Irony, Paradox, and Dramatic Reversal.

Today, and for this weekend’s homework we are going to be looking at some ways in which you might be able to intensify your poetry.

Let’s begin with a song by Johnny Cash.


Six foot six he stood on the ground, he weighted 235 pounds

But I saw that giant of a man brought down to his knees by love

He was the kind of man that would gamble on luck

Look you in the eye and never back up

But I saw him crying like a little whipped pup because of love…

This is a song about contrasts. At first it appears to be about a physically imposing character; on the surface not even a likable character, but in fact the song is about the power of love.

We don’t even like the character in the first line, but by the end of fifth line our hearts go out to him.

One of the rhetorical techniques (I hate the word ‘rhetorical’ but it’s actually the right word here) Johnny Cash uses is irony.

We could easily say it’s ironic that such an angry man would be brought to tears by love—but what exactly does ‘ironic’ mean?

The answer to what irony means is a little elusive, but we do recognize it when we see it. We recognize the emotions it gives us.

Let’s look at another example.

In LONG  WAY DOWN, Sean, the protagonist’s brother, William, dies clutching a plastic grocery bag printed with the words THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU and HAVE A NICE DAY.

This is irony.

Simply put, there is a dramatic contrast between the glib message printed on the bag, and the bitter tragedy of Sean’s death, and this contrast actually serves to amplify the tragedy of the death.

It seems to ask the question, “How could death be worse?” “It could be worse if it’s utterly lacking in meaning. And by being so, Sean’s meaningless death makes his short life appear to have been meaningless.”

To return to Johnny Cash’s song, if the character was five foot six and 135 pounds, then song would say a great deal less about ‘love.’

For me as a writer, irony is about contrast.

Here are some of the official definitions of irony:

The American Heritage Dictionary: the contradictory quality between what might be expected and what actually occurs…

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED):

A condition of affairs or events of a character opposite to what was, or might naturally be, expected; a contradictory outcome of events as if in mockery of the promise and fitness of things. 

Henry Watson Fowler, in The King’s English:

…the surface meaning and the underlying meaning of what is said are not the same.

Eric Partridge, in Usage and Abusage:

…Irony consists in stating the contrary of what is meant.

This is interesting to reflect on:

Fowler’s A Dictionary of Modern English Usage:

Irony is a form of utterance that supposes a double audience, consisting of one party that hearing shall hear & shall not understand, & another party that, when more is meant than meets the ear, is aware both of that more & of the outsiders’ incomprehension.

In other words it makes the reader feel smart.

It’s as if the reader sees the sharp (yet not directly stated) contrast between the the two motifs (death and grocery bags), and thinks: “Aha. I noticed that motif. I don’t think every reader would.”


Your task is to find the potential for irony in your memoir poem, and underline the irony using motifs, such as Johnny Cash’s nasty big fat man—and his sympathetic tears, or Jason Reynolds murdered youth, and the glib message on a grocery bag.

Your poem might be about a child who senses something delicious cooking on a stove, but burns herself when she tries to find out exactly what is cooking.

A word about motifs: Irony (and a great deal else) works best with what you might think of as concrete motifs. A motif is an element in the narrative that is loaded with meaning. ‘Concrete’ means that it’s a very specific element.

Sean’s grocery bag is not just any grocery bag, but a very specific type of grocery bag.

Johnny Cash’s big man is not merely big, but ‘Six foot six’ and ‘235 pounds.’

Now you can see how simile and metaphor tie in with irony.

Johnny Cash’s giant cries ‘like a little whipped buck…’

Here’s another Johnny Cash song: Folsom Prison Blues:

I hear the train a comin´

it´s rolling round the bend

and I ain´t seen the sunshine since I don´t know when,

I´m stuck in Folsom prison, and time keeps draggin´ on

but that train keeps a rollin´ on down to San Anton…

When I was just a baby my mama told me. Son,

always be a good boy, don´t ever play with guns.

But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die

now every time I hear that whistle I hang my head and cry…

Can you see the ironies? Can you detect the loaded (perhaps literally loaded) motifs? 

Now, add some concrete ironic motifs to your poem.

Concrete and Abstract.

When ever possible in your writing you want to be specific, or concrete.

You want to avoid being vague, or abstract.

Take the simile: she sang like a bird.

It’s a cliched simile, in part because it’s abstract.

How could we make it less abstract (and less cliched).

We become more specific.

She sang like a nightingale.

Still a little cliched, but better.

What do nightingales do?

She sang as if she was standing on a rooftop to greet the rising moon on a mid-summer evening.

Okay, that’s maybe going too far, but you get the idea. 

How about irony?

She sang like a vulture?

Exercise: find a vague or abstract statement in your poem.

Make that statement as concrete as you possibly can, then play with it. Intensify it, and see where it takes you.

Can you then intensify the emotion of that statement, by ironically contrasting it with the next line?

For example:

When she performed she sang like a nightingale greeting the sunset,

But when she was alone she cried like a falcon that had lost her young… 

So we use irony for intense contrast.

An expression that’s often talked about along with irony is PARADOX.

