From the Archives: Deb Vanasse on Metaphor, with All Due Respect

You have to love wikiHow.
Impressed by the abundance of metaphor in Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! and a handful of lines in a G.C. Waldrep’s “The Black Pickup Truck of Death is Driving Away,” I set out to discover what other writers had to say about figurative language, which is as intuitive as anything we do. 
Straight up, Google offered wikiHow’s “How to Write a Metaphor: 7 steps,” sort of like “How to Paint Like Rembrandt: 7 steps” or “How to Think Like God: 7 steps.” “Metaphors are tough,” the Wiki author admits. “But if you follow these instructions, they can become the spice in the cuisine that is your written work!” 
Oh boy.
Richer yet were the ads Google’s snoop squad slotted there, just for me.  Why Men Pull Away: Ten Ugly Mistakes That Women Make That Ruins [sic]Any Chance of a Relationship. The click-through: Right underneath was Turbo Tax Free Tax Advice: Our Professionals Are All CPAs, Enrolled Agents or Tax Attorneys! Yikes. For the record, I’m not shopping for relationship advice, and I finished my taxes last week, thanks very much. But there’s no denying the character potential implied in those juxtaposed ads. Self-destructive romantic seeks free tax advice. Tom Rachman would have fun with that one. 
If Waldrep’s poem “The Black Pickup Truck of Death is Driving Away” were wiki-ized, it would be titled “How to Make Love, Not War: 7 steps.” In it, Waldrep says this about metaphor:
it is not a game,
… it is an alchemy of expression
of what it means to be human,
a bridge between the things that are human 
and the things that are not,
between the living and the dead
If reduced to a recipe, reverence must be metaphor’s primary ingredient. The rest of it – freshness, clarity, depth of meaning, all without drawing undue attention – follow in proportions we pretty much have to guess at. 
The easiest part is identifying those places where literal description falls short. Metaphor does the heavy lifting where you feel more than see what you mean. “I need something to serve as a container for emotion and idea,” Mark Doty says of metaphor. “A vessel that can hold what’s too slippery or charged or difficult to touch.”
The vessel may be large, a metaphor big enough to hold a whole poem. Or it may be slight and yet stunning. It may fall fresh and whole on the page, or it may demand some effort. I sometimes feel like I’m whacking away at potential metaphors like a blindfolded three-year-old at a pinata. A bunch of wild swings and then, boom, I’m scrambling to gather the bounty.
When it comes to metaphor, Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! is the fiesta of all fiestas. Consider lines like these. 
The stage lights’ tin eyelids
Nights in the swamp were dark and star-lepered
The sapphire hairs of the Pleiades
Dozens of alligators pushed their icicle overbites
The Chief’s follow spot cast a light like a rime of ice
These are only a sampling from the first two pages of Russell’s novel. Plenty more follow, hundreds of fresh yet unpretentious metaphors. Russell’s not just playing around with words. It feels like she’s actually seeing this way, that ordinary movements and objects are transformed for her as if through some fantastical lens. 
The simple definition – that metaphor compares two unlike things – isn’t all that helpful to a writer.  In “sapphire hairs” or “icicle overbites,” what’s being compared to what, exactly?  In Liguistics for Students of Literature, Taugett and Pratt define metaphor in a more helpful way: foregrounding through the use of anomaly. Foregrounding provides the motive – special attention.  Anomaly is how we achieve it, by bringing together two unlike meanings. The effect, paradoxically, is cohesion – sameness fashioned from difference. 
As is so often the case, the writer’s job is to pay attention – to the places where the unspeakable hovers, to the freshness camouflaged by the everyday, to the unlikely combinations that when struck like flint yield new ways to see. “Our metaphors go on ahead of us,” says Doty. “They know before we do.” Metaphor earns its respect: as alchemy, as bridge, pressing in toward what makes us human.
Try This: Approach metaphor with playful reverence. Start when the stakes are low – on a walk, waiting in line. See how far you can push metaphors for the seemingly ordinary: sunlight, clouds, snow. Reject anything that hints of the typical or the cliché; nothing cold, for instance, in your metaphorical thinking about snow. The idea is to push into unexplored territory. 
Check This Out: Unique, engaging, and suspenseful first novel rich with metaphor. That’s Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!  The HBO spin-off is sure to be a hoot, but for the language lesson, read the book.
Scroll to Top