Apr 11

Poetry - Metaphors

Photo by gg
The metaphor -- a figure of speech that compares two things without using like or as -- and simile -- a comparative that uses like or as -- are the heart of writing poetry. It is what separates poetry from prose in that poems have less specific detail and more is left to the imagination of the reader. Metaphors allow you to express yourself in ways that are fresh and interesting.

YWP friend and poet Kerrin McCadden says that she starts a poem by thinking of an unusual and seemingly contradictory metaphor. She then creates another one that seems contradictory to the first one. The pair become the foundation for her poem.

Often the metaphors and similes compare two concrete details or nouns, things we can imagine with any of our five senses. Consider this one: "The ice was as thin as a page in a book." (This was written by an 8th grade student at Benson Village School in Vermont and became the backbone of a ballad the kids wrote as part of a YWP Ballad Writing Residency.) Both nouns -- "ice" and "page" -- can be imagined by the senses; we can feel the ice's coldness, or, even, hear lake ice booming; we can hear the page turn or imagine the feel of the paper.

More often, though, metaphors are made between abstract nouns, things you can think about but cannot be detected with the five senses; you cannot see them, hear them, smell them, taste them, or feel them. They can be proper or common. Some examples are: poverty, hope, love, satisfaction, freedom.

The nice thing about a metaphor is that it saves you from using boring descriptors or adjectives. Imagine the above example as, "The ice was really thin." Hmmmm.

So consider some of the themes in your poem; how are they connected to some of these common abstract nouns: love, happiness, rejection, anger, loneliness, courage, luck, kindness, friendship, greed, faith, hope, misery, effort, weakness, opportunity, irritation, optimism, charity, power, solitude, anger, satisfaction, curiosity, relaxation, dedication, trust, freedom.

In another YWP residency a while back, a group of students created hundreds of these. Some led to the creation of poems. Here are some examples:
  • trust is your life in a mothers hand
  • courage is a solder in the war
  • anger is a grade of C
  • freedom is a dog with no master
  • Luck is a dollar on the ground
  • Irritation is the sand in your pants
So as you start your poem, or look through your poem, how can metaphors and/or similes help turn routine language into something that surprises and sparles and deepens the engagement of the reader?