On Description

Choosing Similes

The Prism

Both in poetry and prose, one of the hardest parts of writing solidly is your choice of metaphor and simile. Even the most simple simile is double edged – it’s like a prism, and each edge directs the light of your description into one clear beam. But if one of the sides doesn’t fit the others, it will not function properly. If you describe only one part of whatever it is, like, say, the speed, then the simile you choose for it will also affect the way the reader thinks about the sound, sight, smell and look of the thing.

In the chapter of Far From the Madding Crowd when Troy shows Bathsheba his sword fighting in the fern thicket, Thomas Hardy describes the sword as passing behind Bathsheba  ‘as quick as electricity’. The simile works well because electricity resembles a sword in other ways than its speed. It is flashing, dangerous, bright, cutting. If instead Hardy had described it as ‘fast as a thrown stone’, it would not have been nearly so affective – a stone is blunt, unlike a sword, and the metaphor takes a long time describing something that is supposed to be quick. The word ‘quick’ also works better than ‘as fast as’, because it is itself quicker.

Which brings us to

The sound of the word or sentence

… Everyone feels that, quite apart from words like ‘pop’, which are like their meaning, there are words like ‘wee’ which are fitted to their meaning; the Paget theory would explain this … by saying that while ‘huge’ moves the tongue back from the teeth so as to make as large a space as it can, ‘wee’ moves the tongue near to the tweet so as to leave as small a space as it can …

… All the sounds may, when reduced to gestures in this way, more or less fancifully; they all, then, carry some suggestion of size, or shape, or movement, or pressure, up, down, forward, or backward …

(Seven Types of Ambiguity, William Empson)

Not only should the simile make the reader think of the right things, but it should also have the right sound and length to it. Luckily, words tend naturally to sound like what they describe, probably partly because of our associations with them. The ‘s’ and the ‘ft’ in ‘soft’ sound soft – the quick ‘arp’ in ‘sharp’ sounds sharp. As I mentioned earlier, a long simile is distracting. Our minds tend naturally to track each thought to the end. So if we say, at a moment of leisure, when our character is thinking over the endlessness of eternity, that life stretches away ‘like a dirt track into the far distance’, the description will make our thoughts seem to get lost along that dirt track. If that is how the character is feeling – lost in the largeness of life – then this will be a good affect. But say, instead, that the character is in the middle of fighting off an army, and the arrow she has just loosed disappears into the midst of the soldiers ‘like a dirt track into the distance’. The length and dreaminess of the metaphor will be distracting, and the reader will not pay attention.

Some more mistakes 

If the simile you use is too much like the thing that you are trying to describe, it will go wrong. If that sword had moved behind Bathsheba ‘as fast as an arrow’ we would have been bothered by the similarity between swords and arrows. Even worse if it had moved behind her ‘as fast as a scythe cuts through corn’. A simile is likening one thing to something different, and the fascination of it lies in pointing out the similarites between one thing and another – perhaps similarites the reader had not noticed before. It does not simply say ‘here are two things almost the same’. The similarities have to be a little of of reach, not totally obvious. Now ‘electricity’ surprises us, but at the same time seems perfectly fitted to describe a sword. When I likened simile to a ‘prism’ in the beginning, it was, I hope, a lot more interesting than if I had likened it to ‘metaphor’.

Finally, there is randomness. If the sword is only like the stone because it moves fast, then the simile is random. If I said ‘he darted away, fast as a hare’ it would not be particularly wrong, but unless there was some background information that made it fit, it would be random.  On the other hand, if the character was sprightly and bouncy like a hare, it would make more sense. Or if it was in free indirect speech and the characters were up on the moors, hoping to spot hares, then the character would be thinking about hares, and it would be okay.

The Character’s Simile

If the description is in free-indirect speech or first person, then the simile should be plausible for the character. It is very affective in writing to choose a simile from whatever the character is thinking about. If they are going on holiday to a beach after not having seen the sea for years, the hawthorn hedges will look like sea foam, and the sunlight will be yellow as sand.

