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Susan PlettThe Power of the Sustained Metaphor
Copyright©2010 by Susan Plett

This is Susan's sixth column in our "Poet's Classroom" series.

Metaphor: (noun) a figure of speech in which a term or phrase is applied to something to which it is not literally applicable in order to suggest a resemblance (from dictionary.com)

A quick refresher for those of you who, like me, are forever confusing metaphor and simile. In the simplest definition, similes use the words “like” or “as,” while metaphors are simple declaratives. Example of a simile: “as unsatisfying as a bad metaphor.” Example of a metaphor: “Sunset is an angel weeping.”

Both simile and metaphor are effective tools in poetry. They enhance the “layering” of a poem and—used well—they can do a lot of the poet's work. Consider the phrase, “Love is a…” A quick Internet search offers up Pat Benatar’s “Love is a Battlefield” and Neil Young's “Love is a Rose.” Even without reading the lyrics of these popular songs, we have a fairly clear idea of the writer's opinion about love. We bring what we know of battlefields or roses to our interpretation of the song.

A quick read of the lyrics for "Love is a Battlefield," reveals that the songwriter has developed her metaphor no further. The reader is left to fill in the blanks. Neil Young’s "Love is a Rose" offers more insight to his metaphor: “Love is a rose but you better not pick it, it only grows when it’s on the vine.” Both songs, however, stop short of sustained metaphor.

Bruce Cockburn’s “Pacing the Cage” offers a better example:

Sunset is an angel weeping
holding out a bloody sword
No matter how I squint I cannot
Make out what it's pointing toward

But even then, his metaphor is abandoned after the opening quatrain. (This is in no way meant to be a criticism of Cockburn’s song. The image of the weeping angel is strong and startling enough to carry through the rest of the song.)

Consider instead Marcia Laycock’s "Simile at Starbucks":

Simile at Starbucks

Like this paper cup
she was "60% post consumer
recycled fibre."

At the very least,
that much of her
had been used.

Too many hands
had cradled her, took
comfort from her inner

The poet has begun with a throw-away coffee cup made of recycled fiber, and made a comparison to a woman. Almost immediately, we can see the woman in the coffee shop, staring at her cup, and we know what she is thinking about. As the poem continues, the verb and image choice support the initial metaphor: crumpled, lips on the rim, cold as iced coffee, redeemed, made new, pour. The effect is powerful. We are kept in the coffee shop, and we see the woman become the cup the poet is painting her to be—used and thrown away, and finally, “recycled," and “utterly willing to pour herself out.” The final line draws the reader back to the beginning, and the sustained metaphor adds a layer that begs a re-read. A poem that is layered in this manner yields fresh insight upon every read.

"Simile At Starbucks" is an excellent example of an extended or sustained metaphor (also referred to as a conceit, which brings with it a troublesome double meaning for those unfamiliar with the term in the context of poetry)—a metaphor that is carried through the entire poem. While this is not achievable or even, truly, advisable in every poem, it is an effective tool when used properly.

Some examples

While I am generally leery of using this column to discuss my own poetry (there are plenty of fine fine poets out there, I don’t need this column as a forum for self-congratulation), I am also wary of being unjustly critical of a fellow poet. For that reason, I am going to refer to some of my own poems for examples of what is and is not a sustained metaphor, and how a sustained metaphor can be achieved.

First, an example of a poem that is not an sustained metaphor. My poem "Phases" begins with the lines:


My daughter is a crescent moon, curving
slim and apple-sweet on my lap

and the ending stanza reads:

My daughter is a waxing moon
I revel in her fleeting weight
in my arms before she rises
full and luminous
to find her own place in the sky

This harking back to the original makes the poem cyclically interesting, but the metaphor is not sustained. The second stanza begins with “My daughter is a rattlesnake, rustling” and the third stanza begins with “My daughter is an unbound book." The moon imagery has been abandoned in the intervening stanzas. The metaphor does not govern the entire poem, and therefore, is not a true poetic conceit.

By contrast, “Nothing More” is a poem in which the metaphor is consistent and sustained. Every verb choice, almost every noun (vapor, mist, drift, wave, shipwreck) was chosen with the goal of maintaining the ocean shore imagery that had insinuated itself into the second stanza of this unrhymed sonnet. This did not happen intuitively, and it did not happen between the first and the second drafts. The finished product was the result of looking at every word, every phrase, and eliminating anything that took us away from the seashore, either to somewhere else entirely, or to an insubstantial, theoretical place. For example, in the phrase “deep throaty bark," I originally had written “deep throaty shout”—but the evocation of humanity in the word “shout” took us out of the water. Replacing it with the word “bark” transforms the evocation to that of seal, playing in the depths, and leaves us out at sea.

Other fine examples of the extended or sustained metaphor can be found in Barbara Mitchell’s "Small Courage", and Mary Elizabeth Lauzon’s "Good Morning Poetry."

Your poem may suggest its own metaphor

It is worthwhile to mention that you need not start with your metaphor firmly in place. "Phases" started with the inital image, which was unsustainable, whereas “Nothing More” started with a deeply sentimental, nonspecific, verbose phrase that went something like “thoughts of you have faded to nothing more than your name laid out in my mind, like an ache or a prayer.” (It pains me even to type that.) The central image of "Nothing More," the seashore imagery, did not suggest itself until the phrase “my trolling wit had slipped beneath the surface,” which is the third last line of the poem. That image worked worked so well for the next line or two that I went back to the beginning of the poem to make it conform.

This is not to say that you can’t start with your metaphor forefront. Another of my poems where the metaphor is sustained, "Caramel Macchiato," did indeed start with the cup of coffee in front of me, and an assignment to “compare something intangible to a food item.”

Extended metaphor is not achievable or advisable in every poem. "Pacing the Cage" may very well be an example of a poem in which an extended metaphor would be inadvisable—the strength of the unusual imagery has the potential to overshadow any other meaning the poem might have. "Phases," in my opinion, is an example of a poem in which any further extending of the metaphor would have been a painful reach—there are only so many ways in which a growing child is similar to a moon.

Sustained metaphor is an effective tool when used properly, and may be just the thing you need to make your rough draft conform to the excellence we are called to as Christian poets.

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Copyright ©2010 by Susan Plett