I am not a poet, but I read poems regularly. Their succinct and succulent lines transform the way I see the world around me, fill my head with color and sound and taste and most important of all to me, emotion. And all without lots of words.
One of my current favorites is Jane Hirshfield. Here’s the opening stanza of her poem “The New Silence”:
There are times
when the heart closes down,
the metal grate drawn
the owner’s footprints covered in snow.
Like all writing, of course, the meaning of Hirshfield’s words will vary with her reader. One person might read “heart” as romantic love, another as representing one’s soul. Regardless of these individual interpretations, this opening brings and rings multiple bells for the reader: visual, tactile, even passage of time.
The key to its success, in my eyes, is that it uses metaphor.
What Is Metaphor?
Metaphor is one component of figurative language. Simile is another type of figurative language; some teachers include image and symbol in this category as well. What’s the difference?
Briefly, similes make an explicit comparison between two unlike things using like or as. Metaphors make an implicit comparison, directly equating the two unlike things.
Rather than stating that the heart is like a building that’s been secured, the heart in Hirshfield’s poem is closed down, with grates and padlocks around it. No one’s literal heart has these physical protections, but it’s a rare human who hasn’t felt like they’ve locked away their heart after a stunning hurt.
Metaphor Works on Many Levels
Metaphor serves to clarify, deepen and expand our writing, as Hirshfield’s does. Not only is the heart in her poem heavily protected, it has been abandoned, and abandoned long enough for its owner’s footprints to be covered in snow. This suggests both the coldness of a snowy season, and that the heart’s trusted caretaker has walked away.
Talk about desolation.
Metaphor is as subject to cliché as similes, however. Beware the dead metaphor: he was a bull in a china shop.
But even this cliché, if a reader paused to consider it, is powerful. As James Woods states in How Fiction Works, “[m]etaphor . . . is the entire imaginative process in one move.”
So how do we make that move? Unsurprisingly, as with most writing craft, we make that move by trying, and failing, a lot.
Can we simply eliminate the “like” or “as” of a simile to create a metaphor? Sometimes, yes! “His father was like a bottle rocket” is a simile. “His father was a bottle rocket” is a metaphor.
Certainly this works well, for me. By equating the father with a bottle rocket, I’ve painted a picture of a temperamental, explosive character, one who has a fuse that may be set afire or left alone; one whose explosion might generate temporary beauty, albeit beauty that will ultimately be reduced to ash.
Similes can lack the “punch” of metaphor. They compare disparate things rather than merge them as metaphors do, and in that way they fall short of containing Woods’ “entire imaginative process.”
Simile or Metaphor? Choose Deliberately
It’s part of our work as writers to choose what will serve their story. Sometimes it’s ineffective to merge dislike things. Maybe your character’s laugh is like a rooster’s morning reveille, but to have your character be a rooster would create a distracting image.
Metaphor is particularly useful when we’re dealing with abstractions like love, peace, hatred—things we can’t touch. That’s what Hirshfield did when she placed a grate and padlock around the heart: those are tangible, very real, objects.
But the heart is an object, too, right? Absolutely, but unless the reader is a physician, Hirshfield guesses (correctly, I believe) that most of us will read heart as a one-word metaphor, as noted above, for love, or one’s soul.
Metaphors Aren’t Just for Poetry
But what if you’re not a poet? Do you really need metaphors in your writing?
Not all writers need metaphors; not all writing is intended to draw connections between disparate things, nor is that always necessary.
But if you can’t quite say what you’re getting at, playing with metaphor-making may unlock your voice and expand your piece. And even if you don’t think you need metaphors for your writing, metaphor-making may unlock new ideas for you.
How do you use metaphor in your writing? Let me know in the comments.
Take fifteen minutes to practice writing metaphors. Let me break it down into three steps:
First, divide a clean sheet of paper into two columns. Set your timer for five minutes and in one column, brainstorm at least twenty abstract ideas or concept, like love, justice, discipline, narcissism. If you get twenty before the timer goes off, you can stop early and take another sip of coffee! 🙂
Then, reset the timer for another five minutes and in the second column make a list of common objects, things you can touch: table, daisies, coffee mug.
For your last five minutes, close your eyes and pick an object from each list, then write five sentences wherein the object is the abstraction. Pick and write again at least three times.
Here’s mine: Her love for him is a daisy. An oxeye daisy planted above the beagle’s grave. Oxeye daisies are drought-resistant but not drought-proof, and their white heads droop. They need water, and so does she.
When you’re done, share your metaphors in the comments below and leave some feedback for your fellow writers!