Sometimes an almost haunting, metaphoric background theme can be created by repeating the same simile about different things – particularly if it’s from a character’s point of view. In a retelling of one of the Robin Hood stories, I described Maid Marian’s smile as being ‘like sunlight on elm leaves’. The ‘sunlight on elms’ was a childhood memory that haunted Robin. To create that impression I took care to mention elms again in later descriptions. I did the same with speedwell flowers in throughout my novel, Speedwell. If you are interested the background, hidden workings of metaphor and simile, another thing is –

Hidden Meanings

In poetry, we create hidden meanings with stress. But it also works with metaphor and simile. The story of the book can be told ahead of time with hidden clues left in the descriptions. It’s basically a continuation of the method I talked about a moment ago. You can describe something in a way which links it to a following event – in the first chapter, a tree seems to have a face, and its roots seem to be like arms. In the next chapter, the tree is coming alive.

With great authors this affect can be carried further, so that very trivial descriptions at the beginning of the book bear reference to the events at the end.

To take another example from Far From the Madding Crowd, think of the passage when Boldwood has just received Bathsheba’s valentine letter.

At dusk, on the evening of St. Valentine’s Day, Boldwood
sat down to supper as usual, by a beaming fire of aged logs.
Upon the mantel-shelf before him was a time-piece,
surmounted by a spread eagle, and upon the eagle’s wings was
the letter Bathsheba had sent. Here the bachelor’s gaze was
continually fastening itself, till the large red seal became
as a blot of blood on the retina of his eye; and as he ate
and drank he still read in fancy the words thereon, although
they were too remote for his sight …

When later in the book Boldwood murders his rival, Troy – an action springing from the receiving of the valentine  – the ‘blot of blood’ suddenly becomes significant.

On not overthinking

In all this talk about carefully weighing and avoiding subtle mistakes, we mustn’t forget to use our unconscious. Instinct will, for the most part, naturally tell us when a simile fits and when it doesn’t, and sometimes overthinking can spoil the natural instinct, like when you repeat a word to yourself until it loses its meaning. It’s best to check afterwards that it fits – but if the word just feels right, it usually is alright.

In my poem about snow, Melted, I called the Winter air ‘dumb’. I couldn’t have described to myself exactly what that meant – it came to me in a flash as a way to describe the silent, drifting, muffled feeling of snow on the air – the strange quietness. The word doesn’t really mean what I made it mean in the poem. But there is no other word that captures the atmosphere as well. Part of creativity is to put a new turn on words. This is something more modern authors talk about a lot, and it happens quite often to me in poetry.

It can, of course, be carried too far. I am not an advocate for ‘throwing aside rules and speaking your true self‘ an idea which is becoming a cliche in modern arts. Writing is hard – writing does have some rules – it is not just a vent for random gabbled thoughts. But I think you should trust instinct in some parts of writing.

The Final Balance

We allow instinct to carry us – but at the same time each simile needs to be properly thought out and measured. Each side needs to be checked – sound, smell, feel, speed – your simile needs to describe all these parts, even if it only owns to be describing one of them. It needs to fit your character’s thoughts, to be unique, to be the right length and have the right sound to it. Some of this checking – perhaps most of it – we do unconsciously. It certainly does not take as long as it seems to when broken up into parts and dwelt on as it was in this post. If deciding on every word was a matter of deep and long thought it would be absurd – especially in prose. But in really good works even small things are weighed out and considered to some extent.

With poetry, everything is more checked and measured and takes longer – and naturally, it is more noticed by the reader, because it is designed to be savoured like a chocolate. With prose, a slight inconsistency in one of the sides of a metaphor or simile will usually be passed by. But it’s worth looking at in detail – because everything in writing that is not quite right will be taking up space. It all builds up. After all, writing is made of words – tiny things individually but very powerful when packed together. It is the same with our choices. If we say ‘it doesn’t matter, nobody will notice’ we will soon start saying that about everything – and then somebody will notice.

