Figurative language. Comparing one thing with another, unlike thing. (Simile is the one using like or as; metaphor is…the other one.) This, the short, paraphrased version of most of the definitions you will find, misses the strength of metaphor. I adore metaphor. Simile, not so much. There are similes I do like.
In Sunset to Sunset: A Lifetime with My Brothers, the Dakotas, Thomas Riggs describes a heavy fog “rising in humps, like a white mule getting up out of the willows.” Riggs, who lived on the prairie frontier, wrote for others of his own place and class; willows and mules populated their lives. I love this image; I can see it; it makes me smile. It cannot be bettered.
And a brief one from Moby Dick: “…fabulous rumors naturally grow out of the very body of all surprising terrible events,―as the smitten tree gives birth to its fungi…”
Similes can be useful, often interesting, as I find the above two examples. Metaphor goes deeper into the psyche. Metaphors have spurred myths and religions. Metaphors access a part of the brain that can use language to transcend language, expanding into knowledge and awareness that is felt but unsayable. Metaphors cannot be easily deconstructed, analyzed, explained. A metaphor is its own meaning. I suspect that a metaphor can light up more neuro pathways than any other form of language.
Also from Moby Dick*:
“Aye, the Pequod—that ship there,” he said, drawing back his whole arm, and then rapidly shoving it straight out from him, with the fixed bayonet of his pointed finger darted full at the object.
Here is one of my favorites from Psalm 139:
“…if I take the wings of morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea;”
How do we explain taking the wings of morning? And yet, it needs no explanation. We go, that’s all.
Michael Chabon in The Yiddish Policeman’s Union proves himself a master of metaphor. Unexpected, luminous, witty metaphors bubble and burst from every page. While some writers struggle to come up with the right metaphor, Chabon drips with them. They escape his pen and run riot throughout his prose, making a hardboiled detective novel a thing of surpassing delight, brimming with linguistic treasures. The book is on my shelf, fairly thrumming and vibrating with metaphors pushing at the start gate. I open a page here and there, to read randomly, just to have a sip of such heady writerly wine and to give the prose a good gallop in the open air from time to time.
*You will find me quoting from Moby Dick in subsequent blogs because you can find good examples of almost anything in Moby Dick…it’s a stellar piece of writing) and because I don’t have to worry about copyright infringement.