Earl Gray

Earl Gray
"You can argue with me but, in the end, you'll have to face that fact that you're arguing with a squirrel." - Earl Gray

Monday, June 17, 2013

Why Your Poetry Fails - Part IV

While the rest of the world continues to prefer metrical, rhyming narratives editors, judges and academics adore comparisons: analogies, juxtapositions, symbolism, contrasts, similes and metaphors. Especially metaphors. Metaphors are like honey-glazed catnip to these people. Indeed, the reason analogy plays such a small role in poetry is that similes and metaphors do the same thing more succinctly.

The bad news, then, is that if you're going to impress judges or editors you will have to come up with scintillating, original metaphors.

The good news is that this requires remarkably little effort.

Hold this thought for a moment:  "Once you know the answers the questions are simple."


A simile says that something is similar to something else. Typically, the word "like" or "as" is employed. Suppose you want to describe a setting as being in a particular hemisphere during extremely troubling, portentous times. Think of something disturbing. What could be more so than a sick baby? How does one make it clear the action takes place south of the equator? By having September be spring, not fall. Put this together and you have:

"September came like winter's ailing child."

Now suppose you want to describe a situation where the police and armed forces form a tight conspiracy against their government because it has nationalized the copper mines. Nothing could be more obvious than:

"As close as coppers..."


Metaphors are more hyperbolic than similes, stating directly or indirectly that one thing is something else. Think of how a child might revere his grandmother and consider her current location to be the family home, much like the famous song "Papa was a Rollin' Stone. Wherever he laid his hat was his home."  Think of someone who is worshipped and something that carries its abode around with it and, voilĂ !, you have:

"Of course, you are a turtle god."

Now suppose the fix is in for a physician. It takes little imagination to come up with a "verb modification" like:

"...every doctored moment lied."

There's nothing new here. About 3000 years ago Homer (not Simpson) sat down, wondered how to describe the intoxicating, addicting, mysterious effect of the port-colored ocean and effortlessly produced the greatest "noun-modification" metaphor of all time:

"...the wine-dark sea."

As poets on Usenet used to say:   "Hey, this poetry shit is easy!"

Actually, these comparisons are not poetry techniques. They are logical constructs found in any explanatory text (e.g. "A Brief History of Time" by Stephen Hawkings uses many of them).


There are two myths about symbolism that need to be dispelled:
  1. Symbolism is common, if not downright ubiquitous.

    We get this impression from our English teachers constantly asking us: "What does this poem mean?" (In my perfect world posing this question would, itself, be a fireable offense.)

    In fact, symbolism is comparatively rare in English poetry. This is because English is an "open", Borg-like language that uses a myriad of synonyms rather than cross-referencing its terms through iconic metaphors. By contrast, Japanese developed in an isolated environment where most significant terms would be associated with colors (think "green with envy" here), animals (e.g. "sly fox"), seasons ("our autumn years") or other common noumena or phenomena. (This, incidentally, is a key reason why haiku and haibun do not work as well for anglophones as for native Japanese. Our poetry isn't symbolic because our language isn't.)
  2. Symbols should be undefined.

    "Undefined symbols" is interchangeable with "meaningless and pointless distraction". Very few poets today inspire enough readership trust for amphigouri. Do they really think we have nothing better to do than sit around like sophomoric stoners and guess at what they're writing about?

    Symbolism is far more common in repressive societies. For example, if Soviet era samizdat readers didn't know which animal character corresponded to which hated official the whole process would become pointless.


Many of the tricks we've discussed in this series so far are subtle: diaeresis, palindromics, curginas, corata, et cetera. Some of the crudest and laziest approaches, though, can be the most effective.


     Poetry being a no-frills form of communication, the mere mention of any two items, individuals or events or of the same expression twice (why not use synonyms?) invites the audience to compare the pair. Haiku is built on such juxtapositions. Until we see that "Beans" is an acrostic, at least, we wonder what the relationship is between yellow beans in the second stanza and the central figure in the first.


Earl the Squirrel's Rule #38
     Allen Ginsberg's famous prose poem "Howl" relies almost entirely on anaphora: the repetition of words like "who...", names like "Moloch..." or phrases like "I'm with you in Rockland..." at the beginning of many lines. In poetry or rhetoric, anaphora can be an excellent way to built tension from one iteration to the next.

     If done judiciously, anaphora can have both a chanting and enchanting effect.


Everyone is familiar with "The Skeleton Song", including many who wish they weren't.

Anadiplosis is a fancy term for using an expression from the ending of one sentence to begin the next. It can be a very effective, economical way to create links in a narrative chain.

Your face was always saddest when you smiled.
You smiled as every doctored moment lied.
You lie with orphans parents, long reviled.

The Dreaded List Poem:

When a poetry fan wakes up in a cold sweat chances are good that they were having a nightmare about the "list" poem that put them to sleep in the first place. These itemizations rarely work--especially on the page--unless their particulars increase in intensity and/or move the narrative along with subtle differences in the items or presentation. Most often, the details become blurred; the listener's processing center shuts down under Information Overload, such that only the tone, mood and pace survive.

Michael Ondaatje's "Sweet Like a Crow" is a successful list poem. "Remedies for Vertigo" by Walter Bargen is so full of lists that it seems like an encyclopedia of interesting lines, none of them contained in a poem worth reading.¹


Repetitions of words or phrases at the beginning (anaphora), end (epistrophe) or end and beginning (e.g. anadiplosis or symploce) of sentences, of sentences ("repetends") in whole or part, and even stanzas (choruses) are the stock and trade of the performing poet. They are to slam judges what metaphors are to editors and writing contest judges: catnip.


¹ - That said, the chilling story poem, "Flight Lessons", from "Remedies for Vertigo" is worth the price of the book.

Series Links:

  1. Why Your Poetry Fails - Part I - Diaeresis
  2. Why Your Poetry Fails - Part II - Brackets
  3. Why Your Poetry Fails - Part III - Judges and Editors
  4. Why Your Poetry Fails - Part IV - Comparisons and Repetition

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  1. "Do they really think we have nothing better to do than sit around like sophomoric stoners and guess at what they're writing about?"

    I fear that this is exactly what they think. It would, in most cases, tally well enough with the process which they themselves underwent, and by which they suppose their same deluded selves to have come to understand poetry.

    They were evidently taught neither the effective use of formal technique and rhetoric, or how to derive and encode meaning that is amenable to rational analysis (exclusive of the reader posesssing near psychic insight into the poet's mental processes). So they must have been learning SOMETHING on those creative writing courses, right?

    Besides which, I believe there was an old saying about how, by consuming the finished product, one could tell what ingredients had gone into a pudding in the first place. I forget how that went now...

  2. - "So they must have been learning SOMETHING on those creative writing courses, right?"

    I fear what they have "learned" is that interpretation is a function of criticism rather than of annotation.

    Good seeing you again, Ragashree.



Your comments and questions are welcome.