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Focus on Metaphor



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"To a wholly new experience, one can give sufficient organization only by relating it to the already known, by perceiving a relation between this experience and another experience already ordered, placed, and incorporated." -- Olney

"Without metaphor, language would lose its lifeblood and stiffen into a conventional system of signs." -- Cassirer

"[poetry should] be sensuous, and by its imagery elicit truth at a flash, and be able to move our feelings and awaken our affections." -- Coleridge

"I love metaphor. It provides two loaves where there seems to be one. Sometimes it throws in a load of fish." -- Malamud

Definition of Terms:

Language used imaginatively to carry ideas and feelings that otherwise might be difficult to put into words. A metaphor is a brief, compressed comparison that talks about one thing as if it were another. The comparison is implied. It comes to the poem unannounced, without the words like or as to signal that something is not literal.
Figurative language that endows something nonhuman with human qualities, as in "the tree whispered through the wind."
Extended or Sustained Metaphor:
A metaphor traced throughout a work. This follows the ramifications of the implied comparison, following up related similarities.
Controlling Metaphor:
When a single metaphor gives shape to a poem as a whole.
Fanciful extended metaphors. Elaborately developed, they often move along conventional or predictable lines.
A phrase which has lost its freshness due to overuse: tip of the iceberg, the bottom of the barrel, window of opportunity, hard as nails etc.
Figurative Language:
Metaphor is one kind of nonliteral language under the larger blanket of figurative language: language which means more than is what literally stated. Additional subcategories for figurative language are:
a metaphor that does not rove far afield but lights on something closely related.
uses the part to stand for the whole: "give us a hand" (you actually need the whole person). Or the whole may be used to stand for only the part. "Mankind wasforever altered today, when the President died." Actually, not all of mankind was altered.
Similar to metaphor, a brief , compressed imaginative comparison. Unlike the metaphor, a simile uses the words "like" "as" or "as if" to advertise that a comparison will follow.

Introduction to Metaphor:

Poets use striking imaginative comparisons to go beyond the resources of literal speech. They take us into a world of intense images, but often there is more to the image than what is apparent on the surface. When a poet says, "The bird of love is on the wing," the line is meant to call up a vivid image before the mind"s eye. But the poem is not literally talking about a bird. Instead, it compares the feeling of falling in love to the exhilaration a bird might experience in flight.

Examples and Perceptions of Poems, Which Center on the Use of Figurative Language:


Emily Dickinson  (1830-1886)

Apparently with no surprise (1884)
Apparently with no surprise to any happy Flower The Frost beheads it at its play-- In accidental power-- The blonde Assassin passes on-- The Sun proceeds unmoved To measure off another Day For an approving God.

As you read this poem, your first hint that the poet is speaking metaphorically is the word "happy" applied to the flower. Flowers are not literally happy or unhappy. They have no feelings, just as they do not "play" (any more than they go about serious business). These metaphors are each built on an implied "as if": It is "as if" the flower had been happily and innocently at play when it was attacked by the frost. It is "as if" the killer frost were an executioner who "beheads" the condemned victim.

The metaphors in this poem make you think of both frost and flowers as if they were human beings, acting out a grim minidrama that stirs your sympathies and raises troubling questions in your mind. (This kind of metaphor, which treats nonhuman objects as if they were human, is an example of personification.)

* First, metaphor has the power to call up impressive visual images. You see with your mind's eye the flower at play, the murderous frost beheading it, the "blonde" assassin passing on nonchalantly. You see (or imagine) the sun proceeding on its course as if nothing significant occurred. Metaphor is one of the poet's chief means of living up to the ideal that "a poem does not talk about ideas; it enacts them" John Ciardi).

* Second, metaphor has the power to stir feelings. You are likely to shudder at the quick devastation of the helpless, hapless flower. You should feel at least a twinge of alarm at seeing it destroyed. The ability of metaphor to engage our emotions makes for a key difference between poetic language on one hand and scientific language or other kinds of emotionally neutral language on the other.

Sylvia Plath (1932-1963)
Metaphors (1960)
I'm a riddle in nine syllables, An elephant, a ponderous house, A melon strolling on two tendrils. O red fruit, ivory, fine timbers! This loaf's new-minted in this fat purse. I'm a means, a stage, a cow in calf. I've eaten a bag of green apples, Boarded the train there's no getting off.

Extended Metaphor:

Countee Cullen (1903-1946)
For My Grandmother (1927)

This lovely flower fell to seed;
Work gently sun and rain;
She held it as her dying creed
That she would grow again.

The central metaphor in this poem compares the grandmother to a flower. But the poet draws out the metaphor beyond the flower in bloom to its whole life cycle, an example of extended or sustained metaphor.


Robert Burns (1759-1796)
A Red, Red Rose (1796)

O my luve's like a red, red rose
That's newly sprung in June;
O my luve's like the melodie
That's sweetly played in tune.

As fair art thou, my bonny lass,
So deep in luve am I;
And I will luve thee still, my dear.
Till a' the seas gang dry--

Till a' the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi' the sun:
O I will have thee still, my dear,
While the sands o' life shall run.

And fare thee weel, my only luve,
And fare thee weel, awhile!
And I will come again, my luve,
Though it were a thousand mile.

Langston Hughes (1902-1967)
Dream Deferred (1951)

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Each simile in this piece sets up a different scenario for what might happen if a dream is put off, or hope denied.

Simile Exercises:

Finish The Sentence:

Fill in the blanks as rapidly as you can. Do not think. Write. If you have no reflex response, go on to the next sentence. Stop writing when you slow down.

1. A bird sitting in an old man's beard is like _________________

2. The sails on the ship moved as if ________________________

3. Everything was different, now that it was _________________

4. A woman in __________ is like a __________ in _________

5. Down is like up when ___________ is like _______________

6. Hate is to a closed fist, as love is like ____________________

7. A half empty glass is more like _________ than it is like ______

8. Blank pages are as wasted as ____________________________________

9. A man in ____________ is like a ______________ in _______

10. Truth is as hard to obtain as _____________ and as easy to lose as _____

Basic exercise:

Circle the sentence you like the best, and use it as a central image in a 15-25 line poem, any form or style. This exercise focuses on the development of similes in your poetry.


Circle three of the sentences you like the most, and weave them together, creating a poem 15-25 lines long, any form any style. This exercise focus on the development of simile in your poetry.

Metaphor Exercise:


Choose a color, write a 15-20 line poem, where the name of the color is often repeated. Begin by listing the images associated with that color, then consider the narrative and associative possibilities. Consider as you write the broader, symbolic associations of the color chosen. Also consider the personal associations that color has for you. Incorporate the color in the title is you can. Try to refrain from using "like" or "as" in this piece.


A. Describe an object or scene that really interests you without making any comparisons of one thing to another. Re-write it, if necessary, until it is as free of comparisons as possible.

B. Take the same object or scene and use it to describe a close family member, parent, sister, brother...In other words, indulge yourself in comparisons.

C. Write a poem(any form, 15-25 lines) which, though it is a description of the object or scene above, is really about your family member. Do not use like or as in this piece.

This exercise will help you to expand your use of language in reference to building comparisons, challenging you to see known things in new ways, and to communicate that new experience to your readers.


Discovering Poetry. Hans P. Guth and Gabriel L. Rico. 1993. Simon & Schuster.

The Practice Of Poetry. Robin Behn & Chase Twitchell. 1992. HarperCollins.

~CK~ Tower