Poetry Lesson 1: Similes, Metaphors, Personification

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I love to write.  I love the way sentences look on paper, separated by spaces and punctuation.  And I really love to read poetry--the images it creates in my head and the pangs it gives me in my heart when I read something that hits close to home, the creativity that stirs within. Creating the perfect sentences of rises and falls is a game to me as I try to describe something, like an umbrella for instance, differently every time, using metaphors, similes, personification.  (If you just don't get what all the fuss about poetry is about, or haven't read my article about "The Case for Poetry", you should really click....here.)  


How would you describe an umbrella?   

You are about to embark on a quick lesson about similes, metaphors, and personification.  

Yes, you!

You--on the other side of this computer screen.  I am talking to you!  Why do you keep looking over your shoulder?  

No....don't run.  Stay here with me.  Hear me out.  I think you will see this is not at all painful.  And maybe even good for you--for your soul!  You may even be able to skip your vitamin after this, it's so good for you. Grab a pencil and piece of paper. A napkin will also do.  

Oh, what's that you say?  You need to get up out of your seat to go get them? 

Ok.  I'll wait.

Just don't go pulling any shenanigans while you are up.  Don't go hiding or risk being called a lollygagger.  I'm a very patient person.  

***

Oh, hi again!  

I'm glad you're back.  (You will be too...I hope.)

First, let's quickly go over the meanings of simile, metaphor, and personification.  (Note:  these are my own definitions.  Sorry Webster.)

***

A simile is when you compare two different things, showing off their similarities.  They most commonly use the following words to link them up: like, as, or than.

Like this:

The sun is like a gold coin.

The book is as much a friend to me as Billy.  

The house is cozier than a mitten.

I really appreciate the picture Steinbeck paints with this simile below:

"Her face was quiet and a curious look was in her eyes, eyes like the timeless eyes of a statue." - John Steinbeck (Grapes of Wrath)

***

A metaphor is when you compare two different things and say they are the same.  

You are a bold writer when you use a metaphor. You are re-creating the normal yin and yang of things by using your imagination.  You have the audacity to say that something is something else--but it isn't! Metaphors are different from similes because they do not use the common comparison words: like, as, than.  

These metaphors, found in literature, are beautiful:

Language is a road map of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going. -- Rita Mae Brown

The rain came down in long knitting needles. -- National Velvet, Enid Bagnold

***

Personification is when you write about something that is NOT human, but you give them human characteristics.  

For example, if I wanted to write about a lawn mower using personification, I could say this: 

The lawn mower, a famished beast, munched on my lawn until nothing was left.  
Then, he left, sulking, wishing there were more.  

I have stated that the lawn mower is a living, breathing thing.  It has eaten my grass.  Not only was he famished, but now he is sulking.   What a baby!

I have just given a personality to the lawn mower.  

*** 

Now that you know the basics of these three literary tools, we can get started on the lesson!  

For the sake of ease while explaining the lesson, we are going to write about umbrellas.  You may choose whatever word floats your boat:  Pie, raccoons, wads of paper, cantaloupe, birthdays, sunsets, seashells, grass, your grandpa, etc.  If you are just beginning, go ahead and choose the word "umbrella" and come along with us on this lesson.  

1.  First, go ahead and grab some lined paper and pencil if you didn't already go grab some.  If you have neon purple lined paper, that's even better.  If it's wrinkled and is graced with rings of coffee stains on it, and the name of the last restaurant you attended, that'll do as well.    

2.  Grab a seat.  Draw a picture of an umbrella. If the thought of drawing an umbrella throws you into a fit of panic and the need to reapply deodorant STAT, find a picture of an umbrella deep within the wells of your mind, or a dictionary or Google.

3.  Think about the different times YOU have used an umbrella.  Where were you?  What were you doing?  What did you smell?  Hear? Taste? See?  Did you use it to shield from rain?  If not, what?  

Try to dig up the emotions you felt that day or during that event.  Were you ecstatic over the $20 bill you just found on the pavement, or the news that your best friend was making a visit, or were you devastated that you had to say goodbye to someone very dear to you?  Maybe you just felt complacent.  Lonely.  Confused.  Lost.  

Write some of these answers, the ones that stick out most to you, within the body of the umbrella.  Or, just write them at the top of the paper if you do not have an umbrella.  You may or may not use these words in the next activities, however, it may give you some thoughts to begin your writing.  

4.  Now, write a list of all the things that come to your mind when you think of an umbrella.  If you are teaching children, make this activity a group brainstorm session. Include abstract and concrete.  Encourage your kids to think of their 5 senses when completing this activity.  

