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Sport 40: 2012

Telling It Like It Is

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Telling It Like It Is

The last evening of the Frankfurt Book Fair found me making my way to one of the less overcrowded, outlying exhibition halls where the American publishers had set up their stalls. I was intending to pay a quick visit to a friend who had a job as a rep at one of the stands there, when all of a sudden, as I was passing through the high glass doors at the hall entrance, my progress was impeded by a security checkpoint of the kind one is likely to encounter these days at the doors of any American institution. When it finally came round to my turn, the security officer was all routine politeness: ‘Good evening, sir,’ he said, and pointing to my bag: ‘Are you carrying any explosives?’

I suppose I ought to find it flattering, but the fact of the matter is that I am still more likely to be asked for a school student-card than TNT or nitroglycerine, and there was therefore little doubt in my mind that the officer was joking, and that his question was merely designed to assuage the understandable anxieties that such screenings tend to induce in the public. Needless to say, all I had in my bag were a couple of volumes of poetry and various poetry magazines that I had accumulated in the course of the day. ‘Only poetry,’ I responded, quite truthfully therefore, resolving in the same instant to adopt his jocular tone by adding a question of my own: ‘Does that count?’ The officer’s facial expression betrayed two things: firstly, and contrary to my assumption, that his question had been posed in all earnestness, and secondly, his astonishment not only that somebody was walking about with a bag full of poetry, but that anybody might seriously believe there to be a link between poetry and the real world of explosives, with their strict laws of cause and effect. We were in orbit around two entirely different planets, staring at each other across the void through the visors of our cosmonauts’ helmets.

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If you are given to bemoaning poetry’s general loss of status, you should think twice before asking somebody to read an essay about simile, of all things. Yet it does seem to me that this topic, as dry as the Sahara as it will probably sound to many, can reveal much about our attitudes towards poetry, and not a little about the way poetry relates to reality. The nature of the subject demands that we begin with Gottfried Benn and his lecture ‘Problems of Poetry’, held in Marburg at the beginning of the 1950s. Benn listed four criteria for determining the modernity of a poem; one of them refers to simile.

‘Look, if you will, at how often a poem uses the word “like”. “Like”, or “as when”, or “it’s as if”—these are mere props, usually ways to tread water’, Benn warned. ‘“Like” always ruptures a vision; it imports the extraneous, it draws a comparison; it is not a primary proposition.’ Only in Rilke’s case was Benn prepared to make allowances, albeit grudgingly. ‘All right,’ he admitted, ‘Rilke knew what he was doing, it’s true, but as a rule you will find that the similative “like” admits the incursion of narrative or the journalistic into poetry; a slackening of lyric tension, qualms in the creative transmutation.’ To see how far-reaching the effect of Benn’s lecture has been one need only look at the reaction of his fellow-poet Peter Huchel. ‘One day,’ as one of the latter poet’s companions remembered, ‘Huchel found himself unable to banish Benn’s famous “Problems of Poetry” speech from his thoughts. For some reason he had been thumbing through it and had suddenly come to the place where Benn sneers at the use of simile in poetry (“the sun like bronze, like a jewel”) and castigates the word “like” as a mere crutch, a means of treading water. Well, the dreadful fact was that the Master [i.e. Huchel himself] had discovered this same use of “like” in his own work. So he decided to eliminate it, root and branch. In an autumnal poem entitled “Sibyl of the Summer” (1961), for example, he had written: “Where almond shells like urn-shards/ Lay dashed in the wayside grass.” This he now altered to: “Where almond shells were urn-shards /Dashed in the wayside grass.” To me, this seems strained.’ Decades have passed since Huchel’s self-critical poetic amendments, and yet even today, the influence of Benn’s lecture seems barely diminished, his remarks on the similative ‘like’ retaining the force of a dogma. I for one have been admonished on several occasions in recent years for using the ‘L-word’ in my poems, and page 202 on each occasion, it was Gottfried Benn whom the prosecuting critic called to witness. There is something odd about this, and one cannot help wondering why the simile should meet with such widespread aversion.

