Please explain the form of "Water Picture" by May Swenson, addressing things such as figures of speech, etc.

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The most important thing to be aware of before one begins to read May Swenson's "Water Picture" (and I know this from personal experience) is that considering and understanding the title is absolutely necessary to making sense of the poem itself. As an example, if one does not do so, the poem's images are confusing—as seen in the following phrases: "clouds below," "a pink balloon for a buoy," "Dogs...barking on their backs," and "birds coast belly-up." Once we realize that the author is describing the landscape as it is reflected in the water, we understand that everything is "upside-down."

Swenson's poem does not have a rhyme scheme or meter (rhythm), but the imagery is outstanding: the images she describes so beautifully could be photographs called to mind. It has been noted that she has the ability to make the reader...

...see clearly what he has merely looked at before.

Her artistry is evident in her use of figures of speech (literary devices—all forms of imagery). She uses several.

In the line below, "gently" is a form of personification.

Long buildings hang and

wriggle gently. 

The building looks as if it is moving because of the reflection cast upon moving water: "gently" is something we associate with a person, not a thing. Personification is giving human characteristics to non-human things. "Gently" infers sentience, and a building is not sentient (does not have consciousness).

The next sentence is an example of a simile:

A flag

wags like a fishhook

down there in the sky.

The reflection of the flag in the water looks like a fishhook. The two things being compared (and this is how a simile works) are the flag and the fishhook. They have similar characteristics based upon how they are shaped. The word "like" identifies this as a simile.

In the next two sentences, the author not only uses a metaphor, but also extends it from one sentence to the second. A metaphor, like a simile, compares to dissimilar things as if they are the same—they have shared characteristics that provide an image to the reader; however, "like" is not used. It is as if the writer is saying "X" (the bridge) IS "Y" (an eye). The comparison is inferred.

The arched stone bridge

is an eye, with underlid

in the water. In its lens

dip crinkled heads with hats

that don't fall off.

Comparing the bridge to an eye develops the metaphor; in addition, the "underlid" is in the water, and it has (figuratively) a "lens." These details are an "extension" of the original metaphor, making this comparison an extended metaphor.

Onomatopoeia, a word that describes the sound it stands for, is used twice. The first time, it refers to how the children are eating their peanuts: "munching" is a sound (as well as a motion):

...a bunch

of peanut-munching children...

A sound ("hiss") is again described with the swan (as is personification):


hissing, she kisses herself...

We find personification also in "fondly" and "kissing." These are human traits, not those of swans.

Swenson's ability to convey such vivid images draws her reader into the world she describes. We can picture each thing she describes, even the bridge that "folds like a fan" (a simile) as the swan disrupts the water, destroying ("all the scene is troubled") the reflected image. Here is a writer who masterfully uses words to create mental images with exquisite clarity: the reader is transported to the spot as if sharing the view with Swenson.

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