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!

How to Write a Poem—An Unlikely Beginning

Green Apple How to Write a Poem

Squeezed finances. No fun, right?

But I can’t help thinking what would not have happened if I’d thrown caution to the wind and spent too much money a couple of years ago.

In the summer of 2013, my husband and I found ourselves canceling our family’s annual road trip because, well, we ran out of funds. After grieving the loss of mountains and rivers and relatives, I decided to do something I hadn’t planned: sit on my couch in the flatlands and write weekly articles about Billy Collins’s poem, Introduction to Poetry.

Realizing that each stanza in that poem offers instruction about how to get the most out of reading poetry, I wrote an article on each section, every week, throughout the summer. Eventually, those articles turned into the core of a book that also includes an anthology of poems—How to Read a Poem.

When L.L. Barkat, editor at T.S. Poetry Press, asked me to write a companion volume, How to Write a Poem, I told her I needed time to think about it. A few hours later, I decided yes.

There are a lot of poetry-writing books on the market—many truly wonderful ones that helped me in my undergraduate years and still guide me today. While most books take the approach of offering a number of exercises that generate a number of poems, I wanted to go deep with the process of writing one poem. How do you go from the seed of an idea to a fully realized, well-crafted, revised and polished piece, while still keeping your soul alight?

I remember spending hours at my college’s student commons, notebook and Twizzlers in hand, struggling through one line at a time. Ultimately, spending time isn’t the problem. (I would argue the more time spent—if directed—the better.) However, support and guidance can help that writing time feel less like a struggle and more like an adventure, a personal and artistic transformation.

In How to Write a Poem, I start you with freewrite prompts to generate ideas. From there, I show you how to turn that sprawl of stream-of-consciousness words into a framework on which to hang a poem. Then we gradually shape the poem, one step at a time, to help it come alive:

from Billy Collins’s “Introduction to Poetry”

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

         how do I “color in” my poem with imagery?

or press an ear against its hive.

         how do I make my poem buzz unforgettably with sound?

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

         how do I suggest emotion and meaning with my lines?

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

         how do I create those “a-ha!” moments?

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

         how do I step away from the poem enough to allow for mystery and interpretation?

After helping you delve into each of these aspects of craft, the book guides you through Peter Murphy’s Revision Style Sheet as you perfect your poem. Finally, you discover exciting ways to share your work, both through traditional publication and other community venues.

Throughout How to Write a Poem, you gradually find the balance of respecting literary craft while maintaining your authentic voice. Both of these tasks are a lot of work—and immensely rewarding.

The accomplished musician practices her scales for hours on end. She also practices interpreting music with her own artistic touches and emotions. Why not the poet, too? Why not write your best before inviting the reader to listen and make meaning?

I may not have vacation pictures to show off from a couple of summers ago, but I’m collecting words from the writers who have been taking their own poetic journeys. The albums are filling with unique sights and memories. I look forward to hearing about your travels, too.

Photo by Photo4jenifer, Creative Commons, via Flickr. Post by Tania Runyan.

How to Write a Poem

Check out How to Write a Poem!