ABCs of Poetry: H is for Hyperbole

Posted by on May 18, 2019 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on ABCs of Poetry: H is for Hyperbole

katie EberFor some reason, when I think about hyperbole, my mind immediately cuts to Act 5, Scene I of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream when Nick Bottom, as Pyramus, kills himself.

“Thus die I, thus, thus, thus.
Now am I dead,
Now am I fled;
My soul is in the sky:
Tongue, lose thy light;
Moon take thy flight:
[Exit Moonshine]
Now die, die, die, die, die.”

It’s ridiculous. Dude, just die already. The best actors playing Bottom will over-act the scene, like a pratfall in an infomercial or William Shatner.

But in poetry, hyperbole gives a poet license to create images that stay and stick to your memory like peanut butter to the roof of your mouth. While exaggeration can happen in lyric poetry, there it simply functions as an additional metaphor, adding to the flow of the work. But when used in a different setting, it’s a way for the poet to force the reader to escape the obvious interpretations that often accompany poems of the self, or poems that confess.

The best poetic hyperbole happens in “truth-telling” poems – works where the writer wants to reveal something about the self (or the speaker, if they’re writing in persona).

Take, for example, the poem that comes up most when you google “Hyperbole in Poetry” – Stanley Kunitz’s “The Portrait.”

My mother never forgave my father
for killing himself,
especially at such an awkward time
and in a public park,
that spring
when I was waiting to be born.
She locked his name
in her deepest cabinet
and would not let him out,
though I could hear him thumping.
When I came down from the attic
with the pastel portrait in my hand
of a long-lipped stranger
with a brave moustache
and deep brown level eyes,
she ripped it into shreds
without a single word
and slapped me hard.
In my sixty-fourth year
I can feel my cheek
still burning.

There’s a reason the algorithms bring this one to the forefront – those last three lines are a hyperbolic gut-punch. Taken literally, it means that his mother hit him so hard in the past that he can still feel it burn in the present. But anyone who has been slapped knows that the physical feeling does go away eventually. His statement that a wound in his youth still gives him pain isn’t there to be read literally – it’s there to let you, the reader, deeper into the poet’s experience.

Read as: “My father’s suicide hurt my family so much that deep down, I still feel that pain.”

Yeah, it ruins the poem a bit to be so blunt. But would we have gotten there if the poem ended without the poet getting hurt? Or if the poet just said “my mom used to hit me because my dad killed himself?” Probably not. Hyperbole softens that blow and allows the reader to sneak into the poet’s world with ease.

But on the other side, hyperbole can exacerbate the things that exist in real life – the experiences we need to call attention to through verse in order to make people feel them and not allow them to turn away.

We can see this famously in poems born from wartime, where the reality of battle and horrors of war can create images that would otherwise seem hyperbolic, but in this context show exactly what they need to. Examples of this are Soul Vang’s “Song of the Cluster Bomblet,” “Anthem for Doomed Youth” and “Dulce et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen, and  Randall Jarrell’s “Death of the Ball Turret Gunner”, or when war doesn’t look like war, like in Wislawa Szymborska’s “The Terrorist, He Watches” or Nomi Jones’ “War Catalogues”, or in the aftermath of war, like in “Facing It” by Yousef Komunyakaa.

For these poets, the reality they bring forward isn’t hyperbole, but rather uses the power of their experience, like Kunitz does, to help others know their world. It’s a way that poetry can use the things that are usually “not meant to be taken literally” as an act of truth-telling.

In a way, hyperbole in poetry is the exact opposite of its textbook definition.

In poetry, hyperbole helps us understand…literally.

Katie Eber holds a B.A. in English Literature from Roanoke College (Class of ‘11) and is a 2014 graduate from the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program at Fairfield University. Her work has been published in Sum Journal, Hobo Pancakes, Spry Literary Journal, Quail Bell Magazine, MadHat Lit, White Stag Journal, DASH, and Garbanzo Literary journal.

Katie enjoys good beer, good sandwiches, and advocating for the widespread use of business hammocks (you can find them in the hammock district, on third).

She resides in the shadow of the Metacomet Ridge in Wallingford, Connecticut, where she is the current town Poet Laureate.