What the relevant works of reference tell us, besides the classical definition of metaphor as an elliptical simile, is that similes tend to figure in narrative prose, while metaphors belong to the lyric. This is certainly in accord with Benn’s stricture that similes admit ‘the incursion of narrative’. However, the simile has always had a place in the poets’ figurative repertoire. One of its great advantages over the metaphor lies in its capacity to link semantic levels that are much further apart—without running the risk of appearing inconsistent or far-fetched. Simile is less dependent than metaphor on likenesses between the two ideas that are brought into alignment; the two concepts can be held together without them sharing some semantic characteristic. All we need is the unremarkable little word ‘like’ to tell us that two ideas or phrases can be linked—and we believe it. Where a metaphor might have been rendered unstable, the word ‘like’ facilitates a join between the most absurdly disparate elements, its mere existence allowing us to forge links and grasp the image as a whole. Of course, there is much else one might list in the simile’s favour. But to find an example of a simile that is so felicitous that no other figure of speech could effectively replace it, one need look no further than Gottfried Benn himself, who, while unusually parsimonious in his use of ‘like’ and ‘as’ and ‘as when’, did not always follow his own advice to the younger poets. Thus ‘Man and Woman Go through the Cancer Ward’, a poem from his early Morgue cycle, contains a startlingly clear picture of the ill and dying lying raw and bleeding on their beds: ‘Sometimes / the sister washes them. As one washes a bench.’ It would be hard to imagine a more forceful turn of phrase.

If similes with ‘like’ or ‘as’ need not dilute a poetic text, but tend on the contrary to enhance its figurative scope and, as Benn’s poem shows, leaven the tone through a more casual or spontaneous manner, then we may equally ask ourselves whether the simile-bugbear can really be reduced to antagonism between the narrative and the poetic, let alone to the incursion of journalism, as Benn so slanderously proposed. What is important, whether consciously or unconsciously, page 203 to the opponents of simile may rather be their desire to draw a line between the language of poetry and the language of common speech. Metaphors, too, are ubiquitous in everyday language; indeed they are constitutive of it, as linguists, for example George Lakoff, have shown. Nothing has a more fundamental role in enabling comprehension, however, than the similative ‘like’. With its help, every child quickly learns to explore the world and to appropriate names for what it finds there. The use of the simile in a poem is a device that can consequently be recognised by somebody who has no prior knowledge of poetry. Its conspicuous ‘like’ places the simile closer to everyday parlance than the metaphor, which is frequently masked by words and ideas so ordinary that we barely notice them. Similes such as ‘He smokes like a chimney’ or ‘She eats like a horse’ may be less elaborate than those used by Shakespeare or Dylan Thomas, but, thanks to their deployment of the familiar ‘like’, even these are considerably easier to recognise and make sense of than a metaphor. Can it be that it is the lowly provenance of the simile, then, with its origins in everyday speech, that embarrasses the promulgators of pure poetry, and reminds them that literature is the only art form whose material is universally accessible, used not only for writing poems but buying bread? Considering the notion of artistic mastery that informs the poetics of Gottfried Benn, at any rate, this seems a likely explanation. For however fanciful or ludic its intent, the simile is likely to be drawn from that ‘real language of men’ which William Wordsworth described in the ‘Preface’ to the ‘1800 Edition’ of the Lyrical Ballads. Interestingly, simile is far more widespread today in English than German poetry; indeed, it is practically impossible to find an American or British poet who does not make copious use of it, whether introduced by ‘like’ or ‘as’, without expecting to be ticked off or made to feel guilty. Needless to say, the Encyclopædia Britannica makes no attempt to assimilate the simile to the realm of prose. Perhaps there is nothing that illustrates more conclusively than the simile the difference between the German and Anglo-American poetic traditions—both in terms of the writing of poetry and the choice of its means, and in the attitudes towards poetry’s place in the world that find expression in those choices.

For it is not merely the simile’s greater figurative elasticity that page 204 differentiates it from the metaphor; it is also the candid manner of its address, its familiarity, engaging the reader in the development of the poem, enlisting his or her completion of the image where a metaphor would have placed the reader before a fait accompli. Both are ‘primary propositions’ in Benn’s sense, but where the metaphor reigns supreme, the simile is democratic, at eye-level with a reader who could be any person using the language. Every poem relies on a reader to bring it to life, but the simile yearns for the reader’s participation, irrespective of his or her poetic expertise. At least, that was what was going through my mind under the continued scrutiny of the gentleman at the security checkpoint, as I smuggled my highly inflammable, explosive material into Hall Eight.

From Die Sandale des Propheten © Bloomsbury Verlag GmbH, 2011. English translation © Iain Galbraith, 2012. page 205