Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

What's It Like? More on Metaphor

by Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

Septembert 2013

Watch for her insights every month on Authorlink

"Metaphor isn’t reserved for literature."

Metaphor isn’t reserved for literature. It’s how we think, how we make sense of the world. Biologist Lewis Thomas wrote, “The mark of being human is speech and the making of metaphor.”

In Western Wind, An Introduction to Poetry, by David Mason and John Fredrick Nims, (Mc Graw Hill, 1974), quotes two of our astronauts working on moon dust said, “When you put your scoop in, it smoothes it out—just like plaster.” When you find stuff that you’ve never seen before, it’s natural to try to compare it to something that you are familiar with.

When we say this is like that, we’re trying to show a new and vivid way of seeing something. But metaphors can be overdone. If you use too many it can become deadening or as “string after string of exploding firecrackers.” (P. 25).

"If we compare something to another thing that no one has experience with, the metaphor won’t work.”

Here are some of the metaphors presented in this book that stood out to me, that really tells us what something is like in terms that we can see. If we compare something to another thing that no one has experience with, the metaphor won’t work. These do, and gorgeously.

“Deep in the sun-searched growths, the dragonfly
Hangs like a blue thread looked from the sky.” –Gabrielle Rosetti

“Each dockpost comes with a pelican…
one languidly unrumples itself and flies
off like a purposeful overcoat.”    –William Matthews

       “…After we kissed,
I wore my mouth like a neon bowtie for days…”    –Alice Fulton

“The waitress looks at my face as if it were a small tip.” –Stephen Dunn

Here’s an example of a metaphor that WOULD NOT work

“I drove to her house, cross the highway, for the chance to peer into the marbles of her eyes.”

Yes, eyes are round and sometimes glassy, but unless you were writing horror, it wouldn’t work. The image is garish.

This site has samples of hilariously bad metaphors from student essays. But they are so bad that in some way they are good, CAMP, if you recall that old sixties term.

Her face was a perfect oval, like a circle that had its two other sides gently compressed by a Thigh Master.

His thoughts tumbled in his head, making and breaking alliances like underpants in a dryer without Cling Free.

She caught your eye like one of those pointy hook latches that used to dangle from screen doors and would fly up whenever you banged the door open again.

The little boat gently drifted across the pond exactly the way a bowling ball wouldn't.

McMurphy fell 12 stories, hitting the pavement like a Hefty bag filled with vegetable soup.

Now to a master: Pablo Neruda, who wrote:

“The clouds travel like white handkerchiefs of goodbyes…

And he continues with “The wind, traveling, waving them in its hands.”


". . .to be sure that you choose an accessible, easily identified object to compare. . ." —Shapiro

The key to great metaphor-making is to be sure that you choose an accessible, easily identified object to compare something to or what would be the point? You need to make the reader see it in his mind and say, “Aha!”

Rochelle Jewel Shapiro








Rochelle Jewel Shapiro is author of Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster) and has published essays in NYT (Lives), Newsweek (My Turn), et. al. Her essay, ESS, ESS, is just out in FEED ME: WRITERS DISH ABOUT FOOD, EATING, WEIGHT, AND BODY IMAGE, ed. by Harriet Brown (Random House, 2009). She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in poetry. She teaches Writing the Personal Essay at UCLA extension.