Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach
One literary device that my students recognize easily is personification, the trick of endowing non-human objects with human qualities. For example:
• “It is difficult to believe in the dreadful but quiet war of organic beings, going on in the peaceful woods, & smiling fields” (Darwin, 1839)
• “At the first gesture of morning, flies began stirring” (Frazier, Cold Mountain 1).
• “Vines strangling their own kin in the everlasting wrestle for sunlight.. . . .a choir of seedlings arching their necks out of rotted tree stumps, suckling life out of death. The forest eats itself and lives forever” (Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible 5).
• “Sap rises from the sodden ditch / glues two green ears to the dead / birch twig” (Louise Gluck, “For Jane Meyers,” ll. 1-3).
• “The glass has been falling all the afternoon, / And knowing better than the instrument / What winds are walking overhead, what zone / Of gray unrest is moving across the land, / I leave the book on a pillowed chair” (Adrienne Rich, “Storm Warnings,” ll. 1-5).
Prose and poetry become more vivid and effective when writers employ personification so imitating the art and craft of personification will help each of us become better writers.
Choose any of the writers whose sentences were used as illustrations. Read more from these novelists and poets. Identify personification as you read.
Take up the challenge of imitation that is, as they say, a sincere form of flattery. For example, Darwin personifies the fields by describing them as smiling. What can you invent to describe and personify fields?
Frazier suggests that morning gestures. What else might gesture, nudge, or urge?
Kingsolver portrays vines as murderous, strangling their brethren in a life and death contest for sunlight. Little seedlings arch their necks and find sustenance in rotted tree stumps; the entire forest is cannibalistic, feeding upon itself in order to thrive. Try to employ powerful, ominous personification for things non-human.
In Gluck’s poem, sticky sap glues new growth to old, dead twigs, another natural image for life in the presence of death, life emerging from apparent death. Create your own natural image for this concept, using personification.
For Rich, an approaching storm resembles winds walking overhead. What other forces of nature might walk, run, strut, or stumble?
Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM):
For the last two bulleted illustrations from poetry, you will notice a slash mark and unusual use of capital letters in the quoted passage. These are required to quote poetry correctly (first presented and explained in the August 27, 2010 post).
The slashes separate one line of poetry from another so that the reader will be aware of line length, meter, and rhyme. The writer quoting the lines also honors the original line by capitalizing and punctuating it exactly as the poet did.