2009-2010 IATE Poetry Contest Winners

Here's a list of recipients of Special Merit awards, their schools, and their nominating teachers. Winning poems can be viewed by clicking the students' names.

  • Stefanie Borntreger“Complementary Identity” / Eleventh Grade / Teacher, Lee Roll / Oakland High School (Oakland, IL)
  • Laurel Guido“warm hearts and picket fences” / Eleventh Grade / Teacher, Karen Topham / Lake Forest High School (Lake Forest, IL)
  • Allie PerryPolish on her Toes ” / Tenth Grade / Teacher, Cheryl Hope / Glenbrook South High School (Glenview, IL)
  • Abby Tiesman“The Hurricane ” / Sixth Grade / Teacher, Carol Gallagher / Monroe Middle School (Wheaton, IL)

Metaphor: Seeing the Likeness of Unlike Things

Metaphor is revelation given body by language.  It is the poet's intangible flash of insight given flesh so readers can see and thus share that insight.  In short, it is the embodied percept, the idea paraded for the surprise, delight, and edification of readers.  If seeing is the fundamental act of the lyric poem, so then is metaphor the agent of our seeing. 

Metaphor brashly declares that X is Y. To the contrary, suggesting that one thing is sort of like another remains the milquetoast province of simile.  Make no mistake, the poet’s saying one thing equals another is an audacious act. There’s nothing coy or propositional or timid about it. In making metaphor, the poet asserts a quality of seeing that bristles with electricity. Think of the boldness in play here.  The poet of metaphor affirms a wonderfully daring notion – that she, unlike anyone else before her, sees that one thing is another.  She risks the poet’s tightrope, balancing X and Y at either end of her outstretched arms, teetering high above the wide-eyed rest of us. One misstep spills both poet and metaphor to the ground, the poet thus revealed as foolhardy and her metaphor as merely foolish.

Look, the metaphor cajoles if not commands. Really look, which is to say, look so attentively that one sees a thing or idea as one has never before seen or understood it. If the poet gets lucky, and the reader does, too, epiphany is sudden lightning within them both. Notice that I didn't say, epiphany strikes like lightning. Metaphor insists epiphany is lightning:  quick and brilliant (possibly even destructive) illumination.

Metaphor's colliding of two ostensibly disparate entities smacks of lightning's surprise.  It may shock, sizzle, and momentarily illuminate both poet and reader. Its flash lingers jagged across the mind's eye, a faintly visible trace of one idea's charging headlong into another.  One is tempted to say that such lightning comes unbidden from the ether to zap earthbound us with its fiery insight.  But don’t be blinded by its sudden light. Metaphors are made of things as well, and their act of convergence is as horizontal as it is vertical, as much earthly as heavenly. This is metaphor’s junction of unlike things made suddenly alike.

Edward Hirsch reminds us that the Greek root metaphora means, in essence, "carrying from one place to another."  The work of metaphor is thus transport – transferring the notion of one thing to another. Metaphor’s arrival sweetly insists that hereafter we'll see neither thing in the accustomed ways.  Its charge changes us. Its seeing alters our seeing. 

How does this happen? It results from the interaction of metaphor’s two essential parts, the tenor and the vehicle.  The tenor is the thing or idea being looked at.  The vehicle is how that thing is being looked at.  In saying "my love is a rose," one has hooked the tenor of one's lover to the vehicle of a rose.  This carries the sweetness of the rose to one's beloved, accruing all the appealing scent and texture and beauty thereof.

Among this year's splendid group of winning poems, the deft use of metaphor operates in full display.  Congratulations to all of these worthy students and their able teachers. Within the four works chosen as Poems of Special Merit, three make particular use of metaphor and one relies largely on simile, metaphor's cousin.

