08 April 2013

metier monday 4/8: “similes are like metaphors”

"Similes Are Like Metaphors"
(Photo Credit: "Pink balloons 1" by Jamie Peterson, sxc.hu)
Lately when it comes to writing poetry, I’ve been at a bit of a loss, and it’s got me thinking in similes.

It’s nothing something that I’ve talked about a lot—if at all—here in the Lost Jungle, but I tend to work in metaphors. I want the sun to be a clementine, a heart to be a carnival, a lover’s whisper to be a balloon bursting in the ether. (That last one just kind of popped into my head … and of course has me wanting to abandon this post to go jot it down.) I find that when my mind starts working in similes, it means that something is broken. Things can no longer just “be” … they must “be like.” And that, for me, is problematic.

But it brings me, and hopefully us, to a longstanding conversation that’s happened in the literary world: the Simile versus Metaphor debate. Which is better? Which packs more of a literary punch? Which means more to the reader? And so, in order to avoid my poetic vices (which, for now, revolve around the vice of mind-numbness and not being able to come up with much worth more than a penny in a gutter), I want to engage in this conversation with you, and debate … Which is better?

When it comes to those deep ocean moments …

Sometimes I think the metaphor versus simile debate boils down to Tom Cochrane versus Jon Bon Jovi. Is life a highway, or is life like a highway? What’s interesting to me is that Cochrane’s “Life is a Highway” and Bon Jovi’s “It’s My Life” engage both metaphor and simile … but the focal point s get developed different. Cochrane begins with a simile: life is merely like a road that you travel on, subject to changes and shifts and surprises. But by the time we hit the chorus, things become more sure: Life is a highway, no if’s, and’s, or but’s about it. With Bon Jovi, it’s the opposite. The song begins very strong and sure of itself: you’re gonna hear his voice when he shouts out loud that it’s his life. But when it comes to his heart … well, things aren’t as sure. His life is like an open highway, and when it comes to doing it his way … well, he’s actually doing it Frankie’s way.

That, for me, is the difference between a simile and metaphor in literature. A metaphor is so sure of itself. My love is not like a red, red rose … My love is a rose. A metaphor you have to sit and break down on your own. When someone says “Life is a highway,” it’s like Robert De Niro saying “This is this” in The Deer Hunter. It is what it is … but you’ve got to figure out what that means. With a simile, it’s like (ahem) you’re being beat over the head with a comparison. You have to explain it.

Time for some real talk …

Then again, when it comes to how we process ideas and express ourselves conversationally, there’s probably a reason we tend to speak more in similes than metaphors. There’s a reason folks get frustrated when someone speaks in metaphors and doesn’t explain themselves. I think it’s the fact that simile allows a comparison to be made, hashed out, and understood. Besides, not everything is so black and white as “This is this.” Sometimes, this needs to be like this in order for us to understand what the first “this” really is.

A word or two on love language …

Before I turn the conversation over to you, I have to say this. I believe both metaphors and similes have their places in the literary and physical worlds. I believe similes are great tools for literary and conversational expression. But I also believe that I’m not going to marry a man who speaks in similes. You can tell me your love for me is as strong as this, that, or the other thing. But it’s going to be the guy who speaks in those all-so-powerful metaphors—that one who knows exactly what a balloon bursting in the ether is, and wants that to be our love—who wins me over. In romance, similes can come off as sappy. Metaphors in love say there’s something that needs to be said that cannot be said in simply saying it.

And that’s all I have to say about that.

Your turn

So what do you think? Which literary device gets your vote as the stronger, better, or anything in between form of literary expression? Come up with some comparative similes and metaphors and share why one beats out the other (i.e. for me “my heart was a carnival” is stronger than “my heart was like a carnival,” but I also prefer “my love is like a red, red rose” to “my love is a red, red rose”). And, hey, why not make it prompt time …

Prompt: Write a piece in which you start with a metaphor and then reshape it with a simile, or vice versa. What happens when a thing stops being a thing and becomes like a thing? What happens when a thing stops being like a thing and becomes the thing? It’s a loose and floppy  idea (or maybe the idea is like something loose and floppy …), but play with it and see what happens.

Here’s my attempt:

Carnival balloons

For my lover’s whisper to be a balloon
bursting in the ether is simply to say

each vibrating hum of you makes
the core of me erupt in violence.
Street brawls rage in these veining streets,
winding their ways to City Hall
where no one is left to govern but that one
last throbbing thread you find your way to
and shred to angel hair. Your breath is holy
in my bones.

When you become like a balloon
bursting in the ether you are like

something in me untethered—like a loose dam
about to flood that warring town, the spars,
and barroom fracases, melted away
into that cool calm of water soaked everythingness—
that melt away that happens
when lips touch like providence.


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  1. I really enjoyed this post, Khara, because it made me look at metaphor and simile more closely than I have before. I agree that each has its place so I am going to say that one is not better than the other. They are different. Metaphor is definitive. A is B, with all its properties. Simile is broader. A resembles B or belongs to the same group as B. There may be differences, but there also is a likeness. And, C and D and E also may resemble B.

    From now on, I will definitely pay more attention to which one I use.

    1. Thanks, Michelle! I'm actually looking back at it now stunned to realize ... thinking about this actually made me write a poem. :)

      I like that assessment of "different" not "better." They both do close to, but not quite, the same thing, so maybe it's not really fair to value one against or above the other!

  2. I agree they each have their strengths. I am writing more metaphor than simile lately, specifically because I am trying to eliminate extraneous words out of my prose. I figured poetry was a good way to practice. But we use similes more in conversation in every day life. Can you imagine if we all spoke to each other in poetic metaphor? Life would get very confusing, very quickly.

    1. Heather, that's why I love the De Niro line from The Deer Hunter. The line, "This is this," is stated as an explanation of life while De Niro's character holds up a single bullet. What's great is that it tells us so much about the way his character sees life: things are black and white, right or wrong, life and death. But what's even better is his friend's (played by John Cazale, probably my favorite actor of all time) reaction: he gets heated because he has no idea what his friend is talking about! Metaphors can be powerful ... they can also be very confusing, ha-ha! :D

  3. Well. Much as I like metaphor, I think simile gets shorted. Don't you agree that half what we pretend are metaphors, aren't. I can call my husband an internal combustion engine in one sentence and a sleeping giant in the next. He's neither, and no more of either power or potential crosses the line toward him than if I used similes.

    Where things get interesting for me is the flip side of that: the way the character of the thing/person described travels backward and into the metaphor. If I use simile, the combustion engine doesn't become "like" my husband.

    1. I've never thought of that before! Now I'm going to want to play "flip the simile" all day. Life is like an open highway, but is an open highway like life?

      ... I can see myself having way too much fun with this.


Thank you so much for your comments! Please feel free to share your thoughts here; I look forward to engaging in conversation with you!

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