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Trouble with contradictions and poetry or contradictory poems: what is an oxymoron versus contradiction in terms?

Updated on November 2, 2013

Aim for a bull's eye

"I would strongly recommend that you start reading poetry, a bit each day, to refine your sense of right language. As I've told you, you are clearly creative. Though you have developed a lot more control than I saw in your first work, you still need to learn to hit the target more squarely. Studying good poets will help refine your sensibility about language."

Marion Dane Bauer in a letter dated October 15, 1999.

Perhaps oxymorons contain succinct intention, while contradiction in terms is sloppy writing?

An oxymoron occurs when two conflicting images are combined for poetic or rhetorical purposes. This combination generates fresh and provocative meaning, i.e., spiritual intelligence; homeless wealth; colorless rainbows. These terms are combined with intention, to generate the poetics of paradox.

Comedians scatter oxymorons throughout monologues with great success:

  • "I have never let my schooling interfere with my education," wrote humorist Mark Twain.
  • "She used to diet on any kind of food she could lay her hands on," observed comic Arthur Baer.
  • "You'd be surprised how much it costs to look this cheap," teased country singer Dolly Parton.

An oxymoron is not to be confused with a contradiction in terms, although it is difficult not to be confused when searching for distinctions. The Free Dictionary defines a contradiction in terms as "a statement that is necessarily false; the statement 'he is brave and he is not brave' is a contradiction."

That seems clear enough. When conflicting information occurs within a statement, i.e., "she was ten and she was twenty," this is a contradiction in terms.

However, such an illogical statement might also be a poetic statement about her maturity or her physicality or even a swift passage of time, mightn't it? In these cases, it would not be a contradiction in terms, but a poetic experience! Separating these terms seems impossible to define.

Paradox appears to be synonymous with an oxymoron. Yet, paradox carries within, a contradiction in terms, i.e., The Free Dictionary claims "`I always lie' is a paradox because if it is true it must be false."

Do more literary dictionaries explain this confusion? The Oxford Literary Dictionary speaks in plain language when defining oxymorons:

A rhetorical figure by which contradictory or incongruous terms are conjoined so as to give point to the statement or expression; an expression, in its superficial or literal meaning self-contradictory or absurd, but involving a point. (Now often loosely or erroneously used as if merely = a contradiction in terms, an incongruous conjunction.)

-- Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edn (underlining mine)

In other words, it is only morons who confuse the two. Evidently, as Marion wrote above, I must read poetry to generate a bull's eye on the subject.

Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary clarifies this in a way even I can understand:

a contradiction in terms
a statement containing two words that contradict each other's meaning
A ‘nomad settlement’ is a contradiction in terms.

This definition brings to mind an impossible versus poetic or humorous grouping. In other words, combining these terms is a contradiction which cannot generate even poetic imagery; the two words cancel each other out. The meaning of each term abolishes the meaning of the other.

For example, Christian atheist. By definition, someone who believes in Christ cannot also NOT believe in God. These terms are exclusive enough to rule out the combination, unless perhaps the writer can conceive of a situation where this would not be true.

In the case of a nomad settlement, once a nomad settles, the definition of nomad no longer applies, for a nomad must be on the move. From an historic perspective, it might stand with a qualifier, i.e., "This is a settlement of former nomads."

Contradiction as oxymoron within poetry

The Poetry Archive references David Harsent's poem Sniper to describe the use of an oxymoron contained within a poem. This harsh poem is written from a sniper's point of view; a hunter poised above his prey. Poetry Archive explains that this man "observes a woman running slowly - the oxymoron in this image, explained a moment later as her running not to spill, (which) causes a reader to pause to picture what this looks like, and to consider the urgency of her need to run through this war-torn place with her precious water."

Excerpt from Sniper found in Wolf Magazine for Poetry:

A woman carrying water crosses the square.
She is running slowly, running not to spill. Then a child, out into clear
view, going along diagonal and running like a hare
jink-jink. I am tucked up here, a sure thing, with my sausage and beer
and a field-stove to keep my fingers supple. Days pass.
I'm more than content in my snuggery, my lair;
I have somewhere to lay my head and somewhere to piss
and, for comic disputation, the birds of the air.

But what if the bull's eye over there?

"I happen to feel that the degree of a person's intelligence is directly reflected by the number of conflicting attitudes she can bring to bear on the same topic," claims Lisa Alther, author of five novels including the best selling Kinflicks.

This explains the number of conflicting attitudes presented in Alther fiction, "sexuality begins straight (a Southern duty) only to turn wildly experimental in gay and lesbian follies, before settling into patterns of lesbian courtship, mechanical misfittings, spiritual misfirings, and other comic couplings that leave Alther's women ecstatic for a time, but increasingly bemused by the strange incompatibility of human desires."

