Saturday, July 7, 2018

Prompt #317 - Diminishing Metaphor by Guest Blogger Joe Weil

As a follow up to prompt #316 by our guest blogger Joe Weil, 
I'm happy to share with you another post by Joe.

Diminishing Metaphor by Joe Weil

All metaphors and similes, as Robert Frost pointed out in an essay I read long ago, are inexact. Initially, their “just so-ness” (my clumsy term) seems infallible. With time, they grow dull, lose their power, start to unravel or even fade into common usage to such an extent that we are no longer aware of them as metaphors (for example I just mixed two metaphors and you probably didn’t notice). Metaphors and simile draw their power by pointing out the “correspondences” in essentially unlike things. Now how about diminishing metaphor?

A diminishing metaphor is a horse of a slightly different color in that it draws its effectiveness by being incongruous and slightly imprecise from the start, yet losing none of its evocative power. It is the metaphor of evocation beyond correspondence.

We know the diminishing metaphor (or simile) is a little off, but the inaccuracy seems just right. It’s as if Goldilocks had come to the porridge and said: “this porridge contains a weird ghost of nutmeg , but somehow that makes it just right.”

Such imprecision from the onset promotes a whole situational universe that can be, as with all incongruities, comic, ironic, or full of further, yet suggested rather than overt meaning. This is why the metaphysical poets used oxymoron, paradox, but more importantly, diminishing metaphor (John Donne’s “The Flea” is a case in point) as one of their main devices to build up the intellectual and mystical power of their poetry. This is a major part of modernity, of the darkly comic, of the ironic and, most of all, the surreal. Surrealism is not possible without incongruity—without laying unlike things side by side, and then letting the reader’s subconscious make the connection or, rather, the fruitful “disconnection” In fact, diminishing metaphors, what might be called the accuracy of the near miss, increases in potential force because of its slightly off kilter and incongruous nature. It is often a species of extended metaphor (meaning an action or situation built into the metaphor and carried on as an almost sub-form that parallels the text):

Let us go then you and I
when the evening is spread out against the sky
like a patient etherized upon a table

This is the classic example of diminishing metaphor, and it does a lot of things that more congruent yet less suggestive metaphors can do. First, it introduces the main theme of T. S. Eliot’s “Prufrock” (enervation or, what was then called “neurasthenia”) into the body of the poem via a subsidiary form (the extended simile). Second, it challenges “poetic” simile by associating evening (one of the favorite times for poets) with something surgical, drugged, etherized (contrast this with Wordsworth’s evening). This creates what the definition of diminishing metaphor calls a discrepancy between tenor (tone) and vehicle (the actual situation). There is something a little absurd and even ridiculous to all metaphor if truth be told, but diminishing metaphor heightens this slightly off kilter feeling. That’s why metaphors wake us up—the good ones at any rate, and why diminishing metaphors can lead us down a whole new trail of thought (a sort of necessary digression) that opens the poem out to varied ontologies. This is the power of perspectives by incongruity that Kenneth Burke mentioned. Most metaphors hide the incongruity by privileging the correspondence between tenor and vehicle. Diminished metaphor actually plays the incongruity up (the flea sucking the blood of the two lovers as a sign of them being one—a  flea!). You can get comical with this:

Her kiss is rain, not that cloud burst kind
but that all day steady pour that
keeps you curled up in the green light of the
living room, watching old movies,
one hand tucked between your knees,
the other on remote.

Yes, this is extended or Homeric metaphor but it is also off just enough to make it a diminishing metaphor. Her kiss becomes a day isolated and in doors—a day of perhaps contented indolence. It’s all a little fuzzy, but it seems to increase the understanding of her kiss and the power of it. Surrealists use diminishing metaphor by heightening the inaccuracy to the point of the inaccuracy having the irrational just so-ness of a dream. Paul Eluard:

The world is blue as an orange
No error the words do not lie
They no longer allow you to sing
In the tower of kisses agreement
The madness the love
She her mouth of alliance
All the secrets all the smiles
Or what dress of indulgence
To believe in quite naked.
The wasps flourish greenly
Dawn goes by round her neck
A necklace of windows
You are all the solar joys
All the sun of this earth
On the roads of your beauty.

“Sing in the tower of kisses, dress of indulgence, wasps flourish greenly” (Eluard). All these phrases are lovely, even beautiful without adding up to any precise or determined meaning. They are evocative rather than correspondent. One could just as easily call diminishing metaphor, evocative metaphor to distinguish it from those metaphors that emphasize correspondence. Note that these lines by Eluard are not extended similes or metaphors. Diminishing metaphors need not be extended. They just tend to be extended. The world is blue as an orange might make a child laugh: “An orange is not blue, silly!” But by saying this, we get a whole arc of color from blue to orange. We also get the delight of a more evocative inaccuracy. The hyper literal child might become furious that the world is blue as an orange. We must not be too literal and we must calm that child because if we allow that child too much free reign to be a hyper literal tyrant, poetry might lose its ability to miss the mark, and thereby, hit the bull’s eye.


1. Write a poem that does not worry so much about correspondence as evocation. Lean on an incongruity. If you can’t come up with a metaphor or simile, try to put unlike things together as in the following example.


War Poem

The sea whispers to the chefs at midnight.
Stars fondle their kite strings in the dark
The minstrel takes his fork and stabs
the yellow vegetables: squash, carrots,
Turnips. The yams sing songs he can no longer
utter. What strangled his voice—our voice?
We—the minstrels who do not sing,
seas that no longer whisper.
chefs who no longer cook.
Or perhaps, there was something in us:
Like a doll left in a child’s pool
at the end of the day—one leg missing
the other pointed at the moon risen
above the abandoned hospital.
Who knows?
Something in us left behind made crooked
—floating with the grass,
the whole of the sky reflected there.
And where have the children gone?
Home to eat or to the graveyards where their
mothers have become struck tuning forks
they ring on and on—one note, pure beyond all breaking.
Not a single glass shatters.


1. Try to write in the active, not the passive, voice. To do that, it can be helpful to remove “ing” endings and to write in the present tense (this will also create a greater sense of immediacy).

2. Be on the lookout for prepositional phrases that you might remove (articles & conjunctions too).

3. As you work on a poem, think about adjectives and which ones your poem can live without. (Often the concept is already in the noun, and you don’t need a lot of adjectives to convey your meaning.)

4. Avoid clichés. Strive for originality (especially in your metaphors for this poem). Don't be afraid to take chances. (A bit of the surreal can be fun.)

5. Show, don’t tell—through striking metaphors.

6. If you take a risk, make it a big one; if your poem is edgy, take it all the way to the farthest edge.


Thanks again to Joe Weil!



  1. I just watched England beat Sweden and advance to the World Cup semi-finals, and then I read your blog. The entertainment is happy twins! Thanks once again to Mr. Weil for a very interesting post. And three cheers for the England team!

    1. Thanks so much for your comment, Jamie! I watched the England/Sweden match too! Very exciting. I've been "glued" to the TV for the whole World Cup so far and look forward to the semi-finals and final.

  2. Amita Jayaraman (Mumbai)July 10, 2018 at 9:29 AM

    A friend in America has sent me a copy of Joe Weil's The Plumber's Apprentice book! It's brilliant.

    1. That's great, Amita! So glad you were able to get a copy of the book and that you're enjoying it.

  3. This is really interesting. Thank you Adele and Joe Weil.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Carolyn! So glad you enjoyed the post.

  4. I love these ideas from Joe Weil! I've heard him read a number of times, and he's amazing.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Amanda! I have a feeling that everyone who's ever heard Joe Weil read will agree with you!