The art of metaphor. Metaphor in poetry - a question of taste? Rosemary Wagner, Jan 2013

Today I want to consider the use, and possible abuse, of imagery in our poetry, and in particular, metaphor.

Anecdote: Wes Magee's (born 1939, children's poet) comments on my early work: encouraging, but lacking in imagery? I subsequently probably over-reacted.

Is metaphor essential to poetry? Is contemporary poetry, with its prevalent use of day-to-day language, hostile to rich use of metaphor? Consider the magnificent use by Shakespeare of metaphor, a reflection also of the rich development of the English language at his period. Is such a 'colourful tapestry' inappropriate in our poetic usage, or is metaphor intrinsic to the art of poetry itself?

1 Definitions

Just to clarify - when we are using imagery, most often we use similes-

'A simile makes a comparison by using the words 'like' or 'as'. It says, rather than implies, that two concepts are similar... .
'Metaphor does not compare. Or rather, it does not signal , by using 'like' or 'as' that it is about to effect its own condensed form of comparison. It simply goes ahead and describes something in terms of something else.... .
'It was J. Middleton Murry who said that metaphor is both more poetic and dramatic than simile, because it is more condensed.... .
' But simile is, after all the natural way to compare like with like. It gives the brain time to act on the new information and settle it into its onward appreciation of the poem.' (Bibl:Baldwin p 72-73)

eg Simile :'My love is like a red, red rose...'
or 'The river meandering through the meadows
as if it were a silver snake...'

Metaphor: eg ' the river of blood', 'the snake of the river...'

'The girl at the checkout turned
her delicate head. I took a quick step back.
Two shocking spiders crawled
about her eyes, slowly uncurled
their bristly, black and furry legs:
I peered in awe at the tarantulas
of her mascara.'

Find similes and metaphors in this much-loved poem of Sassoon: (see Poems 1)

Extended metaphor
Some poems can just be an extended metaphor, or like the following extract from John of Gaunt's speech in Shakespeare's Richard II, a cascade of metaphors, developing one from the other to enrich the argument:... (see Poems 2)

Ted Hughes uses metaphor brilliantly to conjure up both the act of watching a fox and writing a poem - in fact the fox becomes the poem - in 'The Thought-Fox'. (See Poems 3)

He writes of this poem: 'It is both a fox and a spirit. It is a real fox; as I read the poem I see it move, I see it setting its prints, I see its shadow going over the irregular surface of the snow. It is very real to me. The words have made a body for it and given it somewhere to walk.' (Bibl. Hughes. P.20)

2 Observation

'Powerful imagery is based in powerful observation, in the ability to perceive intensely and originally. It connects us with the world about us in an intimate and enlivening manner. It is above all an act of engagement. The poet attempts to bind phenomena together through his or her senses, to perform acts of linkage that enable readers to experience their environment in different ways.

'Learning to work with images involves training the eye, the ear, touch and taste and scent, to apprehend and define particulars. From the search for precise language arise equivalents to those particulars, so we must try to catch fugitive impressions and the comparisons that can come from them. By cultivating a vocabulary of images, we begin to cultivate the faculty of image-making.' (Bibl: Herbert, p.214)

Imagine your desk at home, your kitchen, your garden, a bench in your favourite park or wild place. 5 minutes. Write down some images that may strike you. However outrageous. Let your imagination fly. Turn some into metaphors.

Some metaphors/similes I found during one day at home

kitchen clock
round as the full moon and just as regular
empty elderflower cordial bottle
a graceful young girl in her swirling, green ball gown
old-fashioned salt-cellar
the distant lighthouse of the table
the smell and taste of the sea (cf Neruda)
dying rose
a weeping woman hanging her head
the hand-shake
the dead fish of his hand-shake
Henry, the vacuum cleaner
tripping me up with a smirk, the naughty boy
Vacuum cleaner handle
a knight sheathing his sword (fitting the top section of the handle into the lower)

3 The danger of dead metaphors

They are everywhere and hidden by overuse in our everyday speech: eg the world of books, mother nature, earth mother. How much should we use them? Is it wrong to use them?

