4 posts

One Defining Moment Deserves Another


Thinking back to school daze, you’d probably agree that one of the original sins of “education” is a teacher forcing students to copy definitions out of a dictionary. They wrote the Geneva Conventions about stuff like that, no?

But definition is, in its humble way, sophisticated stuff. No, not Merriam’s or Webster’s. Yours.

Redefining, or defining something in your own way. I put it right up there with metaphor, a type of redefinition itself. But, if you think about it, taking a list of abstracts and then redefining them with concrete images is a great poetry-writing warm-up, like push-ups at 6 a.m. And, like any warm-up, it leads to greater feats and bigger accomplishments, in this case a poem based on definition.

We all know that an extended metaphor is one that finds multiple ways that one thing is like something else. A successful definition poem — I mean, uber successful — would be one that does the same, and although I cannot find one that extends like that right now, I did stumble across a simple definition poem by way of illustration. Cue the late David Budbill of Vermont:

The Sound of Summer

David Budbill

The screened door slamming tells me it is summer.

There are other sounds only in the summer, too.
The hummingbirds moving from
feeder to feeder on the porch, chickadee’s two-note
song we hear early on summer mornings, ravens
croaking back to their aeries on the ledges
every summer evening.

There are other birds too, visitors we hear only
in the summertime, but it’s the screened door slamming
that is the definition of summer for me.


Simply put, this poem takes an abstract (summer) and redefines it in concrete terms (the screened door slamming). Summer to you might be something quite different. Summer to you, in fact, might be ten different concrete sorts of familiar imagery, which is the point. Definition poems are a great “in,” especially if you, unlike me, are a believer in writer’s block.

Maybe, if your well is dry and you’d like to write the first draft of a poem today, the “Merriam and Webster Way,” as I don’t call it (you’re welcome), is your “in.” For me, definition poems (concrete) are one definition of “creativity” (abstract).

Don’t believe me? Go ahead and check under “C.”

Philosophy Needs Metaphor Like Cookies Need Milk

They say we stand apart from animals on one count and one count alone: we think metaphorically. What’s more, if you want to show off by thinking philosophically, metaphor is surely your friend.

This knowledge, paired with something that you as a writer hold deep knowledge of, is literary gold. Philosophically speaking (like Plato or Aristotle might if you gave them another chance), what is your pastime, passion, or skill like?

If you were to hew a poem from such a question, it would require descriptive and narrative skills (important stuff only, please) as well as the gift of comparing two unlike things that readers would agree are alike in some way, after all. Do it well and even the lion might crown you king of the beasts!

Wondering what this might look like? Today’s poem, by Jeffrey Harrison, gives us both a pastime (fly fishing) and a cliché (the same river twice) in order to create metaphor.

Could you do the same for something you love to do, Mr. or Mrs. or Miss Philosopher Slash Poet or Short Story Writer or Essayist? Rhetorical question, of course.


The Same River
Jeffrey Harrison

Yes, yes, you can’t step into the same
river twice, but all the same, this river
is one of the things that has changed
least in my life, and stepping into it
always feels like returning to something
far back and familiar, its steady current
of coppery water flowing around my calves
and then my thighs, my only waders
a pair of old shorts. Holding a fly rod
above my head, my other arm out
for balance, like some kind of dance,
trying not to slip on the mossy rocks,
I make my way out to the big rock
I want to fish from, mottled with lichen
that has dried to rusty orange, a small
midstream island that a philosopher
might use to represent stasis
versus flux, being amidst becoming,
in some argument that is larger
than any that interests me now
as I climb out dripping onto the boulder
and cast my line out to where the bubbles
form a channel and trail off in a V
that points to where the fish might be,
holding steady amid the river’s flow.


© 2014 by Jeffrey Harrison, from Into Daylight, Tupelo Press, North Adams, MA.

Extended Metaphors? Wash and Fold ‘Em.


Extended metaphors can be like a marathon, positively breathless to maintain in equal measure, but it’s worth it when you cross the finish line. And really, if your poem isn’t terribly long then your metaphor isn’t terribly extended, so why shy away from them?

For an example of a good “starter” extended metaphor, what about the natural parallels between love and laundry? But of course! We often think of the pair as similar. Or not.

But you will after you read a poet do it. You’ll say, “Oh, yeah. I see the connection. Why didn’t I think of that?” The short answer: Because you’re thinking of your own extended metaphor once you’re done reading this post.


Barton Sutter

Well, Old Flame, the fire’s out.
I miss you most at the laundromat.
Folding sheets is awkward work
Without your help. My nip and tuck
Can’t quite replace your hands,
And I miss that odd square dance
We did. Still, I’m glad to do without
Those gaudy arguments that wore us out.
I’ve gone over them often
They’ve turned grey. You fade and soften
Like the hackles of my favorite winter shirt.
You’ve been a hard habit to break, Old Heart.
When I feel for you beside me in the dark,
The blankets crackle with bright blue sparks.


In this case, the “extended” in Sutter’s metaphor is a sonnet’s length, is all. You can do it, too, in 14 lines or less. Rub your muse against a balloon or something, then touch it with your writing finger and see if there isn’t some static. Creative static extended till the end.

Planes, Trains, and Poems


Sometimes poems do the jobs of planes, trains, and automobiles by taking us places we’ve never been, then giving us a taste (a sight, a smell, a sound, a touch) of what that location is like.

This is what happened for me in one of the poems included in Jane Hirshfield’s Ten Windows. It’s called “Facing It,” a poem where Yusef Kanunyakaa has me standing in front of a memorial I’ve never seen: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Notice the images, how some the figurative language mirrors what many of these names went through in that faraway land, that faraway folly instigated by old men back home. This is but one thing that poetry does–and does well.

Facing It by Yusef Kanunyakaa

My black face fades,
hiding inside the black granite.
I said I wouldn't,
dammit: No tears.
I'm stone. I'm flesh.
My clouded reflection eyes me
like a bird of prey, the profile of night
slanted against morning. I turn
this way--the stone lets me go.
I turn that way--I'm inside
the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
again, depending on the light
to make a difference.
I go down the 58,022 names,
half-expecting to find
my own in letters like smoke.
I touch the name Andrew Johnson;
I see the booby trap's white flash.
Names shimmer on a woman's blouse
but when she walks away
the names stay on the wall.
Brushstrokes flash, a red bird's
wings cutting across my stare.
The sky. A plane in the sky.
A white vet's image floats
closer to me, then his pale eyes
look through mine. I'm a window.
He's lost his right arm
inside the stone. In the black mirror
a woman's trying to erase names:
No, she's brushing a boy's hair.

From Dien Cai Dau by Yusef Komunyakaa. Copyright © 1988 by Yusef Komunyakaa.