What is the difference between literal language & figurative language, and why is poetry often figurative?

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The cat
Sat
On the mat.

Whether this qualifies as poetry may be rather doubtful, but it is perhaps the first and simplest piece of verse children learn when they are first discovering rhyme. It describes a simple situation which happens in many households and appears at first glance to be entirely literal. An actual cat of flesh, blood, bone, and fur sat on a real mat. I am sitting at a desk as I write these words. I am typing on a laptop computer. Literal language like this attempts to convey the physical universe into words as simply and directly as possible.

However, it is at least arguable that any writing is open to a figurative interpretation. What if the cat on the mat is a metaphor? It could symbolize repose, idleness, contentment or any number of other things. The first and simplest reason why poems are often figurative is that poems are analyzed more closely than other writing and people find figurative language in them which may or may not have been intended. If you prefer to interpret a poem in a purely literal manner, it is often possible to do so. Take one of the most famous poems in American literature:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

It is perfectly possible to say:

Robert Frost describes a walk he took in a wood (which, rather surprisingly, was entirely yellow). He stood and looked down one road for a while, then took the other. The poem has no metaphorical meaning whatsoever and certainly has nothing to do with making choices in life. It is purely a narrative about walking in a wood.

Most readers, however, have not interpreted the poem in this way.

I have written mainly about metaphors here since they are some of the easiest examples of figurative languages to take literally, but it is possible to do the same with other figures of speech. Hyperbole, for instance, is often taken literally as a matter of sarcasm.

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Literal language refers to the meanings of words, phrases, and sentences in their real or actual sense. The definitions for words in their literal sense is precise and uncomplicated and, in dictionary terms, is referred to as its denotation. Literal language is the language one uses to precisely say what one means. The meaning of literal language does not change, irrespective of the context in which it is used. In the sciences, for example, language is used in its literal sense; the language is particular and unambiguous. In a sentence such as "The grass is green," the language is literal because it conveys what it means and is easily understood.

Figurative language, in contrast, is language that has acquired meaning outside its ordinary or real interpretation. It is, therefore, a language in which words, phrases, and sentences have been attributed extraordinary definitions. In dictionary terms, the variety of meanings words acquire in a figurative sense is called their connotation. The meaning of the language, unlike literal speech, is interpreted within the context in which it is used. The sentence, "The grass always looks greener on the other side," can be understood both literally and figuratively. In a literal sense, it would mean that the ground covering one area consistently seems to have a better color or hue than the other. Figuratively, it means that other lives or situations always seem better than your own.

The use of figurative language in poetry is to convey meanings beyond the ordinary. Poets tend to use figures of speech such as similes, metaphors, personification, and others, to indicate a sentiment or mood and to enhance their writing. The purpose is to provide a better sense of the writer's intention and to convey this to the reader. By using figurative language, the poet can create emphasis and provide common words with symbolic meanings. The technique essentially compels the reader to infer the writer's purpose. Also, the use of figurative language adds color and a deeper dimension to the poet's writing and enhances the enjoyment of his or her work.  

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Literal language means exactly what it says.  If some word is written, it means exactly that.  Let's think about Frost's "Desert Places."  He says that he has his own desert places that scare him.  If that were literal, it would mean that he was afraid of deserts or of some other deserted place.

Figurative language is language that has a meaning that isn't literal.  The line about the guy's "desert places" is figurative.  It means that he has something inside him, in his mind, that feels deserted and alone.

Poets often use figurative language because it allows them to give multiple possible meanings to their poems.  Sort of the same as your question last night about language with multiple meanings.

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