'Mother Earth is a metaphor so embedded in common usage that I might wager it is the one English language cliché most likely to outlast all possible change. But a metaphorical cliché persists for a reason, and the reason is that the metaphor embodies an indispensable truth. People repeat the same combination of words over and over through the centuries, not because they can't think of anything else to say but because the words fit the living fact of their lives. '"Mother Earth" is like that...We are all like nursing infants, utterly dependent upon the earth to bring us forth, not once only, but every instant of our lives. It is the earth that gives and sustains life, and to think otherwise is a fanatical and prideful arrogance.' (Bibl:Jensen p.75):

Make a quick list of some more dead metaphors, ie metaphors that have become clichés eg:

the heart of the matter, the double-edged sword, the windows of the soul

But dead metaphors can become so stale that we no longer recognise them as images and to make our poems fresh we have to keep finding new, live ones.

NB The dangers of mixed metaphor!

It is easy to become carried away by metaphor, but take care:

'Many received phrases (ie dead metaphors) are in fact tired images, and many mixed metaphors appear simply because the writer has overlooked the way that two phrases have metaphoric content and so clash with each other.' (Bibl: Herbert, p211)


'The girl at the checkout turned
her delicate head. I took a quick step back.
Two shocking spiders crawled
about the windows of her soul,
slowly uncurled their bristly, black
and furry legs: I peered in awe
at the tarantulas of her mascara.

4 Exercise to do daily(!) at home

A Sharpen up your ability to use imagery with this exercise and make your writing more alive and original. Close observation and imagination-stretching essential!

For a period of at least 24 hours, look at familiar things around you and find an image for as many as possible. Let your imagination 'run riot'! (But not obvious clichés like that). Jot them down in your notebook.

'the pagoda
of dirty dinner plates' (Craig Raine)
'the dust of the sea' (salt) (Neruda)

Then write a short piece or poem incorporating two or more of your best images as similes or metaphors - even extended metaphors.

When reading, note down particularly good original images used by other writers. Not to re-use yourself, but to admire and remember the power of metaphor.

5 Use of metaphor in contemporary poetry

But can we overdo metaphor in our poetry? A friend of mine in my (largely prose) writing group, (not a poet, and not used to reading poetry), has difficulty with my use of imagery and always finds it too rich for her modern taste. Let's look at how recent and contemporary poets handle metaphor in their work.

Sylvia Plath's 'You're', is one of her happiest poems, written in 1960, where she shows her love for and delight in her baby with very rich imagery - almost a 'list' poem. Yet its honesty and joy feel right and speak to us through the images as if written today. (Poem 4)

Sharon Olds, an American poet writing now, uses very day-to-day language to write of the break-up of her marriage in her recent book 'Stag's Leap'. But to get to the depth of her pain she uses metaphor, incorporating sometimes startling imagery into the prosaic structure of her sentences. cf Poem 5, 'The Healers'.

Philip Larkin was sparing in his use of metaphor, and wrote in the language of everyday speech - but imagery does usually creep in, quite subtly. cf Poem 6 'How'

Carol Ann Duffy is also subtle but less sparing in her use of metaphor. cf Poem 7 'Invisible Ink', where the metaphor of invisible ink, writing poetry and a pen become a reality as her poem, crafted out of very ordinary language, takes shape - a bit like the 'Thought-fox' above of Hughes.

6 Conclusion

No doubt that metaphor enriches our poetry enormously. But it needs to be used with care and consideration in a world suspicious of frills and decoration in language. Keep your work simple, ensure the metaphor if extended is sustained sensibly, don't overdo or mix the metaphors. Read actively and learn from other contemporary poets - see how skilfully they use metaphor.


