Lands of Likeness


Photograph by

by Don Share

Recently, David Shapiro left this comment on a Facebook-thingy I posted:

the lie rises to the top like the cherry on the martini
as Ponge said to Koch, You Americans have a mania
for cherries on the tops of things
Could we get a complete lie-dector set for all poets and
politicians Wouldn’t much DNA match?
How would the NYSchool do–who believed nothing
would they be good enough to bluff their way through
oh of course philosophically this is naive don’t I know it
but it was stunning in youth to meet those who were
all in campo and cant and cliches the dictionary of
I would speak on the telephone with the dictionary of cliches

Huh. Well, I collect weird dictionaries, including dictionaries of cliches (which come in handy, in my line of work). But my favorite strange dictionary is the great classic Dictionary of Similes, edited by Frank Wilstach and published in 1916; it has the epigraph, “It’s hard to find a simile when one is seeking for one,” uttered by George Moore.

As the preface explains: “The simile is one of the most ancient forms of speech. It is the handmaid of all early word records. It has proved itself essential to every form of human utterance.”

(And you thought it was only good for poetry, or bad poetry.)

Wilstach points out that even Father Adam and Mother Eve used similes in their Garden conversation. The simile was used by Ramses II of Egypt. From Homer, Virgil, Horace on down, poets have relied on similes. Yeah, yeah, I know you’re thinking “my luve is like a red, red rose, zzzzz.” But the simile is a powerful force in modern and contemporary American Poetry. Similes are in about 2/3rds of every poem I see in my daily work. And they come in two varieties: the red, red rose kind, and what I’ve called elsewhere the “false simile” – where the word “like” is followed by something that isn’t at all like what precedes it.

The false simile is so commonplace it’s as worn out as the regular kind, if you ask me. I’m guessing it got started by one of its very best practitioners, Frank O’Hara, who masterfully uses both the false and real simile in “Having a Coke with You” –

“in your orange shirt you look like a better happier St. Sebastian” (real, albeit twisted simile)

“…we are drifting back and forth
between each other like a tree breathing through its spectacles”

Maybe one of the best pre-NY School modern similes is Langston Hughes’s famous “Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun?” The whole of his poem “Harlem” is built upon similes – which he “explodes” in the final stanza. His extremely famous line, “My soul has grown deep like the rivers,” however, is perhaps compelling because it’s so straightfaced. Even a good high-modernist like Hart Crane used similes in a mostly conventional way, e.g., these from The Bridge

O, like the lizard in the furious noon,
That drops his legs and colors in the sun

But he does get pretty wiggy within just a few lines of the above: “… sprint up the hill groins like a tide,” not to mention –

And saw thee dive to kiss that destiny
Like one white meteor, sacrosanct and blent
At last with all that’s consummate and free
There, where the first and last gods keep thy tent.

Anyhow, lest you think the plain-Jane variety of simile to be a primitive or unsophisticated device, check this out from Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s “Sonata” –

Like nous detached from Anaxagoras,
Like cosmic fire glimmering without
A Heraclitus there to find it out,
Like square roots waiting for Pythagoras,
Like One-ness riven from Parmenides,
Like Nothing without Gorgias to detect it,
Like paradox sans Zeno to perfect it,
Like plural worlds lacking Empedocles,
Like Plato’s chairs and tables if you took
The furniture’s Eternal Forms away,
Objects abandoned by Reality
Still look the same…


A classic false-simile guy is John Ashbery, who’s been working with them for years; here’s a typical specimen, from “Like a Sentence,” which is typical of what everybody in the country does these days (though as always, he does it better):

I was going to say I had squandered spring
when summer came along and took it from me
like a terrier a lady has asked one to hold for a moment
while she adjusts her stocking in the mirror of a weighing machine.


And non-US poets often can do things better than we can; here’s a wowie-zowie false-simile from Lorca:

the bulls of Guisando,
partly death and partly stone,
bellowed like two centuries
sated with treading the earth.

Jack Spicer can get you swooning, on the other hand, with a regular John Donne-like simile of discovery:

What are you thinking now?
I’m thinking that she is very much like California.
When she is still her dress is like a roadmap…

Still, it’s manifestly true that even the most famous poets can really let you down in the simile department, e.g., Anne Sexton, in “All My Pretty Ones” (click here to see what I mean). Wordsworth, simultaneously the best and worst poet in the English language, can make you cringe with a simile:

Thou, over whom thy Immortality
Broods like the Day, a Master o’er a Slave…

I wanted to read James Tate’s “Like a Scarf” as one big weird red-herring simile, but no: it sports a great big conventional simile – “The psychopaths… were lumbering through the pines like inordinately sad moose.” Shoot!

Could be that the last word on the subject, though in poetry there’s never a last word, is Joel Brouwer’s “Fish or Like Fish,” which appeared recently in Poetry:

He startled to see a statue of blind
justice really did loom over the courtroom. But
remained determined to scorn symbolism.
She needed a quarter to call her lover—
the docket was full, she’d be late for lunch—
and he gave her one. It was not a taunt,
acquiescence, wager, or plea. It was
a quarter. The fact that they had done this—
even this!—together and cordially,
late nights at the dining room table with
a bottle of cabernet, sharp pencils,
A Love Supreme, and an “E-Z Workbook”
from the well-reviewed—the fact that they’d read
reviews!—Don’t Pay an Attorney! series,
as if they were learning Portuguese or
origami, was not “as if” or “like”
anything, but just that, a fact, and not
to be pressed for further significance. This
was part of the agreement. They filled out
the forms. Asked lawyer friends for language.
Made stacks of books and towels. Cooked dinner
together, said “excuse me” passing
in the hallway, and even remembered
each other’s mother’s birthdays. As if. Not
as if. Waiting for their case to be called,
they got hungry. The bailiff pointed toward
the snack bar in the basement, which was packed
with a class trip from the school for the blind.
In illo tempore such a gift would have
caused them to turn to each other in love
and wonder. Now, no. They didn’t even
look to see. She asked for fish sticks, and he
wondered if fish sticks were fish or like fish.
The children chewed their chicken fingers
with calm deliberation, staring out at what
they saw, then conveyed their limp paper plates
with startling grace to the hinged swinging mouths
of the trash cans which swallowed everything
offered saying THANK YOU THANK YOU.

You get the picture. Anyhow, now that the internet writes poems, I figure it’s no use trying to make up similies anymore – that’s where my musty old dictionary of similes comes in damn handy. Here’s a pearl: A poet is like a cigar. The more you puff him, the smaller he gets. ANON. said that. Actually, I said that.

Seriously, here are a few lil’ gems:

Alert as a chamois. – ANON.
Stand alone like a substantice. – Sir Henry Wotton
Altering, like one who waits for an ague fit. – Dryden
Amorous as an Arcadian. – George Colman, the Younger
Authority without wisdom is like an axe without an edge, fitter to bruise than polish. – Anne Bradstreet
Blind as a bank director. – ANON.
Charity is like molasses, sweet and cheap. – Anna Chapin Ray
Chill as the Gryxabodill – James Whitcomb Riley
A cigar is like a wife… – Aleister Crowley
Clasped her like a lover. – Tennyson (!)
Conspicuous like a cathedral. – Robert Louis Stevenson
Convivial as a live trout in a lime-basket. – Dickens!
Coughed like a cow that finds feathers mixed with hay. – Balzac

… and on and on and on. I’ll end with, who else.. Shakespeare?

Crow like chanticleer!

Piece crossposted with Squandermania and other foibles

Cover image by Tom Ahearn