by Gillian Clarke
Similes and metaphors are doing the same thing. They make a link in the reader’s mind between two images. A metaphor uses one image to suggest another without using the word ‘like’. It is a subtle hint, and it leaves the reader’s imagination to complete the connection. In ‘Catrin’ I turn the umbilical cord into ‘that old rope’. Grace Nichols talks of ‘The howling ship of the wind’. (‘Hurricane hits England’)
A simile is more direct. ‘Like’ can prevent a confusion of meaning. Grace Nicols, in the same poem, the same verse, says the wind is ‘Like some dark ancestral spectre’.
Seamus Heaney describes how the sea spray ‘spits like a tame cat/ turned savage.’ Indeed, there are similes in six out the eight set AQA Anthology poems by Seamus Heaney. In At a Potato Digging the people are ‘like crows’. In Follower his father’s shoulders are ‘like a full sail strung’. The sea, in Storm on the Island is ‘like a tame cat’. The fruit are like ‘a plate of eyes’ in Blackberry-Picking. The frogs are ‘like mud grenades’ in Death of a Naturalist. In At a Potato Digging the potatoes are ‘like inflated pebbles’, and ‘Hope rotted like a marrow’. The student should look at these similes and decide what effect they have on the poem and on what they make the reader see and understand about the poem.
There is one simile in my poems, (Gillian Clarke) but beware! In Mali, ‘I bake her a cake like our house’ is NOT a simile. It is a description of the cake, shaped and decorated to look like our house. It is a literal fact. I can find plenty of metaphors in almost every one of my poems, but in the AQA anthology selection I can find only one simile. It’s in the second line from the end of ‘October’: ‘I must write like the wind’. With that simile I picked up, quite instinctively, from a metaphor in the first two lines of that verse:
‘Over the page the pen
runs faster than wind’s white steps over grass.’
Carol Ann Duffy has one simile in her eight poems. Salome’s lover was ‘like a lamb to the slaughter’.
The nearest thing Simon Armitage comes to a simile in his 8 poems is when his character in Kid says ‘he was like a father to me.’ This is not a simile. It is a description of the person’s behaviour as being like a father’s behaviour. That does not make the strange connection that simile usually makes.