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On Writing Poetry

Catching Moments

Lean out the the window. Put your head and shoulders out. Smell the air – as deep as you can – try to get the smell into your soul. Now close your eyes, and think of what that smell reminds you of. Dwell on every memory, happy or sad, trivial or important. It might make you sad – but it is worth it, if you want to enjoy life to the full.

Everyone finds it sad to remember. Why? Because those times are past – and we cannot bring them back. Every sunshiny second of our lives is overhung by a shadow – we know that we cannot keep that second forever – even for an hour, even for a minute. It is gone now.

I believe poetry is about capturing those moments that go by so fast – and keeping them on paper. As Shakespeare said:

But thy eternal summer shall not fade

Nor loose possession of that fair thou ow’st

Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade

While in eternal lines to time thou grow’st.

So long as men can breathe and eyes can see

So long lives this and this gives life to thee.

You can perhaps capture a fraction of the moment in a photo, because the photo will remind you of the real time as it lives in your memory. But you can use poetry to give the moment a life of its own, a life that does not lean on your memory for support. To some extent you can use prose to do this, and painting too – but the perfect form is poetry. Poetry is a net for catching moments, carefully woven through history with threads of metre, rhyme and form.

I hate the notion that form somehow confines the mind and stops the poet from expressing their true and individual feelings. Quite the opposite – just as you cannot catch a butterfly in your bare hands, you cannot catch ideas without some sort of a net – if possible, a carefully designed net. I daresay that you could design a form for yourself, but it would be a long and laborious process, like weaving a butterfly net by hand. And why start from scratch, when poets from Ancient Greek times to today have been doing the work for you?

I believe it is not being cliched to use old forms. Because each captured moment is individual and different, your poems will be individual and different. Form only helps to bring out that individuality.

I an not yet well enough informed in the different modes of writing poetry myself to say any more here – so I will break off.

Only remember, form and metre – and poetry in general – are necessary tools in the larger and difficult process of catching moments.

A Poem

The First Sun of the New Year

2o17

Not long ago the sun has risen

Late and unwilling from a dark bed,

All clothed in crimson cloud, to be wed

To the washed-out sky. And now, it is up.

First it touches the chimney, till it glows

Warm red against the pale, and now it’ll expose

By casting its slanting beams,

The grass that yet grows green

Beneath the stiff and silvery frost – and seen

And softly caressed by the sun is her child –

A lonely snowdrop bud, quite faint and mild

And the sun she thaws the frost and leaves her tears.

Sunset

Brightest was the horizon, where the far-off winter trees blended their thin charcoal lines into a black mesh, through which the seared sky was a deep, hot red like the lights that move through the black heart of a fire, and higher up the colour changed – it can hardly be said paled, for the new colour was just as vibrant as ever – to a bright orange-pink, quite startling in its richness, spreading up and up behind the arms of the beech.

The hard clearness of the black silhouettes melted into insignificance as her breath clouded the cold pane, and only the colours blazed through the mist. She was comparing it in her mind to another sunset, one Midsummer’s eve. In Summer, the inclosing trees, now bare and brittle-looking as skeletons, blocked any view of the sunset, and she had to go up'” the lane outside the house to get any view of it. The sky was pale, washed out pearly-grey, the colour of Athena’s eyes, she remembered thinking at the time, and there was no rich fiery glow, as now – but near the horizon the clouds were soft angel pink, spreading out like silken scarves in the wind, though there was no wind, only a perfect stillness, pervaded by the wafting sent of the sweet-chestnuts. Did she long for that Midsummer eve?

Only as the wanderer in a garden where the warm, close smell of roses fills the air longs for the clean scent and the pale foliage of the lavender-garden. Or as the watcher of the great, bold stretch of the eagle’s wings and the curve of the mighty beak longs for the gentle hopping of a little wren upon the doorstep.

Farewell to Autumn

The temperature has dropped with November,  and it is winter air that I step out into in the chilliness of the morning.

