Connye Griffin is the writer, editor, thinker, and critic for My Writing and Editing Coach.
One of my favorite books by Dr. Seuss is The Butter Battle about the Yooks who cannot tolerate the Zooks because Zooks butter their slices of bread on the wrong side. This difference of opinion escalates into separation, then war. A wall to prevent one side from crossing the border between nations grows taller and taller. Weapons escalate with each side trying to invent a final solution, a weapon of mass destruction.
Like many of Seuss’ books, The Butter Battle, is a sustained metaphor, this one satirizing the reasons that nations divide and wage war. Using symbols such as butter on bread, Seuss suggests that those differences that divide us may be superficial and insignificant.
Jonathan Swift used symbolic actions to mock British politics in an earlier age. In Gulliver's Travels, Gulliver washes ashore on the island home of the Lilliputians who are tiny in size but gigantic in ego. They compete for titles and rank by performing ridiculous circus-like stunts, allowing Swift to suggest that British dukes and lords were not worthy leaders but performers currying favor from their king.
Metaphors and similes are not always sustained as in Dr. Seuss’ The Butter Battle or Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Often they are isolated phrases or sentences, but in either case, the author intends to suggest another level of meaning, the figurative level. Children can read both Seuss and Swift, and they can enjoy the tale. Adults with more discernment recognize the political satire underway.
Simply defined, a metaphor compares something unknown to something known. A simile does the same but the comparison is less direct. The words like or as signal the comparison and declare that Love does not equal a cuddly puppy; love is merely like a cuddly puppy.
Here is a list of unknowns made known or understandable to readers through comparison:
• My beloved ... (you don’t know him, right? So he's unknown to you): My beloved is a safe harbor in a storm (He isn’t really a body of water, of course; he makes me feel safe and secure).
• My Labrador Retriever: Macduff is an old soul, sensitive to my griefs and patient beyond measure.
• My definition of anger: Anger is a sharp axe above a bared neck.
People and things and ideas with which readers are unfamiliar become understandable when compared to other people, things or ideas with which readers are familiar. That's how metaphors and similes work.
Note that weekly blog posts from December 10 through January 28, 2010 are about symbols. You may wish to read those to review or study further figurative levels of meaning.
Enjoy trying to write metaphors and/or similes. In fact, create a “Me” poem (originally published by Margerite LaPota, now deceased), consisting of nothing but metaphors or similes. For example:
Looking around the world
Many things that remind me
Of me. . .
I am a goldfish in the open sea,
A turtle climbing Mt. Everest.
I am Pad Thai, tangled and spicy;
And I am the sunflower, my face aloft,
Filled with hope, warmed by the sun.
Choose fish, reptiles, animals, movie titles, cars, foods, flowers, and seasons to create a fun poem about yourself. It does not have to rhyme, but each line needs to be a metaphor or a simile.
Enjoy a Raymond Chandler story or a John D. McDonald novel. Read for pleasure but notice the metaphors and similes. Record them in your writing journals to treasure and inform you about figurative language.
Or read and delight in the metaphors (or similes) that Robinson Jeffers employs in “Carmel Point.”
The extraordinary patience of things!
This beautiful place defaced with a crop of suburban houses—
How beautiful when we first beheld it,
Unbroken field of poppy and lupin walled with clean cliffs;
No intrusion but two or three horses pasturing,
Or a few milch cows rubbing their flanks on the outcrop rock-heads—
Now the spoiler had come: does it care?
Not faintly. It has all time. It knows the people are a tide
That swells and in time will ebb, and all
Their works dissolve. Meanwhile the image of the pristine beauty
Lives in the very grain of the granite,
Safe as the endless ocean that climbs our cliff.—As for us:
We must uncenter our minds from ourselves;
We must unhumanize our views a little, and become confident
As the rock and ocean that we were made from.
Or "read" the film What Dreams May Come. Write metaphorical statements for Heaven, Hell, grief, love, and eternity, using images from the film.
Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM): Two more commonly confused words.
I grew weary of correcting the spellings for the verb lose and the adjective loose. Many of my students spelled the adjective when they needed the verb and vice versa.
Lose, the verb, means to misplace something or fail to win. For example:
• I always lose when my husband and I play Scrabble.
• I’m a loser; I never finish first!
Note that by adding an “r,” the verb lose becomes a noun, loser. Both are pronounced as if the “s” is a “z.”
Loose, on the other hand, is an adjective that describes knots or clothing or morals. For example:
• Tie a loose knot; the tide will pull it tighter as the water level drops.
• That waistband is too loose; you’ll lose your drawers and win big on America's Funniest Videos.
• That politician’s ethics are too loose; I can’t vote for him.
Finally, enjoy a poem about losing: One Art by Elizabeth Bishop
The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster,
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three beloved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.