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The Literary Technique of Oxymoron in Poetry

Author:

Centfie reads and analyzes poems from a psychological POV. See her poetry book on Amazon: "Piece of Mind: Everyone has an Untold Story."

Oxymorons occur in daily language, often used in catchphrases to grab the attention of the target audience. Think of an attention-grabbing advert you read or saw somewhere and it stuck with you. It is likely an oxymoron. If not, then it has another figure of speech involved.

The oxymoron is a figure of speech that adds depth and technique to literary works. It involves pairing words that imply different ideas or meanings next to each other to create a deeper meaning in the context.

The word "oxymoron" is derived from Greek a combination of oxy- meaning keen or sharp and -mōrόs meaning dull or foolish. Thus, if you pair the words in English it would say "sharp foolish," or "pointedly foolish."

oxymoron-in-poetry

How to Identify an Oxymoron

Common words that elicit direct oxymoron when paired include: bitter/sweet, love/hate, right/left, and wrong/right. However, in literature, the writer may not be so direct in the use of oxymorons as you will see in the examples shortly.

Authors, poets, songwriters, journalists, and other professionals who use words to express themselves use oxymorons in various ways.

The words could be obvious antonyms such as "male" and "female," or not so visible such as "only" and "choice."

In context, consider these sentences. The words in bold show the oxymoronic effect created by placing words that contrast in meaning successively.

1. Male, female, He made them.

The paired words are an oxymoron because of their meanings. They represent opposites.

2. You are my only choice.

The paired words are an oxymoron because of their disparity. If you are the only one, do I really have a choice? However, used together, they create a deeper meaning despite the contradiction.

The word "oxymoron" is derived from Greek a combination of oxy- meaning keen or sharp and -mōrόs meaning dull or foolish.

How Effective Is the Oxymoron?

The oxymoron can have a strong impact on the audience if used well. It depends on word choice and word meanings.

Thus, the presence of an oxymoron can influence how well the writer communicates and how well the reader understands the implied use or meaning of the words as used in the context. The following are the main effects of the oxymoron in literary works.

Creates Emphasis

If a writer needs to put special emphasis on a particular idea, word, or meaning in a sentence, he can use the oxymoron to stress it.

Comic Effect

The oxymoron aids in creating humor in the context of the written or spoken words. It makes the sentence amusing and interesting to the reader.

Figurative Meaning

The combination of oxymoronic words may seem incoherent at first. However, the poet uses it to create a deeper meaning that if the reader understands, they will see the coordination between the two contradictory words.

Examples of Oxymoron in Poetry

I have collected a list of examples of oxymorons as used excerpted from various poems by poets across both contemporary and classical poets.

Note that I have used bold to highlight the oxymoron, that is, a pairing of two words with contradictory meanings.

1. "Divine Friendship" by Brenda Arledge

with their callous concern (line 3)

2. "Deceiving Ourselves" by Brenda Arledge

deceiving us with a false truth. (line 4)

for the full phase of the moon. (line 5)

3. "Hand of Friendship" by Brenda Arledge

...those hardcore moments (line 4)

4. "Fill up the blank pages of your life" by Chitrangada Sharan

...full of blank pages (line 2)

To crawling, sitting and then... (line 11)

5. "The sweet-sour experiences of life" by Chitrangada Sharan

The phrase "The sweet-sour" in the title is an oxymoron.

6. "Do not go gentle into that good night" by Dylan Thomas

...who see with blinding sight (line 13)

And you, my father, there on the sad height (line 16)

Curse, bless, me now... (line 17)

7. "The More Loving One" by W.H Auden

I should learn to look at an empty sky (line 14)

8. "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" by Thomas Gray

Nor grandeur hear with a disdainful smile (line 31)

Chill Penury repress'd their noble rage (line 51)

9. "The Silent Voices" by Alfred Lord Tennyson

The phrase "silent voices" in the title is an oxymoron. It repeats in the poem as well:

Silent Voices of the dead, (line 4)

Call me rather, silent voices, (line 7)

10. "Anticipated Stranger" by John Ashberry

The title of the poem combines two words "anticipated" and "stranger" that clash in meaning but also prove meaningful in the context.

Quiz

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. Which of the following is an oxymoron?
    • white suit
    • open book
    • free bird
    • grow old
  2. Which of the following word pairings is not oxymoronic?
    • inside out
    • working vacation
    • red plastic
    • alone together
    • sweet sorrow

Answer Key

  1. grow old
  2. red plastic

Interpreting Your Score

If you got 0 correct answers: #% Incorrect

If you got 1 correct answer: #%Incorrect

If you got 2 correct answers: #%Correct!

Sources

  • Arledge, B.
  • Greene, R., Cushman, S., Cavanagh, C., Ramazani, J., Rouzer, P., Feinsod, H., ... & Slessarev, A. (Eds.). (2012). The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Princeton University Press.
  • Sharan, C.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Centfie

Comments

Centfie (author) from Kenya on May 17, 2021:

@ Chitrangada thanks for sharing your poems with us. It's amazing how as a poet you use amazing techniques automatically without even intending to. Yet, that's what makes poems poetic. Thanks for reading my article.

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on May 17, 2021:

Hi Centfie!

This is poetry education for me. I wasn’t even aware of the term, Oxymoron, with regard to poetry writing.

Excellent and analytical article. Keep them coming.

Thank you for the analysis and thank you for the mention of my poem’s lines.

Have a wonderful day.

Centfie (author) from Kenya on May 17, 2021:

My previous comment is a reply to Brenda Arledge. I have used brief quotations from her poems as examples of "oxymoron."

Centfie (author) from Kenya on May 17, 2021:

Yes, I think some techniques are what make writing poetic even when used unintentionally. I enjoy your work, thank you for sharing it online.

Centfie (author) from Kenya on May 17, 2021:

Welcome, Peace Tobe Dike. Glad to know you appreciate this.

BRENDA ARLEDGE from Washington Court House on May 16, 2021:

Wow! That quiz took me a few tries.

Thanks for the mention & showing me I use these in my poetry.

Who knew?

Peace Tobe Dike from Delta State, Nigeria. on May 16, 2021:

Educative..thanks for sharing

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