It’s easy to disappear down philosphical rabbit holes when discussing PARADOXES.

It’s safe to say that paradoxes are ironic, but not all ironies are paradoxes.

I like the definition of a paradox which is that you have two interrelated statements; both are true, and yet when taken together the two statements cannot be reconciled.

I like the example of FERMI’S PARADOX, named for the astro-physicist Enrico Fermi.

This is a very oversimplified version.

Statement 1: The universe is full of highly advanced civilizations, many (millions?) of whom must have developed interstellar space travel.

Statement 2: No space aliens have ever visited earth.

Test sandwich in the world

Another, related rhetorical (ugh) device is LITOTES.

This is when we imply one opinion, but stating that it is not the opposite of that opinion.

Hence I might say to you, “That poem is not bad.”

By which I mean, the poem is very good.

If I say: ‘The peanut butter and jelly sandwich is not the fastest sandwich in the world…’

I mean it’s an extremely slow sandwich. 

Use this device if you’re not completely opposed to it (see what I did there), and it works for you.

Dramatic Reversal.

Aristotle in his Poetics defines Dramatic Reversal (Perepeteia) as “a change by which the action veers round to its opposite…”

Aristotle uses the play Oedipus Rex, by Sophocles, as his example.

Oedipus’s Kingdom, Thebes, has been beset by great misfortune.

Oedipus states that someone has offended the gods by his behavior, thus causing the misfortune, and that when that individual is found he should be put to death.

As the play progresses it is gradually revealed that Oedipus inadvertently murdered his father and married his mother. Hence he himself is the cause fo the misfortune.

We could say the paradox here is:

Oedipus states that the evildoer should be put to death.

Oedipus himself is the evildoer.

Thus, Oedipus sentences himself to death.

In the actual play he blinds himself with needles.

This is perhaps almost the most effective way of turning a poem into a narrative poem.

Give the main character of the poem a reversal of fortune.


We’re going to leave poetry for a while after this exercise, but not memoir.

The power of memoir is that you can re-visit things that happened to you, and try to understand why they happened.

I know that some of you wrote poems about things that happened to you—but they weren’t based on your own memories. Maybe they were based on stories that were told to you about things you did as a toddler.

That’s been fine up until now but, looking ahead you really need to use your own memories for this to work. 

Let’s end on one last Johnny Cash song––one which demonstrates drastic reversal:

Well, my daddy left home when I was three,
and he didn’t leave much to ma and me,
Just this ole guitar and an empty bottle of booze.

Now I don’t blame him ’cause he run and hid,
But the meanest thing that he ever did,
Was before he left he went and named me Sue.

Well, he musta thought that it was quite a joke,
An’ it got a lot of laughs from lots a folks,
Seems I had to fight my whole life through.

Some gal would giggle and I’d get red,
And some guy’d laugh and I’d bust his head,
I’ll tell ya, life ain’t easy for a boy named Sue.

I grew up quick and I grew up mean,
My fist got hard and my wits got keen,
I roamed from town to town to hid my shame.

But I made me a vow to the moon and stars,
I’d search the honky-tonks and bars,
And kill that man that gave me that awful name.

Well, it was Gatlinburg in mid-July,
and i’d just hit town and my throat was dry,
thought I’d stop and have myself a brew.

In and old saloon on a street of mud,
There at a table dealin’ stud,
Sat the dirty, mangy dog that named me Sue.

Well I knew that snake was my own sweet dad,
from a worn out picture that my mother had,
and I knew that scar on his cheek & his evil eye.

He was big and bent and grey and old,
And I looked at him and my blood ran cold, and I said,
“My name is Sue! how do you do! Now you gonna die!”
Yeah that’s what I told him.

Well, I hit him hard right between the eyes,
And he went down but to my surprise,
Come up with a knife a cut off a piece o’ my ear.

I busted a chair right across his teeth,
And we crashed through the wall and into the street,
Kickin’ and a gougin’ in the the mud and the blood and the beer.

I tell you I’ve fought tougher men,
but I really can’t remember when,
he kicked like a mule and bit like a crocodile.

Well I heard him laugh and then I heard him cuss,
He went for his gun but I pulled mine first,
He stood there lookin’ at me and I saw him smile.

And he said, “Son, this world is rough,
And if a man’s gonna make it he’s gotta be tough,
And I know I wouldn’t be there to help you along.

So I gave that name and I said goodbye,
I knew you’d have to get tough or die,
And it’s that name that helped to make you strong.

Now you just fought one hell of a fight,
And I know you hate me and ya got the right,
To kill me now and I wouldn’t blame you if you do.

But you oughtta thank me before I die,
For the gravel in your gut and the spit in your eye,
‘Cause I’m the son of a bitch that named you Sue.”

yeah, what could I do, what COULD I do?
Well I got a choked up and threw down my gun,
Called him a pa and he called me a son,
And I come away with a different point of view.

I think about him now and then,
Every time I try and every time I win,
And if I ever have a son,
I think I’m gonna name him,
Bill or George anything but Sue!
I still hate that name!

This song was made famous by Johnny Cash, but he didn’t write it. The author was Shel Silverstein–author of the Giving Tree.