Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Simile and Metaphor: Greens and Blues

readwritepoem has a prompt this week to use similes and/or metaphors.

My first encounter with the distinction between these two important figures of speech was in the back pages of The Yearling, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings: a classic of children’s literature that remains unfaded by time. This particular edition was meant for educational use and each chapter was accompanied by a set of lessons. I don’t remember most of them, but I remember the following:

He is like an eagle in flight (simile)
He is an eagle in flight (metaphor)

This example would make you think that the only difference between a metaphor and a simile is the presence or absence of the word “like”. But a look at the dictionary definitions suggests that there’s more to it.

Simile: a figure of speech comparing two unlike things that is often introduced by like or as (as in cheeks like roses)

Metaphor 1: a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them (as in drowning in money); broadly : figurative language 2: an object, activity, or idea treated as a metaphor

(definitions from Merriam-Webster Online)

The definition of “metaphor” is quite a bit more involved. So are the uses of metaphors. I would call the eagle metaphor above both clumsy and rudimentary (understanding that it was simplified for school use). His imagination soars: his vision is keen: he is the master of the skies! That’s a metaphor.

I find I use metaphors more than similes. Partly this is due to the compactness of poetry. I’m often not willing to give up the space for that extra little word (“like”). Partly it’s that, as in the example above, metaphors seem to lend themselves much more to extension, to the kind of imaginative development that I like to see in poetry. I’ve written whole sonnets that turned on a single metaphor (“Rip-Tide”, for instance), but I can’t imagine writing a poem of that length turning on a simile. Maybe a triolet.

I want to dress myself in greens and blues
like forest waterfalls or peacock tails
that sweep and shimmer with the vivid hues
I want to dress myself in. Greens and blues
are not what fashion counselors would choose
for me. Who cares? It’s not the white of sails
I want. I’ll dress myself in greens and blues
like forest waterfalls or peacock tails.

The etymology of “metaphor” is interesting. It comes (via Middle English, Middle French, and Latin) from Greek metapherein, to transfer. Transfer what? Meaning, apparently, from place to place or from idea to idea or from one image to another. One of the roots of metapherein is pherein, to bear. So we have a metaphor as something that carries meanings from words where they usually live to words where they don’t usually live.

I want to dress myself in peacock tails
and forest waterfalls, all greens and blues.
It isn’t ocean foam or snowy sails
I want to dress myself in. Peacock tails
and opal nuggets drawn from Aussie shales:
they sweep and shimmer with the vivid hues
I want. I’ll dress myself in peacock tails
and forest waterfalls, all greens and blues.

Collection available! Knocking from Inside


Anonymous said...

thanks for giving me more to think about!

i intend to reread again!

Crafty Green Poet said...

excellent little workshop post, I like your triolet too

TOCCO said...

I learn something from all of you! Thank you

Jan said...

wow, your writing is exciting to read! i'll have to visit more often. i enjoyed the info. you provided as well.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your metaphor study!