A flock of birds, their white under-wings catching the light, cross the expanse of the sky above me. A sky of piercing frosty blue, clear as a cold blade, tempered by the licking flames of the beech branches. Above the glorious radiance of that blaze, life-filled and warm against the coolness of the blue, the ghost of half-moon glides like a tattered piece of delicate tissue paper carried high by the autumn breeze.

The faint silveriness of frost pales the lawn, melting in the long streaks of morning sunshine. A grey squirrel hurries here and there in the leaves, and up above, a little movement that might have been made by falling leaves show themselves, to a close observer, to be made by little tits, darting here and there in the frosty air, in between the golden foliage.

Closer to me, the autumn crocuses are flattened against the grass on which the frost has already melted into clear sparkling droplets, and to my left, the red berries are bright on the yet green foliage of yew and holly (our holly trees always have ripe berries early).All the leaves are gone from the little cherry, except for one or two of speckled yellow, that even now spiral down. In the flowerbeds the flowers and their green leaves have fallen back, leaving only their seed-heads, which stand erect and delicate. And the foliage that remains, the tall purple loosestrife and the ferny leaves of the incense rose on their rich brown stalks, is dappled red and yellow like the trees. In the big bushes of garden cranesbill, a deep blue bloom can yet be sometimes found, hiding under the withering leaves, with a spider’s web suspended from its stalk. Those flowers are some of the last to survive. But over the dried desolation spreads a new growths – some starry flowers, some like red flames and others with pale pink blooms, remembering their native home where it is always summer, spring up in bright clouds of colour.

‘Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?

Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,-‘

 

 

 

 

Autumn: Warm Sunlight, Cold Air

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?

Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—

While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day

 And touch the stubble plains with rosy hue;

Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn

Among the river sallows, borne aloft

Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies

And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;

Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft

The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft

And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

From Keats,

To Autumn

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Out of our French-doors I can see the spread of the garden – the leaves of the little wild cherry in the foreground glowing powerfully golden-green in the fast dying magic of the late sunshine, and behind it, after the sweep of the green lawn, thinly spotted with the first fallen leaves, the same golden light kindles the branches of the huge Copper Beach, the glorious framing backdrop of our garden.

Only now and then, the light falls so that a string of spider’s web, streaming out in the gentle breeze, becomes visible, shining like a fairy-rope, and likewise the gauze wings of the flying insects that float, dreaming in the beams.

The feeling of the evening is warm and drowsy, so much so that, lulled with the golden light, I am startled by the feeling of the air as I step out onto the warm-coloured stone, patterned with the long shadows of grasses.

For me, the first sign of autumn is the change in the air. Many times, when officially it is still summer, and the leaves cling still to the branch, and look still fresh and green, I only have known that beneath the blanket Autumn stirs.

Because the pastel-soft warmth of the air has changed to a clean-cut, earthy crispness, a well recognized, but yet, I think, under-expressed smell, a smell that, like so many smells, brings back a rush of memories.

Today I have smelt it.

Today I salute Autumn.

How can I wait? How can I wait for Halloween and leaf-fall and the Autumn magic?

Home Again

 

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Me and my brother at the pillars

Hello Everybody,

I am so sorry for the terrible lack of posting during the last few months. I have some excuse – I have been on holiday in Sardinia for a couple of weeks – though that does not really excuse my not posting for a month or so before that.

It does mean, however, that my posts about the holiday – the white sand, rich turquoise water beaches where we spent most of our time, the dry pine forests and green romantic crags, the flapping palms, views of a silver sea, and my being stung by a Mauve Stinger jellyfish! – will now be coming thick and fast.

Today, I am posting about a twilight swim I went on on a beach  next to a roman granite quarry. As the ancient romans loaded the pillars and things they’d carved out of the quarry onto the ship to be taken to Rome, they’d sort them through, and if they found one they’d got wrong they’d just dump it on the beach, so there’s loads of Roman columns just hanging about on the beach!

