A simile likens one object with another. Some well-known (and cliché) similes include "dead as a doornail," "mad as a hatter," "like an oven." The poet uses simile to describe a feeling, and image, a state of mind. She must learn to create fresh similes, however, and avoid clichés like the ones above. Consider the following:
Like rusted hinges, our tired leg bones whine
As they swing from bed to floor
On knees that pop and crack like spring ice breaking
Grandfather hobbles to the kitchen
Both of these images describe the protests of aged bodies in motion. Both use other images, rusted hinges or cracking ice, to suggest the sound and feel of old, tired bones. Drawing comparisons like these is the essence of the poetic form.
Metaphoric language takes the comparison a step further by dropping the "like" or "as" from the comparison and simply stating that one thing is another. Some well-known metaphors include "love is a rose," and "life is a bitch." We also speak metaphorically when we describe something that is not literally true, but carries meaning that our listener or reader can understand. "My heart is on fire," doesn't mean that the speaker's heart is actually in flames, but that she feels very strongly about something. "His feet were cemented to the floor," does not mean someone literally poured cement on someone's feet, but that the person feels as though he cannot move. Much of contemporary poetry is rooted in describing the world metaphorically.
Though you may not have stopped to consider it, our everyday language depends heavily on simile and metaphor. When someone says, "I see what you mean," they are speaking metaphorically. One cannot literally see meaning, but by seeing we mean, "I understand." When someone says, "Give me something I can sink my teeth into," they are not asking for a bite to eat. When someone says, "Let me chew on that one for a while," they are talking not about literally chewing, but about thinking something over.
Exercise: Attune your ear to the use of simile and metaphor in everyday speech. Everything we say to one another that is not literally true, but nonetheless carries clear meaning is figurative language of some sort. How much of what you mean when you speak is not literally what you say? You'll find that figurative speech is a cornerstone of everyday language, and that each speaker's choice of metaphor gives clues to his personality and way of looking at the world. Try conversing with someone without resorting to a shred of figurative language. You may find that it's literally impossible, or at least difficult, and certainly boring.
Exercise: Create new similes and metaphors on your own. Pick something abstract to describe, such as an emotion. Find a random object by looking at the room around you, or randomly choosing a word from a dictionary or book. The more unrelated this word seemingly is to your chosen emotion, the better. Now, brainstorm ways in which your chosen object is like your chosen emotion. Get creative. Have fun. Say you chose love as your emotion and toothpaste as your object. How are the two related? Well, what can you do with toothpaste? Squeeze it out of a tube. What does it look like? It's often blue. What does it feel like? It's sticky. Can you relate any of these to love? Hmm.
She thinks of him and feels her heart squeeze.
Like a tube of toothpaste in a clenched fist
Spilling sticky blue on the enameled sink
Then washing away in a splash of cold water
This image is admittedly a reach, and these lines are no one's idea of great poetry, but this exercise can help you learn to see connections between things that seem completely unconnected, and this is how fresh figurative language is born.
Modern poetry traces its roots to the ancient Greek dramas, which were written in verse and (it is believed) were actually sung instead of spoken. For most of its history, poetry has been considered just as much of a spoken form as a written one, and its connection with music and song is a strong one. Many poetic devices are employed for their effects upon the ear when spoken. Here are a few examples.
In contemporary poetry, strict guidelines on rhyme and meter have been abandoned in favor of "free verse," in which rhyme is optional, and rarely used, and rhythm is varied as the poet sees fit. You will still find elements of these longstanding traditions in the work of many poets today, though they are often used in much more subtle ways.
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