Anyone who's ever taken a high school English class has, at some point, been introduced to simile and metaphor.
- Simile compares one thing to another using "like" or "as" or a similar connector: Her eyes are like the sea.
- Metaphor doesn't just compare. It equates the two: Her eyes are the sea.
When you say her eyes are like the sea, it draws on my senses and logic. Say her eyes are the sea, on the other hand, and it draws on my dreams and imagination. I picture not just the gray-green of her irises. I feel the cresting wave from the kraken rising from the depths, wrapping its tentacles around a doomed ship, its sailors paling with fright.
Perhaps it's because I've always loved fairy tales and magic. Give me a world where wolves speak, rivers demand the occasional drowning victim, and a little girl built of snow comes to life and runs through the woods in a red cape, a red fox companion at her heels.
Metaphor breathes life into inanimate objects so that I can enter into an almost human relationship with them. It makes abstract emotions and experiences concrete so that I may experience them with my senses. And it evokes my sense of wonder.
Lyndi O'Laughlin is a fine Wyoming poet from Kaycee. She has graciously allowed me to publish this poem of hers from Blood, Water, Wind, and Stone: An Anthology of Wyoming Writers (ed. Lori Howe, Sastrugi Press, 2016), that deepens beautifully as rock turns to metaphor partway through.
Kayak on Spring Run-off
It's a small boat I'm in, a thumbnail really,
spit down the Shoshone as if a tongue
were trying to separate itself from a seed,
and there is a lichen-covered boulder
squatting in the middle of the river,
at its base a muscular current,
like a toilet flushing, and it threatens to
block any forward progress I might be
entertaining in my mind, sucking me
and the kayak closer and closer
until I can't help but notice the tiny
snails attached to the rock;
they must think I'm one of them,
just another snail hauling her house
around on her back.
The boulder has a deep voice,
and he pulls me alongside and asks
if I will stay with him forever;
tells me that he knows how hard
I have tried, and asks me if I am
maybe growing a little exhausted
from all my clamoring for approval.
I jam my paddle in his eye to free myself,
and think of you, what you asked me
on that day before I left you
standing on the porch --
"What's wrong with you?"
Don't get me wrong: there's nothing wrong with simile. I use it myself. And many fine poems employ neither metaphor nor simile. Be aware, however, if you have a simile only because of hesitance to make the leap. Don't let it be a bashful shuffling of the feet or a literary throat-clearing. I dare you: go out on a limb. Make that connection concrete. Her eyes are the sea. See if it creates the magic. If it doesn't, you don't have to use it.
What brought this all to mind was preparing for a poetry reading and presentation. It dawned on me that many of the poems that speak most to me -- including my own -- are those that employ metaphor and let me dabble my toes in fantasy. With that, I'll conclude with one of my own, also from Blood, Water, Wind, and Stone. I'll leave it up to you as to whether the metaphor succeeds.
I want to wear this day
raindrop rings on pale olive water
circle upon circle
spreading, joining, fading
I want to wear
fuzzy, waddling, gold-brown goslings
silver trout breaking the surface
yellow warbler -- an egg yolk in flight
slicked umber otter swimming
within and oar's length
"Three yards of this fabric, please."
The clerk grasps the bolt by its clouds
water splashes against her fingers
ducks scatter before her scissors
geese honk in the crisp paper bag
I spread the lake on a table in a sunny room
pin brown tissue pattern to shoreline
run shears down grassy sleeves
toll tracing wheel along the darts that slip
between willows and snags
match front side to front, sew a 5/8" seam
I sew a sheath of rain
At the party, the hostess takes my hand
"That dress is beautiful," she says
"Oh this? I smile,
"I'll have it forever."