Friday, January 29, 2010

Lands of likeness

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 Similies, 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.

And speaking of cigars and similes, let's remember Michael Benedikt; as Robert Archambeau writes in his intro to Time Is a Toy: The Selected Poems:

Consider “Invitation to Previously Uninvited Guests” from Mole Notes, in which the smoke of a rare cigar melting into a room full of guests is described as being “like a sugar cube melting on the tongue” and “like honey in the mind of a diabetic,” similes which launch a long catalog other comparisons:

 …like your wallet in the hands of a prostitute, like chopped liver in the heart of the professional caterer, like surviving leaves in midwinter sleet, like ant feces in a vat full of nitrate, like an inexpensive tieclip before the onslaughts of rust, like conversation into silence among boring company, like the conception of generosity after December 26th, like space beneath even the tiniest hand caressing even the tallest lover discovering the joys of some novel perversion, like the idea of 18th century chamber music in the minds of the oppressed, like truth in a Latin-American newspaper, like dialogue in the mouth of the megalomaniac, like meaning in the mind of the poet.

Anyway, here are a few similes that glint like 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!


diane green said...

martinis don't have cherries

Don Share said...

That's the whole point! And, as you'll see in my squibble, it's a classic "false-simile!"

Seth Abramson said...

Hi Don,

I think the highly self-conscious "false simile" has a special place in the history of postwar experimental poetry. Just as Olson eschewed description in favor of--one might have said, at first glance, paradoxically--"naming," the false simile is a form of masculine-coded rhetoric associated with (as "naming" is the Adamic function) the God-function, the ur-I. (I was mentioning in a class recently the Talmudic dispute over whether, in the Bible, [male-coded] God speaking from the Mountain said to the Israelites, as some believe, "I am God," or as others believe, "I am," or then, as some few others maintain, merely "I"--the ultimate act of [self-]creation, as much written of by postmodern language theorists like Emile Benveniste). While those invested in compulsory homosociality, like Olson, and who, like Spicer, may have (not without some significant misogyny and even self-negating homophobia) viewed the NYS in "feminized" terms, would likely have seen their own respective movements as capturing the essence of masculinity (be it through the male Ancients, the mythic hero, male-dominated communities, et. al.), I think the reality is that the French symbolist-influenced use of the false simile by the (again predominantly male) NYS poets may well have been, intentionally or otherwise, a further exemplar of male-coded rhetoric in postwar experimental poetry. (No less a literary critic than Davidson has noted both the misogyny of the BMS and the North Beach crew--and their peculiar employments in the 20th c. of that "homosociality" Sedgewick originally identified with the 19th c.--as well as their oft-unspoken presumption that "beautiful rhetoric" [e.g. the "true" simile, metaphor, or classical figure] was a feminine-coded form of rhetoric they wanted to avoid).

I hope it goes without saying that I'm not endorsing any of this, and that I acknowledge that debate among feminist scholars (particularly in the field of Rhetoric and Composition) over whether there is "feminized" rhetoric--there is broad agreement among such scholars in the existence of male-coded rhetoric (linear, hierarchical, conclusory, etc.)--still goes on. But I think the weight of the argument must ultimately (and of course non-pejoratively) fall on the side of "yes," as to some extent a thing does presume its opposite. If we presume postwar experimental communities, nearly all of which were male-dominated until the 1980s, were self-conscious of employing male-descended, male-coded aesthetic and philosophic strategies, they must have been pushing "against" something as well. Much "feminizing" (again, I state this neutrally and not in approval of even the theory or premise of it) of the Romantics. Citation, instead, of the male Ancients and that virulent misogynist Milton.

{Continued below}.

Seth Abramson said...

All that said, I too think the "false simile" is played out--but the use of male-coded rhetoric is most certainly not, and most interesting is how such rhetoric is not gender-specific--poets like Lyn Hejinian and (particularly) Anne Carson may be said to have, at various points, been deeply invested in it whether consciously or unconsciously. And others (like Susan Howe) have pushed against it by trying to find (say, in the BMS) an "entry-point" for the feminine (Howe found it in that element of Olson's craft typified by the non-pejorative "stutter"). My own sense is that the tradition of Creeley's lineation, the Symbolists'/NYS aggressive disjunctions, and Olson's post-historical sense have been co-opted into a form of American Metarealism that uses the male-coded "third trope" (metabole, rather than metaphor or metonym) to continue the use of a sort of male-coded rhetoric that can be--and, importantly, is--practiced by certain contemporary poets without regard whatsoever for gender. The aesthetic effect is a fascinating one, and one I'm very interested in with my own poetry, which is why I comment on (if not defend!) the "false simile" here.

Be well,

Seth Abramson said...

P.S. I probably should have added that the male-coded-rhetoric function of the "false simile" comes from the highly aggressive, self-consciously "muscular" act of "naming"/forced disjunction that attends upon divorcing an object from both itself and any received likenesses. The creation of entirely new likenesses (or, explicitly, non-likenesses) is every bit as much a form of control and/or domination as is tight lineation (the poet's forceful direction of the reader moment to moment) or the use of the hyper-declarative in verse. To make a thing wholly unlike itself is to simultaneously a) achieve the [quasi-]abolition of the ego envisioned by Olson and his Objectivist/Imagist predecessors, but also, importantly, b) nevertheless engage, tacitly, in the ultimate assertion of ego, that being the Adamic function (that of the First Namer). --S.

Henry Gould said...

"All simile-fashioning is local."
- Tippy Hedren O'Neill

Some people do crossdwords : I like to keep an eye out for similes cast by regular peeps as quoted in regular newspaper articles. Once you start looking... it's like smelling fish in a china shop, iof you know what I mean.

Don Share said...

Great stuff, gents - thank you!

Matt said...

i like false similes seth. guess that means i'm nothing but a misogynist homophobic racist fascist pedophile axe-murderer. man... why even go on living?

Matt said...

oh forget it. you can delete that. i don't want to start any more shit with this guy.