athensvan.jpg
Here amongst the other New Athenians, "metaphores" (metaphors) is often seen emblazoned on a van. In modern Greek, it means "movers," and comes with burly men used to hoisting large pieces of furniture and boxes marked, in vain, "prosoche" (fragile) and "ano meros" ("this side up"). More than once I have almost been run down by the Moving Van of Metaphor...


To the Ancient Athenians, too, "metaphero" meant "I carry from one place to another" (thus, "I transfer" something from one place--or one word--to another). I am convinced that when Sylvia Plath wrote her nifty riddle "Metaphors," she was using the etymology as a pun--pregnancy is, after all, the "carrying" of a child.
In practice, we differentiate between "metaphor" and "simile", though I suppose simile is arguably a species of metaphor--one that uses "like" or "as" or otherwise is explicit about drawing a similarity (My Love is like a red, red rose), whereas properly metaphor only implies one (my love is a red rose covered in thorns). I think it is sometimes suggested in writing classes that metaphor is somehow superior, being more of an immediate jolt, and that simile is somehow prosey, discursive, dull. (Here's Rigoberto's post on metaphor, by the way.)
More and more though I have come to appreciate the complexity and nuance of the simile. I think of metaphor as striking a sympathetic harmony between two dissimilar things--a single pure note. Whereas it seems to me that the simile sets up instead an interesting dissonance that continues to vibrate between them. Or to put it visually, it is as if the simile sets up two pictures before our eyes that we can continually go back and forth between, noting similarities and differences, whereas in the metaphor, the image of the metaphor almost replaces the original one it overlays.
This is not strictly true, I know I am simplifying, and I can myself think up all kinds of objections and exceptions here--yet I'm trying to grope towards what it is in the simile particularly that appeals to me. Sometimes the complexity that intrigues me is on the level of the syntax of the sentence , as "like" or "as" is actually going to introduce a whole other clause, not usually the case with a metaphor, which will tend to be more syntactically direct.
No doubt part of the allure of the simile to me is the epic simile, since I seem to have spent most of my adult life immersed in the study of ancient epics of one sort or another (though my own poetry is exclusively short and lyric--will this ever cross-fertilize, I wonder? she muses to herself.) An extended simile has a way of commenting on the text, of offering other possible worlds even. The Odyssey has a surprising way of reversing gender, so that Odysseus might be compared to a weeping woman whose city has been sacked, whose husband has been slain, who is about to enter slavery (something Odysseus has himself perpetrated on others). Whereas Penelope might be compared to a shipwrecked sailor or a king. These extended similes set up a very special kind of dissonance--irony. But they also encourage us to view Odysseus and Penelope as a unit--a husbandwife.
The dissonance and irony of the similes also enable the poet to step back from the work, to suggest disagreement with the mores and codes of the bronze-age heroic world without editorializing. The similes allow for a sort of universal empathy. The housemaids who were conniving with the gluttonous suitors (including that insolent slut Melantho) surely deserve a comeuppance. But hanging? (See Margaret Atwood's Penelopiad, which all "hangs" by that thread; yet apparently the scene was too gruesome for laureate Simon Armitage to include in his after-school-special version for Radio Four--we can handle violence in video games, it seems, but not in poetry.) The act fits in with the Homeric world, but the poet takes a step back, turns the camera away for a moment, and instead gives us the image of doves caught in a net, their feet twitching, but "not for long".
There's a marvellous poem by Irish poet Michael Longley, "The Butchers" from Gorse Fires, that on first glance seems almost a (lively and vernacular) translation of passages in the Odyssey that deal with the great clean-up of the pollution caused by the slaughter of the suitors. It's hard to quote from, since it is one great sentence, sprawled over 28 lines. At first glance it seems like a translation, as though he has added nothing--but on closer inspection it is rather a condensing of the end of the Odyssey to almost nothing but its amazing similes. (Perhaps it is the syntax of the similes that help keep the great sentence snaking across the lines.)
Odysseus, seeing the need for whitewash and disinfectant,
Fumigated the house and the outhouses, so that Hermes
Like a clergyman might wave the supernatural baton
With which he resurrects or hypnotises those he chooses,
And waken and round up the suitors’ souls, and the housemaids’,
Like bats gibbering in the nooks of their mysterious cave
When out of the clusters that dangle from the rocky ceiling
One of them drops and squeaks, so their souls were bat-squeaks
As they flittered after Hermes, their deliverer, who led them
Along the clammy sheughs, then past the oceanic streams
And the white rock, the sun’s gatepost in that dreamy region,
Until they came to a bog-meadow full of bog-asphodels
Where the residents are ghosts or images of the dead.
(Yes! I love bog-asphodels! It so de-Romanticizes, de-mythologizes the asphodel meadows here. As Robert Graves reminds us in "The Common Asphodel", the asphodel--though a different plant from bog asphodel--is found all over the Mediterrenean on poor soils, wastelands, and overgrazed lots. Alicia's arcane etymology of the day: our English "daffodil" comes from "asphodel.")
More and more I am enamored of the simile and its possibilities--of syntax, dissonance, irony, commentary, complexity, allusion, disillusion. If that's prosaic, I'm all for it.

