In hokku, as I have said many times, we do not use metaphor (saying one thing is another) or simile (saying one thing is like another). There is a specific reason for that. It is that in hokku, metaphor and simile draw the mind in two different directions, and two separate images compete for the reader’s attention. This is contrary to the very intense, aware focus that hokku as taught here requires.
That does not mean, of course, that metaphor and simile are inappropriate for other kinds of writing and other occasions. Sometimes they can be quite effective, and indeed at times may be the best way of expressing something.
There is an old and rather odd book written by a woman named Grace Duffie Boylan. It came to be in 1918 and was published in 1919, and it purports to be the after-death communications of her son, killed in action in Europe — in Flanders — in the First World War — that shadow time of immense grief and suffering. It is titled Thy Son Liveth.
I don’t intend to take up the issue here of how authentic the communications in the book may or may not be, because what I really want to talk about now is an exquisite use of simile in the text — in something she says was told her by her son from the afterlife. You will find it on page 22:
“Mother, the soul leaves the body as a boy jumps out of the school door. That is, suddenly, and with joy.“
The poetry of those lines, for me, is the pinnacle of the entire book.
I must add, though, that there is an amusing little verse on another page, 38, when her son asks,
“Do you recall how we laughed over that epitaph on a little white gravestone in New England:
‘Since so quickly I was done for,
I wonder what I was begun for?'”
Reading the book, whatever one may think of its veracity, is very poignant for those who, like me, can remember the days when a very few aged, grey soldiers from that terrible First World War still marched in every Fourth of July parade, and when one might encounter on the street a poor old man still “shell-shocked” from that horrendous conflict — and of course each year those selling the little, paper poppies to pin on one’s lapel or dress – the poppies that had become the symbol of that frightful war and its terrible harvest of the lives of youth.
There was a time when almost everyone in America recognized this poem by John McCrae:
In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
The book Thy Son Liveth may be found online at:
You may be interested to know that the concept of Boylan’s book was reworked into an updated story for a movie a few years ago. While some may feel it excessively sentimental, others will find it both moving and inspiring — but in any case it is worth watching just to see Vanessa Redgrave’s performance and to hear that remarkable use of simile from the book. The film — available on DVD now — is called A Rumor of Angels.