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Thursday, May 19, 2016

"Year of the Cat" by Al Stewart

from Year of the Cat (1976)

similes, and metaphoricity


corrected some formatting errors with the block quotes – Apr. 28, 2017


A few months ago I heard Al Stewart's "Year of the Cat" (1976) for the first time in a long, long while – heard it where I could stop and listen, not heard it as, say, background music during a shopping tour. It was one of my favorites, once upon a time: you have to like its tapping into noirish thematics (both lyrically and musically) and its preference for musical understatement; and there is a strangeness to it, an "I am unlike the rest," even for it being but good pop. But that is touching only on what strikes me about it, and is neither here nor there elsewise.

However, the opening stanzas of the song offer an excellent text for demonstrating and exploring the difference between simile and metaphor, a line of thought I opened a couple of posts ago in part VI of the Poetry Magazine series [link] with hopes of finding just such an opportunity (perhaps not the last).

So, here's a youtube of the song if you are unfamiliar or want to hear it again. (It is patient in its leading in, so the lyrics don't start until just after 1:00.)

And here are the opening stanzas.

On a morning from a Bogart movie
In a country where they turn back time
You go strolling through the crowd like Peter Lorre
Contemplating a crime

She comes out of the sun in a silk dress running
Like a watercolor in the rain
Don't bother asking for explanations
She'll just tell you that she came
In the year of the cat

There are two similes in the stanzas. The first one ("like Peter Lorre") is straight forward, and offers simple example of what a simile does. The second ("like a watercolor") is part of a tangle of ideation that gives us the contrast necessary to see what a simile does not – and cannot – do by way of what a metaphor can do.

Some notes before continuing:

I am going to eschew rhetorical terminology and definition here. I don't want to make the effort of establishing a framework of classification, saying "a simile is an X; a metaphor is a Y," as it is far too likely that it will create an impetus in the reading toward fitting events into their cubby holes and seeing the cubby holes over the events. I want to work from the other side, not from that of classification but from that of how simile and metaphor function in a text.

Also, in fairness it should be kept in mind that these are the lyrics to a pop song. They are not nor should they be expected to be good verse standing alone without the music. Because this song is telling a story there is a narrative unity to the lyrics that permit an examination of its elements such as this. But in the end it is unfair to expect these song lyrics to measure up against good verse.

Finally, this is exploratory, even though it ultimately speaks my aversion to the use of similes simply for the sake of using a simile (indeed, my aversion to similes as signs of weak writing in general). In truth, I abandoned an earlier drafting because I kept coming up with examples that kept undermining my theoretic development. As such, I will limit my wanderings; keep to a line of thought as prompted by the example; and leave open the likelihood that other examples can be found that would bring to the discussion a greater complexity.


What does a simile do? Simply, it makes a comparison. It says "A" and then says "A" again but in different words, at the same time either clarifying or flushing out, in some way identifying the character of "A" in a way not presented by the initial stating of "A." Which points to the most immediate point of distrust of similes: why take the time to say "A; more specifically A" if it is possible to just say "specifically, A" right off the top.

"A, more specifically A" is what a simile does. It is all a simile does on its own: comparison, which is really only ever an equality, A=A, and as such not something that brings ideational energy into a text through its own workings. This is why I lean toward that similes should be approached more as rhetorical events, things that sit in the verse-prose (material) spectrum, and less as ideational events, sitting in the prosaic-poetic (ideational) spectrum.

Look at the first simile in "Year of the Cat.

you go strolling through the crowd like Peter Lorre contemplating a crime

The simile is anchored on "strolling."

strolling like Peter Lorre contemplating a crime

The simile prompts either a visual or a psychological comparison, or both. It asks the reader to imagine what a Peter Lorre movie character contemplating a crime while strolling through a crowd would look like, and says that that is what the "you" in the song looks like. Or it could be asking to imagine what would be going on in the head of such a Peter Lorre character so situated and says that that is what is going on in the head of the "you." Or both. Though, in context of the song, that psychological comparison is unwarranted. The "you" is not, through the rest of the lyrics, of a scheming or criminal mind; as such, in connection with the dominance of the visual in the rest of the song, I believe the visual comparison is the evidenced reading.

