Similes on the Spot

Raging Bull Roller Coaster How to Write a Poem Similes on the Spot
When you live ten minutes from a major amusement park and hate roller coasters, you spend a lot of time sitting on benches waiting for other people to disembark.

Upon finding myself with downtime in public, I usually stop first at my iPhone. I won’t pretend I’m above checking Facebook notifications amidst the scent of funnel cakes on a golden fall day. But I can also turn these often mindless moments into poetry, a quick on-the-spot habit worth practicing at least a few times a week.

Raging Bull is one of the highest-thrill coasters at Six Flags Great America. It starts with a turn, climbs a hill, then drops 208 feet into a tunnel before hammer-heading and helixing, reaching a top speed of 73 miles per hour. You couldn’t pay me to ride it. But over the years, I’ve grown quite fond of observing it from afar.

Recently, while waiting for my husband and kids to finish flinging themselves through the clouds, I decided to use that time to create some similes on the spot.

Similes are just metaphors that use direct comparison words, such as “like” or “as.”

During a typical poetry unit, much fuss can be made about differentiating among similes, metaphors, and personification, but they’re basically all figurative language–speaking about one thing in terms of another. The point isn’t memorizing terms as much as learning to think metaphorically.

Metaphor: The electric bass was a thunderstorm
Simile: The electric bass sounded like thunder
Personification: The electric bass growled at me

Infusing your poetry with figurative language turns it from merely descriptive writing into a transformative experience for the reader. While adjectives offer a surface understanding of an object, metaphors invite the mind to re-envision it.

Compare these two sentences:

The electric bass was loud.
The electric bass rumbled through the house like a line of tanks.

You can practice writing this way anywhere, any time. Writer’s block? Never a concern. As long as you have the five senses, you’ll always have five good ideas. Here are a few similes I “jotted” on my notes app as I observed the first, steep lift of the Raging Bull:

The roller coaster is like. . .

Sight: a tangerine peel, a bull’s horns
Sound: car parts dropped into a dump, skeletons in chains
Touch: a chill across the skin, the shiver before a sneeze

Now, unless I want to be kicked out of the park, I can’t very well taste the roller coaster. Smell it? Perhaps, but I’d have to get too close for my liking. But what if I were to imagine the senses that aren’t readily available? Confusing the senses, an actual medical phenomenon, is known as synesthesia. Sometimes the brain/sense communication pathways get disrupted, causing a patient to taste cinnamon, perhaps, upon “hearing” a violin. It’s a rare and maddening disorder. However, in the world of writing, synesthesia can be redeemed for poetic good.

If the roller coaster had a smell, what would it be? How would I describe the “smell” and “taste” of that 200-foot climb?

Smell: the iron scent of blood
Taste: overdose of red pepper

These similes may read more obscurely than the others, but they come from a visceral, sensory response in my imagination.

Try it yourself. Next time you’re in line, waiting for an oil change, or just sitting for a moment with your morning coffee, type or write down the five senses, fix your attention on an object, and imagine some similes. They don’t have to “make sense.”

That roller coaster climb isn’t steep and suspenseful. It’s an insuck of hot pepper, the iron scent of blood, a clank of bones I’ll stay far away from, thank you. But I might write a scary poem or two.

Photo by Patrick McGarvey, Creative Commons, via Flickr.

How to Write a Halloween Poem

Graveyard in the Red Woods Halloween Spooky How to Write a Halloween Poem
As I survey the ever-growing violence of Halloween displays in my neighborhood, I wonder if we’ve begun to replace fear and mystery with plain old boring gore.

Bodies hanging from trees, intestines spilling from graves, and all manner of dismembered, bloody zombies: where’s the imagination?

Luckily, I have some tips (tricks?) for writing a Halloween poem that will send shivers down the spine–because your words will be that chillingly fresh. Let’s use the power of poetry to recapture the meaning of “spooky.”

There are plenty of Halloweenish poems out there beyond Poe’s classic The Raven. One of my new favorites is “Theme in Yellow” by Carl Sandburg.

Theme in Yellow

I spot the hills
With yellow balls in autumn.
I light the prairie cornfields
Orange and tawny gold clusters
And I am called pumpkins.
On the last of October
When dusk is fallen
Children join hands
And circle round me
Singing ghost songs
And love to the harvest moon;
I am a jack-o’-lantern
With terrible teeth
And the children know
I am fooling.

—Carl Sandburg

Read the poem aloud several times and see what you notice. How do the images, colors, sounds and lines make you feel the way you do? (For more details about exploring poems, check out How to Read a Poem, which digs deeply into those messy, tasty poetic innards.)

One site describes this Sandburg poem as “harmless” and “cute.” Oh, I beg to differ.

No matter how many times I read this poem, the last four lines strike me as creepy. Perhaps the enjambment and lack of comma before “And,” turning this clause into a run-on, is just enough to add a breathlessness that makes me not so sure the children are completely fooled as they chant beneath that full moon.

