To Metaphor or Not to Metaphor

In my experience, middle school and high school poetry units would often begin with a list of poetic devices, their definitions, and a few examples. We would memorize what each device was, perhaps analyze a poem and identify which ones were used. However, understanding how to use these literary tools goes well beyond the basic knowledge of what they are. A common mistake made by both amateur and professional poets is using too many literary devices as a general attempt to improve the poem, rather than using only those that effectively translate an image for the reader. Perhaps the easiest one to overdo is the metaphor, as too many comparative images can drag down a poem or just create confusion for the reader.
I have been helped in my research on the difference between good and bad metaphors by the poets Matthew Brennan of Indiana State University, Phillip Sterling of Ferris State University, and Phil Hey at Briar Cliff University in Iowa. I asked these writers how they apply metaphor in their own writing, and their opinion on when it should be used or avoided. As Hey says, “Metaphor is often easy to use, but not always used well.” A well-placed metaphor can elegantly relate to the poem and bring the imagery to a whole new level, while a poorly chosen one can detract from that imagery.
Phillip Sterling agrees that metaphors are not simple to use, although they are “the most familiar, the most recognized, and thus the one most often taught.” Images cannot be forced into a poem without logical meaning, as this confuses the reader and detracts from the message the poet is trying to convey. Matthew Brennan also says they can do more harm than good “if the figurative comparison is strained, or hackneyed, or incongruent with the focus of the poem.” When it comes to metaphors, less is generally more. The reader may become overwhelmed when the poem is over-crowded, and although each image may be powerful on its own, it is very possible to have too much of a good thing. Brennan admits it is a difficult decision to cut lines from a poem, but “as Faulkner said, 'sometimes you have to kill your darlings.'”
So, how can you tell if a metaphor is overdone? Brennan considers it overdone “if readers have to think hard to understand them”— which is always a criteria for assessing the success of a poem. The viability of an image ultimately depends on how well readers respond to it, and the metaphorical comparison should happen naturally. It may surprise the reader with an unexpected image, but that surprise should not be rooted in confusion over a metaphor that reaches too far. Extended metaphors are particularly tricky in this respect, as an image carried throughout an entire poem can seem forced if it does not apply consistently to the whole. However, Sterling considers it overly simplistic to avoid extended or mixed metaphors altogether, as they can be very powerful when used correctly. Their success merely depends on how well the metaphor is incorporated.
Of course, there are plenty of other ways to convey meaning in a poem. I asked these three poets what other tools they like to use, and Phil Hey, a proponent of plain-language poetry, had a simple and eloquent answer: words. “I know, that sounds like a stupid, self-evident answer, but I’m sticking with it. Words which are part of something someone would actually say, not fancy or ‘poetic,’ which imply listeners and even the venue in which they are said.” It is important to remember the power of simple words. Sometimes trying too hard to be poetic leads to a lack of poetry.

Through the 3rd Eye was supported in its inception by the Grand Rapids Humanities Council and is currently made possible by continued volunteer effort and private support. Copyright 2013.