How to Spot Literary Devices

When reading poetry, it’s crucial that you’re able to identify and analyze the literary devices poets use.

So, now that you have an understanding of the 10 most important, let’s take some time to point out their defining features. Or what it is you should be looking for if you think a poem has an example of a simile, hyperbolic statement, or another literary device.

Alliteration

First, let’s consider alliteration. As a reminder, it is a technique that makes use of a repeated consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. These words appear next to or near one another.

If you’re trying to figure out if there are examples of alliteration in your poem, it’s fairly straightforward. All you need to do is scan the text for words that begin with the same consonant sound. This could be a hard “k” sound, “g,” “p,” or any other notable consonant. But, make sure when you say them out loud they are the same.

Simile

A simile is a comparison between two, unlike things that uses the words “like” or “as.”

One of the easiest ways to see if a poem has a simile in it is to scan for the words “like” and/or “as.” This won’t always mean there’s a simile, but it’s an easy way to find possible examples.

Metaphor

Metaphors are used to describe an object, person, situation, or action in a way that helps you understand it, without using “like” or “as.” They are similar to similes, but they are more difficult to find.

If, when reading a poem, you encounter the poet saying that one thing is another thing, then they may be using a metaphor. They are harder to scan for and may go unnoticed on the first reading of a literary work.

Symbolism

Symbols, like metaphors, are only discovered through a close reading of the text. They are used to represent ideas or meanings.

If an object, person, place, or event is imbued with qualities often only interpretable through context, then it’s a symbol. This is often seen through a particularly meaningful version of the above examples (object, person, etc.).

Allusions

Allusions are one of the most challenging literary devices to contend with because they’re always going to be different depending on the literary work. They are indirect references to ideas, events, people, or other details.

If you’re unaware of what an allusion means, it’s possible you won’t even notice it in the first place. One of the best ways to look for allusions is to scan a piece of writing for names and nouns. These could be place names or specific references to objects. It’s always best to look up an allusion if you’re not 100% certain what it is in reference to.

Anaphora

Anaphora is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. It is one of the easiest literary devices to find.

The easiest way to go about noting examples of anaphora is to scan a poem and circle or mark every time a line begins with the same word or words. This could be a single word like “And,” or it might be a whole phrase like “And then I went to.”

Refrain

Refrains are like examples of alliteration and anaphora. They depend on repetition and are therefore fairly easy to find. Refrains are used in poems and songs. They are repeated sections of text that usually appear at the end of a stanza or verse.

If you see a poem is repeating an entire line or the bulk of a line, it’s like an example of a refrain, and you should look to see if it happens again. There might even be more than one refrain per poem.

Hyperbole

Hyperboles are intentionally exaggerated descriptions, comparisons, or exclamations meant to make a specific impact on a reader. This literary device can sometimes be easier to find than others.

They are sometimes so outrageous that it’s impossible to miss them. Other times, they might be more subtle and require a closer reading. It’s best practice to scan the text and see if anything pops out. Are there any statements that feel like clear exaggerations? Do any seem especially over the top? If so, it’s likely that you’ve found an example of hyperbole.

Personification

Personification is a literary device that refers to the projection of human characteristics onto inanimate objects in order to create imagery.

If you’re reading a poem, and you see a poet describe something inhuman with human features, then it’s likely personification. For example, if they refer to the sun as a “he” or speak about an object’s grace or animal’s kindness.

Oxymoron

As a reminder, an oxymoron is a kind of figurative language in which two contrasting things are connected together.

These ideas contradict one another but are combined in order to make a larger point. Sometimes, examples of oxymorons are hard to find. But, once you discover a few, it becomes easier. If you’re reading and suddenly find a jolting transition between two different states, ideas, or experiences, you may have encountered an oxymoron.