For many of you, this may be the first time hearing the word "conceit". Don't be intimidated by the language. A “conceit” can also be thought of a poem’s internal logic. Some students have also described it as “the world that lives inside the poem”.
Let us consider an example from “Stillborn” by Sylvia Plath. The first three lines read,
These poems do not live: it's a sad diagnosis.
They grew their toes and fingers well enough,
Their little foreheads bulged with concentration.
Consider the poem’s internal logic literally.
· Do poems get diagnosed? No, not literally.
· Do poems grow fingers and toes and foreheads? No, not literally.
But now consider the poem’s logic metaphorically:
· If poems don’t literally get diagnosed, who or what does? People.
· If poems don’t literally grow fingers, toes, and foreheads, who or what does? People.
And if you consider the title of the poem “Stillborn”, then we start to think children. And if poems are children, then who is the mother? And if poems are children, then why do some prosper and others not? And if poems are children...We can keep asking questions to discover the poem’s internal logic, i.e. conceit.
In essence, the poem says one thing, but through the use of carefully employed techniques the reader is led to think another thing. A poem’s conceit often adds an interesting and surprising layer of connections and comparisons (e.g. poems as children).
Why is it important to understand a poem's conceit?Who cares that this poem compares other poems to children? Let me answer that question with another question.
What do you think of when I say, “I’m lovin’ it”? or “Just do it”? These are famous slogans that McDonald's and Nike use to say one thing, but have the reader think about their respective products and brand. They use poetic elements such as music, image, and metaphor to say one thing, but then have you think another. So, analyzing a poem's internal logic also gives us the tools to analyze the internal logic of individuals, groups, marketing, political platforms, and other media driven positions.
I hope this helps with understanding the concept of conceit and its importance to poetry and beyond. You can also find further examples and explanations at
Please leave any questions in the comments. Feel free to leave your favorite poems or conceits there too!