So What the Heck’s a Meta For?

Bloglily has a delightful post on metaphor and simile!

This is one of those topics that doesn’t come up often in normal conversation, but it tickles writers to talk about.  I teach these concepts in both Composition and Literature, but many students seem to struggle with them.  It’s not that they don’t understand, it’s just that in the wrong hands, they can lead to really bad writing. New writers often get excited at the prospect of a different way to express something.  I’ve seen examples like (and no, these are not actual quotes):

     “His hair was as long as a girls, only not as pretty, but he could pull it into a pony tail, and if he braided it, it would hang down really far.”

Hmmm – good first try, but the idea is to compress your thought into a smaller statement, something that makes for an immediate image in the reader’s mind.

I’ve also seen (again, not an actual quote):

     “Her voice climbed higher and higher, ascending like a mountain goat up a hillside.”

This one begs the question – was she singing or simply neighing?

Metaphors and similes are not just clever words strung together, obviously.  They have a purpose, and that purpose is to deliver specific information to the reader.  Here is one of the examples I use in class for simile:

     “Hilda danced as gracefully as a hippo on tranquilizers.” 

This one creates more of an impact.  It delivers to the reader an image that he or she can understand immediately.

This is another that I use for teaching metaphor:

     “The sunlight hit the water, shattering into millions of diamonds that blinded her.”

The reader knows how this looks and can identify with how the character is experiencing the moment.

Another type of figurative language is personification, or giving non-human things human qualities.  For example:

        “The headlights winked as the pedestrians streamed across the street.” 

Clearly a car is incapable of winking, but the image is clear to the reader and helps to set the scene.

Hyperbole is when the writer deliberately overstates something, typically for comic effect. An example of hyperbole is:

     “Floyd snored so loud that the neighbor thought it was an earthquake.”

The opposite of hyperbole is understatement.  Here, the writer deliberately down-plays something significant, again for comic effect:

            “It’s merely a flesh wound.” – The Black Knight, Monty Python’s Holy Grail

Another form of figurative language – much less well known but still valuable – is synecdoche.  Here the writer uses just a piece of something to represent the whole, implying the complete picture but focusing only on one element.  It’s like saying “Lend me a hand.”

     “As the band kicked off, 50 pair of tired feet hit the floor for the last jitterbug.”

And finally there is metonymy, where the writer substitutes a synonym for the actual item about which he or she is writing.  For example:

     “Hit the gas.”

 One of my favorite poems uses a few of these examples.  It’s Robert Wallace’s “The Double Play” –

In his sea-lit

distance, the pitcher winding

like a clock about to chime comes down with

the ball, hit

sharply, under the artificial

banks of arc lights, bounds like a vanishing string

over the green

to the shortstop magically

scoops to his right whirling above his invisible


in the dust redirects

its flight to the running poised second baseman


leaping, above the slide, to throw

from mid-air, across the colored tightened interval,

to the leaning-

out first baseman ends the dance

drawing it disappearing into his long brown glove

stretches. What

is too swift for deception

is final, lost, among the loosened figures

jogging off the field

(the pitcher walks), casual

in the space where the poem has happened


The whole poem is a metaphor, but it uses similes to help create the mood and the tone of the poem.  It is exciting and lyrical at the same time, and those aspects are created by the figurative language that Wallace employs.

Makes me excited for spring and baseball (go Cubs!)!


2 thoughts on “So What the Heck’s a Meta For?

  1. bkclubcare says:

    wow! I learned something today! Thank you. (go Cubs!! me, too…)

  2. thanks for this–my students continue to struggle with these literary elements and now i have some new examples. 🙂

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