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What Is the Function of Metonymy in Poetry?

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  • Written By: A. Leverkuhn
  • Edited By: Andrew Jones
  • Last Modified Date: 13 November 2016
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The literary technique known as metonymy is most often used in poetry to draw attention to a word or idea by slightly changing the diction that the poet uses. A slight change in word choice can cause big changes in the way that the reader perceives a concept within a poem. Metonymy can accomplish this, often by abstracting an underlying idea or making it larger than life.

One simple way to use metonymy in poetry is to call something by a name that makes it less technical or specific, and more abstract or “archetypal.” For example, if a poet writes a line to include someone bleeding, but instead of the word “blood” uses the word “life,” it creates a different impression for many readers. In this use of metonymy, the blood as a technical biological element gets abstracted into a “life force,” something with more spiritual or metaphysical associations. This is one of the most common uses of metonymy in poetry and other literature.

In addition, metonymy can also be used in describing institutions such as nations, or in the medieval sense, kingdoms. One common use of metonymy is to refer to troops or armies as a nation’s “strength.” In modern terms, this metonymous term would include other parts of a defense system, such as advanced defense technology.

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Another use of metonymy in poetry involves eliminating a noun in a product line and just leaving the adjective. For example, the use of the word “good” to describe good things is a use of metonymy. Again, the use of metonymy further abstracts the idea. Saying “good things” provides a more concrete idea of what is being referenced, but just saying “all the good” gives readers a more universal impression of what is being discussed or described through poetry.

Metonymy in poetry may also be useful in literary symbolism. Literary symbolism is the idea that words as they are expressed on a page can have deeper or hidden meanings. Here, using metonymy can help to create a more symbolic work of literature.

In general, metonymy takes mundane, ordinary objects and gives them more poetic color or “life.” Those who critique literature or other art often talk about making something “come alive.” Poets use metonymy to pursue this objective in describing simple items or concepts in more creative ways.

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