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What Is the Role of Paradox in Poetry?

By Angela Farrer
Updated May 23, 2024
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Paradox in poetry serves to create tension in the readers' minds by placing words or phrases together so that they first do not seem to follow the rules of logic or accepted truth. This use of contradiction in language often causes an audience to think on a deeper level about the implied meaning of such a contradictory statement. Authors who effectively use paradoxical wording reveal some element of truth within an apparently untrue statement. Paradox is sometimes structured differently in poetry than in prose literature, and it can often have multiple layers of meaning expressed in fewer words.

Poetry writers usually employ paradox to create an unusual thought or visual image with words. The same words would often otherwise read as ordinary and unremarkable when placed in a different combination or context. Some types of paradox in poetry are meant to convey a tone of irony as well as lead to reader contemplation on the subject of a certain poem. This kind of irony from a paradoxical poem normally generates feelings of intrigue in readers' minds and causes them to read with a greater amount of focus as well as a deeper level of contemplation.

Certain uses of paradox in poetic works form the distinctive characteristics that set a given poem apart from others. These written contradictions can be as simple as short phrases or as complex as multiple extended verses with intricate metric schemes. Long and extended narrative poems sometimes contain many paradoxes within the same work of literature. Paradoxes may also consist of experimentation with terms that describe states of being or of perception itself. Poets who write with these kinds of phrases sometimes raise questions in their readers' minds concerning what entails a state of existence or other types of related philosophical topics.

Figures of speech have an important role as part of the use of paradox in poetry. These kinds of lines in a poem can serve as words of wisdom or as insightful statements about various general aspects of life. A contradictory statement in a well-crafted paradoxical poem is often quite different from a more general saying such as an aphorism, and its meaning is usually deeper and its wording is more intricate. The purpose of this kind of paradox in poetry is not to communicate a widely-accepted truth but to convey an idea that readers normally do not consider during their day-to-day lives.

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Discussion Comments
By Fa5t3r — On Mar 13, 2014

@irontoenail - I guess the problem is that a lot of people seem to think that including oxymorons and paradoxes in poetry will dress it up and make it mysterious when there isn't any real substance to it. I can say that butterfly was also a moth and also a child and also a hundred other things but every extra image takes something from the previous ones.

On the other hand, if a skilled poet uses paradox and other techniques where they have the most impact, then they can take your breath away. And there are some topics which demand a bit of special treatment. I don't know how anyone could talk about death and despair without including their opposites and a celebration of both does seem like a paradox (although I guess it doesn't have to be).

By irontoenail — On Mar 12, 2014

@MrsPramm - If that were entirely true we wouldn't have all the amazing phrases and things from Shakespeare and other famous writers who managed to write poetry that used a lot of beautiful words. I don't think there's anything wrong with using paradoxes in a poem.

Sometimes you just don't want the reader to have it easy or have it all explained to them clearly. Sometimes you want them to think it might mean more than one thing. Otherwise they won't need to read it over again.

By MrsPramm — On Mar 11, 2014

Just be careful if you are writing poetry and trying to put down something that is basically a paradox, because no matter how wonderful it seems in your head, it might not work on paper. If you write about the bright darkness, for example, some people might think you mean something corrupted and others might think you mean something mystical. Some people might get thrown out of the reading when they come across a paradox because they simply don't get what you mean to say.

It's my rule to try and describe something beautiful with simple words, rather than trying to dress something simple up with beautiful words. Paradoxes tend to be trying too hard.

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