Poems are very interesting pieces of writing. However, most of the time, people fail to appreciate them because they are hard to understand, their words seemingly conveying something else than they really are - a secret that the author is trying to impart. This is because poems use a combination of both literal and non-literal or figurative language, more so than other types of literary forms. Literal language is straightforward, with the words meaning excatly what they do when you look them up in the dictionary while figurative language is a play on words, using various devices such as the simile, metaphor, personification, paradox, irony, apostrophe and so forth, using comparisons and symbolism to make the poem more allegorical.
Not all poems, however, use an equal degree of both languages. Some are very figurative while some are very literal with few symbols and riddles. The anonymous poem "The Man In The Glass", for example, is easy to understand. It simply means that you know yourself best and should be true to yourself since the in the end, it doesn't really matter what anyone else says, not even your parents or your closest friends. Rather, the thoughts and feelings of the "one staring back from the glass" - in short, your own self - are the most important. If you feel like you've done something wrong and can't convince yourself otherwise, even if everyone else commends you for doing something right, you will end up feeling miserable.
On the other hand, if you did something right, even if it seems wrong in the eyes of others, then you can rest easy without a burden on your conscience.
The "Little Boy Blue" by Eugene Field is another simple poem. The poem is about two children's toys - the toy dog and the toy soldier - who were once new and well-loved and yet, like what becomes of most toys, now lay abandoned, left behind by the child who once played with them, seemingly forgotten. The line "And, as he was dreaming, an angel song awakened our Little Boy Blue" seems to be the only line conveying a deeper meaning, perhaps indicating that the boy has grown up, awakened from the slumber of his childhood. This line also brings to mind the original nursery rhyme 'Little Boy Blue' - after all, there must be a reason why Eugene Field used the title of that rhyme. In the rhyme, there is a line that says "But where's the boy who looks after the sheep? He's under a haystack fast asleep. Will you wake him? No, not I - for if I do, he's sure to cry". In the rhyme, the boy remains asleep but in the poem, he has already been awakened and so has already grown up, having become far from the boy who once played with toys, "kissed them and put them there".
The poems of Emily Dickinson are harder to understand. Let us take the poem "There is a Flower That Bees Prefer", for example.
On a literal plane, the poem is about different flowers, of which bees, butterflies and even hummingbirds have their choice, with one - the most beautiful and the one standing tall - being preferred over the rest.
On a figurative plane, the flowers can be taken to symbolize women. Women, after all, are as pretty and delicate as flowers, and just as flowers 'compete' for the attention of bees, so women are all rivals in competing for the attentions of men. It is also indicated that the "flower that bees prefer" is one that is attractive - "Her face be rounder than the Moon/And ruddier than the Gown"; capable of bearing children which was something important to men, especially in the time of Emily Dickinson - "A Honey bear away/Proportioned to his several dearth/And her - capacity"; sturdy and able to hold her own against the rest of the world - "Her sturdy little Countenance/Against the Wind -- be seen/Contending with the Grass --/Near Kinsman to Herself/For Privilege of Sod and Sun"; confident, not becoming easily jealous of others - And when the Hills be full/And newer fashions blow/Doth not retract a single spice/For pang of jealousy", and finally, brave, not one to readily admit defeat - The Bravest -- of the Host/Surrendering -- the last/Nor even of Defeat - aware".
In another poem, "The Winters Are So Short", Emily Dickinson complains about winters with a touch of irony, saying that they are too short and yet blaming them for ruining her summer. On a more figurative plane, the winter can be taken to mean a season of hardship in a person's life. It is a time no person wants to go through, and yet the author seems to say that it is because of this hardship that the good times that follow seem sweeter. This is better illustrated in the final stanza of the poem which talks about the biblical figure Noah and the great flood, saying that "Ararat's a Legend - now/And no one credits Noah". Ararat refers to the mountain where Noah's ark supposedly landed, and is therefore, a famous mountain. However, if not for the flood that came in the first place, or Noah who built the ark, it would be just another mountain. In the same way, hardships are sometimes necessary for new lessons to be learned or new things to be achieved. Without hardship, there is no victory just as without winter, spring and summer have little significance.
There is even more symbolism in Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Concord Hymn". The poem talks about a battle - it could be any battle, in fact, but in truth, it is about the first battle of the American Revolution that set America on its road to freedom, and about the setting of a stone to commemorate that battle - the Concord Monument.
Indeed, many poems have a deeper story to tell which can often only be discovered by reading it a few times, taking it in its context and analyzing the figures of speech used. One might ask: why do poets use figurative language instead of just plainly saying what they mean? There are several reasons - perhaps their ideas were too controversial for their time or perhaps it is merely their style. Regardless of the reason, though, the fact remains - that the use of figurative language makes poems sound more beautiful, and that the hidden meanings, though difficult to grasp, are those that leave an impression on those who read them.