Originally Published: November 20th, 2007

A. E. (Alicia) Stallings studied classics in Athens, Georgia and has lived since 1999 in Athens, Greece. She has published three books of poetry, Archaic Smile (1999), which won the Richard Wilbur Award; Hapax (2000); and Olives (2012). Her new verse translation of Lucretius (in rhyming fourteeners!), The Nature of Things,...

  1. November 20, 2007
     Alicia (A.E.)

    PS--I should acknowledge Rachel Hadas here, since she and I had some interesting conversations about similes on Spetses over the summer...

  2. November 20, 2007
     myshkin2

    I can trace my own simile-averse poetics to an early overdose of Charles Olson's "Projective Verse" definition of poem as field/"high energy construct," one in which similes become an energy drain in that poetic transfer. (Maybe if he considered feedback loops, the whole thing might have come out differently.) Thanks for this defence of the epic simile--besides the possibility they offer in terms of gender, I remember that great short essay by Simone Weill (The Iliad: Poem of Force--?) which argues that Homer's similes, in effect, transform the horrors of war into domestic scenes of peace, thus offering a clear alternative to Greek war mongering.

  3. November 20, 2007
     Steve

    What a good example of Longley's style! Alicia, do you want to say something about how he manages English-language hexameters? He has to be the only poet in the language who can get away with them all the time-- and his classical training has everything to do with it.
    Also Longleyesque: the domestic-modern-unpretentious, and large, vocabulary ("fumigated") applied to a classical subject. He's got a couple of newish books out too.
    I like to remember that in British (and perhaps in other Commonwealth) English what Americans call a moving van is instead usually called a removal van. The metaphor giveth; the metaphor taketh away.

  4. November 20, 2007
     Evankindley@gmail.com

    There's an Auden line somewhere, can't remember where now (oh, it's "Brussels in Winter" – thank you, Google), about a phrase that "goes packed with meaning like a van" – and now I know what he means.

  5. November 20, 2007
     Henry Gould

    The holidays are coming, & I'm feeling obstinate. As when a massive moose lingers knee-deep in the river, somewhere in the swampland north of Embarrass, Minnesota, and, chewing lazily on a stalk of arrowhead, gazes askance at the two trembling aesthetes (I mean canoeists) who would like to paddle peacefully by, so I regard these explicit enthusiasms for poetic technique; they strike me as exertions which, in their glaring explanatory articulation, take the canoe of poetry out of the realm of poetry itself, to drift somewhere into the slough of what we call (in Embarrass) "magazine verse".
    Too much the self-conscious "kraftwerk" attitude; too much literary dissection laid out on a platter of poetry-patter. Let the critics take responsibility for that mess. A poem is more than the sum of its interior deocration.
    ARS EST CELARE ARTEM. Grrr.

  6. November 20, 2007
     Major

    Hi Alicia,
    I would love to get hit by a Moving Van of Metaphors. All of contemporary poetry could use a little bump. Don't you think? Thanks for articulating some of my thoughts about the metaphor vs. the simile, that little brother of figurative language.
    Libertad
    Major J

  7. November 20, 2007
     Don Share

    My favorite used book find ever was A Dictionary of Similes, by Frank J. Wilstach, published in 1916. Its epigraph: "It is hard to find a simile when one is seeking for one," by George Moore! It's a sort of OED of simile. Some of the entries are famous, some completely obscure, and some just gems: "Reputation, like beavers and cloaks, shall last some people twice the time of others," by one Douglas Jerrold, or J.M. Barrie's "As repellent as a boy's drum," and Conrad's "He could have reproduced like an echo."
    Still, it appears that contemporary poets really do slight the simile. Most of the poems I see now use what might be called the false simile: the word "like" followed by something not like what preceded it at all - a kind of mild would-be-witty surrealism, I suppose, as if one would be ashamed to use a "true" simile. Just keep your eyes peeled for the appearance of a "like" in a contemp. poem to see what I mean! It's a practice that "repels one like a cudgel," as C.N. Bovee says in my dictionary.

  8. November 20, 2007
     Don Share

    I forgot to add that Samuel Johnson wonderfully referred to the simile as "a short episode."