Another poem which blatantly revealed an oxymoron was this one, written for a publisher of women's literature, Virago:

Up dimly-lit stairways they bravely groped,
While men in macintoshes leered and hoped.

They had leather satchels and sensible shoosies,
though some mistook them for upmarket floozies.

And though there WAS the odd bit of fighting,
they took on the task of - women's writing!

(A notion THEN some set great store on
was that women's writing was an oxymoron.)

An excerpt from Margaret Atwood on the occasion of Virago's 30th Birthday May 23 2003, Chelsea Physic Gardens, London.


A moronic experience

I open the Easter Bunny
envelope to read nothing.
What was meant to be said
has not even been
What is so difficult?

Your speech and actions
do not co-mingle?

Do as I do and
not as I say
went out with
Love Thy Neighbor.

For it is in giving
We receive and
inside this greeting
I receive

© 2011 Barbara


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    • Storytellersrus profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Stepping past clutter

      Thank you dear Martie! I have this idea that the more I know of these literary tools, the better I will be able to write with intention. Impressive words, or not, they do contribute to craft, lol. Good to read you again.

    • MartieCoetser profile image

      Martie Coetser 

      7 years ago from South Africa

      This was an awesome read! Contradiction in term, oxymoron, analogies, metaphors, et cetera roll spontaneous off our tongues. It is a good thing we can identify the nonsense we sometimes utter with one of these impressive words. Thanks for this well-written informative hub, voted up in all ways.

    • Storytellersrus profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Stepping past clutter

      mimi, thanks!

      Jaspal, thank you for sending me two emails containing oxymorons. I do love to play with them. I think such combinations create the most profound poetry, bending our minds like general relativity. Your nomad comment fascinated me. Isn't it individual, what word pictures we create in our minds? I love this. And as a writer wishing to communicate, this is very good information! Thanks, as always, for your support and insightful comments.

      PS "Running slowly" also implies (to me) that this woman was worried about sniper fire, yet had desperate need of water.

    • Jaspal profile image


      7 years ago from New Delhi, India

      Great hub! Loved it, and also the You Tube.

      Maybe I am a bit of a moron because at first glance I clearly misunderstood (is that an oxymoron too?) some of the contradictory expressions you've listed. Had to re-read them to find the inconsistency. Let me explain ...

      Nomad settlement: We have nomadic people called 'bakarwals' in the Himalayas who have no homes or material possessions worth the mention. They keep moving from one camping site (where spring water and alpine meadows are available for their goats and ponies to graze) to another. Sometimes they do halt for a few days at some location ... so your mention of this term had conjured up an image of such a campsite, and there was nothing contradictory in that.

      Similarly for running slowly. I first thought of a light jog, till you pointed out the contradiction and mentioned that it was so that she did not spill the water.

      A friend had sent me an email some months ago listing some funny oxymorons. Here are a few:

      Act naturally.

      Exact estimate.

      Pretty ugly.

      Seriously funny.

      lol ... maybe I'll just forward you that email. :)

    • Mimi721wis profile image


      7 years ago


    • Storytellersrus profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Stepping past clutter

      A Christian agnostic I can accept, for I know this describes me at times, lol! I am also a moron, uncertain about the oxy bit...

      I find it interesting that your mom would worry about such an influence. Wouldn't reading anything change your voice, if this were true? Doesn't reading everything change your voice, deepening your perspectives and perceptions? I don't know. I find her warning fascinating and wonder on what it was based. Did she have this experience? Thanks for tweaking my imagination, lilyfly!

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Wonderful, as always... you say that there is no such thing as a Christian Athiest, how about a Christian Agnostic? Haha! I think that poetry is derived from the oxymorons living inside us,(I've got a lot of morons living inside me!!!)

      I have never been able to read other's poetry until recently; my Mother warned me of having my voice change, and I was petrified that I would change unwittingly- That is NOT TRUE! I missed so many happy years of reading, but I'm making up for it now... voted up, of course...

    • Storytellersrus profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Stepping past clutter

      AA, thanks for your careful read. I really appreciate it.

      da, it does give one pause to read such a combination of words. In the poem above, it is heartbreaking to imagine such an image. At a horse race, one might worry that the horse has an injury. I love oxymorons and plan to write more on the subject! Thank you.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 

      7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      In a sense of imagery I can relate to a term like"running slowly" as it seems to me a runner can pace themselves to different degrees of effort. If a sports announcer said a horse was running slow, I would certainly find it meaningful.

    • A.A. Zavala profile image

      Augustine A Zavala 

      7 years ago from Texas

      Fascinating, useful, and thoughtful. Always good information for the new and veteran writer on your hubs. Thank you for sharing.


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