Rumpled Sheet


Sisyphus, Anna Chromy, 2003

From The American Poetry Review:

We cannot escape metaphor: there are “metaphors we live by,” according to George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. Philosophically minded modern writers from Jacques Derrida to William Gass have tried to make sure that we know how thoroughly metaphor saturates even the most apparently plain and clear speech. The sentence you have just read contains, by my count, at least four fossilized or unobtrusive metaphors; the sentence you are now reading has at least three more.

But we can always decide whether we will use “like”: simile carries a signal of conscious choice. It shows that we know how much of language is artifice, how much we make up when we try to describe the world.

Gass interrupts one discussion of ancient metaphor to quote T.S. Eliot’s famously alienated simile: “Like a patient etherised upon a table.” With that line, according to the poet John Berryman, modern poetry begins.

William Carlos Williams, who considered Eliot the enemy of the truly modern, sometimes called simile an enemy too: his poems and prose can say that they aspire to become genuinely new objects, rather than resembling previously existing things (or, worse still, previously existing literature). Williams’s Spring and All decries “crude symbolism… typified by use of the word ‘like’… There is not life in the stuff because it tries to be ‘like’ life.”

And yet not even Williams could separate the force of poetry from the force of similitude. Some of his best poems proceed through a likeness that they invoke in order to negate it: X is like Y but not quite a Y, being really an X and only an X at last. Take the opening lines of “Queen Anne’s Lace”: “Her body is not so white as anemone petals nor so smooth—nor/ so remote a thing.” Or take “The Term”:

A rumpled sheet
of brown paper
about the length

and apparent bulk
of a man was
rolling with the

wind slowly over
and over in
the street as

a car drove down
upon it and
crushed it to

the ground. Unlike
a man it rose
again rolling

with the wind over
and over to be as
it was before.

The sheet of paper is like a human person in its proportions, and it suggests that human persons, too, can be refreshed, revivified; but it is also unlike us, because we cannot be resurrected in the flesh—we only go around once. A poem is like, and unlike, a human person, and in some of the same ways: it can be read over, brought to life again.

Nor is it only Williams, or only modernists, who use this kind of negated simile: “My mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun.”

“”LIKE” A speculative essay about poetry, simile, artificial intelligence, mourning, sex, rock and roll, grammar, romantic love”, Stephen Burt, The American Poetry Review