  9. November 20, 2007
     Matt

    I don't think the use of "false similes" is repulsive. I often find regular similes to be stale, like month-old cookies. See what I did there? A more thought-provoking simile might be something like, "stale, like a morning panda." This kind of simile forces your mind to think about something it's perhaps never thought about before, in this case the relationship(s) between staleness and mornings, as well as pandas. And of course you have the added bonus of trying to figure out what a "morning panda" is anyway.
    A better example would be something like this, from Kenneth Koch's "The Art of Love":
    "Tie your girl's hands behind her back and encourage her
    To attempt to get loose. This will make her breasts look
    Especially pretty, like the Parthenon at night."
    Breasts don't normally make you think of the Parthenon, and vice versa. Koch draws attention to an essential quality of something--the prettiness of breasts and of the Parthenon--rather than obvious physical characteristics. It isn't really "false" after all, it's just revealing a hidden meaning, or creating a new one.

  10. November 20, 2007
     Ange

    I just have to add, in a spirit of mischief, the best simile I read today:
    "As Auden noted, the gospels describe the commandments to love one's God and to love one's neighbor as 'like' each other, and for Auden the moral significance of one's neighbor becomes clear when one thinks of him as created in the image of God."
    I say "spirit of mischief" because normally I agree with Matt above: regular similes are stale ("cars nose forward like fish" -- yawn). I like outrageous similes.
    But if we're going to talk about "true" and "false" as regards likeness -- well, likening one's fellow man to God tests the real limits of symbolic truth!

  11. November 21, 2007
     Alicia (A.E.)

    Ah, it is as I feared... the simile's stock is down! Yes, it is easy to pull out a stale simile--or a stale metaphor. I guess what I am more interested in is the possiblities of the extended simile, which I think can be a part of lyric (as Frost's Silken Tent), as well as narrative. In narrative it does something else as well--I like the idea of a "short episode"--and allows Homer, for instance, to intersperse the pastoral with the epic, the contemporary and domestic with the bronze-aged heroic and mythological past.
    Henry, thanks for your moose. I'm sorry about your canoeists.... true, it is art to hide art in a work of art, but I think it also worthwhile to discuss nuts and bolts (to use a stale metaphor) as practitioners. Sorry it isn't to your taste...
    Steve, it is an interesting point about Longley and hexameters, which I hadn't thought about. It's true very few poets can pull them off, they tend to drag their weary length along, especially if they travel, elegiacally, in the company of pentameters. On their own they can work. Here, say, he gets their inherent music:
    Terezin
    No room has ever been as silent as the room
    Where hundreds of violins are hung in unison.
    No doubt having spent time with classical hexameters (though these are very English iambic ones) tuned the ear in some way to their longer frequency. It is also a nifty example of the subtle effects of simile.
    There's a neat interview with him here that touches on the Butchers.
    It's words like "fumigate" that make this read to me almost like a brilliant, idiomatic translation, because in fact it is exactly the right word--Od. does fumigate or smoke out the hall, using fire and sulfur--to cleanse the place of pollution.
    As he says in the aforementioned interview:
    "Homer gave me a new emotional and psychological vocabulary. The last poem in Gorse Fires, 'The Butchers’, was a cleansing, a catharsis. I was purging feelings of distaste – distaste for Northern Ireland and its filthy sectarianism, for the professional career I’d pursued for twenty years, for Public Life and its toxins."

  12. November 21, 2007
     Don Share

    I adore Koch, and "The Art of Love" in particular. We're not all Kochs, however - and that people can churn out stale similes doesn't kill off the simile any more than a stale sonnet or stale free verse poem condemns those forms intrinsically. I use "false" in the sense that it is false to use a tactic precisely in order to avoid the revelation or creation of meaning you describe! I just assume that a good simile is still possible because if I didn't, I'd have to give up on all the other possibilities of verse construction, too. In other words, blame the poor practitioners not the practice; it's not the convention that's bad, it's the being merely conventional. And you can be just as conventional doing the Koch thing as the love-is-like-a-red-red-rose thing. Etc.

  13. November 21, 2007
     Henry Gould

    Forgive me, Alicia - no, I was just being ornery for Thanksgiving - I like to trouble & provoke the dusty moose-smeling urn of Beauty & Truth - and am actually Thankful for your edifying exposition here -
    yet I'm of two minds - I worry about how Knowledge & Technique will Armor-Plate a complacent mandarin-professional poet-Caste - As when yon tyro Clerk, puffed-up with some safe-seeming Sinecure, exhaling pompous Jargon-Mysteries, lords it over the trod-down hoi-polloi. . .
    & how true poetry transcends its own technique, surpasses itself. . . & how the Masters of the Art, by reading the best Readers of the Art, grow ever-more humble about their limitations. . .
    & how Poetry is not Rhetoric nor Grammar, but something almost beyond Art itself, an anti-Art (cf. Celan).