Abby Tiesner's "The Hurricane" opens with a bold metaphor pointing the way for the poem that follows.  The hurricane, we're told, "is a raging bull charging blindly in circles." From there, readers are treated to a conceit, an extended metaphor, through which the hurricane's typical behavior is equated with that of a bull’s charging a "red cloak." Using metaphor, the poet presents the hurricane’s bullish ways: its thunderous approach, its quiet "eye," and its sheer brute force. The poem, arriving at its fetching closer, makes use of simile to top off this conceit.  The passing hurricane's just missing a waved cloak is described as like “ a child reaching for an apple in a tree” that remains barely “out of reach."  This adds a surprising note of innocence to the bull's menacing behavior, something lucky hurricane survivors may well contemplate while standing beside their homes blessedly spared from ruin.

Within many poems, metaphor's best punch comes swiftly, a notion Stefanie Borntreger's "Complementary Identity" illustrates in good measure. The spritely speaker tells us immediately "I am yellow," then leaps to a metaphorical litany of herself as yellow both tangible and not:

A daisy chain or a minute of May!
A bubble of anticipation
ready to burst into giggles --
a fit of sunbeams on the coldest day.

This speaker's yellow minuet taps its feet until it gradually becomes tapped out.  The speaker tires as the day and she both fade to purples "like dusk, like dawn," trusting simile to say what she is like not what she is. In "violet sleep" she dreams of "daisy-chain yellow" in whose form she will again awaken.

In like fashion, Allie Perry's "Polish on her Toes" begins with a metaphor of assertion:  "She's a China girl, just a summer peach / Yep, she's a peach parfait."  That quick surge of idea and image characterizes the poem's verbal agility as well as its frenetic pace. This poet refuses to fence in her visions, borrowing liberally from musical groups, artists, friends, even N.Y.C. (a list to whom she offers her tongue-in-cheek "apologies" in an opening note). The poem offers an appealing pop cultural menu that is musically chiming, often funny, and decidedly effervescent.  Through this syncopated beat, the speaker changes colors and personalities, finally unveiling herself as "daddy's girl / in Irish green who's prone to purple" – what she is and what she isn't now concealed as much as revealed.

Among these Special Merit poems, Laurel Guido's "warm hearts and picket fences" strikes a different chord, relying primarily on simile to animate its lines.  Innovative in approach, the poem exhibits a willingness to break the rules. Its format blends alternating sections of declarative simile and intentionally enigmatic narrative. The poem opens with an unknown, an X, which the remainder of the poem ostensibly fleshes out through simile and narrative exposition:  "x is like a picket fence, with flowers winding between the wood." Why do I say ostensibly? The answer lies in the speaker’s saying one thing and doing quite another. One gets the impression that the speaker half-wishes to reveal her secret and half-wishes to keep it her own, the private kept private even when on poetic display.  The narrative snippets she offers readers are just that, snippets – or as she says, "a quick snapshot, a frame of mind" conveyed in furtive fragments culled from a larger story to which we readers are not quite privy. There's something of the forbidden swirling about the poem, something hidden even when flaunted before readers’ eyes. While the outside world may be allowed a peek inside the couple's relationship, that vision is offered up in "dream, colorful and unpredictable." In this way the poet's choice of simile functions exceedingly well, for the formula "x is like" preserves sufficient fuzziness so that her subject retains its life-giving mystery. Even as the speaker coyly lifts the veil, she does so only enough to ensure that readers yearn for more than they ever will know about the pair.

These poems demonstrate metaphor’s mode and allure. Metaphor enables us to see the likeness of unlike things.  It does so with flurry and flash and élan. And it does so always with the confidence of its vision.  Whereas simile dwells in demure approximation, eyes averted, metaphor boldly looks readers in the eye. As a mode of relation, metaphor is as brusque as it is epiphanic.  It is the poet's seeing seen and felt and understood within the reader's fresh seeing. Metaphor is the poet’s mode of conveyance, a transport of idea and thing from which we readers emerge changed.

- Kevin Stein, Illinois Poet Laureate