POETRY IS KNOWN FOR ITS USE OF METAPHOR AND SIMILE.
Ever notice how often you hear phrases like, “Oh, it was like . . . ” or “Let me tell you what it felt like—it felt like . . . . “ Maybe some day neuroscientists will be able to pin point (note the figure of speech) a region (another figure of speech) in the human brain that has to do with metaphor and simile. (Maybe other animals have this too, for all I know—chimps? whales?—I have my doubts about ants and salamanders).
In any case, I’m referring to a natural, perhaps biologically-driven, propensity we have to compare one thing with another thing. Shakespeare, Dylan Thomas, Yeats, A. E. Housman, Robert Frost—all of the poets we admire and whose poems we remember, were experts in metaphor, that’s for sure. T.S. Eliot was once asked what, for him, were the greatest lines of English poetry, and he answered (without hesitation, I understand) by quoting Horatio’s two lines spoken to Hamlet:
But look, the Morn, in russet mantle clad,
walks o’er the dew of yon high eastern hill.
Can you see what Horatio is saying? Can you see the morning as a person dressed in “russet” (the color of the sun) clothing, “walking over the “dew of yon high eastern hill”? (the sun rising in the East?) And it seems to have just flowed out of Shakespeare’s pen, his mind—it seems so naturally conceived and spoken. He must have been in love with metaphor by the age of three! Some people, once they have read or heard what Horatio said, can no longer see a sunrise without recalling the lines.
Consider some more metaphors from a list I once made up for my classes:
R. Eberhart describing a swarm of bees over an ocean as
a great banner waving from the sea
Eberhart describing cancer cells viewed through a microscope as
a virulent, laughing gang
The prose writer Aldo Leopold also described
banners of geese . . .
G.M. Hopkins describing thunder as
floors of sound (a tactile metaphor)
M. Moore describing a butterfly’s movements through the air:
The butterfly bobs like wreckage on the sea.
Sun on his naked shoulder
like a sparkling hand . . .
L. Simpson describing covered wagons coming over a hill as
D. Thomas describing the death of an old woman:
Her fist of a face died clenched on a round pain . . .
Poe describing a calm sea as
. . . a wilderness of glass . . .
Sylvia Plath describing pears on trees as
. . . little Buddhas . . .
Some poet (forgot who) describing the universe as
. . . a deep throw of stars
A junior high student describing the wind in one line:
The eternal moving van hauling the sands of time.
Yeats’ last two lines of a poem:
I must lie down where all the ladders start,
In the foul rang-and-bone shop of the heart.
Karl Shapiro describing teenagers in an old-fashioned drug store:
. . . they slump in booths like rags,
not even drunk.
Bill Knott describing a woman, saying
Your eyelashes are a narcotic.
* * *
Randall Jarrell began a poem about a woman (whose good friend has died) shopping in a supermarket (“Next Day”) in this way:
Moving from Cheer to Joy from Joy to All . . .
(Since I read the poem maybe 30 years ago, I’ve hardly ever been able to walk down the detergents isle of a super market without the line coming to me.)
Metaphor and simile are essentially the same thing, except that with simile a poet uses words such as “like” or “as.” “Time is like . . .” “My love is like a red, red rose . . .” Sometimes it works better to use “like” or “as” instead of saying just “is.” “My love is a red, red rose” is fine too, but the word “like” gives the line and image a bit more force, I think.
Beware of clichés and bad metaphors, and don’t mix your metaphors; that is, don’t start out calling something a doorknob and end up calling it a mouse’s whisker, unless you’re working with humor. To say a person is “sharp as a tack” is an interesting image, but of course it’s a cliché. How about “hotter than Hell?” It’s a cliché that’s been around for so long that we even hear things like: “It’s colder than Hell,” or “He’s taller than Hell.” (can you picture those?) Poets, of course, generally avoid clichés, but sometimes they employ them with uniqueness, as in “Once upon a time” becoming, with Dylan Thomas, “Once below a time.” Or: “Anyone lived in a pretty how town.”—cummings—we may have heard something like “Oh how pretty that town is . . .”)
Robert Frost has a line in “Birches,” which was, I’m convinced, influenced strongly by P.B. Shelly’s lines in “Adonais,” which go like this:
Life like a dome of many-colored glass
stains the white radiance of Eternity.
Here’s what Frost wrote in his poem:
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away,
You’d think the inner dome of Heaven had fallen.
Do you agree that Frost was definitely aware of Shelly’s lines when he wrote “Birches”?
You might, for an assignment for yourself, want to look at an object in your house or yard and then compare it with something very unlike that object—to see if you can make a connection anyway. Do it with several objects—see if you can discover something unique and interesting—“like eggs laid by tigers,” as Dylan Thomas once said. Metaphor, of course, can bring two things together than seem totally different. Karl Shapiro began his poem about a housefly (“The Fly”) with this line:
O hideous little bat, the size of snot . . .
Well, yes, they are nasty, those little creatures. Later in the poem he speaks of a horse’s tail fending off flies:
At your approach the great horse stomps and paws,
bringing the hurricane of his heavy tail.
Wonderful poetry, for sure. Note not just the metaphor in “hurricane of his heavy tail” but the three “h” sounds in succession, which imitate the sound of the wind. Hhhhhhhhhhhhh. Hurricane and tail: at first they don’t seem to have any connection. But what if you were a fly?