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Personification: Is It Passe?

by Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

September 2012

Rochelle Shapiro is a regular columnist for Authorlink.
Watch for her insights every month on Authorlink.


How many times have you read about flowers dancing? Breezes whispering? Winds howling? How many books could there possibly be that are crying to be read?

"I had sworn off personification, that is, giving human qualities to objects, animals…"

I had sworn off personification, that is, giving human qualities to objects, animals, or an idea in order to bring them to life in the reader’s mind. Trees by Joyce Kilmer had sealed the deal. “I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree./ A tree whose hungry mouth is pressed against the earth’s sweet flowing breast.” Ugh. And who do you think the poor kid was who had to recite this line in front of her third grade class? Me!

"Tomas uses personification to create a unique image that drills itself into the senses."

But then I read The Deleted World, a book of poems by Nobel Prize-winning author, Tomas Tramströmer (Farrar, Strauss, and Giradoux, 2006) translated by Robin Robertson and had a cataclysmic change of mind. Tomas uses personification to create a unique image that drills itself into the senses.

In Autumnal Archipelago, he describes an ancient oak as a “huge rooted elk whose hardwood antlers, wide as this horizon, guard the stone green walls of the sea.”

What an image! We can see it. Our knowledge of what an elk’s antlers look like help us get the breadth of this true that is wide in the horizon. So a personification that really works makes a metaphor, that is, a comparison between two things that help clarify each other and we need to know what each of them are to help this magic happen.

We’ve often heard about stars blinking in the sky, but listen to the way Tramströmer transforms them later in the same poem. “Awake in the night he hears—far above the horned tree—the stars, stamping in their stalls.” Likening stars to a stamping horse shows the emotion of the poet, how angry he feels about confinement either of body or of spirit. Personification added to the mood and dynamism of the poem. Startle the reader with your personification and he won’t forget your theme, message, or anything else you thought to ever convey.

We’ve all read about the sun beating down, yes? But have you ever read anything like this line toward the end of Autumnal Archipelago? “Morning beats and beats on the granite/ gates of the sea, and the sun sparkles in the world.” The poet is taking common things such as sun, moon, wind, tree, and transforming them through highly imaginative use of personification. Highly imaginative is the key!

Pertinent is another word that describes Tramströmer’s use of personification. In Ostinato, he writes, “The ocean rolls, thundering into the light, blindly chewing/ its scraps of seaweed, it snorts up foam across the beach.” In this personification, can’t you hear the ocean’s thunder ? He gives as a clear auditory image that actually happens at the sea. And the also implies that the sea is a wild horse, chewing up seaweed as a horse would oats, and snorting. Two common images, the sea and a horse become one in a dazzling feat!

In The Couple, the poet writes “All around is dark and silent. The sky has drawn in,/ extinguishing tits windows.” He has given darkness a will as well as the property of water to douse something. And what is being doused? Windows. Here the images are packed, each one veering from, but also building on the other.

The first line of A Winter’s Night, a storm becomes a musician. “The storm puts its mouth to the house/ and blows to get a tone.” The language of his personification is precise, sharp. No “music of the stars” here. The actions of the musician storm fit the actions of a musician playing an instrument. How vulnerable the house is to be played like that!

"To really work, personification has to evoke actions and properties that we can identify…"

To really work, personification has to evoke actions and properties that we can identify and associate with. Horses actually stamp in their stalls, musicians blow on their instruments, an ancient oak actually has properties in common with the antlers of an elk. And if you’ve heard a personification before, unless you’re doing a parody, avoid it like the clichéd plague. And of course, genius helps.

Rochelle Jewel Shapiro





Rochelle Jewel Shapiro is author of Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster) and has published essays in NYT (Lives), Newsweek (My Turn), et. al. Her essay, ESS, ESS, is just out in FEED ME: WRITERS DISH ABOUT FOOD, EATING, WEIGHT, AND BODY IMAGE, ed. by Harriet Brown (Random House, 2009). She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in poetry. She teaches Writing the Personal Essay at UCLA extension. Visit her at: www.rochellejewelshapiro.com or http://rochellejewelshapiro.blogspot.com/