Similes Are Like Detours—or Shortcuts


Similes are underrated in contemporary writing. Well, maybe all rhetorical figures are underrated. The neglect of rhetorical devices, verse forms, rhyme, and other “adjuncts or ornaments” (as Milton would have it) is lamentable, but it does create a compelling opportunity for contemporary poets eager to embrace change and renew a past tradition. You can distinguish yourself from your peers just by making good use of similes.

A great simile opens a poem or narrative in a vertical way—it doesn’t advance the argument or plot so much as it deepens it. Whether introduced by “like” or “as” or through some other means (“the size of a grapefruit”), the simile adds a complicating element even as it appears to clarify matters. It can resemble a detour—or a shortcut. It should surprise and should not repeat expressions already in use. Paradoxically, the simile can work to illustrate a thought or image—which is, after all, its stated function—yet it can overshadow the thought or image to which it was supposedly a subordinate element. Like the bridge in a jazz standard, it can surpass in beauty or inventiveness the primary melody, as happens in “Body and Soul” and “Skylark.”

For brilliant similes, albeit in prose, I would recommend Mary McCarthy’s The Company She Keeps—in which she tells us, for instance, that her heroine was the victim of a certain man’s “conscience, as Isaac very nearly was of Abraham’s.” The religious and philosophical concerns of this author are front and center in a sentence that very surprisingly uses scientific means to explain a moral proposition: “To know God and yet do evil, this was the very essence of the Romantic life, a kind of electrolytical process in which the cathode and the anode act and react upon one another to ionize the soul.” An enterprising professor could build half a college course around that sentence.

Nearly every page of A. J. Liebling’s great book on boxing, The Sweet Science, can boast a refreshing, inventive simile or two. Example: “But Attell, who looks at you with cold eyes around his huge beak that is like a toucan’s with a twisted septum, is not a sentimental man.”

Your assignment for next Tuesday is to write a poem between four and eight lines long that (a) consists entirely of similes OR (b) lifts a simile from an unexpected prose source—such as The Sweet Science or The Company She Keeps—and goes to town with it. The poem need not rhyme or conform to an established formal meter.

Advice for option a: concentrate on the similes and the flow of the writing and let the sense or meaning of the poem take care of itself. For option b: for examples of how to incorporate a quotation in a poem, look at any volume by Marianne Moore.

Deadline: Midnight, Saturday, May 16.


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David Lehman, a contributing editor of the Scholar, is a poet, critic, and the general editor of The Best American Poetry annual anthology and author of the book One Hundred Autobiographies. He currently writes our Talking Pictures column.


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