Astley, Neil (Ed) Staying Alive - real poems for real times
Bloodaxe Books, 2002 p 348
Baldwin, Michael The Way to Write Poetry
Elm Tree Books, London 1982 p 72
Duffy, Carol Ann The Bees
London, Picador, 2011 p 26
Herbert, W.N. Imagery
Ch. 15 in 'Creative Writing, a Workbook with Readings', Ed. Linda Anderson Routledge in association with the OU, 2006
Hughes, Ted Poetry in the Making
Faber, London, 1967 p 19
Jensen, Lin Together Under one Roof - Making a Home of the Budda's Household
Wisdom Publications, Inc Boston, 2008 p 75
Larkin, Philip Collected Poems
London, Faber&Faber, 1988 p 176
Olds, Sharon Stag's Leap
London, Jonathan Cape, 2012 p 33
Plath, Sylvia Collected Poems
London, Faber&Faber, 1981 p141


1 Siegfried Sassoon Everyone Sang

Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on - on- and out of sight.

Everyone's voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
drifted away...O, but Everyone
was a bird, and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.
(Bibl.Astley p348)

2 Shakespeare Richard II

Act II Sc 1 extract from speech by John of Gaunt

This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-Paradise;
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war;
This happy breed of men, this little world;
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house
against the envy of less happier lands;
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Feared by their breed and famous by their birth,
Renowned for their deeds as far from home,
For Christian service and true chivalry
As is the sepulchre, in stubborn Jewry,
Of the world's ransom, blessed Mary's son;
This land of such dear souls, this dear, dear land,
Dear for her reputation throughout the world
Is now leased out – I die pronouncing it –
Like to a tenement or pelting farm.

3 Ted Hughes The Thought-fox...

I imagine this midnight moment's forest:
Something else is alive
Beside the clock's loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move,

Through the window I see no star:
Something more near
Though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness:

Cold, delicately as the dark snow,
A fox's nose touches twig, leaf;
Two eyes serve a moment, that now
And again now, and now, and now

Sets neat prints into the snow
Between trees, and warily a lame
Shadow lags by stump and in hollow
Of a body that is bold to come

Across clearings, an eye,
A widening deepening greenness,
Brilliantly, concentratedly,
Coming about its own business

Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed.

4 Sylvia Plath You're

Clownlike, happiest on your hands,
Feet to the stars, and moon-skulled,
Gilled like a fish. A common-sense
Thumbs-down on the dodo's mode.
Wrapped up in yourself like a spool,
Trawling your dark as owls do.
Mute as a turnip from the Fourth
Of July to All Fool's Day,
O high-riser, my little loaf.

Vague as fog and looked for like mail.
Farther off than Australia.
Bent-backed Atlas, our traveled prawn.
Snug as a bud and at home
Like a sprat in a pickly jug.
A creel of eels, all ripples.
Jumpy as a Mexican bean.
Right, like a well-done sum.
A clean slate, with your own face on.

5 Sharon Olds The Healers

When they say, If there are any doctors aboard,
would they make themselves known
, I remember when my then
husband would rise, and I would get to be
the one he rose from beside. They say now
that it does not work, unless you are equal.
And after those first thirty years,
I was not the one he wanted to rise from
or return to – not I but she who would also
rise, when such were needed. Now I see them,
lifting, side by side, on wide,
medical, wading-bird wings – like storks with the
doctor bags of like-loves-like
dangling from their beaks. Oh well. It was the way
it was, he did not feel happy when words
were called for, and I stood.

6 Philip Larkin How

How high they build hospitals!
Lighted cliffs, against dawns
Of days people will die on.
I can see one from here.
How cold winter keeps
And long, ignoring
Our need now for kindness.
Spring has got into the wrong year.

How few people are.
Held apart by acres
Of housing, and children
With their shallow violent eyes.

7 Carol Ann Duffy Invisible Ink

When Anon, no one now
knew for sure the cu and koo
he spelled from his mouth
could put the tribe in sight
of a call they'd met before
in their ears, the air ever after was
invisible ink.

Then, hey nonny no,
the poets came; rhyme, metre,
metaphor, there for the taking
for every chancer or upstart crow
in hedgerow, meadow, forest, pool;
shared words, vast same poem
for all to write.

I snap a twig
from a branch as I walk, sense
the nib of it dip and sip, dip
and sip, a first draft of the gift –
anonymous yet – texted from heart
to lips; my hand dropping a wand
into this fluent, glittery stream.