leap of the imagination, we can assume that this girl traveled on the evening train mentioned in the title. If you don’t want to make that leap and instead focus on the distinct evidence we have, trains correlate to travel, and the concrete events of the poem show that this young woman left home for some reason, traveled elsewhere, but met an unfortunate fate. The image of the train passing by in the evening, at the end of the day, could even correlate to the ending of the young girl’s life.

The poignant recurring image of the train continues to play an important role in the closing lines of the poem. The image of the tracks relates back to the train, but the words “We warn our children / not to lay their ears down on the tracks” is particularly haunting.

Continuing the analysis of the child laying his or her ears down on the track, the ending line of the poem solidly anchors the image of the train to unwanted futures and tragedies that have yet to come. Almost immediately after describing the warning, the words “knowing how it’s not / always best to know what’s coming our way” draws a bond between the train and the future.

Here’s a quick summary of the things Liu did to make this poem memorable.

Photo courtesy of MasterShot on iStock.

  • A meaningful title that interacts with the piece
  • Subtle storytelling through bold images
  • Consistent imagery that chills the reader and sets the ominous tone
  • Making the train symbolize rushing into future tragedies

You could go as far as to say that the train symbolizes death itself, but I’ll leave that ball in your court. 

Ultimately, there is so much we can do with our poetry.

Imagery doesn’t just have to be pretty words about the scene or thing we’re describing. It can be used to tell a story. The title of Liu’s piece, something completely left out of poetry on some platforms, introduces the central image of the poem. The words in every line were carefully chosen to create this cold, foreboding mood.

Next time you sit down to pen a poem, I challenge you to use at one poetic device you don’t normally utilize. Give it a try and see if you like what comes out.

There’s no limit to what we can do with poetry.

With that said, thank you for reading! I hope this motivates you to experiment with trying new things in your poetry. If you enjoyed this piece, please consider leaving a tip in the menu below! You’d have all my adoration and gratitude. I love connecting with people, so if you’d like to find me elsewhere, I am @SleeplessAuthor on Twitter and @SleeplessAuthoress on Instagram. 

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Leigh Fisher
Leigh Fisher

I'm from Neptune. No, not the farthest planet from the sun, but from Neptune, New Jersey. I'm a writer, poet, blogger, and an Oxford comma enthusiast.

I go by @SleeplessAuthor on Twitter and @SleeplessAuthoress on Instagram.

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