  14. November 21, 2007
     Don Share

    I cf.d Celan, and can't imagine him using a simile, but then again my German isn't good enough to be sure.

  15. November 21, 2007
     Mary Meriam

    In sphagnum fields on the longest day
    When dawn and dusk like frustrated lovers
    Can kiss, legend has it, once a year.
    Michael Longley in 11/19/07 New Yorker
    from poem called Cloudberries

  16. November 22, 2007
     Alicia (AE)

    Don, I'm glad you have faith in the simile! Thanks, Mary, for another inspiring example. Henry, I appreciate your anxiety, and know I can drift into the school-marmish...
    I did think it would be amiss not to include perhaps the best send up of similes on the books, and a favorite poem of mine, Ogden Nash's brilliant Very Like a Whale, a piece I am ever thankful for. To fully appreciate, it must be read aloud. Enjoy!

  17. November 23, 2007
     rachel hadas

    Enjoying this spate of conversation about similes. Re that "cars nose forward liek fish" - take away the "like fish" and we have, I guess, a metaphor. More dynamic? more participatory, leaving us to do more of the work?
    More years ago than I can stand to remember, I enjoyed this simile from LOLITA (describing one of the motels Humbert & Lolita visit): "a row of parked cars, like pigs at a trough."
    Many of Kay Ryan's wonderful poems are metaphoric but actually work more like a Homeric simile, in that we enter a little story inside the figure, a story whose plot becomes the poem, but she avoids
    "like" or "as" in setting up the figure.
    Full disclosure and/or horn-tooting here: an essay of mine, "Similes," is forthcoming in SOUTHWEST REVIEW in the spring. Its 3 diverse sources: 1) my experience listening to swatches of the Iliad read aloud a couple of years ago at one of the "The Readers of Homer" events; 2)
    the invitation from The Academy of American poets (2 years back?) to quote and talk about a favorite line, and I chose Stevens's "Life's nonsense pierces us with strange relation" and began to think about that; and 3) my husband's dementia, which has given me lots of grist for the simile mill, though I notice doctors don't by and large make use of the many eloquent similes lying around begging to be noticed.
    In "The Changing Light at Sandover," Mirabell the bat uses (M) to signal a metaphor, and JM picks this up, eg: "I used to be/Aware of (M) black holes in me..."
    Thanks, Alicia! And thanks for mentioning me. Talking to you informs my thinking all the time.

  18. November 24, 2007
     rachel hadas

    Rachel here again: SOOO interesting that Major J. (hi, Major) calls simile "a little brother," since in my essay I refer to it as a younger sister.

  19. December 18, 2007
     Don Share

    I've stumbled upon a more articulate way to express what I was saying about false similes, above. It's from a review by Aingeal Clare (what a name!) in the December 7, 2007, Times Literary Supplement, in a review of Fiona Sampson. What I've been getting at is called by Christopher Ricks the "self-inwoven simile" - in Clare's words, "whereby things (which are, by the way, 'unalterably themselves') are infused with poignancy by an over-indulgence of the reflexive verb. It is a kind of poetic tic, valuable because it presents a handy short cut to significance: but it can be rather addictive..."
    As Clare remarks, one is a "much better writer" when one "ignores the lure of tacked-on importance."
    Back to your regularly scheduled thread about metaphor!

  20. December 18, 2007
     Alicia (AE)

    Sorry to be dense... but do you think you could provide an example (or two), Don? I'm not sure I know what a self-interwoven simile would be... Or come to think of it, the TLS is probably in that pile of papers on the living room table somewhere.

  21. December 18, 2007
     Don Share

    First a correction: Ricks gets the phrase from Empson, with both Clare and I ought to have known! Ricks explains that the "self-inwoven simile... is a figure which both reconciles and opposes, in that it describes something both as itself and as something external to it which it could not possibly be." (He's talking about Marvell; see The Force of Poetry, p. 34)
    Guinn Batten finds an example in Paul Muldoon's Horse Latitudes:
    The rain comes flapping through the yard
    like a tablecloth that she hand-embroidered.
    My mother has left it on the line.
    It is sodden with rain.
    Empson's own example was Shelley:
    With mighty whirl the multitudinous orb
    Grinds the bright brook into an azure mist
    Of elemental subtlety, like light,
    etc.
    "Poetry which idolises its object naturally gives it the attributes of deity, but to do it in this way is to destroy the simile, or make it incapable of its more serious functions," says Empson, in Seven Types of Ambiguity. Shelley, he says, "seldom perceived profitable relations between two things."
    Thus.

  22. December 18, 2007
     Don Share

    Er, "which both Clare and I" - what is it about this little box that makes us so typoprone? Excuse me: typo prone.