 

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Those tremendous blocks will never stand on end, tall, tall, as the pillars of heaven, as they were meant to do, never watch the sacrificial service, or hear the bleating cry of the goat killed on the altar, their fate determined by one slip of the sculpture’s hand. Now the years pass by and by, and Rome no longer needs their service, no longer wants their strength, to uphold the great and gilded roof.

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Now, themselves half sunken into waters still and glassy as a temple’s polished floor, rings round them, echoing off again and again from the granite, not hymns to Neptune, but Neptune’s own music, lapping, lapping, forever lapping. No priestess’s skirt shall swish against their hardness, only water, water, ever water.

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It was that hour of evening that goes on from just before sundown, and then from between sundown and dark-fall, when laughter and wind and noise all melt down into a hush.

As the fiery blaze of radiance, seared by the setting sun, subsides to a tender pink in the sky, the elements fall silent, as we fall silent just after something glorious has passed before us.

Whatever the cause, there is a gentleness, subtle but firm, in the air at twilight, and we mortals feel it, and cease our laughter and play in awe. Certainly, I do.

This evening, the sea had fallen still as lake-water about the great blocks of white solidity, so that their reflections are clear as crystal; fallen still over the granite sea-bottom, changing now to fine sand as I come out of the rocks and pillars onto the main beach, smooth and reflective almost as the water where the waves had dampened it, but ruffled beyond by the tracks of the people, nearly all gone now, leaving the beach. Though they were in dry sand and would have been easily smoothed into nothing by one gust of wind, they looked strangely permanent in the stillness of the hour. Yet nothing made by man is permanent – not even those great, forgotten granite pillars. Already the sea is ever wearing them away. Only the awe that they inspire in our hearts is permanent.

As I walked by the last pillar, I broke the mirror-reflection into ripples, rising to catch colour from the pink glow in the sky. There was no sound but the slow, calm liquid noise of my wading. Then, instead of walking along the beach, I began to walk out to see, and, eyes of the last of the pillars, plunged softly into the water, and swam away, the pillars fading into the haze of evening calm.

 

 

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(Note: I just created a new page: My (winning) entry for the Alan Garner Writing Competition of 2016)

My stay in ‘Mona’

Hello!

Sorry I haven’t posted for a while – but luckily it means that there is a series of especially good posts to come – as the reason for it is that I have been on holiday to Anglesey with my parents for a few days, there collecting descriptions for my first proper novel, Speedwell, which is set on Anglesey. I hope soon to create a page on my blog where you can read it. This entry, though, is an account of something which happened on Anglesey.

Eased Heart 

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The untouched sand is dazzlingly smooth – whiter than the sand of the beach behind it, and shaped by the wind unto gentle ripples reflecting the waves of the sea. Somewhere, a sky-lark was singing – and the sound echoed gurgling round the smooth sandhills, seeming all-about and everywhere.

A figure, outlined delicately against the bright paleness of the sand was walking past, her bare feet leaving faint imprints on the light-smoothness. She felt as if, in that moment, she had passed into another unknown world, vast in it curiosities. She stoops to put on her shoes, in readiness for climbing the huge dune that rises ahead – and is not soft with sand, wind-swept, but now unearthly still, like the others, but all a’green with marram grass, and sheets of herb and weed. And the ground about it is green too, for some little space. And all amid the greenery there peeps out a clump of one, two, three little heartsease, smiling up with their little bright faces at the girl. She smiles back, delighted, and stoops to pick one of the heartsease. She then notices other clumps are scattered all about. Some of the laughing, smiling little flowers are of many different shades of yellow – others different shades of blue or of purple, some are of purple, blue and yellow together, arranged in a different way on each flower. There were some that were yellow with a dapple dark purple splash upon each petal. 