Once the comparison is made, once the description is given to the described, the work of a simile as a simile comes to an end. The idea of strolling has been clarified and there is beyond that (again, within the simile itself) nothing left to do and nowhere to go. A simile in itself is energically dead, if it can be said that a simile has any energy to itself to begin with. For example, in speaking the noun "dog" no energy is generated, as there is never ideational energy generated by the stating of factuality. Facts are always ideationally dead. Changing the statement to "dog, more specifically terrier" does not in someway create new energy: we still lie within the modality of fact, if now a clarified, more specific fact. For a simile to create ideational energy, then, it must engage another textual element outside itself.

All similes face this threat of ideational non-life. Thus one of the primary dangers of the use similes: the false belief that simile itself carries literary value, whether that value is justified internally, as though a cleverness of phrase, or externally, such as through the association of simile with metaphor, a modally different event. (Are not simile and metaphor the first literary devices learned in grade school?). Yes, a simile may be a named rhetorical device, but it is my long observation that, given the choice between using one and not using one, a simile usually offers the weaker construction.

A simple, single example.

her lips were red like cinnamon candy
her lips were cinnamon candy red

If the sole intent of the simile is to identify the color of the lips, then the latter, tighter construction should be used. There is no reason to weaken the writing through the use of the simile.[FN] The difference between the two lies in that with the simile the referencing of cinnamon candy is more direct, the candy has a greater presence as candy and not merely as a color. (Though, not using a simile is not bar to such.) It is an ideational difference, yes; but, the choice of usage is a functional choice: that is, what legitimates the use of the simile in a text, the value of the use of a simile, lies not the comparison itself but how the simile as a whole functions as regards the rest of the text.

[FN] One might argue that in measured verse the considerations of rhythm might prompt the use of the simile. That argument fails however in that such texts do not escape the weakness: they still read, to a sophisticated ear, as though the writer was too lazy to come up with a tighter construction. Using weak writing to fit a meter is still using weak writing.

Most of the similes I find in pop verse and other unsophisticated writing fail in their strength in the text on this question of functionality: either to the side of being digressive, the information brought in by the use of the simile going nowhere beyond the simile itself, creating an ideational dead end; or to the opposing side of carrying an idea falsely subordinated within the like/as-phrase that is actually central to the text and which should be brought out and engaged directly.

I can use two works that appeared recently on Verse Daily as examples. (The titles are the links). To the first case, consider the simile in the third stanza of "I Have Always Wanted an Emu" by Sharon Mesmer.

Now I want to purchase
an elegant Elizabethan mansion
and live there with my emu.
Their sound is incredibly deep,
like European dudes.

The idea of "European dudes" comes out of nowhere and leads to nowhere. While the simile may be said to offer an interesting turn of phrase (though I don't think it does), it is, as are all similes, ideationally dead in and of itself: thus "turn of phrase," which is but an event of textual construction. Ideationally, the simile goes nowhere. It has no involvement with what comes before or after. Granted,

Their sound is European dude deep.

comes off a touch clumsily; but does that justify the use of the simile? or does it demonstrate that the whole of the sentence should have been cut, and the author was using the presence of the simile as a kind of poetic justification for the presence of the sentence in the text?

"It's good writing because of the phrasing."

No. Something being phrased cleverly may mean that it is indeed clever phrasing; but that in itself does not justify the phrase's presence in a text. What justifies it is its ideational life within text as whole: life which these lines do not possess. [FN]

[FN] It might be argued that the work is constituted of such bullet-listed thoughts, trying for humor (though mostly failing in the attempt), and so perhaps this example is easy pickings. I argue back that the failure of the simile is point demonstration to the failure of the whole of the work.

As example to the latter case, consider the simile in "The Philosopher Savant Contemplates the Dangerous Sun" by Rustin Larson.

Later, at the Army Post Tap, my friend had a great tribal song
he yelped like a coyote in shadow
purpled into the corners of abandoned
playgrounds, schools, rubble.

If (getting past the poor construction), the yelped tribal song of the friend is, as the verse says two lines later, "the only thing that kept me going" and "the only thing I love," then why is its existence in the narrator's life consigned to a secondary position within the text? Why is the text not focused upon the ideation developed within that "like" phrase, ideation that goes far beyond the basic simile of "yelped like a coyote"? The flaw revealed by the use of a simile directs the reader back to the first part of the text and reveals how empty and pointless the opening eight lines are. It is those lines that should be cut here, not the simile; and the simile should be undone so that what is now subordinate is made primary. The use of the simile comes off as a easy way to present information in the text, comes off as weak writing.

