Thursday favorites: What it’s like

It’s hard to find powerful figurative language. A good metaphor or simile needs to surprise you, either by describing the same old thing in a brand new way, or else striking a chord of recognition, putting it in some way that you immediately know is just what you meant but you never knew exactly how to say it. When T.S. Eliot opened his poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in 1915, he exiled tired romantic clichés about nature and by line three of that poem had catapulted us into Modernism: “Let us go then, you and I/ When the evening is spread out across the sky/ Like a patient etherized upon a table.” Shocked and probably a little thrilled by this juxtaposition, James Joyce called it “the end of poetry for ladies.” Au contraire, of course; this jostling jarring jolting is exactly what you want figurative language to do. It’s frustrating to even try to make a list of my favorite examples because all I can think is how much I must be leaving out that’s not in my mind at the moment; these selections tend towards an obvious bias of what I’ve been reading lately, so it’s up to you to broaden this narrow canon. Here are a few:

The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit. (James Joyce, Ulysses)

The silver pepper of the stars. (F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby)

Stars as fat as dinner plates. (Toni Morrison, Beloved)

No more in danger than a star in the jaws of the clouds. (Victor Hugo, Les Miserables)

the moon rattles like a fragment of angry candy. (E. E. Cummings, “The Cambridge ladies live in furnished souls”)

From between two hills a sudden wind funnels at me,
Snapping its phantom laundry in my face. (Sylvia Plath, “Blackberrying”)

I’ve lived for months, for whole years now, as mindless of Francine as a tree of its mosses. (Ethan Canin, “We Are Nighttime Travelers”)

The deep-pink walls of the . . . room look even meatier than usual; they have the color of something oxygen-deprived, a failing organ. (A.M. Homes, Music for Torching)

She felt separate from her body, felt herself dragging it up the stairs, like a big handbag, its leathery hollowness something you could cut up and give away or stick things in. (Lorrie Moore, “Community Life”)

With the straps pushed off, there was nothing between the top of the suit and the top of her head except just her, this clean bare plane of the top of her chest down from the shoulder bones like a dented sheet of metal tilted in the light. (John Updike, “A&P”)

Her face looked like she had polished it with a gun rag. (William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury)

As a tourist, you become economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing. (David Foster Wallace, “Consider the Lobster”)

Why have a body if it has to be shut up in a case like a rare, rare fiddle? (Katherine Mansfield, “Bliss”)

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick. (W.B. Yeats, “Sailing to Byzantium”)

We take steps the length of table forks. (Ethan Canin, “We Are Nighttime Travelers”)

The sheets grow heavy as a lecher’s kiss. (Sylvia Plath, “Fever 103”)

My mouth blooms like a cut. (Anne Sexton, “The Kiss”)

when it is over he places her,
like a phone, back on the hook. (Anne Sexton, “You all know the story of the other woman”)

As if crushed between the past and the future, like a flower that comes above ground to find a great stone lying above it, she was helpless. (D.H. Lawrence, The Rainbow)

a sleep deeper than the hospital drugs; deeper than the pits of plums, steadier than the condor’s wing; more tranquil than the curve of eggs. (Toni Morrison, Sula)

You fit into me
Like a hook into an eye

A fish hook
An open eye
(Margaret Atwood, “You fit into me”)

Like the pulse of a perfect heart, life struck straight through the streets. (Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway)

So you know how Thursday Favorites work—I started the list, but you continue it. Come on, all you readers, what are the ones that really stick with you?

12 responses to “Thursday favorites: What it’s like”

  1. LP says:

    Trying to remember favorite metaphors first thing on a Thursday is like… is like… threading a garden hose through a matador’s hat… it’s like… searching for the one Hershey’s almond Kiss in a giant bathtub of Twizzlers… it’s like… sailing the barge of language down the lonely river of forgetfulness.

    Et cetera.

  2. LP says:

    HL Mencken:

    “Warren Harding is the master of a language in which the relations between word and meaning have long since escaped him. Harding’s style reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the wall… of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it.”

    Insert politician’s name of choice.

  3. Tim says:

    I’m with Parrish: this is too hardz, especially after reading that amazing list. I’ll work on it, though, and see if I can come up with a few.

  4. swells says:

    Actually, a big problem I had was that I’d remember ones I knew I loved, only to either be unable to find them (there’s something in Toni Morrison, I swear, about a dead woman being “curled up like a shrimp,” but I can’t find it anywhere)–or else I would find them all expectantly only to discover that it wasn’t what I remembered at all. Paraphrases therefore are totally acceptable, like the one I just made about the shrimp. Of course, you’ll all be hard pressed to top “threading a garden hose through a matador’s hat.”

  5. ruben says:

    “like the base Indian, threw a pearl away richer than all his tribe”

    welles performance/direction of othello sold me on this one.

    “Him the Almighty Power hurled headong flaming from the ethereal sky”

    sadly, one of the few things that has really stayed with me from my undergrad Milton class

    “He was followed by someone who at first looked to Alun like an incredibly offensive but all too believable caricature of Peter Thomas aged about eighty-five and weighing half a ton. At a second glance he saw that it was Peter Thomas.

    his kid is good too and i know this isn’t exactly figurative language but kingsley amis was a funny man.

    last one-recently i haven’t been able to get this one line from dylan out of my mind-“never could learn to drink that blood and call it wine.”

    and steph, this toni morrison sounds like a big deal, maybe i should try one of her books…

  6. Jeremy says:

    Mmmm…. angry candy.

  7. LT says:

    since i don’t have something on the tip of my brain, swells, “i’ll try to find you some and get back to ya.”

  8. PB says:

    I love this post but then I love metaphors and love descriptive writing that makes me see things in a new but of course kind of way –
    even old tired quotes like –
    Fog crept in on little cat feet
    gets me every time . . .
    it is EXACTLY like that!

    PS – I love the egg line

  9. Scotty says:

    “I picked up an ashtray as big as a really fucking big brick…”

    I sure love this Nick Cave line.

  10. Kate the Great says:

    I think you picked some great authors. Margaret Atwood, John Updike, Yeats, Victor Hugo , cummings, I could start searching and find a lifetime of beautiful, powerful words. I’d search through poetry, through favorite fiction, through all my anthologies. But I’m afraid I’d never stop. I’d never read new stuff. I’d never continue searching for stars that beg to be read aloud in the silence. To be underlined in the pristine text, to be mulled over and cried over, to be smiled over until I search for someone to ask me what\ one line I’m grinning at.

  11. I liked this analogy from Saramago, taken from a recent interview: the interviewer asks “But can literature really save your life?” and he replies, “Not as a medicine, but it is one of the richest springs from which the spirit can drink. Perhaps it can’t do great things for the body, but the soul needs literature like the mouth needs bread.”

  12. (Oh and speaking of Saramago: One of the things he does best is to use clichéed figurative language and then examine the usage and its ramifications. For example: “For several minutes he watched his courage desert him, it was like watching sand run through an hourglass, an overworked metaphor which nevertheless keeps recurring. One day, when we live two hundred years and ourselves become the hourglass observing the sand inside it, we will not need the metaphor, but life is too short to indulge in such thoughts…”)