How do you read “Theme in Yellow?” And how can this poem inspire you to write your own?

1) Make one person or object your star

You don’t need to replicate an entire graveyard cast of characters to write a scary poem. Sandburg focuses on a pumpkin. Paisley Rekdal, in her stunning poem Bats, focuses, well, on bats (though the poem, like most good poems, is about so much more). By zeroing in on one subject, you are more likely to write about it in detail and make it come alive.

Need some ideas?

• Cats. But maybe a white one.
• A piece of candy left in the street
• Something hidden under a pile of leaves
• A costume malfunction
• An egg-smeared window
• The cousin of Frankenstein
• A runaway mummy
• Those plastic spider rings everyone hates

2) Wake the senses

Halloween is all about laying your eyes on scary sights, hearing the howl of wind, getting goosebumps, and tasting candy corn. Notice how Sandburg not only describes the visions and colors of the scene but implies feeling and sound by touching the air with the chill of dusk and ghostly songs. Take a moment to freewrite about your subject first, exploring every sense that comes to mind. Sometimes you may need to use similes, metaphors, or personification to see your subject in a different light–or darkness.

3) Don’t say it all

What makes most poems and stories spooky is knowing when to stop. If you don’t use any sensory language, of course, you won’t grab your reader in the first place. But if you overkill, so to speak, telling them exactly what to experience to the very end, well, that’s the suburban lawn covered with plastic corpses. (For more on the tingly subject of Mystery, see the book How to Write a Poem).

Sandburg leaves us wondering about the pumpkin’s “fooling.” What mystery can you leave in your poem?

4) Make it a treat

Why keep your poem to yourself this Halloween? Post online for friends to read or even give one away on the spooky night itself. Just make sure you attach it to a piece of candy first, or you will wake up to the scariest Halloween sight ever: toilet paper hanging in your front yard’s skeletal trees.

Photo by Andrew Mason, Creative Commons, via Flickr.

How to Write a Poem

Check out How to Write a Poem!

Listen to a Poem: Seamus Heaney’s “The Rain Stick”

Listen to a Poem Seamus Heaney The Rain Stick Rain on Roof
Up in northern Illinois, we’ve been enjoying the soft, silver rainfall of September. These autumn rains signal closing time, tamping the red maple’s leaves to the grass. We want to go inside, drink tea, and hunker under blankets. Our rooftops slick with a steady, sleepy percussion.

Seamus Heaney, one of the world’s most-revered poets, captures the sound of rain—by describing an object that also captures the sound of rain.

His subject, the rain stick, is a hollowed-out cactus branch filled with small pebbles that makes the sound of a gentle shower when tilted. According to NASA’s Climate Kids website, “[t]he origin of the rainstick is not fully known, but many people think that it probably came from a group of indigenous people known as the Diaguita from the deserts of northern Chile.” By playing this instrument, the musicians hoped to summon the rain.

By writing this poem, Heaney summons not only the song of the rain stick, but the mystery and imagination of sound. And that mystery comes alive when we listen:

The Rain Stick

Upend the rain stick and what happens next
Is a music that you never would have known
To listen for. In a cactus stalk

Downpour, sluice-rush, spillage and backwash
Come flowing through. You stand there like a pipe
Being played by water, you shake it again lightly

And diminuendo runs through all its scales
Like a gutter stopping trickling. And now here comes
A sprinkle of drops out of the freshened leaves,

Then subtle little wets off grass and daisies;
Then glitter-drizzle, almost breaths of air.
Upend the stick again. What happens next

Is undiminished for having happened once,
Twice, ten, a thousand times before.
Who cares if all the music that transpires

Is the fall of grit or dry seeds through a cactus?
You are like a rich man entering heaven
Through the ear of a raindrop. Listen now again.

— Seamus Heaney, from The Spirit Level

In Introduction to Poetry, Billy Collins likens a poem’s sounds to a bee hive. What words and phrases buzz for you in this poem?

Cactus stalk?




In a way, “The Rain Stick” offers its own instruction for how to listen to poems. Choose a favorite poem, and read it aloud. Then read it again. Listen and listen more, even if you don’t think you “get” the poem. What do the sounds say? How do they speak? If you read the poem the next day, does it drop its words on your rooftop in a different pattern or mood?

Keep going. Think of your favorite playlist or “mix tape” from younger days. You listened to the same songs over and over, not because you wanted to drain them of life but because they gave you life, perhaps a bit differently, each time around. They became a part of you.

As Heaney writes, “What happens next/Is undiminished for having happened once,/Twice, ten, a thousand times before.” Good poems, like the sound of rain, never get old.

Photo by Marcus Ward, Creative Commons, via Flickr.

Listen to a Rain Playlist

Read a reflection on Frost’s famous autumn poem: Nothing Gold Can Stay