I enjoy old books about the craft of poetry. My favorite, which I refer to often, is The Winged Horse by Joseph Auslander and Frank Ernest Hill from 1927. I have recently been reading The Order of Poetry, a 1961 text by David Silver.
In these old texts about poetry’s craft, I like the unequivocal language, the arrogance of intent: We are writing about the most important thing in the world, the dedication to specific words within a poem, the love of . . . a pervasive yet maligned art.
Silver just gave me a new way of explaining the difference between metaphor and simile (it seems so trite, so inadequate just to say that one is direct and one uses “like” or “as”—it’s like a kindergarten definition, isn’t it?). First Silver is highfalutin: “The differences between metaphor and simile are in grammatical procedure, in the degree of demand on the reader’s imagination, and in psychological effect, but not in kind.” Hmmmm. But he gets clearer:
Simile depends on a greater degree of logic and credibility than does metaphor. It contains its own grammatical warning (“like,” “as,” or “than”) that the comparison is only figurative, and not to be taken literally. [I like that—grammatical warning.] Metaphor assumes the reader’s awareness of this condition, and perhaps thus flatters his sophistication; it goes directly to the imagination without observing the formalities of grammatical logic.
So that gives me a reason for why I sometimes think of a simile as a juvenile comparison and a metaphor as an adult one. Silver uses Blake’s famous poem “London” to show the difference between a simile and a metaphor. What if Blake’s metaphor:
And the hapless soldier’s sigh
Runs in blood down palace-walls
was, instead, a simile:
And the hapless soldier’s sigh
Runs like blood down palace walls.
All of a sudden, the poem looks like it could have been written by a hack. A word change–substituting “like” for “in”–makes the comparison lose its power. But this is not to say that a simile has to be less powerful than a metaphor.
Elsewhere, Silver explains that a simile states a comparison, while a metaphor states an identification. I can tell you that two things are like one another, and I can also identify one thing with another.
One of my favorite similes is in the opening lines of Eliot’s “Prufrock”:
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table.
A simile doesn’t get any more powerful than this: It is jarring, immediately sensory, strange. It establishes everything about the alienation and despair the poem eventually develops. Later in the poem, two metaphors are equally powerful:
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
A patient out cold on an examining table. An insect killed and displayed. Days that are ashes of a cigarette. Both similes and metaphors give us a richer way of exploring how this life feels. That is what poetry does better than any other form of writing: It makes the comparisons and identifications that remind us we are alive . . . or that we are dead.
Side Note: If you happen to have or come upon any old books about poetry, I would love to have them! I will refund your postage if you mail them to me…or I will send you a book in return. Thank you!
Rural Oklahoma Museum of Poetry
6619 S. 4382
Locust Grove OK 74352