English 101–In Which We Get a Little Figurative Up in Here

Dear Lily June,

If I’m going to pull from my old English teacher folders to drop some knowledge on you, I should begin with the dogged and grueling work of grammar, forcing you to know the difference between a semicolon and a colon (and when to use–or avoid–either) or drudging up the difference between a warrant and a qualifier in a Toulminian analysis of argument.

But even as someone who loves, truly loves, to geek out over a misplaced modifier or thinks of ethos, pathos, and logos as a dorky trio of Rhetorical Musketeers, I get (kind of, begrudgingly) why some students, given the choice between learning that kind of stuff and swimming in piranha-infested water dressed in a swimsuit made of meatloaf, will choose meatloaf every time.

So it goes, and so I opt, instead, to start with the fun part (or what I sincerely hope you’ll think is the fun part): similes and metaphors. And because being forced to come up with good examples of figurative language on the spot is like being forced, at a doctor’s office, to pee into one of those little cups (in either case, your brain or bladder runneth dry), I’m going to pull from the real experts of analogy: Harvey Danger, Kay Ryan, and high school students. But that’s the grand finale. Let’s start at the beginning, shall we?


What Similes and Metaphors Are

Most people learn, at some point in school, the difference between a simile and a metaphor. A simile is a comparison of two, forgive the repetition, similar or “like” things using the words “like” or “as” (usually); a metaphor is a figure of speech that identifies two unlike things as being one in the same without using “like” or “as.” Two important parts of that people miss, though, are this: In a simile, the two things are already supposed to obviously resemble each other; in a good metaphor, the comparison should be one that forces the reader to really consider why the equation of Thing A with Thing B is true.

(We could get into even stickier terminology with tenor–the thing being compared/equated–and vehicle–the thing it’s compared to/equated with, but if all the world’s a stage, your mother doesn’t want to put her audience, namely you, into a coma.)

In other words, the simile is the “valley girl” of the group, dropping likes like exhales. A simile’s not as bright, but it’s generally far more cheerful than the metaphor, who smokes clove cigarettes that he stubs out into his tattooed arm because flesh is just a canvas, man, and the painting we’re all brush-stroking is death. Of course, similes aren’t always as cute as being “busy as a bee/beaver.” Harvey Danger puts it this way in a creepy line sung by a ex-boyfriend to the girl he can’t get over, “Like a simile, I paint suggestive pictures of me and you.”

And that fact that the song it’s from, “Old Hat,” is one of your mother’s favorites is likely to you, as one of my fellow secretaries in the English Department says in a rare no-like-or-as exception simile, “nuttier than squirrel poop.” (Of course, she’s usually referring to our co-workers with that line, but I digress.)

One of my favorite similes is actually this extended one that fills a whole poem by Kay Ryan, about “drawing oneself up” (a term implying people puff themselves up with more importance than they really have by standing up straighter). One could argue, though, that the first sentence is a metaphor, the second a simile, and the third a metaphor again:

On the Difficulty of Drawing Oneself Up

One does not stack.
It would be like
a mouse on the back
of a mouse
on a mouse’s back.
Courses of mice,
layers of shivers
and whiskers,
a wobbling tower
with nothing more
than a mouse inside.

And here, my dear, is a definite metaphor/simile combo: David Kirby, in describing the works of Kay Ryan, says, “a Ryan poem sticks the reader with a little jab of smarts and then pulls back as fast as a doctor’s hypodermic.” In other words, her poems are needles. In other words, they sting and prick and trick and heal.

And here’s another metaphor: The other secretary at my work says, when the faculty of the English Department get upset that they have to do things independently (order their own books, send their own emails, wipe their own behinds, etc. etc.), they go into a “wet chicken panic.” (It’s true: When the secretaries get together to gossip, we become a pack of violently pecking hens.)

Pictured: An English Department secretary patiently leading her brood of tenure-track chicks along.


What Similes and Metaphors Really Are

I think the power and impact of these uses of figurative language really hit me when I was taking an undergraduate course at the University of Pittsburgh on the works of William Shakespeare. The professor of that course put it perfectly. He explained to the class that, in Shakespeare’s era, they didn’t have the technology to craft car chases and explosions. So the uses of figurative language were Shakespeare’s special effects.