She climbs on, panting, up the green slopes of the dune, till she comes to the top, and looks down at a world of dryness, dappled with greenness and patches of sand, marvelling at the whole. The marram grass gave way a little here, baring a crumbling, winding precipice of loose sand on the other side. She flung herself down it, rolling and tumbling amongst the sand, came to a stop at the bottom, and lay looking at the sky, in which floated by, soft and pure white as swan’s down. She felt bright and cheerful – but not as bright and cheerful as the smiling heartsease.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Faded Silk

She rose up, and walked, with a tear-stained face toward the cabinet. She lent against it, closing her eyes and letting out long, quavering breaths. Then she ceased to lean, and stood, trembling, while she pulled out a drawer of the cabinet. She reached in, and drew it out, springs of thyme and other herbs falling away as she did so. It was a dress – long and silken, of colours that had clearly once been bright and shimmering – changing in the different lights from green to turquoise to blue – but now it was very faded. She smoothed the folds of silk and felt the gown, reverently, against her cheek. Then she took off her white nightgown, and, as though indulging in a great pleasure, slipped into the faded gown. It was of a soft silk balmy on the skin, and it fitted her perfectly – or almost perfectly – it was perhaps a shade small. The sleeves made her slender arms and waist seem slenderer still, and it hung down in graceful waves from the latter.

She took the band off her soft dark hair so it fell about her, and stepped out into the light of the early morning. The air was cool and dewy, and balmy as the silk of the gown, and her misery was soothed a little by its calmness.

The dew was still upon the shrubs – and she shook some drops onto her hand – dipped a finger in it and spread it, sparingly, upon her face as though it was some rich perfume. She thought of the countless mornings when, as a child, she had risen at about this time or earlier, and come into the garden to bathe her face in the dew and gain beauty for the coming year. She considered how little beauty would do for her now – and thought her child-self foolish in wanting to attain it. Beauty was a poisonous thing – she knew that now. Again she sighed – and little stronger than she had done earlier. Perhaps she would not do what she had come out to do – or not yet.

 

This entry was inspired by the Tennyson poem, Enid – especially the lines;

‘Then she bethought her of a faded silk,

A faded mantle and a faded veil,

And moving toward cedarn cabinet,

Wherein she kept them folded reverently,

With springs of Summer laid between the folds,

She took them, and array’d herself therein,

Remembering when first he came on her,

Dress in that dress, and how he loved her in it … ‘

 

– and also a detail of a picture in my copy of the book.

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Breaking Sorrow 

 

She sat, her legs tucked under her, wrapping her cream-coloured cashmere blanket tightly about her. The trees branched over her, dark in the shadows, but glinting white with frost when a beam of moonlight fell from behind the many enclosing clouds. Tears, inside which seemed to lie worlds – worlds of silver and dark reflected from the real world, but looking different when they lay in those tiny shining drops, fell from behind her closed eye-lids, pale as the frost. Her hair fell in soft waves of shadow about her shoulders and trailed down her back. She sobbed – quietly, but audibly because of the softness all about. She idly picked up a pebble from the ground, and threw it, bitterly, into the pond or small lake the banks of which she was sitting upon. The surface of the water was stilled by shining ice, cold and brittle as the girl’s heart – it cracked into pieces, with a sharp sound that echoed round the clearing and came back to her again. ‘Good, you are broken.’ said the girl ‘Like me.’ she added, softly, lying her head upon the ground with the shivers running through her and looking up at the sky. Clouds hid the moon, and most of the stars likewise – the sky was an abyss of darkness – rarely broken up by any beam of light. She closed her eyes once more, and once more, cried.

The girl awoke to a peculiar yet familiar feeling of – happiness. She opened her eyes – the sunlight was dancing on a surface of  water rippled by a gentle breeze. The air was chill and bracing, but clear. A swan, with soft, pure plumage of a far happier white than the night’s silver frost, by now all gone from the trees, glowed in the brightness. Brightness. Brightness was all around, it filled her soul, her heart – nature’s beauty, nature’s joy – it can put happiness into those most forlorn, most forgotten. She looked about her at the dancing sunlight, at the few pale green leaves that had come on the bare branches of the trees, through which the light shined like stain glass. She had sensed it was the right thing to do, to go out on that night, and to stay there till morning. She was proved right.