The unusual but very fitting images used in Sylvia Plath’s poem Metaphors will, for example, chime with many mothers recalling the experience of being pregnant: “…An elephant, a ponderous house, / A melon strolling on two tendrils. / O red fruit, ivory, fine timbers! / This loaf’s big with its yeasty rising. / Money’s new-minted in this fat purse. / I’m a means, a stage, a cow in calf…”
“There is a two-way thing that has to happen – you’re reaching out, you’re holding your hand out to the person you’re talking to and saying ‘please understand me’,” says Pies. For the person who created the metaphor, when someone gets it, there is a sense of recognition, “a feeling of being understood, of having the invitation accepted, the hand grasped,” she says.
Pies compares metaphors to “3D chess”. You’re thinking three things at once: what it says, what it means and what it doesn’t mean. So what makes a good – or effective – metaphor? For Pies, it’s when the “zing” happens. Certainly it’s those that are vivid, striking and original. But it’s also about what the person making the metaphor is seeking to achieve in their audience. When they succeed in evoking their desired outcome, says Pies, there’s “a wonderful connection… like a spark”.
“When you see something represented that you know in life, there’s a pleasure of recognition,” says Pies. Conversely, when you see something in art you don’t know in life, then it’s a way of experiencing that. “The act of imagination and feeling expands your emotional knowledge,” she explains.
The simile is the close relation of the metaphor, and shares many of its qualities. But unlike a metaphor, a simile uses the word ‘like’. So ‘life is like a box of chocolates’ is a simile. In his poem 90 North, Randall Jarrell paints a vivid picture with an unlikely simile: “like a bear to its floe, / I clambered to bed”. Both similes and metaphors often make the unfamiliar familiar, but when a surprising comparison makes you reconsider a familiar experience (such as going to bed being like a polar bear flopping on to an ice floe) it can be the opposite: making the familiar unfamiliar. “The poetry of metaphor is finding that connection, finding that hidden resemblance,” says Geary.