The (at least educated class of) audiences to his plays sat waiting for the verbal explosion of a well-timed metaphor to set off something in their minds. It has the same impact on me today when I read an analogy I never would have considered. Suddenly, Prufrock’s pair of “ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas” feels like it’s packed with ten tons of cognitive TNT. And of course, T.S. Eliot believed in taking the simile and metaphor one step further: He believed in what’s called “the objective correlative.”

Life is subjective. Nobody experiences love or pain or loss or joy in quite the same way. And yet, to Eliot, each shade of emotion–like the existential panic produced when a middle-aged man realizes that, upon giving a tour of life to Death, chicks never really understood him, man–then there’s one perfect image to correspond with this emotion which will evoke the same feeling in every reader who encounters it (i.e. that pair of crabby old claws). I don’t know if I buy it, but I do (kind of, begrudgingly) love it.

And Emerson, too, believed that we learn first, not through identity, but through analogy. He believed every metaphor corresponded to some element in nature, and that figurative language was our first real language. He wrote, in his essay Nature, of comparative learning:

These are not the dreams of a few poets, here and there, but man is an analogist, and studies relations in all objects. He is placed in the centre of beings, and a ray of relation passes from every other being to him.”

In other words, Lily, according to Emerson, crafting metaphors and similes is our way of connecting to every other thing and being in the universe. And when you think of it that way, then it turns our use of language into a chain of paper dolls, reaching out to connect everyone and everything in really unique and interesting ways.

Is a metaphor about metaphors a meta-metaphor?


What High School Similes and Metaphors Really Are

Back in my day of teaching, there was a collection of high school metaphors that, like a character in a pop-up book about stalkers, kept turning up. Supposedly a series of winning entries from a 1999 Washington Post humor contest for the “Worst Analogies Ever Written in a High School Essay,” these gems continue to make me laugh to this day. I would argue that, in their absurd approach to meaning-making and their subversion of figurative expectations, they’re actually quite brilliant.

And, like a firework display that erupts at its end into a visually spectacular grand finale–a bag of dynamite popcorn, if you will–I leave you, at my close, with some of my favorites from an old handout I once circulated to my students:

  • His thoughts tumbled in his head, making and breaking alliances like underpants in a dryer without Cling Free.
  • He spoke with the wisdom that can only come from experience, like a guy who went blind because he looked at a solar eclipse without one of those boxes with a pinhole in it and now goes around the country speaking at high schools about the dangers of looking at a solar eclipse without one of those boxes with a pinhole in it.
  • She grew on him like she was a colony of E. coli, and he was room-temperature Canadian beef.
  • He was as tall as a six-foot, three-inch tree.
  • The little boat gently drifted across the pond exactly the way a bowling ball wouldn’t.
  • Long separated by cruel fate, the star-crossed lovers raced across the grassy field toward each other like two freight trains, one having left Cleveland at 6:36 p.m. traveling at 55 mph, the other from Topeka at 4:19 p.m. at a speed of 35 mph.
  • The plan was simple, like my brother-in-law Phil. But unlike Phil, this plan just might work.
  • Even in his last years, Granddad had a mind like a steel trap, only one that had been left out so long, it had rusted shut.

And my personal, absolute favorite:

“John and Mary had never met. They were like two hummingbirds who had also never met.”

And boom goes the dynamite.


Picture Credits:

4 thoughts on “English 101–In Which We Get a Little Figurative Up in Here

  1. BunKaryudo says:

    I think I have to agree with you about some of those similes. It depends on the intention and the context, of course. I’m not sure they’d look so good in War and Peace. If they were intended to be comic in effect, though, I think they succeed brilliantly. The ones about Phil, the tree and the hummingbirds and made me laugh out loud.

    Anyway, I’d better go. I’ve got to put on my meatloaf swimsuit.


  2. &otherlongstories says:

    *mind blown* —–“The professor of that course put it perfectly. He explained to the class that, in Shakespeare’s era, they didn’t have the technology to craft car chases and explosions. So the uses of figurative language were Shakespeare’s special effects.”

    I’ve never been more fearful of your expertise in all things grammar. I’m going to start doing audio-blogs.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s