“Harlem,” “Digging,” and “The Writer” – Literary Figure Use

Blog: “Harlem,” “Digging,” and “The Writer” each open with one type of literary figure (simile, metaphor, symbol), only to replace that figure with one of a different type by the end. Consider what the shift achieves in each poem: overall, how do the shifts demonstrate the differences between simile, metaphor, and symbol? This question is about how the different literary figures operate, not about the specific shifting meanings of the deferred dream, the poet’s pen, and the young writer.

In “Harlem,” the poem opens up with a question, “What happens to a dream deferred?” as well as a simile: “Does it dry up/like a raisin in the sun?” This shifts to a metaphor in the last line: “Or does it explode?” This shift helps emphasize the possibilities of what can happen to a dream. Throughout the whole poem, each literary figure has a negative connotation; for example, a raisin drying up in the sun suggests the dream is abandoned and loses its juice. However, the last line with the italicized word, “explode”, can mean that the dream flourishes and becomes alive. From starting with the first simile and ending with this metaphor of the dream exploding, a whole new possibility for the dream is created, giving the poem’s ending a certain effect. The reason it is a metaphor and not a symbol or imagery, is because a dream cannot really explode (imagery), nor can it both literally explode and mean more than what it says (symbol).

In “Digging,” the poem begins with a simile and ends with a metaphor. The simile in the beginning: “Between my finger and my thumb/my squat pen rests, snug as a gun” shifts to a metaphor at the end of the poem: “Between my finger and my thumb/my squat pen rests, I’ll dig with it.” This shift achieves a newer meaning for the pen; by using this metaphor at the end of the poem, the pen becomes a metaphor for a spade. It is not a physical spade that he can dig like his father and grandfather did, but he can dig with his pen through writing. The pen cannot be a symbol for a spade because it does not infinitely relate to it, like symbols do. The reason it is a metaphor for a spade is that the boy can dig with it to follow his dream, but he cannot literally dig using the pen. By having this shift, the poem takes something from the beginning and in the end transforms it into the boy’s decision and plan of not following his ancestor’s tradition, but still keeping it alive by still digging, but differently.

Finally, in “The Writer,” the piece begins with a metaphor to be replaced with a symbol. The metaphor relates the young writer’s life and/or writing career to a ship’s journey, using many nautical elements such as the first line, “In her room at the prow of the house,” immediately brings in boats to the poem. Throughout the first half of the poem, her life and/or writing career are related to a cargo ship, and the second half of the poem uses a bird that was trapped in the girl’s room to symbolize the young writer. Struggling to put her heavy burdens onto paper, the speaker calling it a situation “Of life or death,” the young girl can infinitely be related to the bird. By switching from a metaphor to a symbol, the poem gives the reader a real sense of what the girl’s life is like, but also by taking a memory that the speaker describes and using the subject of that memory to symbolize the girl ties everything up in a sense that the reader understands the girl, and is able to infinitely interpret and relate her to the bird.


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