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Conceits, Tropes, and Truths

We're often told to write "what we know," but what we know can take a great many more forms than straightforward autobiography.

If you've studied literature, particularly literature earlier than 20th c. Modernism, terminology such as "conceits" and "tropes" might sound familiar to you. However, these terms apply to writers of contemporary poetry a little differently than they do to scholars of literature. 

The most common literary definition of a conceit is a complex extended metaphor, used by the metaphysical poets of the 17th century, to draw an analogy between a complex spiritual thought-puzzle and some physical object or otherwise physically "real" thing.

Used in contemporary 20th and 21st century writing, the idea of the "conceit" is essentially the same: an analogy involving some sort of extended metaphor. However, the application of conceits is far less restrictive to the modern writer. In most cases, it simply means that the poem thematically uses some "unreal" premise, character, situation, etc., in a metaphorical way. Hence, an analogy. However, within the use of the conceit, the poet still cathartically works out a complex philosophical, spiritual, emotional, or political problem.

Whether 17th century or 21st century, a conceit dominates the structure of the poem; it isn't merely a single simile or a single interesting metaphor in the poem. Yet another term that might be more relatable to contemporary poets is "a willing suspension of disbelief."

In the most general sense, a trope is a turn of phrase expressing some common wisdom, or platitude: "A stitch in time saves nine." In contemporary poetry writing, another term for a trope is a "central metaphor." This is different from an extended metaphor or a conceit. When a poet writes about a moment of experience in his or her life, the assumption is that this "moment" is used figuratively--or indirectly--to talk about something else: a theme, a complicated truth, an philosophical problem, etc.  

"Truth" is also a slippery term to use when talking about our poetry, because a poem doesn't have to be about the truth in order to communicate the truth. In other words, when we refer to the poet's truth, we mean the truth of the poet's intellectual or cathartic experience expressed in the act of writing the poem. This assumes that the motive for writing the poem is carried in the process of writing it, not in a conveniently packaged thesis the writer began with before writing the poem.

You're encouraged to keep these terms in mind as you select topics to write about for your own poems this semester, and not feel so beholden to writing about "big" themes and subjects, or even "true" things. Your truth will manifest itself in the varied and beautiful process by which poems come to be made.

Last Updated: 02/02/2017

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Karl J. Sherlock
Associate Professor, English
Email: karl.sherlock@gcccd.edu
Office Hours: M-Th 4-5:30
Phone: 619-644-7871

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