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What Is the Role of Connotation in Poetry?

By Dee Jones
Updated: May 23, 2024

While all words have a literal meaning or denotation, most words also have a connotation. A connotation is the emotion or association a word has beyond its literal meaning. Poets use connotation in poetry to help create mood and tone, as well as control how a reader will think of a person, place, thing, or concept. Some words have negative connotations, while other words have positive connotations. In some cases, two words can have the same literal meaning, but strikingly different connotations. Both “home” and “house” refer to places where people live, but the word “home” can make a reader think of a place of warmth and family, while many see the word “house” as more cold and impersonal.

Unlike novelists or essayists, who have more room to say what they want to say, a poet has a limited amount of words in which he can get his point across. By using connotation in poetry, a poet can create a specific mood, tone, or feeling simply by using the correct word or short phrase. Most poets consider word choice to be extremely important because, while two words can have the same literal meaning, their connotations can be very different. For example, the words “strong” and “powerful” have similar literal meanings. But while the word “strong” can make one think of a person who has fortitude and strength of character, the word “powerful” can make a reader think of a person who has wealth and social influence.

Sometimes, the connotation in poetry is positive. The poet chooses particular words because they have happy associations for most people, and the writer wants to create a positive feeling in the reader. A poem might describe the creation of a work of art as “a birth,” to make the reader think of something that can be difficult and painful, but ultimately joyous. To describe a new partnership, the poet might describe it as a wedding, to signify that it is a “joyous union.” If the poet wants the reader to see something as happy or exhilarating, he might compare it to a roller coaster, or describe it as skiing down a mountain at breakneck speeds.

The connotation found in poetry can also be negative. In fact, many poets connotation in poetry to set a particular mood or tone, or to make the reader think of something in a negative way, is by using a word with a negative connotation. Describing a character as ambitious can certainly make the reader think of someone who wants certain things and will perhaps work to get them. Using the word “greedy,” however, makes the reader see the character as someone who is selfish, avaricious, and probably willing to use dishonest means to get what he wants.

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