A metaphor shows an object in another way. You call one thing another thing, and this helps your reader (hopefully!) see that first thing in a new way. Here are 2 examples from poems:

The Wind Woman

The Wind’s white fingers
Are thin and sharp,
And she plays all night
On an icy harp.

—Barbara Juster Esbensen, in Swing Around the Sun


Slow-moving paddleboats rowing away.
Turtles away! So long.
So long is the journey you’re starting today?

—Kurt Cyrus, in Hotel Deep

In “The Wind Woman,” Esbnesen compares the winter wind to a woman who is white and sharp. Living in Minnesota (as Esbensen did), I can easily see and, more importantly, feel this comparison, and it rings true for me. In his poem about sea turtles, Cyrus compares the turtles to slow paddleboats. I love that image! I see the turtles’ flippers dipping and circling in the water like the oars on a small boat. And I see the turtles’ shells as the oval hulls of the boats. It’s one of those metaphors that works so well it seems utterly obvious…except that I’ve never thought of it or seen it used before!

Some poets seem to spill out metaphors as easily as they breathe. Not me. I have to put effort into coming up with metaphors, especially because the first ones I come up with tend to be cliches. The only way for me to dig deeper and come up with treasures is to brainstorm.

Practice Writing Metaphors

Here’s how I do it.

First, I decide on the object I need a metaphor for. For this example, I’m going to use a birch tree. Then I look at a birch tree, either in real life (which is easy in this case, since there’s one in the back yard) or on the Internet.

Second, I make a list of categories: Looks like, Sounds like, Feels like, Moves like, Tastes like, Smells like, Reminds me of, and Animals. These are the categories I start with, though not everything always fits into one of them.

Then I go down my list of categories and try to come up with several items under each category that resemble my birch tree in some way.

Here are my quick results:


Looks like: bones, cigarettes, grave markers (a whole birch forest), popsicle sticks, ribbons (the curling bark), toothpicks

Sounds like: crackling of a campfire

Feels like: paper, stone, fabric, silk

Moves like: people at a concert, swaying slightly

Tastes like: dust, winter, notebook paper

Smellls like: wood, smoke, earth, autumn

Reminds me of: canoes, American Indians, camping, North Shore, arrows, toothpicks, campfires, masts of sailing ships

Animals: snake shedding its skin

So, that’s a start. I often like to brainstorm until I have at least 5, if not 10, items in every category. I try not to worry too much about making sense. I’m just writing down what pops into my head.

Now I review my list. Which comparisons really strike a chord with me? Which make me nod my head in recognition or smile in surprise? My hope is that I’ll have at least one item somewhere on my page that is a new comparison for the original item, something I can build a whole poem around or perhaps just use in one line.

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