During our brainstorm session, these words were spoken:  shield, protection, weapon, boat, ring toss, igloo, dog house, greenhouse, shelter, dancing, leverage, sunscreen, sunglasses, visor, hat, wall, wind, Mary Poppins, joyful, pitter-patter, happy, Tablerock, cars, damp air.

These words included the other purposes for an umbrella, the images or memories the umbrella ignited, the location of their umbrella-use, the sounds and the feel of the rain that they experienced.  

We completed a similar activity a few days ago using the word, "pie".  I was trying so hard to get my daughters to understand that we should delve deeper when comparing two different things.  We shouldn't just look at the shape of an item or compare food with food.  We should look at the function or purpose of the item and then compare those with the function or purpose of other items, for example.  After much discussion,  one of my daughters told me that a pie was like a dinner bell, calling for the family to gather at the table.  The dinner bell would definitely not be mistaken for a pie just by looking at it.  However, when we consider the purpose of the dinner bell and what happens when we put the pie out on the kitchen counter, then we can clearly see the similarities!

5.  After the list is completed, choose one of the words you listed on the board and write a one-sentence simile comparing the umbrella with the chosen word, reviewing the definition of a simile if needed.

This is my 7-year-old's simile: The umbrella is like a spear to protect me from danger.  

 

My daughter (age 9) liked the word "shield".  She wasn't sure what she was going to write and was sitting there a long while, thinking.  

I asked her, "What does a shield do?  What does it give you?"  

"Protection!" she answered.  And away she went!  

Sometimes, if we get stuck, we need to dig deep and ask ourselves how we are affected by that word, in real or imagined life. 

This is her simile:

An umbrella is like a magnificent shield giving me protection against the dastardly dragons of Mu.

Don't worry, I had to ask my daughter what Mu was, too.  Apparently, her love of historical readings has gotten the best of me again!  

6.  Now, review the definition of Metaphor with your kids (or yourself)!  Write a one-sentence metaphor using one of the words you came up with during the brainstorm session.  

Here is my daughter's (age 9) metaphor:

An umbrella is a life-saving igloo for the cold, dark and damp times.  

Notice that she not only wrote about an umbrella as an igloo, but also made sure to write a few words about the igloo's purpose.  What is it for?  To protect life in the cold, dark and damp times.  Does she mean figurative dark times?  Literal dark times?  The double meaning is beautiful.  The reader gets to relish in the mystery and the imagination it sparks!

When you are writing a metaphor about an umbrella, also throw in some adjectives and maybe some verbs to give it more meaning.  Don't forget to ask yourself:  does the reader get a good picture of what I am talking about?  

7. Next comes the personification portion of the lesson!  

This part is fun.  And this is where you might even get an unexpected poem out of your pencil!  :o)  The metaphors or similes already written often times will unexpectedly end up in your writings using personification!  

Remember, personification is giving human characteristics to something that is not human at all.  You will write one paragraph giving personification to an umbrella.  

Here is my other daughter's (age 7) personification piece.  It came out as one paragraph, but I instantly recognized it as a poem.  We read it aloud together and I helped her find it's rhythm to separate it into stanzas:

Once I went on a walk 
Then, it started to rain
I held my umbrella high
He looked surprised 

He said, "Why are you
using me as your shield?  
I think I've had enough--  
Why can't you be my shield?"

The umbrella has been given human characteristics!  He feels the emotion of surprise.  He's also asking questions and feeling a bit indignant about it all.  He feels there has been an injustice done to his integrity and he will no longer be taken advantage of!  

Isn't that fun?!!  

She used the principal of simile to compare the umbrella and a shield in the first portion of stanza 2.  Then, later, the umbrella compares the user of the umbrella to a shield with the principal of metaphor in the later portion of stanza 2.  

Now, all she needs is a title.  

This is her title:

The Umbrella and I.  

So there you have it.  When you finish the lesson using the subject of umbrellas, move on to another subject.  When you go about your day, pay special attention to similes, metaphors and personification as they present themselves to you naturally.  

If you have guided children through this lesson, make sure they rewrite their pieces in their best masterpiece handwriting and tape their work proudly on the fridge or in a frame by the stairway.  

FAQ:  Both my daughters had many grammatical and spelling errors in each of their writings.  Generally speaking, I do not point out their mistakes until after we have read their writing and I have enjoyed and praised them for the literary art they have created.   If I find that they have used a word too many times in close proximity, or if they need a new word choice, I ask them to listen as I re-read their piece aloud; I point out the repetitive sound, or their dull word choice.  Then, we find different words to replace the well-worn words.  Spelling and grammar corrections are made right before they are ready to rewrite it nicely.  I show them their mistakes by correcting directly on their papers.  Then they rewrite.  There is a high importance for rewriting and correcting. Do not skip this valuable step! But also do not create children who dread showing you their work because you find their mistakes straight away.