A useful difference between simile and metaphor

We’ve all heard it many times before–similes compare two things through the use of “like” or “as,” while metaphors identify one thing as another.  Consider these two examples:

  1. My love is like an open sky (simile).
  2. My love is an open sky (metaphor).

Admittedly, these examples are trite, sentimental, and wouldn’t stand a chance of being published.  However, for our purposes, they’ll work just fine.

For starters, the first sentence contains is own grammatical cue, or barrier, in the form of the word “like.”  The second sentence requires no such cue and allows us to cut straight to the imagination.

That’s it.  That’s what you need to know as a poet.   Now get to work…

Okay. I know–I should explain myself a bit more.  Similes, through the use of grammatical construction, depend on a higher degree of logic and credibility, and thus, create a sense of distance and less immediacy. Metaphors, on the other hand, are less logical.  They get right up in your face; they are direct injections into our imaginations.

Notice what I did in that last sentence?

I could have written: “they are like direct injections into our imaginations,” which would have created more distance than using the metaphor.

As poets, we often find ourselves needing to control distance and logic in our poems.  If we are writing something that is heavy in narrative and logic, we might employ a simile like I did in this line from my (mostly) narrative poem “Outside the Museum of Nature and Science:”

I feel it too, the gravity of the mountains on the skyline,
as if this water that jumps between the toes
comes from the snows of those rocky peaks,
water older than bones, the spray across our skin
that brings us human to ourselves.

If I had written something like “bone water,” it would have been much less logical–perhaps better, but less logical.  And in this case, I was going for logic and distance, not imagination and immediacy.

These kinds of decisions are better handled in our second, third, and hundredth drafts, but they are decisions we should face as we take technical control of our poems.


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