What Is the Role of Oxymoron in Poetry?

G. Wiesen

The role of oxymoron in poetry is typically twofold: it is often meant to create a vivid and memorable image or phrase and to make the reader pause a moment to consider the meaning of what was just read. By combining two words or terms together that are inherently contradictory, the use of an effective oxymoron can create a phrase with lasting resonance and a more immediately evocative sensibility. This powerful phrase can also help make a reader stop for a moment to consider the meaning of an oxymoron in the work, which can be used to control the rhythm of a poem or to punctuate a point.

William Shakespeare often used oxymorons in his writing.
William Shakespeare often used oxymorons in his writing.

An oxymoron in poetry or any other type of work is a phrase that consists of two or more contradictory words used together. Common examples include terms like “jumbo shrimp” or “bitter sweet” and are not merely used together to create contrast, but to also create a new meaning together. When someone uses oxymoron in a piece of poetry, then the poet is typically trying to create this same type of new meaning from the use of the phrases together. This means that simply placing two contradictory words together is not necessarily enough to be considered effective use of oxymoron, since this greater meaning is required.

An oxymoron in poetry may force the reader to stop and think about what they just read.
An oxymoron in poetry may force the reader to stop and think about what they just read.

One of the most common ways in which a poet might use oxymoron in poetry is to create an image or idea that is more powerful through the use of oxymoron. This can give a particular phrase or idea within a poem greater emphasis within the work and can make the poem more memorable. Examples of this include phrases like “Parting is such sweet sorrow” by William Shakespeare, in which the term “sweet sorrow” becomes quite memorable. Not only does this particular use of oxymoron also include alliteration, but the idea of sorrow feeling sweet or somehow being something someone would relish creates a far more evocative image.

The use of oxymoron in poetry can also allow the poet to better control the rhythm of a poem for a reader. Many readers may read poetry at a somewhat heightened pace, which can keep them from stopping and considering the poem as they read. When an oxymoron is encountered, however, it may be jarring enough that a reader is forced to stop and consider what, exactly, he or she has read. This allows a poet to control the rhythm of the poem, and to make the reader think about a point that may have special significance or greater meaning within the poem.

Oxymorons may be used as subtle humor.
Oxymorons may be used as subtle humor.

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Discussion Comments


@pastanaga - I think oxymorons are often overused though. That's not a bad example, but often people will put together two words because they like the contrast, rather than because they actually create a more vivid meaning when placed together.

I often see people using something like hot-cold or dull-bright in order to describe something, when what they really want to put forth is that the thing is indescribable.

To me, word coupling like that is worse than useless because it confuses people and makes them stop paying attention to the description.

Oxymoron should be used sparingly and only when it really makes a kind of intuitive sense, rather than just when they want to describe something and don't have the words for it.


One of the best oxymorons I ever read was a description of a tree that was packed with honey from a swarm of bees which had built a hive in the hollow of its trunk.

The honey was streaming out of the trunk and the poet described it as "weeping enjoyment".

I always thought that was a really good juxtaposition, and it obviously created an image in my head that I've never lost, so I would call it a successful poetical technique.

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