Again, similes are a means of presenting factual data.[FN]

[FN] Can you have a simile that lies, an internally ironic simile, that is not in dialogue?

"You are walking."

"How am I walking?"

"Like Peter Lorre contemplating a crime."

"Ah. Ok."

Facts, on their own, are ideationally dead. Thus the difference between writing a factual report and an ideational essay, and the difficulty in learning how to write the latter.


In "Year of the Cat," the phrase "like Peter Lorre contemplating a crime" does have a purpose beyond the simile itself: it goes to scene-setting and mood-setting. Though, it should be noted that scene-setting is itself again only a statement of fact, ideationally dead unless it engages (is engaged by), in an energic modality, something else in the text. Thus the problem of the phrase: yes, the creation of a noirish mood goes to giving a ground energy which the rest of the song plays with, but the idea of Peter Lorre specifically falls dead because the "you" in the song seems rather more a person to which things happen rather than a person who makes things happen. (But, again, these are song lyrics so don't take that farther than it can go.)

Let's turn to the second simile. It is an excellent example of the simile being used functionally to a greater – symbolic – end.

She comes out of the sun in a silk dress running
Like a watercolor in the rain

The root simile

a silk dress like a watercolor in the rain

is a visual comparison between moving silk and moving, colored water. What makes the simile work, considering the simile solely within its own boundaries, is the rather easy comparison of moving silk to liquid. Indeed, silk is often used in film and on stage to create the idea or illusion of liquid. That it is watercolor paints that are running adds strength to the visual for silk's not being clear of color.

But that is only the root simile. The exceptional character of these lines lies not in the simile itself – which is actually a rather mundane comparison – but what is worked with the simile. First, notice the syllepsis in the word "running".

she comes out of the sun running
a silk dress running

The syllepsis works to point the like-phrase of the simile not only back to "silk dress" but also to the woman herself. Which strengthens the metaphoric meaning being generated by "a watercolor in the rain": that is, when the paints of a water color are washed away what remains is a somewhat naked canvas. Thus the second function of the simile: first to give visual comparison for the silk dress, second to generate metaphoric energy though a coincidence of opposites: she is simultaneously described directly as wearing a silk dress, and indirectly as nude, as coming out of a silk dress.

It is not merely a secondary level of visual description, even though one of the characteristics of silk is that it tends to be, because of its 'fluidity,' revealing of what lies beneath it. Remember, ideational energy, symbolic energy, is never created by similarity, it is created by only by difference. A metaphor lives only when the reader's mind engages both the tenor and the vehicle simultaneously and the difference between them creates a dynamo. A metaphor, after all, is using one idea to simultaneously generate a second, different idea. The mere generation of the second idea is not the power of metaphoricity: a metaphor is considered dead, after all, when the vehicle become but a substitute phrase (a hackney) for the tenor, and the tenor is all that is read. The power of metaphoricity lies in its pressing of the mind to hold both ideas in play, and to bring both ideas into engagement with the rest of the text – something for which the simile in "Year of the Cat" works brilliantly. The double image created in the play of running paint creates two, simultaneous presentations of the woman: first the material woman, the noirish, silk-dressed character coming out of the sun and into a narrative whose mis-en-scene was first established through the Peter Lorre simile; second a nude woman coming out of the sun like a mythic creature, establishing both her sexual power and the otherworldliness that separates her from both the mundane world of the narrative and the "you" character. She is dressed and she is nude (and potently so); she is of the world and she is not of the world.

To the point of the simile, it is not the simile within itself that generates this ideational dynamo: it cannot be so, for a simile is only ever but a comparison. The simile is put to use, however, in a complex construction that creates an opening, energic dynamo of metaphoric ideation that feeds the rest of the song. It is a brilliant little moment of writing that speaks not only to the energies of living metaphors, of the literary symbolic, but also of the functional nature (functional and not ideational importance) of the simile. The use of a simile in a text should never be because of the believed cleverness of the simile, but because of what the simile permits the rest of the text to do. The brute observation of "ooh, this is a clever simile" is never justification for inclusion of a simile in a text. The prompt to the use of a simile should come about from the other direction: "I want to do this, but how do I work it? Oh, a simile here might be the constructional key." No one would use a prepositional phrase thinking that because it is a prepositional phrase it is thus somehow "poetic." The same approach should be held with similes.

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